Sterling McMurrin was on to something when he said:
Indeed, since Mormonism is essentially Pelagian in its theology, exhibiting, as already has been pointed out, a quite remarkable similarity to the Pelagian doctrines of the fourth and fifth centuries, it is subject to the same criticism an condemnation from orthodoxy that made Pelagianism the most celebrated heresy in Christian history. But Mormonism outdoes its fifth-century cousin by its denial of the orthodox doctrine of creation, and it thereby produces a basic problem for its own theology in its relation to Christian orthodoxy, the problem of why the doctrine of the salvation of man should involve the traditional pattern of atonement through Christ. (Theological Foundations, pg. 82)
Now I must admit to be a little embarrassed to be using obscure terms like Pelagianism – I try to speak with plainness for the most part here after all — but Pelagianism is a useful term for Mormon theology buffs so here is an overview.
Pelagianism views humanity as basically good and unaffected by the Fall. It denies the imputation of Adam’s sin, original sin, total depravity, and substitutionary atonement. It simultaneously views man as fundamentally good and in possession of libertarian free will. With regards to salvation, it teaches that man has the ability in and of himself (apart from divine aid) to obey God and earn eternal salvation. … Pelagius believed that the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin (the Fall) were restricted to themselves only; and thereby denied the belief that original sin was passed on (or transferred) to the children of Adam and thus to the human race. Adam’s sin merely “set a bad example” for his progeny and Jesus “set a good example” for mankind (thus counteracting Adam’s bad example). Pelagianism teaches that human beings are born in a state of innocence with a nature that is as pure as that which Adam was given at his creation.
See also the Wikipedia article on Pelagius.
Now Mormons are not classic Pelagians or even semipelagians. But it is hard to deny the Pelagian leanings in Mormonism in our denial of the depravity of man due to Original Sin and in our belief that humans come into the world as pure and sinless with inherent free will that theoretically allows us all to refrain from sinning (even if no one but Jesus actually could pull it off). Further, we are very big on Jesus as exemplar — though clearly not to the exclusion of Jesus as Savior and God.
Mormonism’s Pelagian leanings and the Atonement
These leanings create some interesting questions about the atonement. If humans are not guilty of any original sin, and if sin is essentially turning away from God, then turning toward God is righteous. If the Law of the Harvest is to be accepted as an eternal principle (as it tends to be in Mormonism) then sin has its own inherent punishment (“wickedness never was happiness”) and repentance frees us from the pain that sin causes our souls. If that is the case then what needs to be paid for in the repentant person? For example, if I hate my neighbor there is a pain and unhappiness that I naturally reap as a result of sowing that hate, right? But if I then freely choose to have empathy and compassion and forgiveness and charity for my neighbor then I stop paying for that sin and I experience the happiness that is reaped from sowing such Christ-like behavior, right? So what is left for Christ to pay for? Modern revelation makes it clear that only the unrepentant pay for their own sins. So what did Christ really suffer for?
If you can’t tell, this post is another in my series on the atonement. Blake Ostler does a masterful job in his new book explaining why the traditional models of the atonement don’t make any sense at all as he explains why he believes his Compassion Theory of Atonement is superior. But even in his model there is an assumption that the moment we repent and turn toward God we transfer “painful energy” of our sins to Christ. That painful sin energy concept is the idea I have trouble with. What is left over in us to be paid for (or in “painful energy of sin”) if our hearts and minds and characters have changed as a result of our free choice to turn toward God?
Blake already concedes that the painful parts for Christ in his ongoing atonement for us happen mostly in real-time; not in Gethsemane. So if the climactic events in Gethsemane were largely to get us to turn our attention to Christ (as Blake indicates in the book) then why not leave it at that? Why not assume that the atonement was to a) get our attention, b) to allow Christ to be our righteous judge by descending below us all in pain and injustice here on earth, and c) to show us the perfect example of how we should be.
Creedal Christianity thinks we are heretics already, so what keeps Mormons from more fully (or openly) embracing Mormonized Pelagianism with regard to the Atonement of Jesus Christ?