March 19

Augustine: Pelagius

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

John 9:1-41

Click here to hear just the sermon


*Due to the length of the worship service, the original text of this sermon was condensed. Therefore, the recorded sermon will differ from the text below. 

John 9 is about dislocation.  It is about the expulsion of a small group of Jewish Christians from a traditional synagogue.  One word, 9:22, holds the whole gospel of the day, ‘out of the synagogue’. They were cast out of the synagogue, dislocated, a fearsome hurt now known by many directly, in illness, in separation, in isolation, in loneliness and dislocation.  And known better, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, by those of us who may just acquire a little more sympathy, a little more compassion, a little more care, for those in need, as we swirl through this season of need.

‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash’.  Then I went and washed and received my sight.’

John 9 describes the healing of a man born blind, and the communal controversy surrounding that healing.  Like the rest of the Gospel, this passage reports two layers of healing, of blindness, of community, and of controversy.   On one hand, the passage remembers, perhaps by the aid of a source or as part of a source, a moment in the ministry of Jesus (30ce), in which a man is given sight.  On the other hand, the passage announces the spiritual unshackling of a hero in the community (90ce), who bears witness to what Jesus has done for him, no matter the repercussions from others, from parents, from family, from community.

The preacher in the Johannine community of the late first century is telling the story of the Son of Man.  To do so, he celebrates the courageous witness to healing, and the courageous endurance of expulsion, of a man born blind.  Here, he says, is what I mean by faith.  The story he uses comes, through un-trackable oral and written traditions, from 30ce.  The story he tells comes from 90ce.  Every character in the story has two roles.  Jesus is both earthly rabbi and heavenly redeemer.  The blind man is both historic patient and current hero.  The family is from both Palestinian memory and diaspora synagogue.  The opponents are both the contemporaries of Jesus and the nearby inhabitants of the synagogue, the Johannine community’s former home.   When Jesus gives sight, Christ gives freedom.  When the blind one is cured, the congregation sees truth.  When the man is cast out of his synagogue, the community of the beloved disciple recognizes their own most recent expulsion.  When others criticize Jesus, the synagogue is criticizing the church.  When the healing story ends, the life of faith begins.  His voice both addresses you and emanates from you.  Not your voice, his is nonetheless…your voice.

John 9 illumines the central struggle of the community, their bitter spiritual itinerancy from the familiar confines of Christian Judaism, out into the unknown wilderness of Jewish Christianity.  History and the history of religions bear manifold witness to this kind of crisis in communal identity, and the long hard trail of travel from primary to secondary identity.  In retrospect, as a community gathers itself in its new setting (think of the pilgrims in Boston, the Mormons in Utah, the Cherokee in Oklahoma, and every entering class each autumn at Boston University) the story of the tearful trail itself becomes the heart of communal memory and imagination.

What is here unearthed in John 9 can also and readily be applied to the rest of the Gospel of John as well:  to the wedding at Cana, to Nicodemus, to the woman at the well, to the healing on the water, to the feeding of the thousands, to the controversies with the Jews, to the raising of Lazarus, to the farewell discourse, to the trial and passion.  All of these reflect the experience in dramatic interaction between the synagogue and John’s church. This includes, later, the mysterious figure of the Paraclete, the Spirit, who functions as Jesus’ eternal presence in the world, Jesus, God ‘striding on earth’ (Kasemann).  In this way, the Paraclete himself creates the two level drama.  Where the world is mono focal, and can see only the historical level of Jesus in history or only the theological level of Jesus in the witness of the Christian community, the Paraclete binds the two together.  The Word dwelling among us, and our beholding his glory, are not past events only.  They transpire in a two-level drama.  They transpire both on the historical and contemporary levels, OR NOT AT ALL.  Their transpiration on both levels is itself the good news, an overture to the rapturous discoveries of freedom in disappointment, grace in dislocation, and love in departure.  Especially, in John 9, through dislocation. Tell me sometime about your worst lived dislocation.

    Into our existential dislocations today strides this year’s Lenten conversation partner, Augustine of Hippo, in and through his own momentous conflict with Pelagius, a conflict let us say between Pelagius and the freedom of the will, and Augustine and freeing of the will, freedom vs. freeing.  Our teacher Professor David Lotz, UTS 1976, guided us skillfully through Augustine’s conflict with Pelagius.  One readily remembers the thrill of the lectures, the skill of the lecturer, and the chill of a new and challenging claim to truth.  With gratitude I rely today on the abiding memory of his classes, and the scrawled penciled notes of his presentations.  Take heart, BU teachers, lectures, well honed, live for decades, as do Dr. Lotz’s today

    Pelagius’s biography is scarce.  He was apparently a monk of either British or Irish origin, who appeared in Rome near the year 400ce, lecturing as a moral theologian.  Pelagius was shocked by the overly pessimistic views of the human capacity for good, which he found prevalent in Rome at the time.  Rather, he judged that human beings could know and do God’s will.  His refrain was, Give what you command, Lord, and command what you will.

    Pelagius insisted on human responsibility and moral choice.  Such responsibility and such moral choice, inevitably entailed unconditional free will.  Without freedom of the will, there can be no truly human responsibility, nor any serious moral choice.  If sin is inevitable, he reasoned, then the nerve of moral responsibility is severed.  Furthermore, both the Old and New Testaments (the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, Moses, Jesus) expect and command…perfection.  So far, he sounds like a pretty good Methodist to me.  And therein lies the problem.

    Pelagius argued with vehemence that commands, and commandments, would not have been given, if they were not able to be followed, if they were not followable.  That would be cruel and unusual.  He further argued, here one could say like Immanuel Kant, that an ‘ought’ entails a ‘can’.  If you ought to do it, then you can do it.  Again, anything other would be cruel and unusual.  The human being has the freedom to obey or to disobey the divine command(s). Posse peccare, posse non peccare, the ability to sin and not to sin (Augustine will later counter that this was true of Adam, but no longer true, not true of you and me).  Even further, Pelagius rejects the idea that the human will has ‘an intrinsic bias toward wrong-doing…after the fall’.  He, Pelagius, is thus a ‘creationist’, believing that the soul is immediately created by God at birth.  He does admit that with the human creature there has come along, has come down over time, a ‘habit of disobedience’.  There is no congenital evil, there is no congenital sin, in the child.  Hence, for Pelagius, and now we come to the crux of the matter, the heart of the argument, the sacrament of baptism was a sanctification, but not a means of grace, not a means of regeneration.

    We might jump in here to say that in the Empire wide argument that followed, Pelagius lost the day.  He lost to…your friend and mine for Lent 2023, Augustine of Hippo.  Why did Pelagius lose and Augustine win?  The answer in part is that Augustine took to heart, took seriously, and made heartfelt and serious sense of…baptism.  And to some further extent of…the virgin birth. Augustine made sense of the church’s practice, the church’s cultus.

    Now Pelagius did not assert human autonomy.  The argument between Pelagius and Augustine, at least to this human sermonic interpreter, with whom, saints preserve us, you are stuck for the moment, for these 22 minutes,  their argument was far more nuanced than sometimes it is made out to be.  For Pelagius, grace is necessary…to achieve perfection. And this is the crux of the disagreement.  For Pelagius, the ability not to sin, posse non peccare, comes straight from nature, from the ‘necessity of nature’, which is…get ready for it…implanted by God the Creator as a GIFT. Whoever disparages nature disparages God, because God is the Creator, the maker of heaven and earth, of nature itself.   For Pelagius, in addition, grace is also the revelation through reason of God’s law, which is instructive in holiness.  Like a good Renaissance philosopher, like a good modern liberal, like, well, let us admit it, like a good Methodist of any stripe, Pelagius sees God in all creatures great and small, in the words of  James Herriott.  Further, he finds in the human reason, in human rationality, evidence of man as God’s image.  For Pelagius, grace works in a limited way, as forms of external aids (Moses and Jesus), to the human will.  The human being is good and free, free and good, but can always use a little help from friends.  Going further, Pelagius’s understands predestination (what will later become for Augustine even double predestination, and an entirely different matter) as (simply, merely) foreknowledge of merit.

    The bottom line: One can if one will, one can if one will, observe God’s commandments without sinning.  You can if you think you can.  (Here we notice a hint or echo of that powerful positive thinker Methodist and graduate of BUSTH, Norman Vincent Peale: You can if you think you can…of whom, remember, Adlai Stevenson said, ‘I find Paul appealing…and Peale appalling’). Sinlessness can gradually and progressively be attained by…strenuous efforts of the will.  Sinlessness remains a possibility, especially as it is infused by an intense awareness of God’s majesty.  Go and sin no more.  Should you need an example, you have before you Jesus Christ.  Christ sets the norm of holy living.  You will have to admit that on this rendering, Pelagius makes a pretty good case for what many of us, much of the time, mostly believe.  We believe in and celebrate the freedom of the will.

    Pelagius writings were distributed and widely read between 380ce and 410ce.  His supporters included Celestius, and, one of Augustine’s most formidable opponents, Julian the Bishop of Eclanum.

      Enter Augustine of Hippo, 354-430ce.  Augustine’s own thought had been worked out long before the Pelagian controversy.  The fight with Pelagius merely allowed him to fill out the implications.  That is, Augustine thought that Adam, Adam was created perfect, and Adam’s will, Adam’s will was in conjunction with God. Vita ordinate…an orderly life, an ordered life.  The body is ordered by the soul and the soul is ordered by God.  Adam, Adam possessed the ability not to sin.  God had granted Adam a grace of perseverance.  And grace was already and fully operative in paradise.  Otherwise, Adam would soon have sinned, early rather than late.  Adam’s only weakness, his only malady or imperfection or shortcoming was his creatureliness.  This was an ontological weakness.  So how could Adam fall, sin, fall short? Because he is a creature, his nature is that of a creature, he is imbued with creatureliness: Adam is contingent, mutable, ex nihilo, made out of nothing.  So, in that fateful moment of weakness, and on the prompting of his own pride, on the prompting of his own pride chose to turn away from God.  And that curse has now passed to the whole of humanity.  The human being, man is massa damnata, ‘a condemned crowd’. 

      The essence of Adam’s sin, according to Augustine, is that we all participate in sin and guilt, we all participate in sin and guilt.  In that we are all actually one with Adam.  Augustine does not explain actually how sin is passed on, whether by ‘the seed’ (‘traducianism’) or otherwise, expect to say that the soul is handed down ‘by parental conception’. As Romans 5: 12 says, ‘in whom all have sinned’.  (Except that the Greek text reads, ‘because all have sinned’ (here at least Augustine’ argument is based on a mistranslation.)

      For Augustine, though, creation is not evil.  Creation is good.  Creation is not evil but good.  Yet creation is sullied by Adam’s fall.  Adam’s accident, let us say.  Sin is lack, sin is non-being.  Nature has been scarred but nature is not depraved.  Yet as a result of the fall, as a consequence of Adam’s sin, we have lost our freedom.  We have lost the ability not to sin.  We are not able not to sin.  We have lost our liberty (libertum), but not our ‘liberum arbitrium’.  We continue to choose.  We know this from our experience.  But…free will always and inevitably on its own chooses the evil, due to its perverse nature.  Hence…grace is an utter necessity, an absolute necessity, without grace we are absolutely lost. Grace is the divinely given power to avoid and conquer sin.  Not freedom, but grace.  Not creation, but re-creation, then, is what we need, not creation but redemption.  Not the freedom of the will, but the freeing of the will. And this can come about only through God’s grace.  For grace prevents us from doing evil (gratia praevenia), prepares us to do good, and helps us in the actual doing of good (gratia cooperans, gratia sonneans (healing grace). After all, remember Romans 7: ‘the good I want I do not, but evil I do not want, that is what I do’.

      Here Augustine finishes the case.  We experience healing grace throughout the course of our lives…in the church’s sacraments.  It is grace therefore which equips us to do the good.  Perfection is never wholly attained (here Wesley goes out the window).  The disease of being human, of being alive is never completely cured.  Justification is progressive sanctification.  Through Scripture!  Through Apostolic Tradition! Through Faith!  Through Personal Experience!  Here Augustine, a most autobiographical theologian, faces God by facing himself, and sees without a shadow of doubt that as he looked back on his life he could not explain the shape it took…without recourse to grace.  ‘Let me be chaste…but not yet’.  Augustine, in this sense, is the supreme Methodist, an utterly autobiographical theologian.  Not his own freedom, but God’s freeing love, saved him.  With Augustine, though we may not entirely see things his way, at a minimum this Lent, let us cherish God’s freeing love, God who is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom. God who is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom.

      -The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

      Comments are closed.