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Decoding the Bible

The terrible things people do begs the question: Are all humans “essentially good?”

By Sandra Beardsall

God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.” So says Genesis 1:31. Humans, squeaking into this abundant creation on Day Six, were part of the goodness. Most early Christians could agree on that. There was, however, this problem of the terrible things humans do. How do we account for sin if we are “essentially good?” And where does Jesus fit into it all?

Every November, the Early Christian history class at St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon undertakes a little exercise. At one end of the classroom chalkboard, I write the statement, “I am created good, and thus have the ability, with Christ’s example, to overcome my sin and do good.” This represents the perspective of Pelagius, a devout British Christian of the late fourth century. At the other end of the board, I write, “My will is bound and capable only of sinning, except as I am saved by the grace of Christ.” So stated Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, North Africa, a theologian whose work continues to exert a powerful influence in western (Roman Catholic and Protestant) Christianity. Their debate was a vigorous, although “virtual,” one. Augustine refused to meet with Pelagius, so they argued in written tracts.

The task of the students in the history class is to locate themselves on this Pelagius/Augustine continuum by putting their name somewhere on the chalkboard. Then we discuss. It is never a dull conversation.

The students represent various Christian faith traditions, including, of course, the United Church. While there are denominational tendencies, they scatter themselves across the spectrum, including off the map. Those of more Augustinian persuasion accept his notion that humanity’s essential or created goodness has been destroyed by original sin. Something, classically called “the Fall,” prevents us from exercising our goodness. How else do we account for the structural sin that binds us, the injustice in which we participate without really having chosen it?

The Pelagian supporters counter that the “Fall” is a handy concept for shirking individual responsibility. Pelagius believed that humanity was “gloriously fashioned,” endowed with every gift necessary for choosing the “good.” Even before Jesus, said Pelagius, humans figured out how to be good and righteous.

In the fourth-century version of this debate, Augustine won the day, and Pelagius was condemned as a heretic. Officially, western Christianity embraced “original sin” and its consequences. You can find Augustine’s position enshrined in Article V of the doctrine section in the United Church’s Basis of Union. It still appears in the church’s current faith statement, the “Song of Faith.”

The Pelagian perspective did not disappear, however, and contemporary views of personhood have given the debate fresh life. On the Pelagian side are those who claim that a sense of personal goodness and empowerment is essential to healthy human functioning, and that too many people have been battered — psychologically and physically — by the notion of their sinful natures. The theology of “original blessing,” popularized in the 1980s by American theologian Matthew Fox and others, represents an attempt to reclaim human goodness as a starting point.

Others argue, however, that Augustine understood something profound about the human psyche when he echoed Paul’s lament from the letter to the Romans: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15). Our actions do not always match our ethical desires, suggesting that we are moved by subconscious influences we do not understand. Further, our assumptions of what “goodness” is are also likely to be distorted by our captivity to the norms of our culture and class.

So what do we do about this impasse? In the church history classroom, the participants are thoughtful and creative in their responses. They generally agree that Augustine’s refusal to meet with Pelagius did not help matters. They recognize, despite the apparent polarization, a common desire to do what is “good,” and a shared need for Jesus in fulfilment of that desire. What happens when we begin with our points of contact, rather than our points of division?

The students usually ask me where I would place myself on the continuum, and I always refuse to answer. I want them to focus instead on honouring one another’s struggle. To some extent, I place my hope in the continuum itself, in the willingness of Christians to work out their salvation through reflection and dialogue. 
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