Friday, October 28, 2011

Episcopalian Erosions

The Episcopalian Diocese of Atlanta has just passed this Resolution:

R11-7 Contributions of Pelagius

Whereas the historical record of Pelagius’s [sic] contribution to our theological tradition is shrouded in the political ambition of his theological antagonists who sought to discredit what they felt was a threat to the empire, and their ecclesiastical dominance, and whereas an understanding of his life and writings might bring more to bear on his good standing in our tradition, and whereas his restitution as a viable theological voice within our tradition might encourage a deeper understanding of sin, race, free will, and the goodness of God’s creation, and whereas in as much as the history of Pelagius represents to some the struggle for theological exploration that is our birthright as Anglicans, Be it resolved, that this 105th Annual Council of the Diocese of Atlanta appoint a committee of discernment overseen by our Bishop, to consider these matters as a means to honor the contributions of Pelagius and reclaim his voice in our tradition And be it further resolved that this committee will report their conclusions at the next Annual Council.

That's the resolution. Now let's be clear on the issues. We should not allow ourselves to be sidetracked into rehashing the arguments of Pelagianism as this is rather of secondary importance to what I perceive to be the main issues.

1) Is this an attempt to try and sift the orthodox writings of Pelagius from his heretical works?

2) On what authority is the diocese of Atlanta making this resolution?

On the first issue, we ought to look for the principle of charity. After all, even the greatest theologians have expressed thoughts which the Church has regarded to be heretical. For example, St Thomas Aquinas did not believe that Our Lady was immaculate yet the Roman Catholic Church which bases much of its theology on his teachings has decreed otherwise. In that sense, St Thomas would be speaking heretically. Of course we then have the question as to whether one can be a heretic posthumously or even post-canonisation! We do know that St Peter himself acted heretically when he refused to eat with Gentiles despite the Church teaching otherwise. Of course, St Peter recognised his error and capitulated.

Of Pelagius, little is really known . There is not much in the way of his teaching that survives and what does survive is difficult to be seen separately from his followers who pressed the Pelagian Heresy more forcefully. However, the Oecumenical Councils of Carthage (in 418AD) and Ephesus (431AD) made it clear that Pelagianism, whether or not it originated with Pelagius, is indeed heterodox and thus deviant from the Catholic Faith.

It is true that what the Pelagians leave behind is indeed some very interesting theology on the nature of Free Will and Predestination and Election, but why is the verdict of the Council being challenged on the grounds of an inclement political climate? Surely then, Arianism must also be reappraised since this was the more politically dangerous of the classical heresies. Even the Pope was Arian at one point. Why stop there? What about the Apollinarian heresies? Ebionism, Origenism? Nestorianism? Gnosticism? One might accuse me of a "thin end of the wedge" argument, but the idea remains: if there is the possibility of reclaiming one heretical doctrine into orthodoxy owing to the prevailing culture, why not all heretical doctrines? What makes Pelagianism more palatable?

The second issue is one that concerns me more. On what authority does a single diocese make the decision to re-appraise hitherto heretical teaching? Not all Anglicans subscribe to the XXXIX articles - I myself do not believe them to be the defining element of what it is to be an Anglican preferring a more Wittgensteinian approach of "family resemblance" (more on that later methinks). However, looking at the articles gives:

IX. Of Original or Birth Sin.

ORIGINAL sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the fault and corruption of the nature of every man that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God's wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea, in them that are regenerated, whereby the lust of the flesh, called in Greek Phonema sarkos (which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire of the flesh), is not subject to the law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized, yet the Apostle doth confess that concupiscence and lust hath itself the nature of sin.

Here is a perfectly Anglican viewpoint which sets the bar. Of course the Diocese of Atlanta can reject the authority of the Articles in general as defining Anglicanism and still remain Anglican. Can it just reject the subject matter at all? The article, unchanged from 1553, was drafted to reject the Pelagian heresy of the Anabaptists and to continue the Catholic line on the matter. Its content follows the conclusion of the Oecumenical Council of Ephesus, consent to which is necessary for membership of the Catholic Church. So to accept Pelagianism is a denial of Catholicism.

Further, that the Diocese has taken it upon itself to examine the issue apparently independently, this means that it cannot be acting Oecumenically. To reconsider the verdict of an Oecumenical Council requires an Oecumenical Council which cannot be called until there is full Catholic Oecumenical Reconciliation. This is another example of the "go it alone" mentality of member diocese in ECUSA. Its Catholicism went long ago, squashed between the mitre and Pantene Hairspray, and this merely points to the untenability of the same attitude. A kingdom divided cannot stand and the liberal churches are again taking too much authority on their own heads with the result that their own house dissipates into the prevailing culture.

If there are grounds to review Pelagius then that review has to happen oecumenically with all Christians. It is clear that Atlanta sees itself as a higher power in deciding doctrine.

1 comment:

edpacht1 said...

You've hit it straight on. Atlanta has, in unilaterally denying an Ecumenical Council, effectively denied that there is such a thing as a Catholic Church competent to teach. That may be a view acceptable to, say, a Baptist, but it is not an Anglican view. I continue to believe One Catholic and Apostolic Church.