Pagitt and Pelagius: An Examination of an Emerging Neo-Pelagianism—Introduction 1

Pagitt and Pelagius: An Examination of an Emerging Neo-Pelagianism—Introduction 1

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 and Original Sin: Paul, Romans 5, and the Heart of the Issue, 16 February, 2009, []
  7. Tony Jones, Original Sin: A Depraved Idea, 26 January, 2009. and Was Paul Wrong? 18 February, 2009, []
  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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  • Drew Tatusko

    i would hope that you are going to read pelagius not through his opponents. also, if the question really is "at what point is this conversation no longer Christian?" i would hope that you are able to address the differing views from eastern orthodoxy especially with regard to original sin and atonement, and also the roman catholic understanding of justification and sanctification. if the framework is how pagitt and jones differ from evangelicalism as a form of calvinism, the differences are obvious and not worth spending much time in my opinion. certainly the arminian framework must also be addressed with its very different understanding of grace than calvinism.

    it seems that you are really defending a calvinist framework for evanglicalism through a specific view of pelagius rather than addressing the question "at what point is this conversation no longer Christian?". to this end i would just offer a warning against the tendency to erect a strawman here since you seem to be dangerously close if you do not account for traditions that strongly differ from a western, calvinist view of sin, atonement, and grace.

    • jeremy bouma


      You will see that I take Pelagius own words as translated by B. R. Rees, including: “To Demetrias;” “On Divine Law;" “On the Christian Life;” “To an Old Friend" and “On Bad Teachers.” I also use Pelagius’ little known and read Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. No I did not run to Augustine's writings and pull quotes.

      I am neither addressing the differing view between EO and W re OS and atonement, nor am I talking about RC understanding of justification and sanctification. As I already said: I am plopping Pagitt's and Pelagius' writings side-by-side, providing comments and questions along the way. People can make their own judgments between 1) Does Doug mirror Pelagius; and 2) If so, why is that bad historical, systematic, and biblical theology.

      I assure you I am NOT a Calvinist. Ask my wife: She went to Calvin College and me being a non-Calvin was a partial issue for her parents :0 I hope I do not have "a specific view of Pelagius" that I am hoisting on Doug. I think I do pretty good job of presenting Pagitt's and Pelagius' teachings, writings, and theology fairly. Doug said so at least for his side; Pelagius is dead, so I just don't know…

      Re: strawmen…the point of this little adventure is does Doug's theology mirror Pelagius? That's the argument. And if so, is that bad or good? If so, how does that theology relate to the Holy Scriptures and Tradition, a Tradition born out of a communal rejection of Pelagius' theology at minimum.

      Hopefully I am faithful to that adventure, but we shall see…

  • nathan

    I would be careful to not assume that there is any kind of uniformity in those who identity with the "emerging church". Pagitt/Jones aren't a magisterium that get to say what we all believe.

    I know that they are prominent voices, but i would encourage you to be careful.

    I agree with your critique of DeYoung whose book also could have been titled: "Why we're not Tony Jones or Doug Pagitt….by two guys who were never told they should be.".


    However, all that being said, I DO think this is a valuable conversation and wish it could have happened sooner. Before emergent went from ecclesiology/missiology to the particular theological concerns of a handful.

    • jeremy bouma

      Glad you're finding value in this conversation and I wish it had happened sooner myself. I agree that there isn't uniformity in EC theology, but there is no denying that the EC is producing this theology. It may not be the ONLY theology, but leaders within Emergent are still producing it…


  • E. Stephen Burnett

    While that may be true, Nathan, my question would be: how many people within the "emergent" movement's leadership or followers are willing to critique Pagitt/Jones? They would need to be willing to say "arrogantly" (actually humbly, if this is indeed what the Word teaches and we must believe it) that Pagitt/Jones are "wrong" in their Pelagian beliefs.

    In that event, would the "conversation" continue in a loving and truth-minded way? Or would the zeitgeist shun the detractors and disinvite them to the clique because they too closely resemble the "arrogance" and/or "fundamentalism" of their caricatures of pre-"emergent" Christians?

    • Jonathan Brink

      Stephen, I kind of wonder if you've missed the heart of the emerging church conversation here. The intent of the dialog is not just to critique, but to sit in the tension of opposing ideas and remain in love. In conversation and in dialog, we typically reach a point of disagreement, and even when we do, can we remain in relationship? That is the point. And it is that relationship in the midst of conflict that allows us to continue to learn from each other, listening intently and even shifting viewpoints.

      As Doug suggests below, he's not afraid of the critique. He's just stating that his view is not necessarily the correct view and he's comfortable admitting that. That's what opens up the conversation, which is the lack of need to determine the belief of the "other".

      • E. Stephen Burnett

        This is perhaps where we can disagree, and yet can ourselves remain in "relationship" (such as that is in a brief exchange via blog comments). Biblically it's easy to defend the truth that a Christians with different theological ideas can certainly get along with each other! (Are there any serious Christians who would argue otherwise? Perhaps so — such as spiritually abusive church leaders, spinoff cultmongers, etc., but I don't see any of them here.)

        But regarding someone with beliefs clearly outside of "mere" Christianity, here is my thought: though I can certainly continue in relationship with them, it won't be as close as it would be if our beliefs were in the same God. And it would be wrong and unloving for me to act as though someone can still be a Christian, even though he has claimed something like (as Jeremy wrote above) the Resurrection doesn't matter much, or Christ-suffering-God's-wrath is an abominable teaching, or that there are other ways to eternal life besides through Jesus.

        Can I continue in a relationship? Yes — no serious Christian should be afraid to confront opposite viewpoints or even be friends with someone of a different faith (or a wildly variant view of what "Christianity" is). But the relationship should be honest, yielding either person the freedom to disagree openly on what makes or doesn't make someone a true Christian.

        That's all I'm saying. And I don't see a lot of room within the main stream of "emergent" thought to re-think the Biblical doctrines of penal substitution, or God Who is both/and love/holiness, kindness/wrath, mercy/justice, that sort of thing. Instead there are clearly defined boundaries (with increasing firmness, it seems), for what teachings aren't accepted.

        It is not my intention to redirect comments in all kinds of spinoff directions, so I'll end here. :-)

        Finally, I meant to say to Jeremy, that I have very much appreciated your tone and (from what I have seen) a Biblical point of view on things. With your background and gifts, you may be able to articulate your part in the discussion with a greater spirit of grace than some others.

  • Doug Pagitt

    Hey Jeremy, good luck with the new series.
    I would like to add a bit from my book A Chrisitanity Worth Beleiving, that you can buy here

    I think this section gets at my intention of the book and I think sits well as a contrast to the arguement you are trying to make in the series:

    "In the same way, this book is anything but a settled, secure, hard-and-fast understanding of faith that will work for all people for all time. It is not meant to provide the final answers to my questions about faith, nor is it meant to offer such once-and-for-all answers for its readers. Instead, it is my personal and often angst-ridden expression of a faith that feels alive, sustainable, and meaningful in our day. It is the outgrowth of decades of reading and studying and talking and experiencing and wondering and listening and engaging and arguing and rethinking.
    It’s not an overview of every theological idea that’s come before, nor is it meant to be read as a stand-alone explanation of God and spirituality. It’s not a “how-to-have-faith-like-me” sort of book. It is a “come-with-me-on-a-journey-of-exploring- the-possibilities” sort of book. And it is certainly not the end of that journey. There is so much more to say and learn about each of the topics in this book, and there are so many more topics on which to say so much more."

    So, in the spirit of the book, that you will reference many times, I say "let's get it on".

  • Jonathan Brink

    Jeremy, I just want to say that in light of the hyper criticism you've taken, this is a good conversation worth having. Looking forward to it.

    • jeremy bouma

      Thanks Jonathan…appreciate the encouragement! Hopefully I can be above board with this…

  • becky

    Jeremy – I am not sure how many publishers are still interested in emergent as a brand.
    However, there is considerable interest in exploring the formation of missional communities and other expressions of faith. See

    I think this points to Andrew Jones' earlier analysis that many emerging themes are seeping into the wider culture – this is evident in for example the current conversation just beginning among US and UK Anglicans. I couldn't imagine this happening 4 years ago. But the spirit has a way of working as it were.

  • Patrick Oden

    Jeremy, I want to add that I just read your response to my comment at Bill Kinnon's blog. Very helpful. I did misread your post as you suggest, and for that I apologize.

    • jeremy bouma

      No prob, Pat. Sorry if I came across as overly hyped up…I'm trying to be less defensive while also clarifying :)

      Thanks for being part of the discussion!!

  • Kimber

    Just a question… and perhaps you will answer this in future installments. Is it your view that the choices before us are belief in Original Sin (Augustine/Orthodoxy) and belief in the ability to achieve sinless perfection (Pelagius/Pagitt/EC)?

    I appreciate that I am being stretched to understand more thoroughly.

    • jeremy bouma

      Glad you're being stretched Kimber!

      As to your question, I think I will hold off answering and let the arguments develop over the next few weeks. I am merely presenting Doug's thoughts and Pelagius' thoughts on human nature, sin, salvation, discipleship, and judgment side-by-side. I then offer come comments, analysis, and questions at the end to hopefully drive discussion and dialogue. Should be fun :)


  • nathan

    @ Stephen,

    isn't this discussion going on here between Jeremy and Doug and the private interactions they've had evidence of the spirit of what conversation has always been about?

    What about people like Scot McKnight? He's open in his disagreement when necessary.

    It's clear to me that Jeremy should probably say that he's not taking "the Theology" of the Emerging Church to task, but is taking the theology of Doug Pagitt and Jones to task.

    Why does a diffuse network of relationships have to stay on top of publicly disagreeing about things?

    Most of us have always been working hard in the trenches of our particular zipcode…

    It's still not fair to assume that because someone hasn't raised a systematic critique like Jeremy is that there is a "growing consensus" determined by Pagitt, et. al.

    I think people involved in the conversation are more independent than that…

    just my 2 cents.

    • jeremy bouma

      "It's clear to me that Jeremy should probably say that he's not taking "the Theology" of the Emerging Church to task, but is taking the theology of Doug Pagitt and Jones to task."

      Perhaps this is a better way to put it. I realize the emerging church is bigger than those at the top, as I have said countless times before, but it is still by and large wrapped around these peeps. What does fascinate me is if other leaders within the conversation disagree with these folks, why there has not been really any critical interaction with the theology of these leaders.

      It's quite puzzling, really…

      • Jeff Straka

        I think you are viewing the "emerging church" as working towards forming another "denomination". If that were the case, there WOULD be a need to nail down a solid list of "what we believe". If that were the case, there would be a need to have "councils" to come up with a "creed". If these two things were going on, there WOULD be a lot of loud bickering, arguing and criticism.

        I see the books, the blogs, the cohorts, the conferences as ways to dialog aloud about things that perplex and disturb us each personally about religion and Christianity, and what might be alternative ways to think about or experience them. I don't know ANYONE in this conversation that arrogantly assumes they hold all the "right" answers and have the "right theology". They all seem to be sincerely open to listening and learning from each other.

        Will something eventually "emerge" from this conversation that might become a new "denomination"? Who knows! But I certainly don't get the impression that any in the conversation assume it will be for a LONG time – perhaps a generation or two down the road. Phyllis Tickle explained that in these 500-year rummage sales, the first 100 years is spent sorting this stuff out before some kind of conformity and general agreement takes place. So it seems to me we are in the "funk years" that went on before Luther finally did his post, where many people kind of felt in their gut that something was not quite right about the church and indulgences, but thought they were alone in those thoughts. And then conversations started to happen in the pubs (sound familiar?) – the "blogs" of their time. We haven't left the pub yet.

  • Patrick Oden

    Jeremy, an intriguing beginning. Even if I don't agree with every characterization, I think your tone here, and in the post/comments of your intro suggest more of a critical engagement in an academic style, which I think opens the door for good consideration and conversation. I think there is a lot of push for the emerging theology to go more of a leftwards direction, so having a little bit of critical pressure from the orthodox side is worthwhile however this lands.

    One thing that came to mind in reading this is the topic of a Jewish understanding of original sin. Do you think that the Jewish understanding would be relevant as a background to what the earliest Christians would have understood? Alignment with Augustine isn't, after all, equivalent with alignment with Christ. Can a person be non-Augustinian and fully orthodox?

    I'm also curious about how you see the Eastern Orthodox position on him. He's not a heretic as such.

    More on the practical side, given that Original Sin and infant baptism go hand in hand (so that a baby who dies in sin won't go to hell), I'm curious if infant baptism fits into your ecclesial practice. I don't think emerging churches have ever pursued this, so is the shift you're seeing more an inherent part of a distinct church tradition or something that has changed?

    Hope you don't mind my poking a little. I appreciated your helpful replies in the last thread and am interested as you develop this.

    • Dana Ames

      Patrick, to my knowledge, Pelagius' views were condemned in the East as well, but the free will of human beings is held to be much more significant than Augustine thought, and "grace" is not viewed as something "separate" from God.

      Augustine's devotional life is appreciated in the East, but his views on "original sin" are quite different from all the Eastern Fathers. Augustine was brilliant, wrote a lot, and had a roomful of scribes to take down his words, an unimaginable luxury for that day, so a lot of what he wrote survives. But Eastern Orthodoxy is not in agreement with him about some really crucial issues, particularly that 1) human nature remains good, but the introduction of *death* through Adam had extremely severe repercussions for all of creation; and 2) it is not Adam's guilt which is passed on to all humans, but rather the condition of mortality.

      Jeremy, I do echo Patrick's suggestion that you investigate the Jewish view (N.T. Wright's work is easily accessed in vol. 1 of Christian Origins: The New Testament and the People of God) as well as the Eastern Orthodox view, for which you might start here:
      I see the one as leading to the other.

      I am reading with interest, as I have a friendly acquaintance with Doug, Tony, Phyllis and others in the emerging church conversation. I am grateful for the space it gave me to be able to ask some really important questions a few years ago, when, after 30 years, the evangelical theological train ran out of track for me. Surprisingly, through the answers I found, God led me East, and I "emerged into" Orthodoxy. So, not being a Protestant anymore, I don't have a dog in this fight, but in gratitude to Doug, Tony and all the rest, and seeing the good intentions you show with regard to discussing issues, not personalities, I do urge you to further historical investigation.

      Best wishes-
      Dana Ames

    • jeremy bouma

      "I think your tone here, and in the post/comments of your intro suggest more of a critical engagement in an academic style"

      HALLELUJAH! I'm glad you've discerned this is an ACADEMIC theological discussion of a published book. This "critical engagement in an academic style" is exactly what I am trying to accomplish, so thanks for affirming this!

      The Eastern Orthodox position on Pelagius is that they exonerated the man, not the heresy. Original Sin IS part of the Eastern church, just a weaker form than the Western. The idea that the Eastern church embraced Pelagius and his theology on sin and human nature and grace is incorrect.

      I'm not dealing with IB in this series, but from a personal standpoint I neither hold nor condemn it. From my point of view believers baptism makes more sense, but it's not an essential.

      thanks for your affirmation and thoughts…real nice!

      • Dana Ames

        You are correct about Pelagius in the East. However, what the Eastern church considers "original sin" is not really the same thing as in Augustine. It's not weaker, it's different. Please see above link. I would say that it's actually more comprehensive than what Augustine put forth.

        I don't care if you don't agree with the Eastern view; I am concerned that you present it correctly. Thanks.


      • Kieran

        Infant Baptism does seem a big issue from a strong-Original Sin perspective… I admit I am less read on how protestant churches who don't do it handle the tension, I've heard frequent evangelical talk of a period of infant innocence, though not worked out in a theologically advanced manner. It seems to me that if one follows a strict Augustinian view of OS, NOT Baptizing young children presents a SEVERE theological, as well as pastoral question.

        But I respect if its not something you are dealing with this specific study.