What would the PC(USA) look like if John Calvin had been best friends with St. Patrick? What would it look like if Calvin had been raised in Ireland?
Perhaps it might look like the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) today. We are a church of dual natures — Reformed and Celtic. The Reformed is expressed in our systematic theologies, the Celtic in our art, music and aesthetics. I became aware of this possible duality while overseeing a doctor of ministry project paper by Margarethe Galbraith-Cordes, a Lutheran who helped me to become deeply aware of what may be an essential Presbyterian conflict.
Her paper compared the Celtic Christian tradition with the Augustinian tradition — the root of much of our Reformed faith. Augustine, a fifth century bishop, influenced Western Christianity significantly, from the Roman Catholic tradition down to the present Protestant and Evangelical traditions, including Zwingli, Calvin and Luther (although Luther’s discovery of grace was, in many ways, a rebellion against his own Augustinian order).
Before his Christian conversion, Augustine had been a devotee of a dualistic, Manichean, neo-platonic, gnostic religion that understood everything in heaven as holy and pure, and everything on earth as being corrupt. I suspect that he brought this understanding of reality into his interpretation of the Bible, leading him to emphasize a duality between God and us, heaven and earth, in a way that ancient Jewish scholars hadn’t.
J. Philip Newell, a Canadian Presbyterian pastor who lives in the Iona Community of Scotland, writes about the contrasting Celtic tradition as articulated by Pelagius, a British Isles contemporary of Augustine. During the early sixth century, Pelagius and Augustine attempted to definitively articulate an orthodox understanding of Christianity. Augustine advocated a dualistic, fall/original sin theology. Pelagius offered a more holistic, nature-appreciative, Celtic theology. Augustine won, and Pelagius’ views were deemed a heresy, “Pelagianism,” which is the belief that “original sin did not taint human nature and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without special Divine aid.”
Newell questions whether this heresy accurately reflects Pelagius’ beliefs. Pelagius denied that it did, and some scholars, looking anew at his writings, agree. What is clear is that Augustine’s view became the theological lens of Western Christianity, while Celtic Christianity was confined to smaller pockets of Christian Europe, such as Ireland and Scotland, where a deep sense of God in and through nature was prevalent.
Where these pockets are strongest mirror the migration patterns of the Celtic people. The Celts originated in central Europe — Southern Germany, Austria, Hungary — and migrated east and west. Paul’s Galatians were Celts who settled in present-day northern Turkey. Perhaps this is why Paul, knowing his audience’s Celtic love of nature, wrote to them about the “fruits of the spirit” (Galatians 5:22). The Celts migrated through northern Italy, southern France, northern Spain, as well as the British Isles. A Christian nature spirituality later flourished in these areas through religious figures such as Francis of Assisi, Patrick of Ireland, Columba, Aidan, Meister Eckhart, the Rhineland mystics, and more.
So what are the implications for us Presbyterians? It may mean that no matter how Reformed we claim to be, our tradition also has deep Celtic roots through our Scottish heritage. Certainly there are other ways of analyzing the conflicts we have in the PC(USA), but looking at these roots is one way. And if this analysis is true, then we may be in conflict because our Reformed side regards human nature as essentially tainted, while our Celtic side regards human nature as essentially good.
The more Reformed we are, the more we tend to gravitate towards an Augustinian, fall theology, interpreting Bible through the story of Genesis 3. We embrace the idea that original sin has tainted all of humankind, leaving us depraved and requiring God’s grace to forgive and redeem us. Thus, all natural inclinations and actions are suspect. This impacts how we view ordination standards, marriage, sexuality, orientation, and so much more.
The more Celtic we are, the more we interpret the Bible through Genesis 1, gravitating towards a “goodness” theology grounded in God’s declaration that all in creation are “good.” This theology recognizes the power of sin, and the need for grace. But it is tempered by a belief that our natural inclinations are good, and become sinful when gratifying these inclinations turns them into false gods to be appeased. Grace restores us to our natural, essential goodness. This theological perspective impacts how we view ordination, marriage, sexuality, orientation, and so much more.
I’m sure this will be argued, but both perspectives can be defended biblically, yet they aren’t very compatible. Understanding the Bible from a Genesis 3 perspective leads to one set of conclusions. Understanding the Bible from a Genesis 1 perspective leads to another. In many ways our present divisions seem to reflect the strong views of both traditions. The eventual restructuring we’re going through may go to some lengths to settle the division between these two theological traditions by creating new denominations divided along these two lines—one Reformed only, the other Celtic and Reformed.
GRAHAM STANDISH is pastor of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, Pa., adjunct faculty at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and author of six books in the areas of spirituality and congregational leadership. (www.ngrahamstandish.org).