February 4, 2013

Reponse to Jesse Morrel's video: Beyond Augustine

Jesse Morrel has recently released a video where he argues that Calvinism is rooted in ancient gnostic theology. While many of you know that I am against Calvinism, I don't completely agree with Morrel's assessment of the history and I want to go through it and explain why. First of all, here is the video:

So, as an Arminian, what do I think of this presentation?

Where Morrel Gets It Right

First of all I have to laud Morrel with his appeal to the Early Church. He is also absolutely correct that the Ante-Nicene fathers, or even the early Nicene fathers had no trace of determinism within their theology. Morrel takes great pains to make this point, and I completely agree with him up through mark 15:45.

The appeal to the early church fathers is more than a simple appeal to tradition. Many of these men personally knew the apostles, or personally knew men who personally new the apostles. Therefore, they are more likely to know what the apostles thoughts on certain matters were, and what the apostles meant when they wrote the NT, then later theologians. It is this proximity to the Biblical authors that give them such authority, and this authority is warranted.

He is also completely right that this is quite embarrassing for Calvinists. The only places where the early church really addresses the topic of free will and determinism, before Augustine, was in their anti-gnostic writings. It is also very clear that they held to LFW. Now, they did not fully build up a free will theology, discussing the extent or nature of corruption, since their writings were mostly polemical, but they clearly took a side. This is an embarrassment to Calvinists, as well it should be.

Secondly, I have to also laud his appeal to Scripture (mark 27:42). His point that the Bible clearly expects people to be able to choose between walking the right path and straying from the path is perfect. I think more Biblical points could be made in rejection of Calvinism (and in my case the proof of Arminianism), however not if you want to focus on free will in particular, which Arminianism doesn't really do. His introduction to Scripture though shows that he is not merely considered with defending the existance of free will, but rejecting the notion that human being lost their capacity to do good on their own. It is actually questionable whether Augustine completely abandonned the notion of free will, and while the Scriptures that Morrel appeals to in order to demonstrate that we are free moral agents are spot on, his introduction to them ignores the nuances of both Augustine's thought, as well as others who belief in an inherited sin nature.

Being Chummy With Pelagius

So, I'm watching the video and just enjoying quote after quote of the early church fathers supporting free will, and then we get to mark 15:45, where he suddenly quote Pelagius between Ireneaus and Origen. I almost choked on my popcorn. I said to myself, "Did he just quote Pelagius as if he were recognized as an representative of the early church?", to which myself responded, "Yup!" I was aghast.

Then he took a step back. At 19:02, after a quote from the unfortunately named Dr. Wiggers, he explains that believing in free will is not the same thing as being a Pelagian (which he seems to say in rejection of Dr. Wiggers's comment). To this I say, "Hoorah!", but it seems to be somewhat half-hearted.

Throughout the rest of the video, it is quite clear that Morrel's intention is to exonerate Pelagius, which he mostly does by discrediting Augustine. Indeed, the little story he tells in the beginning, or a condemned man later exonerated, seems to demonstrate this. He even continues to quote Pelagius and Julian of Eclanum (a follower of Pelagius) as reputable sources. So why distance himself on one hand, yet embrace him with the other?

I would suspect that it is because Morrel identifies himself as Semipelagian. I would argue that this is confirmed by his dissing of Arminianism at the end of the video. Though he may not like the title (maybe calling himself a biblicist or some other meaningless term), it is clear that he sees Pelagius at least as someone "on the right track". However, is he right? Is hist historical analysis complete?

I would say that there are two major historical facts which are conspicuously missing from Morrel's presentation: The Council of Orange and Augustine's Platonism.

The Synod of Orange

So, from mark 34:12 to mark 35:15, Morrel argues that the doctrines of Augustine were accepted by those with ecclesiastical power, and anyone who believed in free will was persecuted, like in the times of the Spanish Inquisition. Thus, Augustinianism spread throughout the church. Indeed, a most unexpected argument, but was this really the case?

Answer, no. In 431 AD (that's right! AD, not CE!), an ecumenical council was held at Ephesus. The council did proclaim Pelagius a heretic, and anathematized his teachings. However, it also distanced itself from Augustine itself. One of the problems with the appeal to the Augustine/Pelagius debate that generally happens is that it oftens results in a false dichotomy, that the church had to accept either Augustine or Pelagius. However, the truth is that it did neither. Certainly Augustine was favored, but the council renounced the extremes that it felt Augustine could lead to, such as double predestination, or antinominalism. It also did not declare Augustine to be correct. It just didn't condemn him like it did Pelagius. This is an incredibly important distinction which is often ignored.

According to The Story of Christianity by Justo L. Gonzalez,
Augustine's views, however, did not gain wide acceptance. He was accused of being an innovator... Through a process that took almost a century, Augustine was reinterpreted, so that theologians came to call themselves "Augustinian" while rejecting his views on irresistible grace and predestination. In 529, the Synod of Orange upheld Augustine's doctrine of the primacy of grace in the process of salvation, but left aside the more radical consequences of that doctrine.[Vol 1, (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 2004)pp. 215]
These new "Augustinians" are sometimes referred to as Semiaugustinians. Likewise, in the midst of this 100 year process, there was also a group which arose defending a modified view of Pelagius, who came to be called Semipelagians (who were also condemned at the Synod of Orange).

So this claim that Augustinianism became this overpowering force is simply not true. It is possible that there was some Spanish Inquisitioning going on after Ephesus, however I suspect that this manifested as pockets of suppression, rather than something widespread throughout the church. If everyone who believed in free will was defrocked, then how come Semiaugustinianism, a free will position, eventually won out?

And what of Semiaugustinianism? What became of that teaching? Well, after the reformation it began to be propagated by Philip Melchathon in Lutheran circles, and James Arminius in Reformed circles. So it is the Arminians who really can claim the victory when referring back to the Augustinian/Pelagian debate, not Calvinists.

Pelaguis: Heretic

Now what exactly did Pelagius teach? It is important to remember that Pelagius was not condemned because he believed in free will. It is also important to note that he did not theorize free will for theodical reasons (like Arminians and Semiaugustinians). Instead, his reasons were ethical.

Pelagius believed in what is often referred to today as legalism: the belief that one must live righteously in order to receive eternal life. He rejected the idea that a person who lived a mostly sinful life could graciously be forgiven of all those crimes. This was considered unjust, and the acceptance of this would lead to licentiousness. Indeed, he lived an extremely ascetic and recluse lifestyle, and insisted that others should do likewise. Instead of teaching freedom, he taught subjugation.

Alistar McGrath summarizes:
[According to Pelagius] God has made humanity, and knows precisely what it is capable of doing. Hence all the commands given to us are capable of being obeyed, and are meant to be obeyed. It is no excuse to argue that human frailty prevents these commands from being fulfilled. God has made human nature, and only demands of it what it can endure. Pelagius thus makes the uncompromising assertion that since perfection is possible for humanity, it is obligatory. [Historical Theology, (Oxford, UK: Blackwell publishing, 1998)pp 81]
It was this harshness that Augustine was most earnest in defeating, and rightfully so. Salvation is of faith, and this is a gift! Pelagius missed this, and was so busy beating the air that he neglected the joy that the Lord promised. Whether Pelagius believed in full blown Pelagianism or actually Semipelagianism (it is hard to tell due to the fragmented nature of what we have of his writings) is irrelevant. Both deny the necessity of inital grace (Pelagianism denied the need for grace at all). Both demand the living of a pure life. Both insist on a bleak and unctuous existence. Both were rightly considered as heresy.


The other major problem with the video is the supposed obviousness of Manicheanism being the origin of Augustine's views. He says this most explicitly starting at mark 32, but it is his principle argument throughout the video. However, is it true?

Well, maybe. It being obvious certainly isn't. This is actually a highly disputed point. It is widely recognized that these doctrines started with Augustine. To the historically knowledgeable, this is indisputable. However, there are two possible origins: his history with the Manicheans or his continued Platonism (or maybe the Bible, but I personally strongly doubt this one). I therefore don't really have a problem with the fact that he argues for one of these two opinions, but he does so without recognition that not everyone agrees with him, and then treats it as if it is obvious. Well, of course it's obvious if you only mention the evidence that supports your opinion.

Now, I happen to be of the opposite opinion. I believe that Augustine's thoughts come more from Plato. It is important to note that there is no peculiar doctrine of the Manicheans that Augustine teaches. Determinism and even criticism of the human condition were common in the ancient world, and were something that gnostics had in common with Plato. In fact the list of Manichean doctrines that Augustine continues to reject is significant: dual deterministic deities, the inherent evil of the cosmos, events determined by causal outflow of spiritual events (as opposed to the Augustine's view of God's intentional planning), the incorporeal resurrection of Jesus, and the list goes on and on. Morrel even admits to this (mark 35:16), but despite the fact that the differences outweight the similarities, he chooses to emphasize the latter. Calling Augustine "Semi-Gnostic" is like calling a lime a "semi-cucumber" because they are both green and have seeds. However his use of the prefix 'semi-' is consistent to how Calvinists use it, so I'll give him that. It wasn't a simple matter, as Morrel puts it, that he agreed with Mani in principle, but disagreed with the explanation. There was a fundamental difference in his cosmological and epistemological understanding which made Augustine at his core a Christian.

Personally, I think it is more likely that Augustine was merely applying certain Platonic philosophies (only some of which were deterministic). This can easily account for Augustine's determinism and his view of man. It is also much more forgivable; Christian teachers had been openly appealing to Plato since Origen. It is even doubtful that his deterministic views were as extreme as Luther or Calvin. In many instances he still seems to hold on to some kind of notion of free will.

Now, there are enough scholars who disagree with me that I am not going to insist on my interpretation, especially since I am no expert on Augustine. Indeed, I was recently pointed to this dissertation which argues that Manicheanism influenced Augustine apologetically, which I think is a more tenable argument than Morrel's argument. However, there are enough who do agree with me that I am not embarrassed by such an opinion, and I do consider the degree in which he insists on his view inappropriate.


While Morrel makes some good points, his overall argument is overstated, and his defense of Pelagius misguided. Like many others, he treats the Pelagius/Augustine debate as a false dichotomy, where one must side with one or the other. However, history didn't do that, and theology doesn't demand it. One does not have to defend Pelagius and his defective views on man's nature and salvation in order to believe that God has ordained freedom to the human will. While directorially the video is very well done, the content needs considerable work.


bethyada said...

Interesting, I am not keen to spend an hour watching that, but enjoyed your analysis.

I agree that legalism should be condemned, and it is interesting that this is what Pelagius was condemned for. One can't condemn Pelagius' soteriology as heretical (it may be) if this was not the heresy ho was condemned for. Pelagius thought many true things (as all people do), these are not automatically errant because he was found heretical in one area. It probably just makes him unreliable.

Pelagianism aside, I do not think Semi-Pelagianism should be considered heretical, I am happy for it to sit within the bounds of orthodoxy (even if incorrect). I have less concern that someone is Semi-Pelagian than I have if he is Calvinist.

Jc_Freak: said...

Well, Pelagius wasn't just condemned for legalism. He also denied the need for grace. It is this second factor only that Semipelagianism differed from him (supposedly. Like I said, it is possible his views were exaggerated).

If you are thinking of Finney and his followers, I would agree with you that I would not consider them heretical. I am not sure if it is fair to call them Semipelagian, though much of the holiness movement was. But I would see them as equal to Calvinists in my estimation.

Steven R Eubanks said...

I wonder why it is so hard to tell ALL the story in such post. Please understand they were both wrong and right, I look back on some of MY writings and think HOW DID YOU THINK THAT! YES, the Catholic Church called everyone that disagreed with them Heretics. Especially if it included a challenge to their doctrine or Augustine.
This is an excerpt from the footnotes of Jesse Morrell’s upcoming book,
Just because Pelagius taught free will does not mean that everyone who believes in free will is a Pelagian. The same logic would make everyone who believes in the Trinity a Pelagian, because Pelagius taught that too. But the doctrine of free will was the universal doctrine of the Christian church, long before Pelagius even existed. On the doctrine of free will, Pelagius certainly was orthodox as he agreed with all of the Early Church Fathers before Augustine on that point.
There were three councils that condemned Pelagianism; the Council of Ephesus in the year 431; the Council of Carthage in the year 418; and the Council of Orange in the year 529. This is because Pelagius was not invited nor present to defend himself but his opponents and adversaries stated his doctrine for him. When Pelagius was able to defend himself, the Council of Diospolis in 415 declared Pelagius orthodox. And Pope Zosimus also declared Pelagius’ orthodoxy in 417. He was always acquitted when present to clarify and defend his views. If these are our authorities to determine orthodoxy, do we accept the ones in favor of Pelagius or the ones against him?
In addition, the Council of Orange and the Council of Carthage were not ecumenical councils. They did not consist of Bishops from the entire church, which mean that the rulings of the Councils were not universally affirmed by the Eastern and Western churches.
If heresy is heresy because a council says so, or because of majority vote, Calvinism must be more heretical than Pelagianism was because there were more councils that condemned Calvinism than condemned Pelagianism. The Calvinist doctrines of predestination, limited atonement, and irresistible grace were condemned throughout history. Lucidus was condemned by the Council of Oral in 473, Council of Arles in 475, and Council of Orange in 529. And Gottschalk (Gotteschalcus) was condemned by the Council at Mentz in 848 and the Council of Chiersey (Quiercy) in 849. And what do Calvinists think of the Council of Constance in 1414 for John Huss, or the Council of Worms in 1521 for Martin Luther, or the Council of Trent in 1561 for the Protestants? Are these Councils not the voice of Orthodoxy as Ephesus and Carthage supposedly were?
In fact, the Council of Orange that condemned Pelagianism also condemned the doctrines of Calvinism. If the council is authoritative in the former case, it must be equally authoritative in the latter as well. But if it was mistaken in the latter case, maybe it was mistaken in the former as well.
But to determine if Pelagius really was a heretic, we should go to his actual words to see what he taught. It is a common error for Calvinists to quote from Pelagius’ opponents and accusers to express what Pelagius taught, rather than to quote from Pelagius himself. Certainly, Calvinists would not like it if people quoted from the opponents of Reformed Theology to state what Calvinism teaches. We should give Pelagius the same honesty and fairness that we would want our doctrine to be treated with.

Anonymous said...

1. Pelagius himself was never condemned. He was falsely accused of heresy by Augustine but always acquitted when he was present to defend himself. "Pelagianism" or at least Augustine's accusations against it, were condemned as heretical after Pelagius was already out of the picture.

Pelagius himself was really more of a semi-Pelagian because, despite the false accusations, he believed in both the necessity of grace and man's free will working together. Anyone who reads Pelagius' own words will see that.

Also, Pelagius did not teach justification by works. Just read his commentary on the Romans.

I like these quotes from Wesley:

“I verily believe, the real heresy of Pelagius was neither more nor less than this: The holding that Christians may, by the grace of God, (not without it; that I take to be a mere slander,) ‘go on to perfection;’ or, in other words, ‘fulfill the law of Christ.'” John Wesley

“Who was Pelagius? By all I can pick up from ancient authors, I guess he was both a wise and a holy man.” John Wesley

“Augustine himself. (A wonderful saint! As full of pride, passion, bitterness, censoriousness, and as foul-mouthed to all that contradicted him… When Augustine’s passions were heated, his word is not worth a rush. And here is the secret: St. Augustine was angry at Pelagius: Hence he slandered and abused him, (as his manner was,) without either fear or shame. And St. Augustine was then in the Christian world, what Aristotle was afterwards: There needed no other proof of any assertion, than Ipse dixit: “St. Augustine said it.” John Wesley