(The following is the fruit of a year’s reflections after having read The Confessions by St. Augustine)
“Grant me what you command, and command of me what you will.”
This simple but paradoxical prayer by Aurelius Augustine, the 5th Century bishop of Hippo, North Africa, (as in St. Augustine) sparked one of the most explosive theological controversies in church history. Upon hearing this prayer read from Augustine’s recently-published spiritual autobiography, The Confessions, alarm bells went off for a British monk, Pelagius. In it he perceived a fatal and misguided attack upon human responsibility and our capacity to know and to do the will of God. After all, why would God command of us anything we could not do? Like Augustine, Pelagius was a celebrity in the 5th Century Western Christian world for his piety, preaching, powers and practices of spiritual disciplines, devotion and self-denial. If Pelagius could achieve such heights of spirituality and intellect, why could not others, with just a little more zeal and effort? The theological battle between Augustine and Pelagius and their disciples roiled the Western church for many decades.
Our modern sensibilities may be offended by the official condemnation heaped upon the Pelagian position in later church councils and creeds. To be fair, though, we should be equally offended at the offense that Pelagius and his fans took to Augustine and his position. Church history and theology have since used Pelagius’ name and Pelagianism as short-hand for a sunny outlook on human nature, and confidence in human capacity and responsibility to “build the kingdom of God.” Augustine and his theological descendants would consider Pelagius and his kin not only naïve and overly self-confident, but dangerously so.
There were some very important matters that Augustine got very wrong, such as his support for state sanctions against heretics and his formulation of the just war theory (though it’s not so clear that he actually was advocating “just war”). Those are some of the reasons why Augustine gets bad press among Mennonites. We could also dismiss the controversy between Augustine and Pelagius as just an obscure and antiquated intellectual fit thrown among powerful and privileged men over matters that have long since subsided into irrelevance for us.
But this controversy continues to this day, not only among and within churches and denominations, but within each Christian. It predated Pelagius, at least as far back as Jesus’ twelve disciples, before they could no longer deny their own powerlessness to carry out their best intentions and resolutions on the night of their Master’s arrest. The Apostle Paul confronted a heady, pre-Pelagian self-assurance among his Corinthian disciples, by asking them, “What do you have that you did not receive (I Cor. 4:9)?”
Every day we too must ask ourselves: To what extent do we see Christian discipleship as our gift to God, or as God’s gift to us? The Bible addresses this question by stressing both human responsibility and power, and the prior, sovereign grace of God “who works in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure (Phil. 2:3).” God both initiates and makes us response-able to his initiative. Yet we are also responsible to desire and to respond. We can chalk that up as a hopeless contradiction. I prefer to think of it as a mysterious partnership, a miraculous symbiosis, based on a paradoxical truth, captured so eloquently by the Apostle Paul in Colossians 1: 29: “I strenuously contend with all the energy that Christ so powerfully works in me.”
Human nature tends to turn paradoxes into false, fruitless and unnecessary conflicts. This is true for the paradox and partnership of divine and human wills. One extreme is that to which Augustine seems to have leaned increasingly over the years. Ten centuries later, the Swiss Reformer, John Calvin, fell the rest of the way over, into double predestination. That’s the belief that God creates, chooses and directs the lost for perdition, as well as the saved for salvation, without their having any choice in the matter. Some would even go so far as to credit every human action, even every sin, to the micromanagement of God. That can lead to fatalism, moral indifference, pride and passivity: passivity toward any actions of ours that would express God’s kingdom or further our life with God, and pride at being favored more highly than others.
Pride is also implicated in the opposite extreme, with which Pelagius is identified. If Jesus is primarily the world’s best moral and spiritual teacher and political practitioner, if divine truth and virtue are so easily recognizable and achievable without divine help (grace), and if we suffer little or no inner impediments to either right action or right understanding (or both), why then would we even need a Savior? If discipleship is our own achievement, by our own power and initiative, our gift to God more than God’s gift to us, there is then no need for God nor grace. The righteous can compare themselves favorably to others. They are then tempted to commend themselves for making the right choices and living up to their standards of goodness and devotion, even to condemn all who fall short of their standards, and their levels of achievement.
The Pelagian position may also betray a fatal naïveté about the power, persistence and subtlety of evil. It comes across as clueless about sin’s chameleon-like capacity to mimic wisdom and goodness, to embed itself in any belief or virtue of ours, to make of them badges of personal identity, honor and worth in comparison to others, to distort them toward extremes, and enslave us. It does not recognize the mixed and selfish motives, especially fear, pride and the desire for self-justification, that mingle with and tarnish every good thought and deed, making our works incapable of justifying us. The cynic knows this and despairs of virtue altogether. The saint and the prophet know it too, but cast themselves upon God’s mercy all the more and pray for more grace and truth, to heal their stubborn, subtle self-centeredness. But the Pelagian risks going on his merry way, blissful in self-satisfied ignorance, or willful denial, oblivious to the shades of grey and the mixture of good and evil in his conduct and his faith.
Sin, to the Pelagian, is not understood as the universal condition of alienation, entrapment and enslavement which Augustine saw so clearly, and from which we cannot remove ourselves without divine help. It is viewed more as a matter simply of willful personal choices and wrongly-ordered social structures. But even the most partisan Pelagians will eventually have to face up to sins they cannot resist nor deny in themselves. Sensing deep down the frailty and the falsehood of our self-confidence, Pelagianism can lead us either to invent ways to legitimate our own sin, or to project our repressed shame about it onto others, or both. The more there is any Pelagian self-reliance in us, the more our inner conflicts and projected weaknesses will supercharge differences of opinion into raging battles, and the more we will be enraged and entrenched about them. The Pelagian’s outward focus of struggle against the sins of others, of individuals or society, of liberals or conservatives, of the culture, or of the counter-culture, can become as judgmental and divisive as the persons he criticizes for sins like judgmentalism and divisiveness. This outward focus effectively gives the world, rather than the Spirit of God, the power to drive our spirituality and our ethics, even, ironically, in reaction to the world. Such unexamined, unrecognized Pelagian presuppositions may be the controversy behind many controversies, driving both sides in reaction to each other.
To the Pelagian, sin is anything we know better than to do. To the Augustinian, sin is something we cannot NOT do, but for divine intervention, in spite of our best intentions. The difference between the world and the church in the matter of sin’s blinding and binding is like that between the Hebrew before the parting of the Red Sea and the Hebrew after: liberation has only begun. It will take much more time and many more miracles to get slavery out of the slave, than to get the slave out of slavery.
The Pelagian’s great struggle is to improve the world; the Augustinian’s great struggle is to surrender ever deeper levels of the self to God. Augustine so aptly described this struggle in a sermon on forgiveness: “You must be emptied of that with which you are full, that you may be filled with that of which you are empty.”
Pelagius and Augustine both have things to teach the other. The Augustinian needs to hear Pelagius’ warnings, lest he also go to extremes. The Pelagian charge, that the Augustinian disposition can become so individualistic and inwardly focused on personal vices that it becomes an unhealthy Christian kind of navel-gazing, has merit. So does the charge that the Augustinian vision so focuses on human brokenness that it can overlook the blessedness and beauty of being human. And in later Western Christian history, Augustine was easily put to the service of elites, in castles and cathedrals, who were Pelagian about themselves and Augustinian about their subjects. We must all be clear-eyed and aware of the extremes toward which we are tempted.
But I find Augustine much more clear-eyed and realistic than Pelagius about the power, stubbornness and subtlety of sin, within our souls and societies. Augustine’s honest self-disclosures in The Confessions, about his own history of indulgence and entrapment in nearly every sin and system of belief available in his time, and about his long and ongoing struggle to surrender to God, are more helpful and recognizable to fellow strugglers in all ages and places than are the easy-going self-confidence and the strenuous moralistic exhortations of the Pelagians. Augustine’s grand vision of the sovereignty, majesty and mercy of God gave him a binocular view of both the depths of human bondage and blindness in sin and of the glorious heights of human identity and destiny in God. Augustine, not Pelagius, would preach, “Let us rejoice and give thanks: We have not only become Christians, but Christ himself.”
It is common for conservative and traditionalist theologians to identify Pelagianism with theological liberalism. But there are conservative and traditionalist ways of being Pelagian, too. Progressive types of Pelagianism believe that history and human nature are automatically making things better. Conservative types say, “It was better back when…” Both are but different melodies which Pelagius whistles in the dark.
My reading of Anabaptist/Mennonite history is that we have tended to lean toward Pelagian overconfidence in human capacity even in those times and communities where our sermons, songs and prayers sound most dire and desperate about human nature. Current generations of Mennonites (in MC USA, at least) rightly celebrate our release from bondage to strict cultural standards around dress and deportment, and from the guilt and shame with which they were often enforced. One might think that we are recovering from a virulent case of Augustinian pessimism about human nature. But the extent to which those strictures and standards were enforced, and not simply chosen, speaks to me of a Pelagian overconfidence in our ability to fix the world and please God with codes of conduct and conformity. That often obscured to us how infinitely and unconditionally God is pleased with us. Mennonite scholarship has contributed so much to understanding the social and political aspects of Jesus’ First Century ministry. We rightly discuss and debate about how those politics might apply today. But I hear much less about how Jesus is still present and active here and now, or if we even need him to be.
Ironically, the man for whom we are named came to surrender, conversion and leadership through his own Augustinian crisis. That was in the long lag time between when Menno Simons first knew what God was calling him to do, and when he finally surrendered to it, and threw in his lot with the first Anabaptists. One wonders what Pelagius would have thought of Menno Simons’ signature prayer: “Lord Jesus, blind I am, do thou enlighten me; naked I am, do thou clothe me; wounded, do thou heal me; dead, do thou quicken me.”
And now evangelical, conservative and traditional forms of Pelagianism and liberal, progressive forms of Pelagianism are at loggerheads with each other in many churches, Mennonites included. We identify sexuality as the issue. But I believe that behind the differences of opinion stands a Pelagianism that expresses itself in two forms. Both forms feature a certainty that, with the right education and experience, the other side will understand and embrace the whole truth, as our side has done. Self-examination, repentance, and surrender to God are what they need to do. Our failure to improve the world, or even the church, in spite of accelerating activism and reaction, leads to projection, shaming and shunning as fierce as what happened in the most traditional, conservative churches. And each kind of Pelagianism is baffled at the inability of the other to see what is so obviously true, and to do what is so patently virtuous to them. Missing from either side is much awareness of the stubbornness and subtlety of sin, the insufficiency of our own wisdom and virtue, and our need for more than the best intentions, theology, experiences, effort and education, as important as they are. Overlook all that and we’ll also miss the glory and the majesty of our identity and destiny in Christ.
Rather than asking, Who is right, Augustine or Pelagius? and Which camp are we in? we do well to ask, What is right about either position? and What have I overlooked that is unbalanced or mistaken in my own position? This helps in any controversy. While there is truth that Augustinians need to hear from Pelagius and his kin, we are in a time when certain truths need to be heard from Augustine. We rightfully aspire and labor to be “ordinary radicals.” But Augustine would confront us with the fact that we can never be anything but “radically ordinary.” We are as vulnerable as everyone else to the subtlety and stubbornness of sin, and as extravagantly and undeservedly showered with divine grace. In our society’s heady exhilaration with human progress and power, we need Augustine’s reminders about the limits to our wisdom, virtue and self-knowledge. In our drive and desire to be “on the right side of history,” we need Augustine’s reminders about the extravagant, unmerited love and faithfulness of God. In a day of polarizing, reactionary identity politics, we need Augustine’s vision to see the breathtaking beauty of who Christ is, and who we are in Christ.
Reading Augustine’s signature, lightning-rod prayer, “Grant me what you command, and command of me what you will,” for the first time also got a rise out of me. It exposed the extent of my compulsive self-reliance. Praying it leads one to remember and consider how God’s gracious, unmerited initiative, to empower us “both to will and to do” his will, has been mysteriously at work on our behalf in both Creation’s history and in our personal histories. That was so, long before we could perceive it and receive it. While not robbing us of responsibility, the Augustinian vision pushes the needle of our faith back toward trust and dependence upon God’s grace. It helps us to hold God’s sovereign power and initiative, and our response-abilities, in miraculous, symbiotic partnership.
Mennonite doctrine and scholarship have contributed greatly to the wider world in terms of ethics, discipleship and peacemaking. We rightly stress such themes as our Christian responsibilities. But let us not forget that they are our response-abilities by the gracious, unmerited initiative of God, and to the gracious, unmerited initiative of God. This grace is also revealing hidden truths within apparent conflicts and paradoxes, but only as it humbles, converts and transforms us. Remembering that should also make us more humble and receptive to the riches, insights and contributions of other Christians and churches around the world and throughout history. Even those which seem at odds with each other, like Augustine and Pelagius.
“I find, I walk, I love, but oh the whole
Of love is but my answer, Lord, to thee.
For thou were long beforehand with my soul
Always thou lovest me.” from, “I Sought The Lord” HWB 506