The Pelagian Heresy and Today’s Sexual Revolution

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Who would guess that the ancient heresy of Pelagianism would rear its head again in our generation in the context of the sexual revolution?  Yet there it is, underlying a significant argument for the legitimacy of same-sex attraction.

The Original Pelagian Heresy

First, recall the basics of the Pelagian heresy.  Pelagius, a British monk, had a considerable reputation as a rigorous ascetic, and, being in Rome at the beginning of the 5th Century, brought his zeal for holy behavior to bear on the problem of lax ecclesiastical discipline.  Unfortunately, his solution misrepresented both human nature and God’s grace.

Let me summarize in broad strokes Pelagian teaching. In order to reinforce the believer’s responsibility to behave rightly, Pelagius claimed that human beings are by nature free to choose to not sin.  He claimed this natural freedom was an endowment of God’s grace.  Yet he did not mean by this that God’s grace was something added to human nature to enable that freedom. Rather, each person was free to choose to sin or not sin as a given aspect of their created nature. Pelagius and his followers posited that our nature at birth was innocent, like Adam’s before the fall, free and responsible to exercise that freedom to do God’s will.  Adam’s influence was one of example, but an example we were free not to follow.  The sinful character of sins that couldn’t be avoided tended to be down-played or excused.  Perhaps most significantly, in the Pelagian scheme, Christ’s work of salvation was reduced to a tack-on to bring forgiveness for sin and to help the will, but was not essential to the ability to choose, and not necessary for those who decided to choose well.

Augustine was the primary theological responder of the time to Pelagian teachings, and wrote extensively to refute them (and in so doing, left a record of what Pelagianism entailed).  Augustine was especially qualified for the task not only because of his philosophical and Scriptural expertise, but because of his own path to Christ, which he relates in his Confessions.  Augustine’s conversion took place when he had been hardened in natural unbelief and alienation from God; yet God in His grace had drawn him to Himself.  Augustine was intimately familiar with natural human antipathy to God, and all the aspects of human being that occur as a consequence.

Responding to Pelagianism, Augustine’s main critiques were that it did not accurately portray our fallen and depraved nature, or our inability to find or love God in our own power.  It also under-rated the absolute necessity of God’s grace in Christ to enable anything good in us.  Augustine recognized that without that dynamic work of grace, we cannot even want to come to God or want to do his will.  In our flesh, we are God’s natural mortal enemies. Paul describes our condition in Romans: “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature” (Rom.7:18).[1] Both Paul and Christ himself name the difficulty: “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 15:50).  “No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again…Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:3,6).

In many different writings, Augustine addresses the problems in the Pelagian position, showing its failure to match Scriptural revelation, human nature and God’s salvation.  The reality is that human beings are dead to God – morally and spiritually dead and unable to attain to the righteousness of God in their own strength.  They cannot lift themselves to heaven by their own will or goodness.  They must be saved – born from above – by the grace of God in Christ, or they remain alienated from God and his enemies; they remain dead.  (See Augustine’s Nature and Grace)

Pelagianism and Human Sexuality

Which brings us to the specific question of interest today in the debate about human sexuality.  The argument often heard in the media is that because many individuals claim that they did not choose their sexual desire or orientation, therefore that desire must be innate or inborn.  They insist that they do not experience those desires as something they choose, so they must be a given of their nature, and therefore they are not really responsible for choosing them. Further, since the desire is supposedly innate and part of who they are, it must be a “gift from God” and therefore good, to be celebrated and embraced rather than rejected or resisted.

It is important to note that in the current state of scientific knowledge, the ‘biologically determined’ position has already been largely abandoned, though you wouldn’t guess this from popular media coverage. Many scientific and genetic experts recognize that no complex human desire is biologically predetermined, so that everything about the shape of human desire has both nature and nurture components, sexual desire included.[2]

But let us take the ‘pure nature’ claim at face-value, for the sake of argument.  The claim is that if homosexual desire is purely determined by nature, it is innate, and must therefore be good.  This claim of “innate goodness” is where the Pelagian error begins to be evident, for it imputes to human nature an innate quality of moral goodness or rightness, as if we were each born in pre-fall Adamic innocence. It further seeks to give excuse where such sins have the appearance of being unable to be avoided.

Both errors ignore the reality that human moral nature, no matter in which particular, is fallen, steeped in sin and as such is unable to please or attain to God.  This truth is considered important enough to enshrine in the doctrinal standards of many Christian traditions: i.e., as ‘original sin’ in Roman Catholicism or as ‘total depravity’ in the Reformed Tradition. The Wesleyan tradition names the problem, as typified in Article VII of the Articles of Religion from the Doctrinal Standards of the United Methodist Church:

Article VII – Of Original or Birth Sin: Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.[3]

Scripture echoes this basic truth repeatedly.  In Isaiah, our righteousness is like filthy rags; in Jeremiah, the heart is desperately wicked, and deceitful above all else.  In Romans, Paul reminds us that if a law could have been given to make human beings righteous, Christ would not have needed to die.  We learn from the law that we are sinners, so that the law teaches us our need for the Savior.  “God has bound everyone over to disobedience, so that he might have mercy on them all” (Romans 11:32).  Charles Wesley’s great hymn of salvation (and Asbury Seminary’s anthem) echoes this truth: we are “fast bound in nature’s night,” unable to attain salvation, eternal life or a righteousness that reaches to God, until Christ imparts it.

To make this point clear, consider an even more fundamental desire than sexual desire: human coveting.  Envy and craving appear in the human race at the earliest stages of development.  The fact of their appearance is not a testimony to the goodness of envy, but rather to the fundamental corruption and craving of human nature: as the psalmist states, “sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5).  People may not be generally aware of this sinful propensity until a law is introduced which reveals it.  But once a law comes into play, such as “Thou shalt not covet,” sin becomes self-evident.  Paul captures the reality of this predicament in Romans 7:8: “But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting.” Homosexual desire is merely a type of coveting, of wanting that which is not given to us to have. The fact that it might appear to be innate (though again, this is a highly questionable assumption on separate scientific grounds) or at least to arise unbidden out of the heart of the desirer, is not an excuse to revision the desire as good – following the Pelagian error – but rather a demand that it be evaluated in light of the overall reality of fallen human nature.  If there is “nothing good in me (that is, in my flesh),” then no desire that comes out of us will be uncorrupted, such as to win the approbation of God.  God alone is good.  We, on the other hand, have no good thing that lives in our sinful nature.

When Augustine first began to address the Pelagian error, he treated Pelagius’ camp with patience and latitude, and the error as a small deviation from the truth.  But by the time his application of Scripture and thought to the problem were fully developed, he recognized that Pelagianism was more than an error – it was a “deadly heresy, aiming at the very foundations of our faith” (On Original Sin, Ch. 28).  The position that treats human being as inherently morally good or even morally neutral, without need of grace, redemption or transformation, is a position that confuses the “man of sin” with the “man of righteousness.”  We are the former – dead in sin, unless we are in Christ, who is the latter – “the Man of Righteousness.” Christ alone is our hope of glory, and apart from him, there is no good thing that lives in us, and there is nothing about us to make us new, born from above.

The Same Old Good News

This is one of the reasons that the approval of homosexual desire – now all but taken for granted by the secular West – in fact leaves its victims ensnared in a deadly trap: ascribing in that one particular the desires of the old nature of sin to the new nature of righteousness.  This is not a new type of lie.  It is as old as the prophets and the church fathers, as appealing as the flattery of the self-help and try-harder gospel, and as deadly as denying our sin and need for the Savior.

Yet there is some good news here.  Every human is born with a fallen nature, and so every one of us will have some manifestation of it to teach us our need for the Savior.  The list of shortcomings and sins in Romans 1 is meant to include us all, as Romans 2 makes clear.  There we learn that none of us are able to live up to the standards of God’s law, and so all of us need a Savior and a new nature.  We should not be surprised at any particular expression of sin in its myriad manifestations, including that desire which is brokenly turned toward the same gender.  This apparently bleak reality is what prepares us for the good news, described so well in Romans 11:32: “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.”


1. Scripture References from the New International Version (©Biblica Inc., 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011).

2. Cf., Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free, 2006); Mark Yarhouse, Homosexuality and the Christian: A Guide for Parents, Pastors and Friends (Bloomington, MN: Bethany, 2010)

3. The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2012, ¶104 (United Methodist Publishing House (2013). Kindle Edition.

4. For a key source here and an excellent introduction to the Pelagian Controversy, see B.B Warfield’s “Introduction to Augustin’s Anti-Pelagian Writings,” in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 5: Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, edited by Philip Schaff (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson; original copyright Christian Lit. Pub. Co. 1887), pp. xiii-lxxi.

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Dr. Christopher Fisher is an ordained elder in the Eastern PA Conference of the United Methodist Church, Senior Pastor of First UMC in Schuylkill Haven, PA, Adjunct Professor of Theology at Asbury Seminary, and Director of United Methodist Studies at Evangelical Theological Seminary. He is also currently serving as Counsel for the Church of the Eastern PA Conference, UMC.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Well done! A well grounded critique that addresses our current situation with wisdom and clarity. And from my experience it aligns well with the facts of the situation. Thank you!

  2. A very good essay, but doesn’t all his lead to a theology of grace? Or are we truly perfected from the moment of our salvation? If we are not willing to accept people who are forgiven but not yet made perfect, then are we not canceling both grace AND the hope of being made whole? The sin of the Church is excluding a particular group of people from inclusion in this grace while we wait for all things to be made new.

    • Good questions, but lets back up a couple steps. As Wesleyans, we believe in prevenient grace, a work of the Spirit that is (in a sense) separate from the church and its institutional prescriptions and behaviors. So according to Romans, no one is excluded from access to grace. Pragmatically speaking, this group we speak of was defined as a group based on disparate views of why they should be a group and what constitutes ‘membership’ in that group. So addressing the issue of their exclusion from grace, fellowship or sanctification isn’t going to get to first base without agreement on those assumptions – hence the impasse we find ourselves at.
      Many of us have been practicing inclusion within a ‘traditional’ theology for as long as I can remember (40+ years), and we have continued to do so. What has changed most recently are the heightened demands (some of them coming from outside the faith) to be inclusive in new ways, redefining traditional norms to fit this small group of people. There are other ways to get there, as we’ve already demonstrated, but those who control the discussion wield the most power (culturally). Let’s not fall for some of the simplistic, false dichotomies being thrown around. I choose to demonstrate grace by stepping outside the boundaries of the conversation and living it.

  3. The article is not responsive to the current dispute in the United Methodist Church. Though, Augustine came very close to saying so, we do not teach that ALL expressions of opposite gender intimacy are sin. It’s beyond question that SOME expression of opposite gender intimacy are exploitative, abusive or unhealthy. I don’t know of any Christian LGBT person who would not agree that SOME expressions of same gender intimacy are exploitative, abusive or unhealthy. On what basis, though, would you argue that ALL expressions of same gender intimacy are sin, when you don’t make that argument for ALL expressions of opposite gender intimacy?

    • In my response I was trying to make the point that our inability to agree on particulars is precisely why this issue has no simple resolution. I have gay friends that believe they should be celibate because that best aligns with their beliefs. Other gays I know want nothing to do with a church that redefines marriage, and others won’t attend unless the church does redefine marriage. In the meantime, our church welcomes and loves all and we’re working it out as best we can. I’m open to suggestions on how we tackle it at the denominational level.

        • In my understanding, Jon, the point of the piece was that the argument that same-sex attraction is good because it is “inborn” assumes that we are born “good.” That is the Pelagian idea. The Augustinian (and orthodox) understanding is that we are born corrupted by sin. Therefore, every desire (even ones that appear to be “natural”) needs to be evaluated against God’s revealed will. Scripture is obviously against expressions of intimacy that are “exploitative, abusive or unhealthy.” However, Scripture is also against all expressions of same-sex intimacy. That categorically rules same-sex intimacy (but not necessarily the desire for such) as sin.

          The current dispute is whether same-sex intimacy is sin. One argument for saying that it is not sin, is that same-sex desires are “inborn.” Chris is saying that that argument is not valid because it relies on heretical assumptions, namely, that we are born good, so that whatever is “inborn” in us must be good and acceptable to God.

          • I would argue that the relevant Scriptures are against expressions of intimacy that are exploitative, abusive or unhealthy, whether for same gender or opposite gender persons. The assumption that those relevant Scriptures address ALL expressions of same gender intimacy is eisegesis.

          • I understand, but that is a different topic from the one Chris addressed.

            Many NT and OT scholars and 2,000 years of church teaching would support the blanket prohibition of all expressions of same-gender intimacy. In most of the contexts of the relevant passages, there is no hint of idolatry or exploitation being mentioned in the text. I think it is eisegesis to read that into those texts. But this is a disagreement that can be settled by objective research and scholarship.

            FWIW, even many pro-gay biblical scholars state that the Bible’s teaching about same-sex intimacy is uniformly negative and not limited to only exploitative, abusive, or unhealthy (or idolatrous) relationships.

    • Although this is a different problem from the issue of original sin, with which this article primarily engages, I appreciate what you are saying here about the possibility of same-gender intimacy. The Scripture does not condemn all expressions of same-gender intimacy. For instance, a father holding his son’s hand or kissing him on the cheek, brothers walking arm-in-arm, or two female friends walking with arms around each other’s shoulders. All these could be appropriate expressions of same-gender intimacy. Through the ages, the Church has approved of fraternal organizations like monasteries or convents, where perhaps some people prefer fellowship and intimacy with persons of their same-gender, for whatever reasons, and allow them to be largely sequestered from members of the opposite gender. The gift of singleness and celibacy are too under-valued in our culture, as is the concept of the eunuch, including the eunuch for the Kingdom of God.

      However, this is not the same thing as supposing the Scripture supports same-gender sexual intimacy. There is no passage in either the Old or New Testaments that has even an inkling of support for such intimacy. It is only ever treated as boundary violation. A helpful way to think about this is in terms of the “one-flesh” gift of male-to-female that Jesus describes as the gift of marriage, in the divine design for male-female pairing:
      “Haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6 NIV)
      So God has given permission only to husband and wife to enter into each other’s bodies, because they only are given by God to each other (“what God has joined together”) to be one flesh. The divine design is that this one flesh union is a source of new life.

  4. This is a great perspective. Our culture truly operates under the Pelagian Worldview. Many in the church operate this way also. The Gospel Narrative is at odds with our culture’s narrative. Human sexuality is just one way we see this. Idolatrous consumerism is another way we see our culture’s ethos set against the Gospel Narrative. As a preacher, I feel it is my responsibility to highlight the dichotomy between the Gospel Narrative and our Culture’s narrative, to call people to fall out of love with the world’s value system and fall in love with the world’s people and to stop being conformed to society and be transformed by the Gospel.

  5. The church remains a sanctuary of redemption and healing only by guarding divine revelation from error. Our mission and message are sabotaged whenever we allow the the Gospel to be theologically contaminated by heretical teaching. God sends His Word to heal and deliver (Psa 107:20), because our “bentness” (C. S. Lewis) from the Fall touches the whole human person, “spirit, soul, and body” (1 Thes 5:23). Prevenient grace is remedial, curtailing our self-destructiveness. But the “grace and truth” that brings full deliverance resides uniquely in our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Regardless of the character or degree of our personal “bentness,” He asks each one of us, “Wilt thou be made whole?” His question implies both our need and His ability to heal us.

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