Saturday, November 20, 2004

Initial Judgment

Here's is the advanced copy of my judgment in the Pelagian Disputatio. This is a rough draft and I have not included my primary and secondary sources as yet, so any feedback would be helpful. Thanks...

Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
On the 18th of November, Anno Domini 2004, the matter of the Pelagian controversy was brought before myself, the Feloniously Hon. Judge Ryan Hall, in the form of a disputatio. I would like to commend both the Pelagians and the Augustinians for their hard work, well written argument briefs, and oral, if somewhat feisty, presentations. Both sides argued incredibly good cases, making my job all the more difficult.
That having been said, all the sub-issues and non-sequiturs discussed both in written and oral format may be subsumed into one question, and that question is what to do with the issue of divine grace in light of human nature. While this court takes judicial notice of the differing definitions and understandings that both sides bring to the table for the term “grace,” no matter how well argued the Pelagians presented their definition, the fact remains that the Pelagians have a major hole in their logic upon which I must expound.
The most troubling aspect for this court was annunciated in no less that three places in the written brief by the Pelagians, in which I quote, “God...has given us everything we need in order to achieve salvation by our own free choice and actions.”1
Therein, lies the entire crux of the whole matter. The Pelagians argued, not without gusto, that grace is the vehicle through which we can achieve moral perfection. I inferred from this that humans can basically achieve this on their own with a little nudging or help from divine grace.
Though an interesting concept, I found this somewhat as a logical fallacy. The Pelagians quote2 Romans 5:12, which paraphrased, states all having sinned. Counselor Buterbaugh contradicted the earlier thesis of God having given us all we need to attain moral perfection, and by inference salvation, where when quoting Romans 5:13, he added in an offhand aside, “as have we all.” This seems to me to smack of legal chicanery, where on the one hand, counsel says we have been given all we need to attain salvation, but on the other, saying quite distinctly none of us really can through our own strength. The latter contradicts the former. Either we can achieve moral perfection “by what has been given us” or we cannot, and, therefore, we need grace. Pelagians try to sit the proverbial fence on this one, but by the winds of Providence, must either fall into the green pasture of an all encompassing grace on the one side or the slippery slope of salvation by works on the other.
Perhaps deeper still, the theological elephant in the (court)room, which neither side touched upon to my satisfaction but must be addressed nonetheless, is the entire issue of Christ's death and resurrection. The Pelagians argue in what I dubbed the Tabula Rasa of human nature (but again fudging the issue of how exactly grace applies in the reconciliation of man to God) and that Christ was the new Adam. That is to say, first the Mosaic law and then Christ in his life, by being a penultimate good example, gives us the model for which to follow (and attain moral perfection) counteracting the bad example of Adam.
In no way and in no form was the issue or significance of Christ's death and resurrection argued or insinuated by the Pelagians. I found this to be a blaring omission because if God had indeed given us all that we need to attain perfect morality and salvation, what was the need for Christ's death? Why was the law insufficient? Even under the Law, why was there a need for sacrifice and atonement? Why is the resurrection necessary if we can just follow Christ's good example of life, what need have we of his death as a sacrifice for our sins? It is only at the foot of the Cross does Jesus truly become the redeemer and savior. And if we needed a redeemer and savior, that means by inference we needed redeeming and saving. For surely, Christ after living a good life and giving good teaching would have ascended into heaven and saved himself from the ignominy of crucifixion had his life, in itself, been sufficient to allow the vehicle of grace to descend upon humanity.
Why is it then, that people in parts of the word who have never heard the name Jesus much less Adam, continue to sin? If Adam is the bad example, how is it they continue to follow his bad example even if they have never heard of him? There must be, therefore, something more to human nature than a bad example set by Adam. Granted that this is a completely judicial aside, but if humanity is basically good, why is the world which is made up of that humanity not a utopia, to ironically use the word coined by the martyred saint Thomas More, or, at the very least, be more good than bad? But the fact remains, at least in my cynical world view, that people starve and brother kills brother.3
While this judge is loathe to buy into the concept and ramifications of Original Sin as enunciated in its entirety by Augustine, for certainly it has its faults,4 this court finds an inherent danger in the Pelagian manner of circumventing Holy Writ in the form of Romans 3:23 that states that “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The very use of the word “fall” there signifies to this court at least that on some level, humanity is in some form of fallen state in need of redemptive grace and cannot on its own merit achieve perfection solely on being created in God's image and “given all that is needed to achieve salvation” by their own free choice and actions.
Let us look at this from the lens of a more systematic, dare I say ethical, standpoint. For sake of rhetorical argument, what would happen if we accepted Pelagius' argument in its entirety? Let us assume, again for sake of argument, that Pelagius is right. Upon this doctrine of moral survival of the fittest, if people are good and can basically achieve moral perfection with a nudging scintilla of grace, then this whole argument is moot for the good will be good and the damned will be damned. For in the end, only the morally strong will survive God's judgment.
This seems at the very least to negate why Pelagius promulgated such a doctrine to begin with because he thought the notion of original sin was merely a way of covering over that fact that such a doctrine allowed moral mediocrity and did not push people toward perfecting their moral lives. They (the Augustinians) used grace, so the Pelagians said, as a crutch to explain away their own moral shortcomings. But in actual practice, such Pelagian doctrine works against what it was trying to recover in human moral perfection. This doctrine perpetuates, in essence, the notion that only the morally strong will make it. For all who have sinned (and if anyone does not believe they have sinned and will at some point in the future do so again deceives themselves) such a doctrine toward a form of all perfect morality by “your own bootstraps” with some vague help of grace would seem unattainable to the morally honest person.
Most people realize, despite their best efforts, they are not perfect. In over-emphasizing moral perfection and human strength, Pelagius undercuts his own thesis by making the impossible sound possible, thereby making the people he is trying to speak to write off his doctrine with the words: in reality, I know I am not perfect and will never be, so why even try? Am I not deceiving myself trying to become something that I cannot possibly attain?
But, in the final analysis of Pelagianism, is it not much more dangerous to adopt Pelagian thought than to adopt a more Augustinian form of thought. For if we adopt the notion of people as basically good and can attain moral perfection, what is the danger of the doctrine of Original Sin? The reasoning for this is circular logic. If people are good, then they can basically achieve this moral perfection and they can achieve this moral perfection because they are basically good. We are not the judge of people's souls, so how can we ethically say that people are basically good? Do we not play God by assuming this? Only God is such a judge of who or what is good.
And what if that is not the case? What if people in fact are inherently bad and can only be saved by a all encompassing free gift of grace? Have we not condemned them by our hubris of pontificating that God should accept them as basically good and can basically achieve salvation by what has been given them? If one is to err on one side or the other, the only ethically logical position to take is to err on the side of caution, that is to say that humans must rely solely on God's free gift of grace and not on some combination of works by grace. For to begin to rely on what my good works are and how my own perfection achieves my salvation, we will inevitably become puffed up (which right there is a sin in and of itself disproving the state of moral perfection) and delusional.
The Church is therefore locked into a theological corner by such a pessimistic doctrine as the fallen state of man, but how else could we possibly extricate ourselves ethically and theologically? But in any way we try, as the Pelagians have done, to explain our salvation in terms of works and achieving perfection, we put ourselves in the business of judging ourselves. Whether or not humans are predisposed to sin and have and have an evil nature is a theological paper tiger. The reality is all have sinned and need penultimate grace, which can only be derived from the foot of the cross and the sacrifice thereon, the point of which the Pelagians completely ignored in light of viewing Jesus merely as a good example to offset Adam, thereby lessening and ultimately demeaning Christ's sacrifice and resurrection, antithetical to Christian theology and mission.
In the matter of the Augustinians et. al., v Pelagians, et al., this court thereby finds, on the charge of heresy in the first degree, the defendants guilty as charged. Furthermore, through this court's actions so that the Pelagians may in some small part see that mere works, being created in the image of God, and being good upon their own recognizance cannot save them from even judicial judgment much less divine judgment, and so to come to a better understanding of the true meaning of penultimate divine grace, the sentence of death is hereby commuted. The Pelagians are judicially censured and, if no recantation is forthcoming, further proceedings as to excommunication are warranted as such time as the court will decide.
The Charge of Heresy in the First Degree is AFFIRMED
1Buterbaugh and Wilson written brief, first paragraph, last sentence.
2IBID, second page, first full paragraph.
3Here ends the judicial aside.
4For example, why would a Just God condemn a baby simply for being born having not committed a sin on its own?

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