Post Series
1. Introduction
2. Pagitt and Pelagius On Human Nature
3. Pagitt and Pelagius On Sin
4. Interlude on Sin
5. Pagitt and Pelagius On Salvation
6. Pagitt and Pelagius On Discipleship and Judgment
7. Conclusion
8. (Final Thoughts)

Tony Jones, author and former National Coordinator of Emergent Village, wrote in a recent book, The New Christians, “We are not becoming less religious, as some people argue. We are becoming differently religious. And the shift is significant. Some call it a tectonic shift, others seismic or tsunamic. Whatever your geographical metaphor, the changes are shaking the earth beneath our feet.”1 Those changes include not only the shifting religious sentiments within the broad American religious landscape, but those within Protestantism itself. Specifically, a particular earth-shaking tectonic shift burst onto the stage of Evangelicalism nearly ten years ago in a “conversation” called Emergent.

Over the last ten years books, conferences, and local conversations have given way to a national movement known as the Emerging Church. In fact, one of its leaders, Brian McLaren, was named one of Time Magazine’s 25 most influential evangelicals in America.2 Consequently, many publishers now publish entire series of books by leading Emergent authors, in addition to the thousands of weblogs and community cohort meetings that drive local conversations. This conversation, then, is now a significant contemporary fixture in the broader evangelical community and national Christianity, making it necessary for the academy to take a serious examination of this movement’s theology.

The Emerging Church was born out of a need to both contextually engage our shifting postmodern culture with the teachings, way, and person of Jesus Christ, and rethink traditional doctrines of the Church. Thus, this movement within evangelicalism is both missional and theological. It is the second facet with which many have taken issue, because it appears that nothing is off the table when it comes to the in-vogue postmodern deconstructive process: penal substitutionary atonement is altogether dismissed as “divine child abuse;”3 the apostle John’s testimony regarding the need to “believe in” Jesus is replaced with an “opt-out” program of universal inclusivism;4 and a Grand Rapids emergent pastor frequently insists that “as far as we know the tomb is empty.”5 While their penchant for dialogue over church, spirituality, and theology is appreciated—we certainly should not shy away from re-thinking and re-learning theology—the question remains, however, at what point is this conversation no longer Christian?

One of the most significant facets of Emerging Church theology that pushes the limits of the (non)Christian conversational label is its perspective on human nature after the so-called Fall. Jones himself represents a growing consensus within this conversation that rejects the historic doctrine of original sin. He suggests that nothing in the biblical account of creation or Paul’s examination of human nature suggests a change at the genetic, fundamental level nor is a tainted spiritual nature passed from mother to child biologically.6 He goes so far as to suggest the Apostle Paul was wrong about human nature in Romans 5 and rejects original sin altogether, insisting that this doctrine is “neither biblically, philosophically, nor scientifically tenable.”7 Clearly, a national deconstructive effort is underway to re-define a doctrine that has been part of historic Christian orthodoxy for centuries. No one within the Emerging Church has come as close, however, to setting forth an alternative to this historic Christian doctrine than pastor and emergent leader Doug Pagitt.

Pagitt is the founding and teaching pastor of an emerging church community outside Minneapolis, Minnesota called Solomon’s Porch. Aside from his duties as teaching pastor for his church, Pagitt has helped navigate and position Emergent as an alternative to existing, traditional versions of Christianity through radio interviews, conferences, blogs, and books. Last year, Pagitt solidified those navigation and positioning efforts with his theological opus, “A Christianity Worth Believing”. In the book’s opening page, Pagitt sets forth the purpose for writing his book:

I don’t believe in the versions of Christianity that have prevailed for the last fifteen hundred years, the ones that were perfectly suitable for their time and place but have little connection with this time and place. The ones that answer questions we no longer ask and fail to consider questions we can no longer ignore. The ones that don’t mesh with what we know about God and the world and our place in it…I am conflicted because I want to believe differently.8

While he may believe he is believing differently—and consequently believe he is offering the world a different Christianity that is more believable than the current form—in reality he is simply believing otherly; the form of Christianity that Pagitt pushes is neither innovative nor different: it is a form of Christianity other-than the versions that currently exist but mirrors those that have already existed. Whether by intention or accident, the Christian faith that Pagitt believes “feels alive, sustainable, and meaningful in our day” is really a form of faith from an other day.9 This blog post series examines that other faith and theology of Pagitt in relation to two thinkers from that other day (the late early church), Pelagius and Augustine.

Both Pelagius and Augustine will act as theological dialogue partners with this contemporary self-proclaimed theologian in order to assess his theology on human nature and sin, and the consequences of those thoughts for the gospel. While Pagitt may conclude that a person does not “have to be a fifth-century Augustinian in order to be a follower of Jesus,”10 our study will reveals how closely Pagitt resembles an other belief from the same period of time: the beliefs of Pelagius. From his view of human nature and sin, salvation, discipleship, and judgment, this paper explores how Pagitt mirrors the theology of Pelagius, while describing the responses of Augustine to Pelagius as a means of responding to Pagitt today.

In rejecting the versions of Christianity that have prevailed, Pagitt resurrects an other form of Christianity from the past: Pelagianism. In the story of Christian theology, the 5th century is known mostly for the doctrinal dispute between Pelagius of Britain and Augustine of Hippo. The controversy stemmed largely from the differing concepts of humanity’s relation to God which both men had been preaching for a generation.11 Pelagius ’ outlook regarding human nature was the opposite of Augustine’s: the trouble was not nature, but habit; every person is responsible for his or her own sin, not because Adam infected the human race.12 Led by Augustine, Pelagius’ opponents charged him and his followers with three things: 1) denying original sin; 2) denying God’s grace as essential for salvation; and 3) preaching sinless perfection through free will apart from grace.13 For the next twenty years, the two would argue over the the nature of humanity post-fall, the nature of sin, the ability to be sinless through personal effort, and the role of grace in the life of a person. Ultimately, however, the battle was over the nature of salvation itself. As Roger Olson says, “The story of Christian theology is the story of Christian reflection on salvation.”14

The same is true today; our understanding of the nature of rescue is at stake.

As the Emerging Church has grown in prominence, some have begun to label it a “conversation of heresy,” especially a conversation steeped in the so-called Pelagian heresy. Likewise, some have charged Pagitt with the so-called heresy of Pelagianism. Therefore, because the Emerging Church is becoming a dominant alternative within broader evangelicalism it is important to understand the significance of this movement’s theology. Furthermore, because Pagitt is a significant leader and thinker within the Emerging Church, it behooves the Grand Rapids Church to examine how his “hope-filled, open-armed, alive-and-well-faith for the left out, left behind, and let down in us all”15 is a repackaged previously existing version of Christian spirituality. There is nothing innovative and fresh about it.

  1. Tony Jones, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 2. []
  2. “25 Most Influential Evangelicals In America,” Time Magazine, February 7, 2005. []
  3. Brian McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In (San Francisco: Jossy-Bass, 2003) 102. []
  4. See Spencer Burke, A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006). []
  5. While Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, may not himself deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, this statement certainly leaves open the possibility that the tomb might, for all we know, not be empty. []
  6. Tony Jones wrote a series ‘debunking’ Original Sin from January 26 to March 9, 2009. See Original Sin: The Genesis of a Doctrine, 29 January 2009 http://blog.beliefnet.com/tonyjones/2009/01/original-sin-the-genesis-of-a.html and Original Sin: Paul, Romans 5, and the Heart of the Issue, 16 February, 2009, http://blog.beliefnet.com/tonyjones/2009/02/original-sin-paul-romans-5-and.html. []
  7. Tony Jones, Original Sin: A Depraved Idea, 26 January, 2009. http://blog.beliefnet.com/tonyjones/2009/01/original-sin-a-depraved-idea.html and Was Paul Wrong? 18 February, 2009, http://blog.beliefnet.com/tonyjones/2009/02/was-paul-wrong.html. []
  8. Doug Pagitt, A Christianity Worth Believing (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 2. []
  9. Pagitt, Christianity, xii. (Emphasis mine). []
  10. Pagitt, Christianity, 49. []
  11. W. C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.), 675. []
  12. Frend, Rise of Christianity, 674. []
  13. Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1999), 269. []
  14. Olson, Christian Theology, 13. []
  15. The subtitle to Pagitt’s book. []
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