Under Pelagius, a town’s liberty shrivels; under Augustine, it grows

Pilgrim resists the attacks of the fiend Apollyon in the Christian classic, “Pilgrim’s Progress.”

By David Tulis

In the great Christian work, Pilgrim’s Progress, the hero, Christian, endures an encounter with a demon, Apollyon, or Abaddon, with whom he has a bantering conversation, and then a battle intended to spill his soul. He fights with his sword and is hit by fiery darts and flame spurting from the mouth of the beast.

Christian, the pilgrim enroute to the Celestial City, has just descended into the valley of humiliation after having spent very enjoyable days in a house “built by the Lord of the Hill” for the security and rest of pilgrims. Therein he had met with women named Discretion, Piety, Charity and Prudence. Among the benefits of his stay: A visit to the armory. In this chamber he is fitted out with sword and armor. But the plate armor covers his front only. Lacking any protection for his backside, Christian cannot flee in combat, but must stand his ground.

One important concession that many churchgoers in Chattanooga and elsewhere make to the world is identified by the touchstone of free will. The doctrine of human ability puts the breastplate in Pilgrim’s back.

Founded by Pelagius (b. 354) and furthered by the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), the doctrine of free will puts confidence not in God’s grace, but in man’s ability. For many people, this construction is perfectly satisfactory; God is acknowledged as existing, but man, who is made in His image, is given a more proper standing and great honor.

Minor point, but vast implications

You may think we are entering merely a sectarian debate or a dispute of no consequence, but we’re not. The question of authority in the destiny of  each person touches every soul, faithful to God or chasing after pleasure, fame and worldliness. Would you rather be subject to a God who is chosen by sinners and is not the reigning King of the world, or be a worshiper of a God who chooses undeserving sinners by sovereign grace (Ephesians 2 calls it election) and governs all the affairs of men and nations?

Let me bring a high spiritual question down to the earth, in a reflection. As to earthly kings, would you rather be subject to one who believes God has total jurisdiction over his government, or to one who believes God is only a policy adviser and moral counselor, a guide to his path?

One strain of Christian thinking evident comes from an early church father who swept aside the plainspoken Scriptures and drove in this most exciting direction. His name was Morgan. Now Morgan is not the name he’s known by in the histories.

Rather he is called by his Greek name, Pelagius, a Welsh monk who introduced a powerfully man-centered doctrine and who, like Arius before him, is a father of sects. He preached in Rome from 401 to 409. The local Unitarian Universalist church off Interstate 24 traces its dogmas about the goodness of humanity to Pelagius.

Predestination — inescapable concept

Culture, remember, in Chattanooga or any American city,  is the living out of religious ideas of its people and the people in remote places (Washington and New York) who influence or control them. Every congress, every legislative enactment, every musical a Barking Legs Theater, every new display at Hunter Museum of Modern Art is an indirect argument for a religious idea.

Even the operation of UTC, atheist and culturally Marxist by policy, is religious, for atheism is a claim about God and ultimate sources of goodness and purpose. Hamilton County public schools don’t escape being religious, either; the system is an outworking of men’s ideas of ultimate good and transmits to the next generation helpful ideas about subjection and obeisance, with the multiplication tables and a little civics thrown in.

Pelagius argues for several things in his attack on God’s grace. If God’s grace is unbearable for man and unbecoming of God, one must bolster the sufficiency of man. One must view in man the power to attain God and God’s favor, by his intellect, his person or his good works. Mitt Romney’s Mormonism borrows some of this idea of a great chain of being, with man effectively equal with God.‡  Pelagius’ disciple Caelestius goes even further. He argues that man is born without original sin and that an individual can live a perfect life and keep all the commandments if he absolutely wills it. Just because these two men aren’t Calvinists or presbyterians doesn’t mean they don’t believe in predestination. For these two thinkers, predestination resides in man.

The liberty of our city and nation is not to be found in such conceptions. Liberty under God and from human tyranny is better protected in the formulations of Augustine. The 4th century monk and Bishop of Hippo whose work inspired the Reformation in the 16th century argued for the sovereignty of God’s grace, total depravity, predestination and election. In a brief and remarkable statement he identifies how sovereign grace, in reducing man, enlarges him.

He says in On the Spirit and the Letter that even the will of a man to believe comes from God.

Do we then by grace make void free will? God forbid! Nay, rather we establish free will. For even as the law by faith, so free will  by grace is not made void but established.  For neither is the law fulfilled except by free will; but by the law is the knowledge of sin, by faith the acquisition of grace against sin, by grace the healing of the soul from the disease of sin, by health of the soul freedom of will, by free will the love of righteousness, by love of righteousness the accomplishment of the law. Accordingly, as the law is not made void, but is established through faith, since faith procures grace whereby the law is fulfilled, so free will is not made void through grace, but it is established, since grace cures the will whereby  righteousness is freely loved.”

If we quit having confidence in man but place confidence in God and his sufficiency, we find liberty and freedom. This promise is one of scripture’s great ones. Our freedom as men originates in the absolute sovereignty of God. Rushdoony explores this issue in a book, The One and the Many.

If we would stop elevating so highly human goodness and instead find innate goodness in God, and all power in Him and all sufficiency in his grace — we might slowly obtain new prosperity and new promise in God. An outworking of reformation is an increase in political and economic liberty in city and county.

‡ Mormonism posits that God is a man, and that select Mormons are deity.

Scources: Lewrockwell.com

R.J. Rushdoony, “A Christian Survey of World History” lecture series study notes, 1974

Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies[;] the Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodox from the Apostles to the Present (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1984)