The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
The “creative” way of redefining historical heresies for the sake of present-day quarrels could be used against Francis.
Pope Francis is hardly known for his interest in historical theology. Unlike his predecessor, Benedict XVI, Francis’ speeches and writings usually contain no reference to patristic, medieval or modern sources.
The texts he consistently quotes are his own. His “down-to-earth” communication style is aimed at simplicity and immediacy, with little or no concession to theological erudition. There is one exception, though. Since his programmatic apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel, 2013), he has often referred to the dangers of “Gnosticism” and “Pelagianism” as present-day threats for the Church.
Here are the somewhat cryptic concerns of the Pope:
One is the attraction of gnosticism, a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings. The other is the self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others. These are manifestations of an anthropocentric immanentism. It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity. (n. 94) 
A Warning Against “Subjective” and “Traditionalist” Deviations
Gnosticism and Pelagianism were two ancient currents of religious and theological thought that the Church had to deal with in the first centuries of its life.
Gnosticism is the belief that the material world is created by an emanation of the highest God, trapping the divine spark within the human body. This divine spark could be liberated by “gnosis”, i.e. a direct participation in the divine. Gnosticism was mainly countered by Church Fathers like Ireneus of Lyon (130-202 AD),who insisted on the goodness of creation, the reality of sin, and the embodied Son of God who saves us entirely by way of His death and resurrection.
Pelagianism is the belief that original sin did not taint human nature and that the will is still capable of choosing good or evil without special divine aid. It was mainly fought against by Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), who underlined the transmission of original sin to all mankind and the utter inability of sinful man to change his destiny without the intervention of divine grace.
What about Francis’ interpretation of Gnosticism and Pelagianism?
From the outset, it seems that the Pope is actually referring to movements and trends within Roman Catholicism that he labels as Gnosticism and Pelagianism. He opposes these trends and warns Catholics about being trapped by them. For Francis, Neo-Gnosticism is a “subjective faith”: the implicit concern is that it lacks the sacramental, institutional, Marian, and hierarchical outlook of the Roman Catholic faith. Is he here warning against the danger of absorbing too many doses of the “evangelical” faith, which is often caricaturized as “subjective” because it focuses on personal faith and witness? Is he admitting that he is concerned with the spreading of “evangelical spirituality” around the world and trying to counter its success by derogatorily labeling it as the latest form of Gnosticism? Moreover, is he also referring to the danger of a cafeteria-Catholicism where people subjectively pick and choose what they want to believe and practice?
As far as Pelagianism is concerned, the Pope seems to address another critical front. Neo-Pelagians “trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past”. It is clear that he is pointing to traditionalist sectors of the Church of Rome, which dislike that his more casual style and pastoral “reforms” run contrary to well-established patterns. By warning against the latest forms of Gnosticism and Pelagianism, he is criticizing what he perceives as deviances on both the right front (the traditionalist) and the left front (the evangelical and the secular).
A Two-Edged Sword
Gnosticism and Pelagianism provided alternative accounts to biblical Christianity. That is why they have always been perceived as lethal, and that is the reason why the Pope refers to them in very negative and critical terms. However, Francis does not present a historically accurate or theologically comprehensive assessment of Gnosticism and Pelagianism . He uses (and perhaps abuses) them to fight his own battles. He is more interested in warning against vague present-day forms of these trends – to the point of disregarding their established meaning – than talking as a Church historian about what happened in the past and gathering lessons for today’s Church.
This “creative” way of redefining historical heresies for the sake of present-day quarrels could also be used against Francis. From a “traditionalist” point of view, he too seems to endorse a “subjective” form of Catholicism whereby people are told to follow their consciences and to gather in the Church (the “field-hospital” that includes all) with no personal cost of repentance and faith. Is this not also a form of Gnosticism whereby you are expected to follow the “spark” that is in you? On the other hand, secular voices and evangelicals could take issue with Francis for maintaining the ecclesiastical and magisterial apparatus which is grounded on medieval canon law, a monarchical and absolutist political state (i.e. the Vatican), the Vatican bank, a complex combination of works and religious practices, etc. Is this not a form of Pelagianism, i.e. a work-based system which obscures the primacy of grace?
Playing with historical theology and re-engineering its vocabulary for present-day purposes is never a neutral business. The denounced abuse can be easily turned back on the denouncer. The task of defending God’s Church from threats and dangers needs clearer and more accurate tools.
Leonardo De Chirico is an evangelical pastor in Rome (Italy), theologian and expert in Roman Catholicism.
1. Other references to Gnosticism and Pelagianism can be found in his Encyclical Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith, 2013) n. 67 and in his Address to Participants in the Fifth Convention of the Italian Church (2015).
2. The lack of Francis’ historical and theological accuracy is perhaps one reason behind the recent document by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Placuit Deo (22 February 2018), in which both modern versions of Gnosticism and Pelagianism are treated in more historically informed ways and seen as dangers in “certain aspects of Christian salvation”. It is interesting to note that the two applications by Pope Francis are not really followed through.