2. Pagitt and Pelagius On Human Nature
3. Pagitt and Pelagius On Sin
4. Interlude on Sin
5. Pagitt and Pelagius On Salvation
6. Pagitt and Pelagius On Discipleship and Judgment
8. (Final Thoughts)
PAGITT AND PELAGIUS ON SIN
For both Pagitt and Pelagius, human nature is still good. It still exists in the originally created Imago Dei form, “filled with the spark of God,” “inherently godly.” But as Pagitt asks, if we are not born sinners, why do we sin? If we are still born as we were intended to be at Creation, why don’t we live “in harmony with God?”
Instead of starting out rotten, “the systems, hurts, and patterns of this world create disharmony with God and one another. It is life that creates illness and sin.” ((Pagitt, Christianity, 165.)) While we are born good and godly, examples, habits, and ignorance from our life taint our in-born goodness. Pagitt offers an example of a newborn baby to argue his case. In the case of a newborn, we should not view him or her as full of evil, but instead should understand that this newborn begins life entirely good. That good child is affected, trained, and drawn into sin because of the examples other sin-trained models provide. Children sin because they practice what is modeled for them by adults or older siblings, continue in those practices and form habits, and simply do not know better. ((See Pagitt, Christianity, 165 for the authorʼs complete illustration.)) Sin manifests itself and affects people from the outside in, rather than the inside out; our nature is not broken, but our examples, habits, and knowledge are.
But as Pagitt suggests, “when sin is active, we must deal with it; the good news is we can.” ((Pagitt, Christianity, 163.)) Because we were created good—and still are—we are invited and capable of living free from sin and destruction, to seek to live in harmony with God. Pagitt goes further by suggesting, “We can live lives in a collective way, so the systems that cause disharmony with God can be changed. We can change the patterns wired into us from our families and create new ways of relating and being. In other words, we can be born-again, new creations.” ((Pagitt, Christianity, 167. (Emphasis mine).))
While the implications of this quotation for salvation and the Gospel will be addressed later, what is clear is that Pagitt believes that humans on their own can change, in their own power; by themselves they can become new creations. What isn’t clear is, how? How exactly do we accomplish this? During this discourse on changing and being “born-again,” Pagitt mentions neither the power of Christ nor the presence of the Holy Spirit. Neither does the grace of God itself change us. Instead, when sin comes to tempt us, we are the ones who flee from, plot against, and eradicate it. ((Pagitt, Christianity, 164.)) In other words, people can by nature, through their own inner capacity, choose to be “in sync” or “out of sync” with God. They themselves challenge and change the systems and patterns which impinge upon their still-intact Imago Dei.
These ideas on human nature and sin are not merely different than current versions of Christianity, they simply mirror an other.That other is Pelagius.
How would Pelagius answer Pagitt’s question, “Why do we sin?” We sin for three reasons: examples, habits, and ignorance. Both Pagitt and Pelagius view human nature as fundamentally flawless, still good even after Humanity gave the collective middle-finger to their Creator in Adam by rebelling; no one has a corrupted nature. Like Pagitt, Pelagius defended the goodness of nature and ability to choose either goodness or wickedness. In his letter To Demetrias, Pelagius declares that our nature is capable of doing good and evil and that he wants to “protect it from an unjust charge, so that we may not seem to be forced to do evil through a fault in our nature.” ((Pelagius, “To Demetrias,” 43.)) Pelagius insists we do things by choice through the exercise of our will, and he wants to make sure that we are not forced to do evil but have the freedom to choose. He doesn’t want anything to stand in the way of our will’s ability to choose good or evil. Sinning is the product of our will, not of necessity of nature. ((Pelagius, “On the Possibility of Not Sinning,” 167-168.)) If this is true, if our nature is good, why then do we sin? For Pelagius, the answer begins with Adam.
Pelagius makes clear that “through Adam sin came at a time when it did not yet exist…through the former’s sin (Adam’s) death came in; Adam is the source of sin.” ((Pelagius, Romans, 92, 93.)) Adam is the archetype not only for sin, but also for sinning. He was the first example of disobedience that later influenced generations into sinning. ((Pelagius, Romans, 95.)) In fact, “all are condemned for following his example.” ((Pelagius. “On the Christian Life,” from The Letters of Pelagius and His Followers. Ed. B. R. Rees (Suffolk, England: The Boydell Press, 1991), 121.)) From Adam’s pattern and example of disobedience, his descendants modeled for others what Adam modeled for them. Since then, generations of humans have perpetuated that original pattern for disobedience, which has petrified into habits of sin; patterns lead to habits.
In his letters and commentary on Romans, it is clear Pelagius believes generations of humans have been “instructed” and “educated in evil.” We possess a “long habit of doing wrong which has infected us from childhood and corrupted us little by little over many years and ever after holds us in bondage and slavery to itself, so that it seems somehow to have acquired the force of nature.” ((Pelagius, “To Demetrias,” 44.)) While nature is not corrupt, the example set by Adam and subsequent generations has formed corrupting habits. Now, humans are “drunk with the habit of sins” so that we do not know what we do. ((Pelagius, Romans, 104.))
Remember that for Pelagius our nature is untainted; we are still as the Imago Dei created by God at the beginning. According to Pelagius, habits form a character which then impinge upon our nature and imprison it. In commenting on Romans 7:17 and the “Sin that lives in me,” Pelagius says, “[Sin] lives as a guest and as one thing in another, not as one single thing; in other words, as an accidental quality, not a natural one.” ((Pelagius, Romans, 104.)) Our sin is not natural, it is accidental because of the “guest of habit” that has formed within all of us. As Pagitt suggests, we are influenced by systems that model for us disintegration and patterns that are wired into us by others. In the end, Pelagius exclaims, “I who am held prisoner in this way—who will set me free from this fatal, corporeal habit?” ((Pelagius, Romans, 105.))
Not only has the example of Adam and others influenced us and our habits, ignorance has, too. “The thick fog of folly and ignorance has so blinded our mind that it is incapable of feeling or saying anything divinely inspired.” ((Pelagius, “To Demetrias,” 45.)) Over time, human reason and nature has been “buried beneath an excess of vices” because of a “long habituation of sinning,” and is “tainted with the rust of ignorance.” ((Pelagius, “To Demetrias,” 44.)) We no longer know what we are doing, because we are ignorant about what we should be doing. Though Pelagius does not go into detail about how we become ignorant or from where this ignorance comes, it makes sense it would arise from the confusion which disobedient examples and patterns cause and the habits that are formed from following those disobedient patterns. Ignorance, then, comes from the foreign example of Adam and others and both arises from and influences our habits. Through our freedom of choice, we respond to the example of Adam and others, leading to the formation of habits and ignorance of correct living. Now out of ignorance and habit we host the “guest of sin” and live as if drunk on those perpetual carnal habits. While Pelagius still believes we are responsible to choose righteously, examples, ignorance, and poor habits impinge upon our natural ability to choose.
In summation, neither Pagitt nor Pelagius believe anyone is born corrupt or stained by corruption. They both appeal to the original Imago Dei and the Creator as a defense for this belief. They believe God made us as good Image Bearers and our sin doesn’t change this good nature. Both insist that our inner nature (and according to Pagitt, our DNA) did not change after the Fall; we still posses God’s spark of godliness within us. Instead of the necessity of nature forcing us to sin, Pelagius and Pagitt insist that we sin when we follow the example of Adam and others into living lives of disintegration from God. Following those patterns, habits formed out of doing wrong from childhood have corrupted us to the point that sin inhabits our lives as a guest to the point we are drunk on those habits of sin. Sin is not natural, but accidental. Through bad examples and habits, we have been educated in ignorance, so that we now do not know what we do nor what we should do.
In the end, both Pelagius and Pagitt believe we are not born rebels and nothing internal causes us to sin. Instead, systems, patterns, and habits outside of us lead us into living lives of disharmony with God and one another. The good news, according to both, is that we can change these patterns and live out of our natural good capacity. Pelagius’ and Pagitt’s theology of humanity and sin have great bearing on another, greater theology: the theology of salvation. This is the topic for Friday, where all of this has ultimate bearing.
A few parting thoughts and questions:
1) While Pelagius’ synergism (affirmation of human freedom to freely move toward God) is a positive contribution, he does not take into account the power of original sin in man and the necessity of the grace of God for man to even freely move. Both the Orthodox Church and Protestant Arminians hold to this belief, yet Pagitt follows Pelagius in insisting on our own “we can change the patterns wired into us from our families and create new ways of relating and being” without any mention of the grace of God required for such a change.
2) It is clear that Pagitt shares Pelagius’ answer for why we sin: examples, patterns, systems, and habits. In short, “life creates illness and sin.” Nothing about us is sinful; we are not individually rebellious. Instead we are victims of bad/broken examples and patterns. Our nature does not cause us to sin, but our will as shaped by examples that lead to habits. Pagitt’s example of a baby and child exactly mirrors Pelagius’ own understanding of how bad habits shape our character into sinning. Both Pagitt and Pelagius believe that baby will eventually become “drunk with the habit of sins,” though not a rebel.
3) Question to Doug: If something outside of us causes us to sin, why then are we in need of a new heart, according to Ezekiel 36:24-27?
In Ezekiel’s prophecy against the people of Israel, he made it clear that God needed to cleans them from what they did because of who they were, not what was done to them. In fact, they needed an entire “renovation of the heart.” In the Hebrew “heart” signified the person’s “internal locus of emotion, will, and thought. Ezekiel recognized the problem of rebellion and sin against YHWH to be more deeply ingrained than mere external acts.” ((Daniel Block, Ezekiel 25-48 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1998, 355))) He makes this realization concrete in describing their heart as a “heart of stone,” signifying coldness, insensitivity, and even lifelessness (1 Sam. 25:37). What the people needed was not simply a circumcision of the heart described in Deut. 30:6-8; they needed an entire transplant!
The very core of their being out of which they committed their lawless acts, wickedness, rebellion and sin needed to be replaced with a new warm, sensitive, and responsive heart of flesh. This would be unnecessary if the human heart was as it was originally intended to be at creation. Ancient Hebrew theology makes it clear that it isn’t. We need a new heart, because our old one is corrupt; we need a new nature, because our old one is corrupt.
4) Question to Doug: If Jesus Christ thought that what defiled a person comes “out of the heart” why don’t you? (See Matthew 15:1-20 for a refresher course.)
Interestingly, in this passage the Pharisees and teachers of the law are the ones who insist a person is corrupted on the outside by the things they do because they broke tradition: they didn’t wash their hands before that ate! This was a question of ritual purity. In order to participate in the life and worship of God as a good Jew, strict cleansing laws needed to be followed in order to avoid “defilement.” For them, disintegration came from outside a person, not inside.
Jesus subverts these requirements when He insists what comes out of a person defiles them from the inside. On the one hand, keeping strict purity codes and food laws does not truly make someone unclean; on the other, who you are does. Purity and impurity, righteousness and sinfulness are matters of the heart, the internal nature of a person. The un-love a person commits is because of their internal nature, not external circumstances or things.
Theft, adultery, murder, sexual immorality, lying all come out of a heart that is impure, corrupt, and sinful. “These are what defile you; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile you.” A person rebels because they are a rebel, not the other way around. Therefore, what is necessary is a new heart, which only Jesus Christ can provide.
5) If Pagitt is correct in his assertion that our problem is not internal, why then could he find zero Scriptural support? He rails against the “classical view,” which holds that “people start out rotten and get better if the right formula is applied.” According to him this is not correct. Why is this Scripturally incorrect and his position Scripturally correct?
6) In light of reality and in light of the Holy Scripture one thing is clear: Pagitt and Pelagius make no sense. Existentially, it is clear from the beginning that we are a rebellious people. It is not difficult for anyone to commit acts of un-love; people do not need to be trained in the art of sinning. Scripturally, it is clear that something about us, internally, rebels against God and un-loves all over the place.
More importantly, their view on sin does not require a Rescuer, only a better Example. If this is the case why did Jesus have to die? Why was Jesus necessary at all if there is nothing wrong with us? Pagitt’s and Pelagius’ view on sin is damaging to reflections on the nature of salvation because they reduce Jesus to simply an example of love, rather than a substitute sacrifice, of which both the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament clearly demonstrate a vital need.
This discussion is important because who we are is the problem. We are not as God intended us to be; we act in ways that God never intended when He breathed the Human into existence. Deep down we are rebels, in need of rescue and re-creation. In the words of Jesus Christ, “we must be born again.” Through Jesus’ death and resurrection that re-birth is possible. Those who place their faith in Him are united to Him in His death; the old creature is gone. Those who place their faith in Him are united to Him in His resurrection; the new creature is created. This is not theology, this is Scripture, of which both Pelagius and Pagitt deny is the case.