Saturday, November 09, 2013

Excerpt from Pelagius: A Reluctant Heretic by B.R. Rees

"[O]n an evolutionary view of man's origin and development, that doctrine [the Fall], along with Adam and Eve and the Serpent and the Garden and all its other paraphernalia, simply disappears from history and reverts to its proper place in the creation-myths of other religions. ... [Augustine's] teaching on the Fall and original sin was solidly based on the historicity of both events; but what happens if the historicity of the second event [original sin] succeeds as it has done, in surviving the intensive criticism to which the biblical evidence has been subjected since the beginning of the nineteenth century, whereas the first [the Fall] has long lost any claim to be deemed historical? The blunt answer is that the first 'event' is an event no longer and has been deprived ipso facto of its traditional raison d'etre, which was to buttress a theory of substitutionary atonement.

After the Council of Ephesus in 431 ... down to the 'Great Schism' of 1054, only a modified Augustinian doctrine survived in the West and the East showed practically no interest in the subject. In the late twentieth century its survival is as tenuous as the fading smile on the face of the Cheshire Cat, and it could be argued that all that is left behind of the symbolic truth which it once contained is the self-evident statement that there are in our personalities certain inherited, as distict from environmental, features which lead us to want to put Number One first and, not infrequently, to harm other people in doing so.

Against the backcloth of modern biology, physiology and psychology perhaps it would be more honest to stop paying lip-service to this morbid doctrine of 'sin ... accumulating at compound interest' and to consign it to that region of limbo which is reserved for such failed theories as alchemy and phrenology, phlogiston and Piltdown man. This suggestion is not as frivolous as it might appear to be nor is it prompted only by the naive attitude of those who 'reject the doctrine of original sin because the law-abiding citizen will rightly refuse to be held responsible for the crimes committed by his ancestors'. Rather it springs from a strongly held conviction that it is a doctrine which has done the Christian Church far more harm than good. By preaching the absolute necessity to purge man of his inherited sin in order to save his soul, it has provided countless 'well-meaning' individuals with a ready-made pretext for pursuing their diligent campaign for souls without any thought for the mere lives of their victims--witness the heresy trials of the Middle Ages, the ruthlessness of the Crusades, the sadistic horrors of the Inquisition and so on ad nauseam. It has also fostered that obsessive antipathy to the sexual act which marred the thought of the Church from Paul onwards until it was elevated into doctrine by Augustine's stigma on the act of procreation. Even the Mariological doctrines of the Virgin Birth and the 'immaculate conception' often confused with it, though both derive most of their authority from a scatter of dubious texts, 'have something to do with the negative valuation of the sexual act on the part of the Fathers of the Church', as Hans Kung has put it with his usual frankness. Both of them, and especially the second, he continues, 'have become largely pointless as a result of increasing criticism of the Augustinian view'. From this standpoint Augustine has a lot to answer for. What, if anything, can we find to say in his favour in the light of modern theology and science"?

--B.R. Rees, Pelagius: A Reluctant Heretic


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