• Know the Creeds, Councils, Confessions, and Catechisms Part 8: Councils of Carthage and Orange

    Posted Jun 23rd, 2017 By in Pastor Brian's Blog, Why We Believe What We Believe With | Comments Off on Know the Creeds, Councils, Confessions, and Catechisms Part 8: Councils of Carthage and Orange

    The councils of Carthage (419) and Orange (529) lack the ecumenical pedigree of Nicaea, Ephesus, Chalcedon and Constantinople—neither of them being recognized as an ecumenical council—but they are, nevertheless, noteworthy, especially to reformed and Calvinist Christians.

    Like the other councils, there were personalities and important historical figures lurking behind the scenes and at play. For the councils of Carthage and Orange those personalities are none other than the North-African bishop Augustine and the British monk Pelagius.

    The back story is this. Pelagius was a really devout and pious guy—which is interesting at a number of levels, not the least of which is in church history how many errors and heresies come from well-meaning and pious individuals. In fact, much of his theology arose from a concern of a lack of holiness which he witnessed among many Italian Christians. He was a monk after all. Evidently the issue of the day revolved around Italian aristocrats taking mistresses along with making a profession of faith. The church of that day found a loophole which allowed for all parties to be appeased—except probably the wife. They said they were Christians just not communing members. Ah. Got it. It was something akin to the two-structured system later popularized by the Puritans. Pelagius flipped out and began to teach about sin and salvation in a rigorous and profoundly different way than had been taught. Thus, as you might remember, while the earlier councils revolved around the nature of Christ and the Trinity, these revolved around the nature of sin and, consequently, the nature of salvation.

    Pelagius taught that sin was something we brought on ourselves by our bad choices. In so doing, he wholesalely rejected Augustine’s doctrine of original sin—that is that we are born sinners, having inherited it from our father Adam. For Pelagius, we are born as a clean slate and only later completely wreck the family car. Because of this, Pelagius leaned toward a doctrine of salvation that was based on works and the quality of one’s Christian life. It makes sense. You started off in good shape, now stay that way. No real need for a savior in that.

    Augustine challenged this—all of it! —at every turn. Sin was inherited from Adam, he said. And because of this we are helpless, in need of a savior; and salvation and sanctification must be by grace alone and by God’s sovereign act. God, said Augustine, rescues us first. He sets us free to know him and love him and live for him. It’s little wonder that Calvin leaned so heavily upon Augustine.

    That was Carthage. Later, at Orange, the church took up the issue of more progressive Pelagians who came to be known as semi-Pelagians. They are what we might think of as modern day Arminians. But, as Roger Olson has shown, the semi-Peligians of Orange were far more conservative as far as God’s grace and sovereignty are concerned than modern day Arminians. In yet another interesting historical nugget the church condemned(!) the semi-Pelagians at Orange.

    Which is to say, most of the people on TV and Christian radio and in Christian bands would not have been recognized by the church in the sixth century as being orthodox or helpful.

    Full disclosure. The council did ratify infant baptism. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it said that infant baptism wipes away the original sin that the baby inherited from Adam.

    I suppose, like all the other councils we have studied, there is something here for all of us to love and to hate.

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    Pastor of New Life La Mesa Presbyterian Church in San Diego, CA.

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