God’s image in every person

Daily Reading for September 1 • David Pendleton Oakerhater, 1931

There are two areas in which explicit criticism of Pelagius does begin to emerge: his practice of teaching women to read Scripture and his conviction that in the newborn child the image of God is to be seen. These issues are clearly related, for the desire to educate women was rooted in Pelagius’ conviction that God’s image is to be found in every person, both male and female, and that the goodness of that image is nurtured and freed largely through the grace of wisdom. The Celtic world was one that gave much greater scope to the role of women and more fully incorporated both the feminine and the masculine into its religious life and imagery.

The second, and much more controversial, feature of Pelagius’ teaching to attract attention was his conviction that every child is conceived and born in the image of God. He believed that the newborn, freshly come forth from God, contains the original, unsullied goodness of creation and humanity’s essential blessedness. This was in stark contrast to Augustine’s thinking and the developing spirituality of the Church in the Roman world, which accentuated the evil in humanity and our essential unrighteousness. Augustine, with his sharp awareness of the pervasiveness of wrong-doing in the world, stated that the human child is born depraved and humanity’s sinful nature has been sexually transmitted from one generation to the next, stretching from Adam to the present. Augustine believed that from conception and birth we lack the image of God until it is restored in the sacrament of baptism, and that conception involves us in the sinfulness of nature. The perspective conveyed by Pelagius, on the other hand, is that to look into the face of a newborn is to look at the image of God; he maintained that creation is essentially good and that the sexual dimension of procreation is God-given. The emphasis that would increasingly be developed in the Celtic tradition was that in the birth of a child God is giving birth to his image on earth.

From Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality by J. Philip Newell (Paulist Press, 1997).

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