Dr Matthew Tan: The new pelagianism’s danger

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Christianity by power and bureaucracy is not a Christianity inspired by the face of Jesus. PHOTO: 123rf

I wish to focus aspects of the Theological Reflection of the Instrumentum Laboris of the Plenary Council. In particular, I wish to focus on those that fall under the heading “The Joy of the Gospel”.

References to the Gospel as the touchstone for the renewal of the Church might strike some as pretty obvious on the one hand, or trite on the other. Either way, what that means is that we could be tempted to glibly refer to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, before parsing it off to focus on the real business of formulating the techniques and strategies of renewal, as if one had little to do with the other.

This temptation to disconnect one from the other is why the Instrumentum did well to remind us of two tendencies that Pope Francis called the New Pelagianism and the New Gnosticism (n. 73). In the next few columns I hope to show what these terms mean, why these will run counter to the talk of renewal and why the face of Christ is what grounds genuine renewal in the Church.

In the ancient Church, the Pelagians taught the heresy that sin happened, not because of a fallen human nature, but because of human choice and action alone.
By extension, development in the spiritual life, including one’s own redemption from sin, could also take place through human choice and action alone. Salvation then hinged, not on God’s grace, but on our effort.

Now, it is important to note that the work of salvation does have a human dimension, and that what we do does matter in the spiritual life. What is important to realise, however, is everything we do, we do as a response to a prior divine Work. We love, the First Letter of John reminds us, only because God first loved us. By extension, we act in response to God’s first act of divine grace, which came in the form of a person with a face, Jesus Christ.

By contrast, Pelagianism insists that we must be the ones that take the initiative, with or without Divine Grace. What this feeds is a slide from human action as a response to the drive towards an activist posture. The difference is important only because it is so subtle and difficult to parse out.

While the first recognises that human action participates in a prior work of God, the latter regards human action as a stand-in or even replacement of the work of God. In this sense, an activist believes that God will not do his work of redeeming a sin-stained world unless we act. Why this is significant is because action then takes on the pattern of the ways of the world rather than the ways of Christ.

Instead of patterning our actions around those of Jesus, activism takes on the world’s patterns, marked by power and struggle. By this logic, doing God’s work becomes dependent on the acquisition of power by “our side” according to a political rule book, rather than Jesus’ pattern of humility and self-emptying displayed in the Gospels.

As the Instrumentum hints, the new form of Pelagianism still plays by this logic of partisan power plays. The difference is that the new Pelagians have become sanitised by the respectability of what the Instrumentum calls “bureaucratic and administrative forms”. An activist’s sole reliance on administrative power usurps the Christian’s primary reliance on God’s grace.

Where this becomes apparent is that bureaucracy cannot countenance genuine renewal. Rather, renewal becomes something to be managed, and the result usually becomes a repackaged version of what came before. This applies regardless of which side of the power play holds sway. Thus, it is not simply that this neo-Pelagianism suffers from locking out God’s grace. In the process, it also locks out the very change that it promises.

In the next column, we would still focus on the same paragraph (n. 73), but look at the opposite extreme of the new gnosticism, and why this is also inimical to the desired renewal expressed in the Instrumentum. I will finally look at how the face of Christ is what grounds a radical transformation that goes beyond anything we could expect.

Dr Matthew Tan is Dean of Studies at Vianney College, the seminary for the diocese of Wagga Wagga. He blogs at Awkward Asian Theologian.

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