Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Are You Semi-Pelagian?

A shocking question, I know. It has the force to harrow one to the bones just considering it!

But seriously, it is an important question. I came to thinking about it last evening at the vigil for Virginia Tech, when we sang "Amazing Grace." It's a beautiful song, really, in terms of the melody and such, and I must admit I have been known to sing it on my way home from school on occasion. The words are pretty nice, too - the message that is intended is fantastic.

But it's semi-Pelagian, or at least could be understood that way.

Pelagianism is a form of theological belief (considered a heresy by the Catholic Church and virtually every other Christian group in existence) which is named after a man named Pelagius who lived in the latter part of the 4th century. Pelagius taught that man could be saved completely by his own actions. According to Pelagius, a person could live a virtuous enough life, staying away from sins and doing enough good works - to earn the right to enter Heaven as, more or less, a payment from God. Man didn't need any Grace. This is the heresy that Augustine fought so strongly against, occupying a rather large portion of his time in fact. It's also the heresy that is probably most likely to strike horror into the heart of any good Protestant.

Semi-Pelagianism is a belief that developed in the middle of the 5th century in what would later become southern France. It held that Grace was necessary, but that man could make the first step toward God, Who would then respond with the Grace necessary for salvation. It rejects the idea that a person can somehow make his or her way to Heaven apart from God's help, but still holds out the idea that a person can at least start to approach God apart from being called. In semi-Pelagianism, the fallen person asks God to save him or her, and then God does it. This idea was rejected in 529 at the Second Council of Orange, which condemned, among other things, the idea that "the beginning of faith and the very desire of faith... proceeds from our own nature and not from a gift of Grace..."

The orthodox Christian position, the one held by all but a few pockets of Christians, is that Grace comes before anything. Grace is what enables a person to realize his or her need for God, to believe in God, to ask God for salvation, and to do anything else at all. There's some disagreement over whether or not the individual must consent to this Grace (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Evangelicalism, Methodism, Lutheranism, Anglicanism, most Baptists, most Pentacostalism) or whether God simply chooses those who will accept it without the cooperation of the individual (Presbyterianism, most Southern Baptists, other Calvanists), but the fact that God has to reach out to man and not the other way around is all but universally accepted.

The potential problem in "Amazing Grace" is the verse, "How precious did that grace appear, The hour I first believ’d!" This could easily be read to mean that Grace came with the first moment of belief, as if the belief of the speaker prompted the Grace, rather than the orthodox Christian position that the belief was preceded by Grace. This interpretation is strengthend by the fact that the verses immediately preceding speak about some of the benefits of Grace, such as the relief of fear, intimating that the these treasured effects had been gained by merit of the belief.

In any case, I didn't write this for the sake of criticizing this song. I wrote it for the sake of leading us to examine ourselves. Semi-Pelagianism is one of those interesting things in Christianity that nobody believes, but a great number live as if they do. The idea that we go to God for what we need, rather than God calling us to come to Him, is one that at times permeates our lives. This is especially true because of the emphasis that Christianity puts on faith.

We are saved by faith, we must have faith, we must follow God with faith. With this mindset, albeit one based on the truth, it is very easy to fall into the same error as the author of "Amazing Grace" seems to have. We realize that our faith is important - we must have it, and we must exercise it, but beyond that, we must realize that when we exercise our faith or cling to our faith or even simply have faith, we are simply replying "yes" to God's promptings.

This should cause us to rely even more on God. Our faith is not a sort of buzzer by which we can call upon God, hoping He says 'yes.' If anything, our faith is the gift that gave us when we said yes to His buzzer. Saint Paul teaches us that our faith is the gift of Grace, saying, " by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God." (Eph. 2:8) The "it" he is referring to is the faith - the faith is not of our own doing, but is the gift of God. We can't even believe apart from God. We utterly rely on Him for everything. Of course, we have to respond, which is gets to what St. Paul talks about in the passage Stephanie brought up, as he says that we must "work out our own salvation." (Phil. 2:12) We have to actually respond with a "yes" when God gives us the Grace to pray, to ask Him for something, to do something good, or even simply to believe.

Yet it is in these moments that we should realize that we couldn't even be doing this apart from Him. When we pray, it is because He loves us enough to enable us to pray to Him. When we goto church, it is because He has given us the Grace to do that, and we should thank Him. When we believe, at each moment that we do, we should thank God and praise Him to High Heaven for the gift of belief, the gift that He gave all of His own Love - all the while realizing that the very praises we are saying are there only as another gift from Him.

He gives us everything. All that we give to God we are simply giving back what He provided in the first place. This is how indebted we are to our God and our Saviour. And this knowledge should lead us to recognize something even more profund. Every moment of faith, and every act of faith, and every good deed, and every prayer, and every second spent inside church, feeding the poor, or placing a few cents into a charity tin at the drive through - each of these moments is another yes to God, another yes just as important as that first moment we came to Christ in the first place. At that time, we said "yes" to His Grace, and at each and every other moment - with every breath we take believing in Jesus Christ - we are saying "yes" to His Grace.

And so how can we fail to pray? How can we not worship God? How can we not keep Him in mind at all moments? For when we do not do these things, we are failing to say "yes." Even if our choices are not at the level of a conscious "no" to the Lord, we are nevertheless passing up an oppurtunity to say "yes." We are passing up an oppurtunity to receive the gift of God, the gift that He offers so freely and at such great cost to Himself. Let us not then be idle in our faith, nor in our works, nor prayers nor our Love, for with each moment passing, our Heavenly, Loving God, Our God Who Loves us more than anyone could and desires the greatest happiness for us, who has given His only Son over to death simply so that we could say "yes" to what we should have been saying "yes" to in the first place, calls to us. Our Divine Spouse awaits, calling - let us go to Him without reserve.

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