Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Pelagianism and the CoC - Bootstrap Theology

An interesting characteristic of the Church of Christ is that they definitely know what they don't believe and love to point out where other denominations have gone wrong, in their opinion, but ask them what exactly they believe, and it's not always so clear.

While discussing Church history with some CoC members recently, the topic of Pelagianism arose and I decided to check it out. I'm still in the process of learning about all the various heresies, so it was interesting to learn that the CoC is very Pelagian in their beliefs!

Check this out, from Catholic Answers:

Much of its appeal lay in Pelagius's zeal: "[H]e set to work preaching against the lukewarm morality that had entered so many Christian circles. Soon the stricter Christians were flocking to his sermons."..(Here we see a foreshadowing of the appeal of present-day Fundamentalism, which may be weak theologically, but is strong morally--and therefore attractive.)
"Pelagianism was based on a very respectable moral rigorism, but its anxiety to champion man's free will and to urge him on to sanctity resulted in its denying original sin and the necessity of divine grace: For the Pelagian, access to the Kingdom is made possible by baptism, and since perfect sanctity is an obligation and a possibility for everyone, it rests with each individual Christian to merit eternal life by his conduct, modeled on the precepts and example of Christ."

Bingo! No wonder I grew up with a kind of vague idea of what grace was and why we needed it, or if we did at all. Underneath it all we believed we could simply avoid sin and be "good enough" all on our own. It sounds easy enough in theory...we have free will, we can choose right or wrong, all we have to do is choose right. Who needs grace to do that, right?

Since Adam's sin was personal, argued Pelagius, everyone is born sinless, there being no such thing as original sin. (In modern parlance, we are all immaculately conceived.) This makes infant baptism useless; a child, being incapable of sin, needs no washing away of sin, and an infant who dies goes immediately to heaven. Baptism should be reserved for adults.

This is certainly right on track with CoC beliefs!

Then why, one might ask, is sin so prevalent? Pelagius speculated that, from childhood, we contract the habit of sinning and this habit become second nature. The newborn child is as pure as Adam and Eve at their creation, but, as he advances in age, the child learns to sin from those around him. Specifically, he learns from the bad examples of his elders, and then he becomes a bad example himself. If he were isolated from the "contagion," he could grow into a sinless adult, but no one grows up in complete isolation. Pelagius's problem, wrote a historian of dogmas, is that "[h]e saw only guilty individuals, not a whole sinful human race."

Again, since the CoC is often kind of vague on their beliefs, I can't say with certainty, but I think they would agree with the above. (I especially think the part in bold is relevant, more on that later.) However, I don't think they would go quite this far:

Since the human race does not labor under original sin or any other consequences of the Fall (since the Fall affected only Adam and Eve), there was no need for a redemption as such--there was nothing to be redeemed from. Why did Christ come then? To give us an example, to be a role model. Adam was the bad role model, Christ the good.

I know the CoC sees Christ as their savior, and would say they could not be saved without Christ...although, I'm not sure if they've thought through their theology here, because if they think they can be good enough on their own (even theoretically) I'm not sure why Christ's sacrifice would be necessary.

Now, hold onto your hats, look at this next part:

"As spiritual director, [Pelagius] became tired of hearing men excuse themselves for sin and tepidity on the plea of human frailty. To such alibis he gradually developed the retort that these were but excuses for indolence [and that] every man is quite capable of perfection by his own efforts provided that he only apply them to action."

How often do we hear of the pressure CoC members feel to be perfect? And of the judgemental attitudes and condemnation when someone fails to live up to perfection? THIS IS WHY!!! Because they don't believe grace is really all that necessary, they believe you really can do it all on your own if you just try hard enough. Remember that "guilty individual" thing mentioned previously? When people are having a hard time, there is a sternness of attitude that basically implies that it shouldn't be all that hard...just do it! Just choose not to sin! Why can't you do that? You have free will, it's simple enough, just don't sin! And then we sat around wondering why we were so weak that we couldn't make a simple choice not to sin. I mean, they made it sound like picking out which color socks to wear...just pick them! What's so hard about that?

Aaahhh...the pickles we get ourselves into when we miss crucial aspects of human nature, and in this case especially our *fallen* human nature. We set ourselves up for failure time and time again because we rejected, or simply didn't realize the necessity of grace. We cannot do good without it! It seems pretty clear from scripture that this is, indeed, the case:

Phil. 2:13 - For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work.

John 15:5 - I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.

Another quote on Pelagianism from the Catholic Encyclopedia made an interesting assertion:

[Pelagianism] laid down the proud assertion that the sovereign will may ultimately raise itself to complete holiness and impeccability (impeccantia, anamartesia) through the persevering observance of all the precepts, even the most difficult, and through the infallible triumph over every temptation, even the most vehement. This was an unmistakable reproduction of the ancient Stoic ideal of virtue. For the self-confident Pelagian, the petition of the Lord's Prayer, "Lead us not into temptation", served, properly speaking, no purpose: it was at most a proof of his humility, not a profession of the truth. (emphasis mine)

The proud assertion...self-confidence...pride...what was that post I had a while back on arrogance? It all makes sense when one looks at the Pelagian beliefs, the boostrap theology. If we are all depending upon ourselves to be "good enough," we'll end up being self-centered instead of Christ centered. And that's why it's so important to recognize the necessity of God's grace.

It was interesting to see the similarities between Pelagianism and the CoC, there is truly nothing new under the sun!


TheGodFearinFiddler said...

I am learning about this stuff myself and I was interested to see that most of these heresies have resurfaced in some form or another.

Thanks for the education on pelagianism.

Prairie Princess said...

As a fellow-ex-coc-er I could not agree more with your post. It has only been since punting that Pelagianism that I have had any hope of heaven at all. Moving the question so it did not depend on me, but on God, who promises and cannot lie, filled me with wild hope.

I hope you will follow up with a post on why the Roman Catholic church is NOT Pelagian or semi-Pelagian. Either here or on the ex-coc board is fine for me.

Stephanie said...

Sure, why not! I'll probably make a post here as a follow up =)

Prairie Princess said...

Oh, good! I'm looking forward to it.

toothfairystevens said...

I've been doing a lot of research and reading up on the church, and I'm glad you posted this. It truly helps to understand why other churches believe what they do.

Stephanie said...

Glad to be of service! :-)

Cheryl said...

Interestingly enough, today's lesson was on grace, salvation, and "can you live a 'good enough' Christian life?" (the answer was "no").

It was very pro-loving God, anti-God-is-ready-to-strike-you-down-right-after-any-sin-before-you-can-confess-it-to-Him.
He basically went through some verses usually (mis)used to state that specific confession of each and every sin is necessary, and that obtaining salvation is hard, and disproved it by looking at context and other passages that help clarify the intent of the scripture.

The conclusion was that no, it is not at all possible to obtain *on our own*, but that through the grace of God, given freely, willingly, and abundantly, we should feel secure in our salvation, as long as we are striving to follow Christ (if we walk in the light, as He is in the light...).

It is a great reassurance to know where the folks in our congregation stand, though during the course of the lesson, the speaker did say that he had heard some of the mis-uses of these passages even from speakers' studies, from evangelists.

Anyhow. He did definitely make the point that we can't do it on our own, but with the grace of God, we receive and can be assured of our salvation. :)

P.S.: I am continually amazed and reassured by the posts here and in the NFP boards on Catholic doctrine. I'm surprised sometimes why some folks don't see how Catholicism does follow/teach some of the very things that we feel most strongly about (or maybe it's just too hard sometimes to get around how different Catholicism "looks" to see the similarities there).

Cheryl said...

(Hm. The long hyphenated expression ended in "before you can confess it")

Stephanie said...

I'm glad to hear that, Cheryl! I think there's often such a tug of war between what the preacher says, what people actually believe, how that pans out in their life, and then of course depending on the differing congregations, what they say, etc. But I'm always happy to hear of preachers who stress the importance of grace, I know I didn't really hear much about it growing up!

BH said...

The Church of Christ denomination is full of error and false doctrine. The one who believes will do well to stay away from it.

jdavidb said...

Hmm, Otis Gatewood's famous You Can Do Personal Work taught me that you don't have the strength to stop sinning outside of Christ, but that this only comes once a person is in Him. So I'm not sure the Church of Christ would universally agree with the idea that a person can "just not sin."

I, too, can see the similarities, but a lot of similarities seem to be not to actual doctrine of the Church of Christ, but misimpressions I've heard over the years. :)

I looked up "semi-Pelagianism," and at first glance (got to look again later when I have more time), it appears to have a specific theological meaning and refer to a specific collection of Pelagian doctrines, rather than just referring to any set of teachings that are "sort of Pelagian." So even given similarities I'm not sure it's technically correct to apply it. But I may have misread.

ZAROVE said...

With due regard...

THe post above has numerous mistakes in it. FOr starters, it bnever ven tries to really understand what the Church of Christ position is, and why they hodl it.But thats OK, since, accordign to the author, Church of Christ beleifs are Vauge and unstructured, and the Churhc of CHrist has no real set beleifs. This, of ocurse, is simply not true. For all the railing against the Church of HCirst for arrogance, pride, and disdane, the post above shows those same traits, as well as a stark ignorance. I say htis in due humility.

For starters, rather or not most Church of CHrist members udnerstand the theology is not ultimatley relevant to the detaisl of the theology.Most Cahtolics I know don't know Cahtolic theology, a fact I'm sure, if honest, everyoen here woudl agree to. This doesn't invalidate Catholisism.

Likewise, many do, in fact, fully understand Church of Christ theology. The theological posiiton cannot be sumerily dismissed, either, simply based on a presumed ignorance.

On another note, the CHurch of CHrist Denomenaitoin isn't, in fact, a Denomenaiton. IF you grw up Churhc of CHirst, as you stated, Stephanie, you'd know this.Of coruse you'd also know that callign it a Denomenaiton is an insult, so by nature, you'd do so for psite, Im afraid.Again, I mean no insult, but it does seem spiteful.

The Churches of Christ are independant, relaly, of any CHurch, and so, are nto seen as a branch of any overall movement.This fact is also what makes the Catholic CHurhc a non-denomenation. And the Orthodox.

A denomenaiton is a part of a greater whole.THus, the MEthodist CHruch is a Denomenaiton as it sees itsself as one CHurhc structure in a greater overall Church, namely Protestant.The CHurhces of CHrist do not have such a relationship or understandimg.(Nor, in fact, are they protestant. But this will be contested.NEvertheless.)

It's a shame that you feel the need to invalidate the Churches of Christ, and attack them for no real reason. I know I have no sinilar need to aggress agaisnt Cahtolsiism, and may of my firneds hold to the faith fo the Cahtolic Church.WHo am I to judge another mans servant?

Nevertheless, the beelifs in the Churches of CHrist are firm, and the reasosn for them, regardless of rather you agree or not with them, have reaosnign behidn them which you deny exists.

The reason for the lack of Original sin, for instance, rests in Scripture. In breif ( As Im runnign out of psace and htis is a long post) is that the Scripture says that the sins of the Father donto pass on to the son, and that the soul that sins, dies. Liekwise, sin, beign an action, cannot be passed geneticlaly.

Thre is of corus emroe to this, but I havent the space.If I return here, I will elaborate.Or you may contact me at

Noentheless, the attakc on the CoC is unnessisary and also false.

Be contented to study yor Catholisism, with tis rich hisotyr and detialed theology, and, do not mock the past you came from. It remains as it is.It is not charitable to make attacks on the Church of CHrist, for nay reason, nor will it brign you advancement for your osul, or benifit any Cahtolic, nor will it brign anyoen of the Churches of CHrist to the Cahtolic Faith.

Stephanie said...

Hello zarove, thanks for stopping by.

I'd first say, perhaps you were reading a bit into what I wrote? I did not at all write this post with anger or spite, it was simply out of interest for finding an ancient heresy that matched up with the thinking of how I grew up! I found that fascinating! :-)

As for CoC members not knowing theology, what I meant is that they do not, on the whole, have a very thoroughly articulated theology, especially regarding issues that aren't explicit in the bible. (For instance, such basic Christian issues as Christology - the human/divine nature of Christ, teachings on the Trinity, etc.)

And where I grew up, we did focus a lot on what OTHERS were wrong about, but we didn't exactly have a complete and thorough theology explained to us about what we believed. It was mostly a compilation of one-liner bible verses and prooftexts that we clung to to prove the most controversial or different of our beliefs to others who would disagree. So, I was simply talking about my own experience growing up in the CoC, and I have talked to enough other former CoC members to know mine was not an isolated experience.

Of COURSE there are plenty of Catholic out there who don't know what their Church teaches, but the difference is there is most definitely a very thorough theology available to anyone who wants do learn. In the CoC, if I wanted to know anything about theology I was told simply "read the bible, all we need to know is in there." Since the Bible doesn't exactly go into great detail theologically, that pretty much stopped me from thinking beyond it, and I never heard much different from preachers or anyone else, and most of the former CoC members I've talked to have shared similar sentiments, that theology, in general, was lacking, not just that members didn't know it (as you mentioned with Catholics.) So, there's a fundamental difference there I was trying to get at.

Yes, I grew up CoC, and yes, I grew up believing it was not a denomination. Now, I don't necessarily believe that anymore, but nor do I go about calling them a denomination in order to spite them as you suggested. Keep in mind, on this blog I am not "speaking to" CoC members, I am speaking to the general public, who will not understand the whole "we're not a denomination" thing. (I even do this when speaking about Catholicism...I don't consider it a denomination, I consider it "The Church," however when speaking to people in general, being a stickler about not calling it a denomination causes more confusion than not, so to keep things simple I don't worry about it. Certainly you don't think I allow my own Church to be referred to as a denomination out of spite for it, do you? It has nothing to do with spite.) Furthermore, I didn't directly call the CoC a denomination at all.

Now, this was not "an attack" against the CoC, nor was it "for no real reason," nor was it "judging" any individuals. If you haven't noticed, hi, my name is Stephanie, I have a blog about having grown up CoC and converted to Catholicism, and I tend to write a lot about those things! :-D Nice to meet you!'s hardly fair to come to a blog specifically about CoC/Catholic issues and accuse me of apparently, for no "real reason" writing about the very issues this blog is about! These are simply issues that interest me. *Points up to sub-title of blog that explains this is a place for musings about theology, philosophy, etc.*

And I didn't deny that any reasons *exist* behind CoC beliefs! That would be utterly ridiculous, of COURSE they have reasons for what they believe! I have just come to disagree with those reasons. That doesn't mean I doubt CoC members' sincerity. I'm quite baffled by your statement...I'm not sure where I mentioned denying the CoC had reasons for what they believe?

And yes, thanks, I know what the CoC believes about Original Sin.*Hi! My name is Stephanie, I grew up in the CoC :-)* I have come to believe that their belief is incorrect...that doesn't mean I think they don't have any reasons to deny Original Sin, it just means I think their interpretation of scripture is lacking.

There was no attack on or mocking of the CoC here, merely musings about the mentality I grew up with in the CoC and the similarity between it and Pelagianism. (If you'll notice, I even took the time in fairness to my former church to explain that I certainly don't believe they would go so far as to diminish Christ's purpose to being merely a "good role model.") I'm sorry if you misunderstood the intent and took it as an attack, I hope I've cleared that up! :-)

God bless!

Anonymous said...


I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the your comments regarding Pelagianism and the Church of Christ. Not a lot of people take the time to make such theological connections. When it does occur, it is truly enlightening.

As a life long member of the Church of Christ, I am not offended by anything you have written. I appreciate the fair treatment you have given to the Church of Christ's position. I too agree that many in the Church of Christ simply do not have a full understanding of their theological positions, and I am quite certain that most have never heard of Pelagius. Church of Christ members too often lack an appreciate for the history of Christianity. In our desire to recreate the "original church" we have denied nearly 1800 years of theological thought and development. Ironically, we also fail to realise how much we are shaped by that same history we deny and discredit.

I find it interesting that you have converted to Catholicism. Undoubtedly, this must have been a huge step. Strangely enough, I was thinking just this morning that I may be a 'closet Catholic', merely due to the similarities I've noted between Church of Christ believes and Catholic traditions. All of this is terribly interesting to me, in some sad way!

Anyway, all the best in your theological ponderings and spiritual pursuits. Thanks for stimulating my brain on a dreary Tuesday.



Stephanie said...

Thanks for your comments, Luke! If you ever want to chat with some other CoC members turned Catholic, feel free to drop by my forum. :-)

God Bless!