Have Yourself a Merry “Pelagian Christmas…”


Every week we read and discuss an article together in our staff meeting at the church.  This past week the article that we looked at was from Christianity Today written in December of 1993 by Rodney Clapp entitled “Let the Pagans Have the Holiday.”  In part it reads –

Sometimes outsiders glimpse our own dilemma more acutely than we can.  Last Christmas, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman wrote an article in Cross Currents entitled, “Being a Jew at Christmas Time.” In it he observed, “There is nothing wrong with sleigh bells, Bing Crosby, and Christmas pudding, but I should hope Christians would want more than just that, and as Christmas becomes more and more secularized, I am not sure they get it.”  He went on: “In the end, the problem of Christmas is not mine any more than Christmas itself is.  The real Christmas challenge belongs to Christians: how to take Christmas out of the secularized public domain and move it back into the religious sphere once again.”

Rodney Clapp’s suggestion for how best to do this, how best to “take Christmas out of the secularized public domain and move it back into the religious sphere once again,” was to recover Christmas again by first reclaiming Easter – the “paschal mystery” of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the center of the Christian faith.  He explained –

Christmas celebrated without the events of Easter overshadowing is too easily sentimentalized and secularized. A baby in a manger, angels hovering overhead, cattle lowing nearby—surely this idyllic world needs no redemption.  A de-christianized Christmas is the ultimate Pelagian holiday; for at what other time of the year can we seem so certain that, merely with good feelings and good will, humanity can save itself? Annually, in fact, newspaper editorials and television commentators say exactly that, pleading that all the world needs is to spread Christmas cheer through the year.

“A de-christianized Christmas is the ultimate Pelagian Christmas.”  That’s a wonderful turn of phrase.  It’s both accurate and arresting, but what does it mean?  Just exactly what is a “Pelagian Christmas”?

Well, Pelagius was a British Monk who came to Rome in the late fourth or early fifth century, and a Pelagian was someone who adhered to his teachings.  As best as we can reconstruct for we don’t have many of his actual writings, Pelagius a serious Christian who was deeply disturbed by the loose morals and lack of spiritual maturity that he found in Rome among the Christians when he got there, and so he immediately began a rigorous campaign of reformation, a kind of moral and spiritual boot camp to whip those flabby believers into better shape.

drillThink of a stern drill instructor getting up into your face and shouting words of instruction and motivation about how you could be doing so much more if only you were just trying harder, and you’ve got a pretty good picture of Pelagius and what his campaign for improving the church and Christians was all about.  His was a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” strategy for personal and congregational growth.  He believed that moral renovation and spiritual maturity were well within our reach as a human beings if only we would just apply ourselves more seriously to the task, and to make a better effort requires better motivation.  Bishop C. Fitzsimmons-Allison, the retired Episcopal Bishop of South Carolina, has written about what he called the “Roger Bannister approach to the Christian life,” and this has some real conceptual connections with Pelagianism.

Before Roger Bannister no one was able to run a mile in four minutes.  Many even declared it physiologically impossible.  In breaking the four-minute barrier however, he broke the psychological impediment in the minds of athletes the world over and scores soon followed him in that accomplishment. …Jesus broke the mental and psychological barrier in the minds of people who felt that righteousness by the law was impossible to win.  (But) Jesus had now actually done it …The meaning of his life and work was, thus, reduced to an example for us to follow. (The Cruelty of Heresy 31-32)

In the end Pelagius didn’t really need Jesus Christ to be His Savior.  Oh, it was certainly nice that He came for a visit.  His good example and His teachings, especially the Sermon on the Mount, have helped to clarify the expectations that God has of us and for our behavior.   And His death as a martyr for His ideals was deeply moving.  And that‘s, after all, what we really need – just more information and better motivation.   And so, Jesus Christ was the spiritual “Roger Bannister,” the One who demonstrated what we are capable of doing as human beings, and who can inspire us to do the same.  To be better people all we need to do is to start behaving better, and to behave better what we need is to know what’s expected of us (a matter of having better information) and be provided with a compelling enough reason for actually doing it (a matter of getting better motivation).  It finally comes down to our choice.  We are completely free moral and spiritual agents.  We can choose to be bad, or we can choose to be good.  All we have to do is to choose right!

Do you remember the anti-drug slogan of the 1980’s – “Just say no!”  This is Pelagianism in a nutshell.  We just have to make the right choice.  But think for a moment about how “Just say no!” sounds to someone who is in the grip of a terrible bondage to an addiction.  It rings hollow because something has hold of them that makes their freedom of choice impotent and irrelevant.  The 20th century Swiss theologian Karl Barth described any imagined confidence in human strength to be righteous as a “standing place in the air” – in other words, a place “where there is no human possibility of standing.” People in recovery understand this.  It is their lived experience.  The first steps to sobriety are –

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2.  We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.                                        
  3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God…

And the spiritual roots of this approach to recovery are the church’s historic teachings about human nature and God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, ideas antithetical to Pelagianism, which is why the teachings of Pelagius eventually earned the ire of St. Augustine in North Africa, and they wound up being officially condemned by the church more often than any other in all of church history!   Today Pelagius is still known as one of Christianity’s “arch-heretics,” as somebody whose alternative teachings are so antithetical to “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) that they are in some sense a foundational mistake that if made will irrevocably send a believer off in a wrong and spiritualty dangerous direction, and Christmas is the perfect climate for the Pelagian virus to infect our souls.

Think Santa Claus, he’s the poster child of Pelagianism.  I was recently walking through a mall with my two grandboys, one seven and the other one almost four, when we stumbled on a brass band playing Christmas songs.  Three beats into the song that the band was playing and the grandboys were both singing the words –

clYou better watch out; you better not cry.
You better not pout, I’m telling you why –
Santa Claus is coming to town…

He’s making a list, checking it twice;
Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town…

He sees you when you’re sleeping;
He knows when you’re awake.
He knows if you’ve been bad or good,
so be good for goodness sake

It’s all about choice and motivation.  Choose to do the right thing, and there are rewards for motivation: “little tin horns and little toy drums; Rooty toot toots and rummy tum tums.”  This is the popular seasonal message, and it is thoroughly Pelagian.  Instead of the Gospel message about what God has done for us in Christ Jesus, Christmas becomes a flurry of instructions about what we are supposed to think, do and feel with the promise that if we will just get with the program then we will experience “the most wonderful time of the year… the hap-happiest season of all.” 

Describing us as “inveterate Pelagians by birth,” Michael Horton, the contemporary Reformed theologian, writes –

We do our best to climb the spiritual rungs into God’s hidden presence, but he has plainly warned us against this strategy.  For he has come near to us, through the Incarnate Word…

Pelagianism says that we’ve got to climb up the ladder to where God is.  Historic Christianity says that God has climbed down the ladder to where we are.  And these two very different understandings of things present competing visions of Christmas.  In the first one, Christmas is about feelings that we manufacture, choices that we make, instructions that we follow and efforts that are exerted.  In the second one Christmas is about what God has done by becoming flesh and dwelling among us so that we might behold God’s glory (John 1:14).   And this decision of revelation and redemption on God’s part sidelines Pelagius because it does not hinge on either our “good feelings” or our “good will.”   “For by grace you have been saved… not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).  The Christmas joy that culture promotes depends on what you bring to the party.  The Christmas joy that the Gospel produces is the result of the fact that God Himself showed up at the party, and only one holds the real promise for the kind of joy that this season boasts.   DBS+


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