Pietistic Arminianism

Here am I with A.C., a priest in the diocese of Owerri. He was the first person here to give me one of his books and it’s the one that has provoked the most thought for me. In The War Within, he asks the question, “How come Christians still sin after they have been born again?”

In the west – especially in the liberal denominations where sin is hardly discussed – this might not seem like a pressing issue. But in Nigeria, it is. Being a Christian in Nigeria means you are supposed to subscribe to a particular set of behaviours and norms – no drinking, no smoking, no lying, no stealing, etc. A Christian may have no trouble not smoking, say, but can be just as corrupt as everyone else. (One priest wondered aloud to me what percentage of his Sunday collection plate is ill-gotten gains.) This causes no end of consternation to priests and bishops, who want to improve the nation by applying “Biblical principles” and practicing “Biblical leadership.”

For me, it is all very reminiscent of the early church. The Donatist heresy began (early 4th century, I think?) when some Christian leaders, facing persecution, recanted their belief so as to avoid death. The Donatists said this was not right and that these leaders were suspect. Even the baptisms they had performed before wilting were suspect. This led to lots of confusion about who was properly in the church and who wasn’t. After Christianity became legal in the Roman empire, the debate evolved into how many times a Christian could sin after being baptized. If memory serves, the answer was once. This got tied in with Pelagianism as well, the belief that a person’s works got them into heaven. Augustine of Hippo was the major orthodox figure in all these debates and wrote some great material against them that did much to draw out a theology of grace. This all happened in Africa, by the way.

(The Donatists are not to be confused with the Donutists, another debate in the early church between people who wanted to serve donuts at coffee hour and those who wanted a healthier option. But I digress.)

I see A.C.’s book as another entry in this debate. I haven’t read the whole thing yet but he basically talks about grace and how ultimately what we do and don’t do is secondary to how we are saved.

This is an important message here. I’m no theologian – as my recap of the Donatists no doubt proves – but the theology I’ve heard preached here – when it’s not prosperity gospel – combines the worst parts of pietism and arminianism. The first says – more or less – that how you behave matters. That’s the no drinking, no smoking bit. The second says that one’s works and deeds contribute to whether or not one is saved. I heard a preacher discuss how hard it had been to get a visa for a trip to the U.S. “But,” he said, “you have to work even harder to get to heaven.” The combination means that people are being told that you have to act a certain way to get to heaven. This is not my theology.

The issue is particularly pressing because of one fact that Chinua Achebe observed nearly 30 years ago in his famous little book, The Trouble with Nigeria:

Whenever two Nigerians meet, their conversations will sooner or later slide into a litany of our national deficiencies. The trouble with Nigeria has become the subject of our small talk in much the same way the weather is for the English. But there is a great danger in consigning a life-and-death issue to the daily routine of small talk. No one can do much about the weather: we must accept it and live with it or under it. But national bad habits are a different matter; we resign ourselves to them at our peril.

People here are always talking about the government, politics, and the state of the nation. Security, economic growth, political accountability, corruption, and many other issues are all wrapped up into one bundle that is on everyone’s mind. On the TV news the other night, there was a story about a major Anglican church in Lagos that held a conference on “the future of Nigeria” (or some similar topic) that was attended by government figures. Can you imagine an Episcopal church in the U.S. doing that and having it make the national news?

The answer the church is providing right now is pietistic Arminianism. I’m sorry, but this is never going to work. Somehow, you have to take account of Romans 7:18: “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” That’s why grace is so important. I see A.C.’s book as one more entry in a long-running debate in the church that has spanned centuries.

(I’m not saying we’ve got it all right, mind you. In liberal American churches, I think we preach messianic pelagianism – but that’s a post for another time.)

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One thought on “Pietistic Arminianism

  1. Sam Owen

    Hey Jesse, I’m really impressed with the level of conversation you’re having with the Nigerians. Did you share this blog post with A.C.?

    Traveling mercies to and through Sudan. Jenny and I are praying for you.

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