Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Rise and (unfortunate) Fall of Original Sin.

Teasers: This post is juicy--touching upon the fall, infant baptism, homosexuality, free will--just a little bit of everything!

We begin at the turn of the fourth century, when one of the most important controversies in the history of the church erupted. It was a debate between St. Augustine (354-430) and a British monk by the name of Pelagius (ca. 354 - ca. 420/440). Such a big controversy—such an innocent catalyst. The event that launched the brouhaha was a modest sounding prayer penned by Augustine:
God, Command what you desire, and grant what you command.
This prayer encapsulates what we now call the doctrine of Original Sin. I believe it to be biblical, easily demonstrable by scripture, but in human terms, as a church doctrine, it is usually credited to (or blamed on) St. Augustine.

Augustine’s prayer acknowledges that man does not have the power, without God’s help, to obey God’s commands. Augustine’s prayer, paraphrased,  is this:
God, I recognize that you are sovereign and can command of me whatever you want. I also recognize that I am unable to do what you command, apart from divine assistance—i.e., apart from grace. Help me.
It is important to recognize what original sin means and what it doesn't mean. Original sin means, quite simply, that we are born to sin. We sin because we are sinners; we are not sinners because we sin.
Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. (Ps. 51:5, NIV)
Original sin does not (in my opinion) mean we stand charged with Adam's sin. Lead a sinless life and God will not keep you out of heaven on a technicality: True you committed no sin, but you forgot that Adam's sin was in your debit column. Gotcha! Such a concept impugns God's justice. No, original sin means something much worse, something that Augustine recognized. It means that we are such a corrupted race that in our natural state we have no choice but to sin. That is the dire consequence of the fall. Whatever we do as natural men, no matter what its outward appearance, is but filthy rags in God's eyes. Adam, as we will see, was our representative. He sinned, and the race suffered for it.

Draw up you list of sins, and Original Sin does not mean that somehow, including in the womb, you committed at least one of them. That is unless you included on your list that you are in rebellion to God and have no desire for Him. That's what is in our nature, our inheritance from Adam.

It is the worst of doctrines; it is the best of doctrines. It is the worst of doctrines because it paints a hideous picture of human nature. But we have to be careful here--that ugly picture is in God's eyes. It is not a predictor of future sinning in human terms. It doesn't mean that all men are "born to raise hell." Though it does mean that all men are born heading in the direction of hell. It is (ultimately) the best of doctrines, because it means that our situation is so hopeless that we cannot save ourselves. Which means that if we are to be saved it must come as an unearned gift from God. Just like Augustine's little prayer teaches. Just like the Gospel teaches.

Augustine (and Reformed theology) teaches this: you have moral responsibility but, in your natural state, you lack the moral ability. In other words, apart from grace, you cannot choose not to sin. The fall did not change the requirement of obedience, but it changed us radically. So, apart from grace, we are doomed.

Jonathan Edwards wrote a treatise on Original Sin. At one point he argued that even if the bible never taught the doctrine of original sin, human experience common sense would demand it. Why? Because if we are born innocent, then occasionally we would expect to find someone, be it one in a thousand or one in a million, who remained pure—but we never encounter such a person.

Pelagius denied the doctrine of original sin, arguing that Adam’s sin affected Adam alone. He believed that, at birth, infants are in a state identical to Adam and Eve’s before the fall. Consistent with this view, he looked at baptism of infants as not in a cleansing of them from sin, but in imparting a higher sanctification through union with Christ. He didn’t really have a developed theology of baptism—it was a simple matter that it did not cleanse you of original sin because original sin did not exist. Augustine, in contrast, taught that infants are baptized to purge them of the sinful nature inherited from Adam.

Whose baptism view do you believe? A) Pelagius's (Pelagius' ?) view, B) Augustine's view? or C) Neither? Good question, fascinating even, but not relevant for this post. We are concerned with the two ancient theologians' views on man's state at birth, not how baptism does or does not affect that state.

According to Pelagius, there was no imputation of Adam’s sin onto his descendants. But scripture makes the symmetry plain: We are made righteous through imputation: Christ, as our representative, has abounding righteousness which is credited to us through imputation. It is not a fiction, and it is not a meaningless legal technicality: we are changed as a result. 1 Likewise Adam’s sin, as he was our representative 2, is imputed to us. (Only later to be imputed from us to Christ on the cross.) It is not that we are charged with Adam’s sin, but that we are deeply affected by it. The physical result of the imputation is that we are incapable of seeking or desiring or obeying God. We are dead in our trespasses. At best, in our fallen state,  we might seek what we perceive God has to offer, giving the illusion of a desire for God himself.

So Pelagius argued that it is unnecessary for God to “grant” what he commands of us. Instead, according to Pelagius, it is possible for man, on his own, to fulfill God’s commandments. Pelagius believed that moral responsibility implied moral ability; it would be unjust for God to demand that we obey and yet arrange it so that we are born with the inability to do so. He argued that we must be born morally neutral—or innocent. This, though wrong,  is still a compelling and common argument today.

Pelagius had a role for grace: it facilitates our quest for moral perfection, but it is not required. In principle, at least, we can make do without grace. And, in fact, Pelagius argued that some people do, in fact, live a perfect life. Augustine, on the other hand, argued that grace is not only helpful but required.

Attacking Augustine and his doctrine on original sin, Pelagius argued that human nature was created good. In fact, we stay good. Sin does not change our essential human nature—we always will be “basically good.”

At the heart of the debate between Pelagius and Augustine is the thorny issue of free-will. (I posted on this never-ending topic recently). Pelagius argued that Adam was given a free will, and his free will was not corrupted by the fall, nor was man’s moral character affected by the fall. Everyone, according to Pelagius, is born free of a predisposition to sin. Augustine agreed than man had a free will, but that man, on his own, was unable to use his will to choose God. Augustine believed that sin is universal and that man is a “mass of sin.” Man cannot, according to Augustine, elevate himself to doing good without benefiting from God’s grace.

Harnack (German theologian, 1851-1930) summarizes Pelagian taught:
Nature, free-will, virtue and law, these strictly defined and made independent of the notion of God - were the catch-words of Pelagianism: self-acquired virtue is the supreme good which is followed by reward. Religion and morality lie in the sphere of the free spirit; they are at any moment by man's own effort.
R.C. Sproul writes:
Augustine did not deny that fallen man still has a will and that the will is capable of making choices. He argued that fallen man still has a free will (liberium arbitrium) but has lost his moral liberty (libertas). The state of original sin leaves us in the wretched condition of being unable to refrain from sinning. We still are able to choose what we desire, but our desires remain chained by our evil impulses. He argued that the freedom that remains in the will always leads to sin. Thus in the flesh we are free only to sin, a hollow freedom indeed. It is freedom without liberty, a real moral bondage. True liberty can only come from without, from the work of God on the soul. Therefore we are not only partly dependent upon grace for our conversion but totally dependent upon grace.
Pelagius was condemned at the synod of Carthage in 418. Subsequent councils affirmed the condemnation of the Pelagian heresy and reaffirmed the doctrine of original sin.

So Augustine won the battle, but Pelagius may have won the war. Because we are a race of beings that doesn’t like dependency on grace, but with a religion that is only grace with no way to work your way to heaven. Strangely we have a natural affinity for the idea of salvation by works, so we try to sneak it in at every opportunity. And so the church, from the time the battle was won by Augustine, has faced a constant assault of Pelagian thought.

Sproul writes:
Humanism, in all its subtle forms, recapitulates the unvarnished Pelagianism against which Augustine struggled. Though Pelagius was condemned as a heretic by Rome, and its modified form, Semi-Pelagianism was likewise condemned by the Council of Orange in 529, the basic assumptions of this view persisted throughout church history to reappear in Medieval Catholicism, Renaissance Humanism, Arminianism, and modern Liberalism. The seminal thought of Pelagius survives today not as a trace or tangential influence but is pervasive in the modern church. Indeed, the modern church is held captive by it.

Pelagianism in Reformed Churches

Do you think Reformed churches, at least, have a handle on Pelagianism--which as a matter of check-boxing doctrines they will surely affirm as a heresy?

The Presbyterian theologian John Gerstner told this story, which I'll relate by memory. He was a guest at a conservative Presbyterian (an thus uber-Reformed) church on the day of an infant baptism. Upon entering the church he, and everyone else, was given a white rose. Upon asking for the reason, he was told that the white rose represented the innocence of the baby being baptized. At that point he asked: "You do know what the water represents, don't you?"

Not convinced? Well here is a little test. Think back over time, when the question arose in Sunday school or small group or informal coffee discussions, and ask how many of the Reformed claim that people are born homosexual as opposed to it being purely and solely a lifestyle choice? In my experience a fair number if not an overwhelming majority of good-ole Calvinists, who would never dare to dream a Semi-Pelagian let alone a full Pelagian thought, will instinctively say that people are not ever born gay. Now imagine Augustine and Pelagius debating the question. I think it would go something like this, assuming that both Augustine and Pelagius agreed that homosexual activity is sinful:

Pelagius: Man is never born gay. God would not punish you for the way you are born.

Augustine: It wouldn't surprise me at all if some are born gay. And, contrary to your argument, God, apart from mercy and grace, would punish each of us for no other reason than how we are born. "How we are born" is not a "get out of jail free" card. "How we are born" is not an excuse, it's the problem.

And, looking forward to the modern church, Augustine might say to us: I though this was settled a millennium and a half ago? Did you forget?

1 "Forensic" justification, taken too far, would say that a Christian is potentially no different than he or she was as an unbeliever. This is not true and was the root of the Lordship Salvation controversy. When justified you still have no inherent righteous standing before God. You will always rely on God accrediting Jesus' "alien" righteousness to you. However, you are not the same person as before.

2 And no whining about this. Adam was not a poor choice for our representative. On the contrary, given that he was chosen by God for the task, he was best of all possible representatives.

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