Is Exodus 90 Pelagian?

Faced with the prospect of cold showers and so many disciplines, some people ask: Is Exodus 90 Pelagian? Is it a works based exercise that just asks men “to do” a lot of things in order to be holy? To

Faced with the prospect of cold showers and so many disciplines, some people ask: Is Exodus 90 Pelagian? Is it a works based exercise that just asks men “to do” a lot of things in order to be holy? To answer this question, we might ask another question: What is Pelagniansim to begin with? 

Pelagius was a British priest who lived 390-418 and traveled throughout the ancient Mediterranean world spreading his teaching. He taught that Christians are saved through their own efforts and free will by imitating the life of Jesus Christ, who gave us a good example of obedience and virtue. He denied original sin and held that human beings are simply good so that their free will is capable of achieving holiness on its own. Pope Zosimus condemned Pelagius and his teaching in 418, and both St. Augustine and St. Jerome championed the Church’s teaching on original sin and absolute necessity of God’s grace for salvation. 

Does the Church’s teaching on Pelagius mean that Christians should simply be passive to God’s grace? No! The Church teaches that we have to cooperate with God, freely accepting the gift of faith and then growing in the Christian life and charity through this cooperation. Both St. Augustine and St. Jerome, the champions against Pelagianism, embraced and advocated monasticism, a movement of sacrificing worldly pleasures for a life of prayer, asceticism, and fraternity with other monks. The Church has always called us to live a life of prayer and penance in reparation for our sins and to grow closer to Christ by conforming ourselves to him. This is not a simple imitation of Christ, as Pelagius advocated, but a mystical conformity to Christ so that as we die to ourselves he will begin to live more fully within us. 

So, let’s return to our initial question: Is Exodus 90 Pelagian?

The simple answer is that Exodus in no way promotes striving to do things on one’s own apart from God and the support of fellow Christians. The easiest way to see how these 90 days rely on God’s grace is that Exodus requires a holy hour every day! Christ is the only one who can give us freedom and without him we can do nothing (John 15:5). The asceticism of the ninety days adds power to our prayer, as we see in Jesus’s own teaching in Mark 9:29: “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” Asceticism calls us to let go of the many obstacles that stand in the way of our growth in the Christian life and that keep us enchained in slavery to sin. Fraternity also points to the fact that we simply cannot do a bunch of things on our own to reach freedom. Our reliance on our brothers points to the fact that we depend on the Body of Christ, as Christ draws us into the communion of his life through our fraternity.

Our culture is not used to doing difficult things, and we can become stuck in comfort and easy routines. Exodus 90 calls out of this state, inviting us to take up our Cross with Christ. Some people react against this by claiming that this focuses too much on our efforts. If only men would put forth more effort! We do not have the problem of too many men thinking they can do too much for God on their own! We all need to stand up and put forth our all for God, asking him to guide this work so that it can be for his glory and our own growth in holiness through his grace.

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Dr. Staudt holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Ave Maria University and B.A. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, MN). He serves as Director of Content for Exodus and as Visiting Associate Professor at the Augustine Institute in Denver. He was previously the Associate Superintendent for the Archdiocese of Denver. He has founded a Catholic school and served as a DRE in two parishes and as Director of Catholic Studies at the University of Mary. He is the author of How the Eucharist Can Save Civilization (TAN), Restoring Humanity: Essays on the Evangelization of Culture (Divine Providence Press) and The Beer Option: Brewing a Catholic Culture Yesterday & Today (Angelico Press). His editing experience includes six years as the managing editor of the journal Nova et Vetera and the books Renewing Catholic Schools: How to Regain a Catholic Vision in a Secular Age (Catholic Education Press) and The University and the Church: Don J. Briel’s Essays on Education (Cluny Media). 

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