For the Dual Citizens Among Us, on Political Ramifications of the Prevailing Pelagianism
Caveat Lector: Notwithstanding our allegiance to this most anti-monarchial of Republics, some of us have found ourselves simultaneously subjects of a different kingdom, meaning neither Animalia nor our particular ancestral “old country”, but rather that new city under its most absolute of monarchs. The following is addressed to those who recognize and love that new city, who know themselves to be its current and future inhabitants, and whose sole comfort and joy result from belonging to its sovereign.
Although politically active evangelical Christians are apt to fall on either side of the perennial debates over, perhaps, the genuineness of John Adams’ profession of faith or the validity of reports of papal socialism, they are still quite likely to agree on one principle: that the conservative and liberal poles of the theological compass are nearly congruent with those on the political map. Disquieting anomalies exist, to be sure–witness Born-Again Jimmy and The Weeping Bubba1–but those might be explained as fortunately rare ricochets of indiscriminate grace, not unlike Ruth the Moabitess and Naaman the Syrian. In general, the Bible-believing Christian will tend to have a mental image in which the picket line between the saved and unsaved camps lies right atop that separating the political right and left.
Among other benefits, this view allows the contemporary Evangelical to maintain his customary eschewal of theological reflection. American mockery of our Saxon cousins’ penchant for precision may have faded after Wernher2 got the Eagle to land, but our appreciation of studious craftsmanship still applies only to the tangible/practical, never the metaphysical/intellectual. To think differently–for some, to think at all–about the issues involved would turn us into crabbed Puritans instead of the free spirits we were meant to be. Early Christians found it difficult to divide the sheep from the goats; back in those days the tares were mingled right in among the wheat. But yard signs, bumper stickers, t-shirts and FB groups have changed all that; it has never been easier to know at a glance “who is on the Lord’s side”. And the ability to make that distinction is essential in order to carry out our commission to save the one place in the world that God cares most about from utter destruction by His-and-our enemies, since the time has never been better for their own–utter destruction.
The Evangelical movement, in large part, has erred grievously on this front. Its nearly two-century aversion to both systematic theology and church history, its lurching vacillations between pietistic withdrawals from culture and opportunistic attempts to control the same, its externalization of the law and internalization of the gospel, its inflation of human ability and devaluation of divine sovereignty, and its giddy trampling of holiness–without which no one will see the Lord–under the cloven hooves of consumerism and entertainment, have coalesced to render many of its churches nearly indistinguishable from the world and woefully short of the single commodity they have been primarily charged with dispensing.
High among the factors producing this miasma has been the nearly-unchecked resurgence of that most flattering of heresies, Pelagianism3. For those uninstructed in either its ancient or modern manifestations, the inimitable R.C. Sproul’s The Pelagian Captivity of the Church is a good place to start; the inured might brave dragon-slayer Michael Horton’s Pelagianism; notably, both articles are unflinching in their indictment of one Charles Grandison Finney, roundly hailed as the (would-be, since we don’t really have such things) patron saint of American Evangelicals.
While I hope to both see and assist in an overthrow of this Pelagian Captivity, I understand that a theological discussion of such concerns is not under the purview of a site intended for political activism. However, politically active Christians in the Evangelical world would be wise to consider several political trends which have historically trailed Pelagianism; I offer the following as a safeguard against perpetuating self-defeating errors in the political realm.
Contrary to Christian orthodoxy which, in its best moments both before and after the Reformation, presents salvation in terms of a gracious act of God with no reference to either actual or potential merit in its recipients–
… if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, “What have you that you did not receive?” (Canon VI, Council of Orange, 529)
When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, he freeth him from his natural bondage under sin, and by his grace alone enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good… (Chapter IX.4, Savoy Declaration, 1658)
–Pelagianism ties God’s bestowal of salvation to the proper usage of an inherent disposition, namely, the decision of an individual, motivated by a heart not spiritually deadened by the sin of Adam, to make progress in the improvement of his life. Aside from the complete wreckage this scheme makes of the biblical gospel of sovereign grace which alone saves the ungodly, it also produces radically different effects on the social, cultural and political outlook of its adherents in comparison with that of Christians. These opposite effects are an outworking of each system’s view of moral accountability.
The Christian views accountability in light of the moral law of God being binding upon Adam, who had the ability to both fulfill it and turn from it, as well as upon Adam’s posterity, who find themselves neither capable of fulfilling nor desiring to do the same in a spiritually beneficial manner, yet still under all of its covenantal blessings and penalties; the Pelagain maintains that each person, retaining sufficient of Adam’s innocence to desire and fulfill the moral law at least in part, is accountable only to the limit of ability. He therefore does not see humanity as desperately lost, in need of a divine-human Savior who will accomplish all righteousness in his own flesh and impute the same to chosen sinners, but rather as a mix of people inclined to varying levels of good and evil, the former much more naturally able to make the right choice if and when the offer of salvation comes to them.
(Cinco just can’t lay off the doctrinal stuff, can he!) No, just defining terms. I, at any rate, appreciate our specialists–Vladimir, Francis and Vassar come to mind–who instruct us novices before reaching their destinations. One more observation, and then delivery of the promised goods.
A person’s view of himself in relation to God will affect his view of other people. The orthodox Christian, who sees every inclination of the thoughts of the natural man’s heart–his own included–as only evil all the time, is bound to see the rest of humanity that way as well, and will thus speak, when needing to, of the moral law as universally and perfectly and eternally binding, including upon himself, his family, his party, and his nation. When he needs to speak prophetically against particular sins–including those favored by a disapproving audience–he will do so remembering that he is subject to the same judgment as they, and that the law retains among its three purposes that of preparing the way for that gospel which alone justifies.
The Pelagian, however, beginning with his claim of inherent righteousness, finds himself compelled to measure his own manifestation of the same in favorable terms. Unable to do so in truth against that of the spotless Lamb of God, he must either devalue the standards of the moral law itself or make his neighbor’s negative behavior the point of comparison. In either case, the need for an alien imputed righteousness is effectively replaced by a claim of subjectively-defined self-righteousness.
Now to the political ramifications.
First, every good conservative will have noticed by now how deeply liberals–political and theological–have drunk of this heresy. Pelagianism not only gives theological ballast to their exaltation of both the innate goodness and perfectability of man, it also provides every incentive for subjectivizing the moral code. But while the historical ascension of American political liberalism relied on the support of the theologically liberal, in its formative years that did not produce–as it did later–an open repudiation of parts of the Tao4, but rather a full-blown moral improvement campaign. Witness Woodrow Wilson’s “The President’s Message” contained in New Testaments distributed to Great War soldiers by The Pocket Testament League:
… the more you read [the Bible] the more it will become plain to you what things are worth while and what are not, what things make men happy–loyalty, right dealing, speaking the truth, readiness to give everything for what they think their duty, and, most of all, the wish that they may have the approval of the Christ, who gave everything for them–and the things that are guaranteed to make men unhappy–selfishness, cowardice, greed, and everything that is low and mean.
When you have read the Bible you will know that it is the Word of God, because you will have found it the key to your own heart, your own happiness, and your own duty.
(Article from The Ladies Home Journal, December 1917)
Not bad advice, except for its fatal assumption that the Bible’s primary purpose is to encourage people to learn of and do what would make them happy and dutiful citizens while dissuading them from the opposite. But the Pelagian is always drawn to that which will elevate him in his own, and others’, eyes, for that alone will give him confidence that he has attained a workable level of righteousness. Witness also Theodore Roosevelt at the same time making the case for going to church:
1. … a churchless community … is a community on the rapid downgrade
2. Church work and church attendance mean the cultivation of the habit of feeling some responsibility for others and the sense of braced moral strength..
3. There are enough holidays … which can be quite properly devoted to pure holiday making. … On Sunday, go to church.
4. … If he stays away from church he does not spend his time in good works or lofty meditation.
5. … he will hear a sermon by a good man who … is engaged all the week long in … tasks for making hard lives a little easier.
6. He will listen to … some beautiful passages from the Bible.
7. He will probably take part in singing some good hymns.
8. He will meet and nod to, or speak to, good, quiet neighbors. … He will come away feeling a little more charitably toward all the world…
9. … for the sake of showing his faith by his works.
10. … [to avoid missing] many opportunities for helping his neighbors, and therefore, incidentally, for helping himself.
(Article from The Ladies Home Journal, 1917, quoted in the outspokenly irreproachable William J. Bennett’s The Book of Virtues)
Here again, this is great advice … as far as it goes. Which is to say, rather short of things like the universal obligation of corporate worship of God in spirit and truth, the unashamed proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ to sinners–both unconverted and redeemed, the administration of the sacraments, the lively exposition of the whole counsel of God, public prayer, the administration of discipline and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
These examples of Christianity reduced to the mere promotion of moral behavior, however, are no longer the sole property of nascent theological liberalism, being nearly indistinguishable from much of the blather currently published or broadcast in the Evangelical world. And though the older movement had sprung from Enlightenment roots, it did not beget Rev. Wright and Bishop Spong without first endearing itself to the Pelagian through its promise of a humanity made happier and more fulfilled–that is, more pleased with itself–by moral renewal. But by the end of a generation which saw many Evangelicals more concerned with building bomb cellars–in safe neighborhoods–than with compassionately articulating a refutation of nihilistic modernism, it had become apparent that happiness and fulfillment could be obtained quite easily without all the restrictions of the moral code itself, at least for those who would just … Imagine.
In magisterial reformed thought, the political behavior of a people will somehow mirror that people’s religious convictions. While many on the right complain about the corrosive effects of Secular Humanism, or the painful consequences of Islam, those are by no means the only giants prowling the land. Pelagianism–a key element of what Christian Smith describes as “moralistic, therapeutic, deism”–has gone largely unchallenged in many self-proclaimed conservative churches, to the point where Evangelical superstars can now build their empires with a fraction of the trouble it cost Leo X to establish his, merely by uttering sweet promises of having one’s “best life now5“–as long as the right price is paid in order to learn the secret techniques6. But there is no guarantee that the fans of the modern super-apostles, as they inevitably tire of the failed promises, will not be drawn to more openly secular measures to secure their happiness now. They may not end up immediately in the UCC–that drink will be sour to them for some time, thanks in part to fundamentalist anti-intellectualism (a small favor from an otherwise crippling bent)–but they will find it quite easy to turn to other benevolent agents. If the God I can’t see, who has bound himself to give me all I want when I want it, doesn’t deliver on his promises, I will find it quite easy to turn, as did Aaron and the Israelites during Moses’ elevated hiatus, to the gods I can see. And among that pantheon of local and visible deities, which differ from their ancient predecessors more in name than essence, is Big Daddy Dole, famous for his willingness to bless whoever crosses his threshhold so long as the granaries and vats remain filled by his slaves. (self: insert Pogo quote)
But unchecked Pelagianism can spawn havoc beyond a people happy to live at the troth. By sanctioning–rather than slaying–their sense of inherent righteousness, it produces disciples whose very self-validation depends on finding equal and opposite enemies, in relation to whom alone their own value can be measured. Although Screwtape describes them in religious terms, this perversion spills rapidly into the political realm:
You know how this wine is blended? Different types of Pharisee have been harvested, trodden, and fermented together to produce its subtle flavour. Types that were most antagonistic to one another on Earth. Some were all rules and relics and rosaries; others were all drab clothes, long faces, and petty traditional abstinences from wine or cards or the theatre. Both had in common their self-righteousness and an almost infinite distance between their actual outlook and anything the Enemy really is or commands. The wickedness of other religions was the really live doctrine in the religion of each; slander was its gospel and denigration its litany. How they hated each other up where the sun shone!
(C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Proposes a Toast)
Political demonization becomes pragmatically attractive whenever one side hopes to galvanize the middle into rejection of the other side in sufficient force to ensure an allied majority. The efficacy of the approach diminishes as the middle grows in relation to the sides–the demons have to pose enough of a threat to bother with, after all–but it rarely fails to convince its practitioners that attempts to persuade the other side are futile. The expedient of demonization, however, is forbidden to the biblical Christian; discussion, debate, correction, instruction, proclamation of the truth, deconstruction of presuppositions, denial of premises, open rebuke, calls for repentance, sometimes even silence–but demonization, never, because the neighbor possesses an immortal soul no less accessible to irresistible, salvific grace than one’s own.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:14-19, ESV)
The Pelagian will easily demonize in order to elevate his own perceived righteousness; the Christian, knowing that he was at heart as much an enemy of God as his fiercest opponents, will necessarily view them with more mercy, embodying that mercy in his interactions with them and his speech about them. One could reasonably expect the tenor of this site, for example, to display a high degree of honorable dealing with opponents–both without and within the camp–given the large number of contributors who make continual reference to their faith, but I at least do not see widespread evidence of that motivation, and find it sadly ironic that a group of people so wholeheartedly devoted to influential political activism should be so marked by the tone of those who have, in practice, abandoned all confidence in the persuasive arts.
The tendency of self-righteousness to eviscerate reasoned influence is not limited to the high-decibel, but narrow, band of the blogosphere, however. Political conservatism, for all its victories over recent decades, has been significantly hampered by the voluntary abandonment, by too many conservative Christians, of several fields of engagement. A generation preferring entertainment to exegesis is not likely to produce notably influential teachers, scientists and statesmen–or craftsmen, shopkeepers and streetsweepers either, for that matter. But the abandoment has not been merely vocational, it has redefined–some might say obliterated–Christian life in the family and church as well. Small numbers are all the rage for the former, large for the latter, no matter the cost for the comparative comforts. Pelagian self-esteem might motivate a person sufficiently to rail at secular humanists and a godless media–which he continues to purchase–but it provides remarkably little armament against the very real temptations common to our different phases of life, a fact not lost on the Hefners, Mahers and Winfreys, all raised in families which placed an apparently disconnectedly legalist premium on moral behavior. And the retreat has clearly been geographical as well. There has certainly not been a concerted influx by conservative Christians into those places which always cause the most anxiety after the polls close; rather, it has become no secret that “the nice people” really don’t go there anymore, and that the best thing for dark blue areas would be their obliteration from the face of the earth7.
So given the site’s newly focused emphasis on activism, how will this crash course on Pelagianism’s political fallout help us win in 2012? It won’t. Nor in the cycles closely following. And it may not result in a single seat changing sides over most of our lifetimes. But hopefully it will remind us of our very real responsibility to defend the faith once for all delivered to the saints. If in so doing, motivated by a commission greater than even RedState’s, we find ourselves actually recovering the high ground of persuasion in sight of those we had earlier reckoned implacable foes, who can know where that might lead? At the very least, more light and salt will be an improvement over less.
1 “This past January in the wake of the inaugural festivities President Clinton gathered a group of Southern Baptists ministers to pray with him in Little Rock. They assured the evangelical community and the secular media as well that President Clinton was a sound, solid, Bible believing evangelical. Why? How did they know that? They said because he even cried during the singing of some of the hymns.” (Michael Horton, Beyond Culture Wars, Modern Reformation, May/June 1993)
2 For this purposes of this article, references to Pelagianism are intended to broadly include semi-Pelagianism as well.
3 According to Tom Lehrer, “a man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience”.
4 Per C.S. Lewis’ usage in The Abolition of Man, that is, the universally common elements, post-Fall, of the moral law.
5 “At the heart of Osteen’s message is that achieving a successful, prosperous life of fulfillment can only occur when we … by using our God-given … to achieve our goals.” (Larry Trivieri, Jr., Amazon.com Review of Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now)
6 That the Prosperity “Gospel”‘s esoteric techniques also revive essential aspects of Gnosticism would be easy, but for this article unnecessary, to establish.
7 Not an original idea, that; James and John had similar hopes for a certain Samaritan village, “but he turned and rebuked them.”