CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Pelagianism and the Culture Wars

Jul 16, 2019

Yesterday I did two things which have become the basis for this article. One, I wrote a review of the new book by David Horowitz. Two, I came across a new article by Douglas Wilson. Both men happened to be friends with the late atheist Christopher Hitchens, but that is another matter.

Here I wish to discuss a topic that both men wrote about: Pelagianism. Pelaga-who? More on this in a moment. But the interesting thing is Horowitz is a Jewish ex-Marxist and agnostic, while Wilson is a biblical Christian. But both could clearly see how the heresy of Pelagianism is coming forth with a vengeance in our culture wars today.

So let me offer a brief explanation of this. Before Calvin and Arminius locked horns over questions of the nature of sin and man’s ability to please God, Augustine and Pelagius were debating this. Pelagius (350-425) was a British monk who eventually went to North Africa where he and Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo in present-day Algeria, had sharp disagreements on core biblical truths.

Augustine, following Paul, emphasised our lost sinful condition and our overwhelming need for grace. We are incapable of saving ourselves and are in desperate need of outside (divine) help. Pelagius however taught that man is not really so fallen, and Adam’s sin had no real impact on his descendants.

So original sin is denied, and man is seen as basically good. Paul and Augustine beg to differ. So damaging is the Fall and so pervasive is sin that man by himself cannot please God or even fully seek God. Simply put, without God and his grace, we are all toast. Indeed, we see the reality of man’s fallen condition everywhere.

As Chesterton once put it, the doctrine of original sin is the one clearly verifiable, empirical Christian doctrine. Or, more precisely, as he stated in Orthodoxy: “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”

So what does all this have to do with the culture wars? It should be rather obvious actually. If man is basically good, then where do we get evil from? The Marxist and leftist response is simple: it is society or oppressive social and economic structures that are the problem.

So if we change society we can bring in a brave new world where everyone gets along just swimmingly. It is not the human heart that needs changing, it is ‘evil’ things like capitalism, or patriarchy, or militarism, or America, or chauvinism, or nationalism, etc.

But as you might have noticed, we tried to implement this version of events last century. We tried creating a new and just and fair society – but all it did was result in millions of people being killed. When you get the diagnosis wrong, you will always get the remedy wrong.

No amount of tampering with society will change anything as long as the human heart remains corrupt and evil. Internal surgery is required – heart surgery to be exact – and not external Band-Aid quick fixes. It is just as Jeremiah put it: “They have healed the wound of my people lightly” (Jer. 6:14).

Or as Jesus put it, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Luke 5:31). Our problems are deep-seated indeed, and only deep-seated cures will be of any use. Real sickness requires a real physician.

But let me draw upon these two thinkers and share what they had to say about all this. Horowitz the agnostic just penned an excellent book of the left’s war on America and on Christianity. He was a hard-core Marxist for much of his early life, but eventually he saw the light and rejected his leftism. See my review of this excellent book here: billmuehlenberg.com/2019/07/15/a-review-of-dark-agenda-by-david-horowitz/

In one chapter he speaks about the leftist vision: “As progressives and world-changers, we were not interested in the fate of individual souls. Our cause was the salvation of mankind. . . . Like the religionists whom they looked down on, my parents and their leftist friends believed in a redemption, but they thought of themselves as the redeemers, not God.”

And now the leftists do not speak about “Communism,” but about “social justice”. He then explains what Pelagius taught, and goes on to show how this connects with leftism: “Pelagius shared the view of today’s progressives – the view that people are naturally good, but society leads them down paths that are bad. . . . The Pelagian heresy is no different from the progressive notion that if human beings can be made to pursue lives that are politically correct, they can bring about a world of social justice.”

Horowitz then talks about how he eventually came to reject his own leftism: the murder of his friend at the hands of the radical Black Panthers. Betty Van Patter was a “dedicated, kindhearted leftist and a mother of three children” who sought to help out the Panthers.

When she got wind of some shady dealings by the Panthers, and wanted to help them, they turned on her, viewing her as a white woman who could not be trusted. So they killed her: “She had been raped and tortured and beaten to death.” But incredibly the “left defended the killers because they were voices of the oppressed and champions of the progressive cause.”

This is what finally pushed Horowitz out of his leftist delusions: “That murder – and that silence – shattered my faith in everything I had believed in until then.” Yes, he was mugged by reality. Or, reverting back to theological terms, he came to see that Paul and Augustine were dead right, and Pelagius dead wrong.

Now let me run with the new article by Wilson on this. He also speaks about the Pelagian error, and ties it in to the culture wars – particularly, homosexuality and how we should think about it. He reminds us about the importance of the debate, and how it impacts so much else.

He writes: “In theology, there are two foundational approaches to human nature out there, and they are the Augustinian and the Pelagian. Calvinism is simply a later nickname given to the Augustinian approach.” He goes on to say this:

Our dilemma is that we want to be saved, but we want to be saved without admitting the full reality of what we are being saved from. In our rationalizations, when we articulate what we think salvation must be trying to get at (our felt needs, our sense of brokenness, and the fact that we are widdle wambs who have gone astway), we routinely minimize what is actually at stake. “But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick” (Matt. 9:12).

So God saves us from what we are, and not simply from the consequences of disembodied deeds out of the past. And because Augustinians believe we must be saved from what we are, this accounts for the disparity in the two different kinds of responses to sin. The Pelagians offer the sinner some lavender water. The Augustinians offer oak-aged Laphroaig, which, as the ad copy puts it, tastes like burning hospital. The Pelagians offer the sinner a teeny little pill, child’s aspirin in a micro-dose. The Augustinians see you are the color of leprous putty and so they go to a vet they know in the neighborhood in order to get some horse doses of antibiotic Calvinism, the kind that could knock out a couple of Clydesdales.

The need of the hour is not for somebody to urge you into your best life now. We need everybody in Judea to head down to the Jordan, and in order to get that to happen we need to ask God to send us some kind of Tishbite Calvinist preacher who will pin our ears back, and not feel sorry about it afterwards.

He then applies this to the debate over same-sex attraction. He concludes with these words:

So we are in a pretty bad way. We have gotten to the point where the moral compass of evangelicalism is now being calibrated by the sex wishes of twelve-year-old boys. What could go wrong? If you want to see our people delivered, then pray for God to raise up that Tishbite. Pray for a swarm of such preachers, who love the Word of God more than they love our secret lusts.
dougwils.com/books-and-culture/s7-engaging-the-culture/emoting-like-pelagians.html

Theology matters, and it has hugely important implications even for things like today’s sex wars. How we view humanity and sin will determine how we seek to address various social issues. Today’s culture wars are a reflection of these two fundamentally different ways of looking at these matters.

Horowitz had to learn this the hard way. I am glad he finally did see the light. But so much of the Western world has not learned this lesson. That in large measure explains what ails us, and why the culture wars continue to explode with no resolution in sight.

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10 Responses to Pelagianism and the Culture Wars

  • Let me be the first to comment here. If there are any hardcore Pelagians out there who are bursting at the bits to come here and start WWIII, let me say that I am writing a piece on the doctrine of Original Sin, so I advise you to wait until that is written and posted before you come here looking for blood!

  • Sounds like Facebook moderators are “men’s rights activists” who spend all their time looking for evidence of “misandry”.

  • This article contains a great deal to think about! Your quote from Jeremiah 6; “They have healed the wound of my people lightly” got me reading further and I came across a verse in chapter 7 that speaks volumes: “And you shall say to them, ‘This is the nation that did not obey the voice of the LORD their God, and did not accept discipline; truth has perished; it is cut off from their lips’.”

  • And that ‘Burning Hospital’ was the Cross of Jesus Christ aflame in the holy sin destroying love of GOD. The Bottle Shop is still open. It is still and forever the only healing power for our total depravity. 1John 2:2

  • Thanks Bill, Doug Wilson always can be replied upon to have something very helpful to say to contemporary Christians and your quote from Wilson proves the point, again. I especially like the ‘Augustinians see you are the color of leprous putty and so they go to a vet they know in the neighborhood in order to get some horse doses of antibiotic Calvinism’ and also ‘The need of the hour is not for somebody to urge you into your best life now. We need everybody in Judea to head down to the Jordan, and in order to get that to happen we need to ask God to send us some kind of Tishbite Calvinist preacher who will pin our ears back, and not feel sorry about it afterwards.’ Amen!

  • Knowing history will help modern Christians avoid heresy that is misrepresented to be based on the teaching of a respected theologian of the past or presented as a recovery of a lost truth when it is really an old lie that has already been rejected by the Church. For example, certain people teach that Calvinism is based on the teaching of Saint Augustine. Augustine’s view is simply that the beginning of faith is in God’s hands and that man would be helpless without God taking the initiative. In his writing on grace and free will, Augustine cites Matthew 16:27, which says Jesus will reward each according to what they have done. He also uses 1 Timothy 4:14 as an example showing both God’s grace (as a gift) and Timothy’s free will (with Paul’s instruction not to neglect it). The implication of this simple example is huge: God gave a gift because of his grace to Timothy; yet, Timothy still had the will to use the gift (obedience) or neglect it (rebellion). There is no way that “unconditional election” and “limited atonement” are based on a foundation laid by Augustine.
    Believing that man is “basically good” is wrong but believing that man is “totally depraved” (the T in tulip Calvinism) is also wrong. Always remember that every man and woman is the image of God.

  • The Life Site news story talks about a quote banned by Facebook. I found part of the quote on John Michael Talbot’s page from 8 July 2012.

    From a sermon by Saint Augustine, bishop
    (Serm. 19,2-3: CCL 41, 252-254)

    A sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit

    I acknowledge my transgression, says David. If I admit my fault, then you will pardon it. Let us never assume that if we live good lives we will be without sin; our lives should be praised only when we continue to beg for pardon. But men are hopeless creatures, and the less they concentrate on their own sins, the more interested they become in the sins of others. They seek to criticize, not to correct. Unable to excuse themselves, they are ready to accuse others.

  • Dear Bill, thank you for you next challenge for our minds, heart & soul. I am not anywhere near well read as most of your readers. I mostly draw on my own life experience coupled with what i do read and learn in ‘the remorseless working of things’.
    Maybe Israel Falou is becoming one of the above ‘Tishbits’?
    Another observation I made is I attended an all boys boarding school from age 11. The comments about ‘ the moral compas of evangelism is now being calibrated by the sex wishes of twelve year old boys.’ Rings absolutely true from what I saw during my time at that institution.
    Sometimes I think I know nothing then there are many times when I do!
    Great piece Bill
    God bless,
    Mark Bryant

  • Thank you, Bill! The rejection of Augustine on Facebook is so telling! The devil is a liar, and just as it was never about free speech or the rights of women, so this demonstrates that it was not about tolerance either, but rather about preventing man from coming humbly before God.

    At risk of going on too long, another thought: our enemies will often accuse us of the very thing they are promoting (e.g. Pharisaism, and yes, even Pelagianism!). But I like how John Paul II countered this in Veritatis Splendor when speaking of the Pharisee and the tax collector:

    ” … we should take to heart the message of the Gospel parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (cf. Lk 18:9-14). The tax collector might possibly have had some justification for the sins he committed, such as to diminish his responsibility. But his prayer does not dwell on such justifications, but rather on his own unworthiness before God’s infinite holiness: “God, be merciful to me a sinner! ” (Lk 18:13). The Pharisee, on the other hand, is self-justified, finding some excuse for each of his failings. Here we encounter two different attitudes of the moral conscience of man in every age. The tax collector represents a “repentant” conscience, fully aware of the frailty of its own nature and seeing in its own failings, whatever their subjective justifications, a confirmation of its need for redemption. The Pharisee represents a “self-satisfied” conscience, under the illusion that it is able to observe the law without the help of grace and convinced that it does not need mercy.
    “All people must take great care not to allow themselves to be tainted by the attitude of the Pharisee, which would seek to eliminate awareness of one’s own limits and of one’s own sin. In our own day this attitude is expressed particularly in the attempt to adapt the moral norm to one’s own capacities and personal interests, and even in the rejection of the very idea of a norm.
    “Accepting, on the other hand, the “disproportion” between the law and human ability (that is, the capacity of the moral forces of man left to himself) kindles the desire for grace and prepares one to receive it. “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” asks the Apostle Paul. And in an outburst of joy and gratitude he replies: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
    (Veritatis Splendor 104-105 from CHAPTER III – “LEST THE CROSS OF CHRIST BE EMPTIED OF ITS POWER” ¶ 102 – 105 Grace and obedience to God’s law)

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