Mary Poppins and Pelagius
During the question and answer time last night the name “Pelagius” came up but, since he wasn’t the point of the answer, I didn’t stop and explain anything about him or his theology. Because he isn’t exactly a house-hold name, however, I thought it might be helpful if I took the time to do so here. Pelagius was a British monk living in the late 300’s who took umbrage at Augustine’s prayer “Lord, command what You will and grant what you command.” Augustine was operating with a view of human nature that understood our depravity to have left us in a state where we are free only to sin before we are liberated from that bondage by the grace of God at our salvation. So the commands we see in Scripture (i.e. “delight yourself in the Lord”) we are unable to accomplish in our own strength but must look to God to receive the grace that enables our obedience.
Pelagius dismissed the idea of “original sin” and therefore disagreed with Augustine’s teaching on radical or total depravity. Each one of us are born, Pelagius argued, tabula rasa, as a blank slate. We are born equally free to sin or not to sin. Therefore, he concluded, rather than asking God for the grace to accomplish what He has commanded, we must understand that “if I ought, I can,” that is, if God commands it in His word, I must be able to do it in my own strength and quite apart from any reliance on His grace. This is why I mentioned that a Pelagian like Charles Finney would structure his revival meetings very different from a Calvinist like George Whitfield. Finney believed that the people attending his meetings were free to make a decision for Christ and had everything they needed within themselves to be saved. So the way he preached and the appeals he made and the methods he used (like the “anxious bench”) where geared toward inducing the human effort that alone could procure salvation.
A helpful modern day (1964!) presentation of Pelagianism is modeled for us in Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins. As she takes care of the Banks children, Mary pulls a tape out of her bottomless carpet bag and, after measuring herself remarks, “Just as I suspected, ‘Mary Poppins – practically perfect in every way!'” That is a very helpful summary of the Pelagian understanding of human nature; when we measure ourselves (by our own standard?!) we receive the comforting and empowering answer we were hoping for, “practically perfect in every way.”
What is disconcerting, and should drive us to intercession and a clear articulation of the biblical truth concerning our radical depravity and therefore our total dependance upon the grace of God, is to take a minute and listen to the popular messages sounding from prominent pulpits in the American church today. Or just listen to the way your friends are talking! As a good exercise in discernment I encourage you to take this phrase (“practically perfect in every way”) and think through how you would talk about our biggest problem and greatest need, how you would talk about salvation, how you would talk about God’s plan for us, if this phrase was true. Then, with these answers in mind, look around next time you are at the Christian bookstore or on the internet browsing the titles of recent messages or you hear various conferences promoted, and see how much “Mary Poppins” they have in them. Ask yourself how much of the way they are talking and what they are offering is driven by the assumption that we are practically perfect in every way? I think you will be unsettled by what you find.
We need the wind of the Spirit to change the weathervane sooner rather than later and point Ms. Poppins and her Pelagianism out of the American Church!