Is Celtic Christianity a New Age Heresy?

I have been reading J. Philip Newell’s Christ of the Celts which shares some of your ideas about Original Sin and Pelagius.  My pastor warns me it is New Age heresy. What do you think about Newell and his ideas?






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Dear OL


If your pastor is defending a denominational tradition based on Original Sin, then everything Newell writes is damnable heresy. This a very old debate that goes back to the 5th century when Bishop Augustine made Original Sin a cornerstone doctrine of Christian theology. Augustine used the Irish monk Pelagius to demonstrate why any argument against Original Sin was heretical, anti-Christian, and evil.  


Much of the Believer’s Dilemma website is devoted to examining how the modern Church has moved away from Augustine’s ideas and toward those of his enemy, Pelagius. All modern Christians would be declared heretics and Pelagian sympathisers by good old Augustine.  In a nut shell, Augustine taught that we are all born totally depraved because of inherited Original Sin from Adam and Eve.  For Augustine, every new born baby was a despicable piece of evil under the wrath of God, and if the child died without being baptized, he or she would remain cursed for eternity.


This is ugly theology and all Christians have rejected this part of Augustinian theology. After Augustine died the Catholic Church upgraded the fate of unbaptized babies from Hell to Limbo, which Pope Benedict XVI admitted is a theological fiction that should be abolished. Calvin and Luther embraced most of Augustine’s theology, including Original Sin, but refused to apply God’s eternal wrath to infants.  


So, we are all heretics for old Augustine. Yet many people who disagree with the Old Bishop continue to defend him. You can explore these ideas in more depth by reading: Augustine  - Luther  - Calvin  - Pelagius - Original Sin.


The Celtic tradition taught by J. Philip Newell is closely related to Pelagius, who was an Irish monk, and so the Celtic connection goes back at least 1,500 years.  Part of the Celtic tradition is strictly Christian – I would argue that it is the only form of Christianity not corrupted by Augustine and his ugly ideas about Original Sin, divine wrath and infant damnation.  There is another part of Celtic Christianity that comes out of a pre-Christian tradition. The two tend to get mixed up. Matthew Fox, who wrote Original Blessings (the inverse of Original Sin) is particularly despised by orthodox Christian for mixing Christian theology with other belief systems. It is all dismissed as New Age mumbo jumbo and heretical. Remember that for Augustine, every sinner who was not a baptised Catholic remained a child of wrath. Outside the church, no salvation. Non-Christian belief systems were all equally false and demonic. There are many Christians who still believe that Jews, Druids, Hindus, Buddhists (and even Catholics!) are all objects of wrath. Today let us examine only the ‘Christian’ part of the Celtic tradition. J. Philip Newell in the Christ of the Celts presents four key ideas.


1. The universe was not created ‘out of nothing’ (ex nihilo) but out of the essence and being of God.  This might seem like an obscure distinction but orthodox Christianity defends the ex nihilo doctrine while the Celtic tradition says that the universe and everything is part of a living God.  Some of the language Newell uses to describe the living, breathing heart of God is poetical and overlaps with New Age descriptions of Gaia the living earth God.  Is it heretical? Does it deny the power and glory of God? No.


2. The Celtic tradition adamantly rejects the Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin.  So did Pelagius and all subsequent Pelagians, semi-pelagians. The enemy of Original Sin in Protestant Reformation days was Jacobus Arminius and all subsequent Arminians and semi-arminians are condemned as heretics by disciples of Wrath.   The the Believer’s Dilemma page on Chuck Smith and James White presents this old conflict in contemporary language.


As noted above, Augustine believed in infant damnation. This idea has been universally rejected. Augustine, Luther and Calvin believed that human nature is so badly corrupted that the unregenerate are enemies of God and would never choose righteousness of their own freewill. This idea has been almost universally rejected. Augustine, Luther and Calvin believed that God alone predestined an elect few for eternal salvation, through no choice of their own and no effort on their own behalf. This idea has been almost universally rejected.  In short, the modern church is far closer to the beliefs of Pelagius than those of Augustine.   


3. Newell alienates many orthodox and conservative Christians when he rejects the idea that Jesus Christ had to die a violent death on the cross as a blood sacrifice to appease the God of Wrath.   Celtic Christianity emphasises the love of God, which most Christians would agree with, but does so in a language that appears irreconcilable with some of the foundational beliefs of Christianity (sin, atonement, judgement). The infinite love of the Celtic God can sound like a New Age deity who is infinitely tolerant and indifferent to sin. I do not believe this is true, and will return to this in a moment.


4. Salvation, in the Celtic tradition, is about healing. It is sanctification in real and tangible fashion.  The Augustinian tradition is based on imputed sin (via the rebellion in Eden) and imputed righteousness (via the substitutionary sacrifice of the cross).  The problem we struggle with is real sin, not some imputed evil from the ancient past. Salvation should free us from real sin which causes real suffering.  Traditional Christianity is too focussed on Original Sin to provide an efficacious remedy for real, personal sin, other than via imputed forgiveness.  Augustine provided Purgatory as a mechanism to eradicate every vestige of personal sin. Protestants dismiss Purgatory as a ludicrous fiction and many Catholics relegate Purgatory to the realm of allegory.  The Protestant tradition offers even less in the way of healing and transformation.  God alone imposes salvation on the elect and will perform some kind of spiritual lobotomy after death to prepare the ex-sinner for paradise. This only makes sense to Calvin and Luther had who entirely eliminated freewill.


Most modern Christians believe in freewill and personal responsibility for sin. The old traditions of Augustine, Luther and Calvin have little or nothing to say about freewill and sanctification as we understand them in the modern world.  The Believer’s Dilemma interviewed religious leaders from six different Christian denominations.  On one hand, there was an attempt to defend traditional doctrine about Original Sin. The entire Young Earth phenomenon exists for one reason – to defend Original Sin and the ‘literal, historical event in Eden’ which substantiates it.  See the two pages on William Dembski for an examination of the peculiar way in which this works.   Denominations which reject an Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin could all be accused of New Age ambiguity and heresy.


Who is the real heretic, Pelagius who preached God’s love and healing for all, or Augustine, who preached God’s wrath for all and salvation for an elect few? It is easy to see why many sincere believers turn away from Augustine’s Gospel of Wrath to seek alternatives.  Unfortunately Christian theologians have not provided a pre-Augustinian alternative. They have failed to renounce Original Sin as an insidious doctrine that has caused immeasurable misery and division.  Instead, they have tinkered with the most offensive elements, while clinging to the core idea that all evil begins in Eden and that only Christianity offers salvation. This can all become complicated and highly theological.  


The Believer’s Dilemma always returns to two simple ideas. 


The first comes from the teaching of Jesus. In the Gospel of Matthew (22: 37-39) Jesus summarised all Judeo-Christian theology in the Golden Rule: Love God, Love your neighbour.   What would Jesus have said about a theology that condemns all Jews and Gentiles, has threatened them with eternal damnation, and has even persecuted them unto death?


The second idea is that the Garden of Eden is not about human rebellion and divine wrath. Eden is a story about God warning humans of the consequences of freewill – many choices will cause suffering – and granting us unlimited to freedom for good and for evil.  All of human history is about learning (or failing to learn) how to use our freedom wisely. God is not angry and inflicting suffering on depraved sinners. God is always waiting for us to turn away from evil so we can be healed with all the power of divine love and grace.


The final story in the Bible is the 1,000 year resurrection of the dead. This is a perfect bookend for the first story in the Bible, Eden.


Augustine, Luther and Calvin - although Bible literalists in many ways - all rejected a literal, future resurrection of the dead. It was absolutely incompatible with their wrathful belief in Original Sin. Salvation, for them, was available to Christians alone. However the 1,000 year resurrection provides a time and a place when all nations, religions and races will be free to choose between righteousness and evil. Salvation is available to all who seek righteousness because there is one God, the creator all and, yes, as New Age-y as it might sound, we are all beloved children.   


If you want to think more about this, see the Brief History of Gospel of Wrath.


And here is a thoughtful review of J. Philip Newell’s Christ of the Celts.


Comment or Question? 


Tags: J. Philip Newell, Christ of the Celts, Matthew Fox, Original Blessings, Augustine, Pelagius, Luther, Calvin, Arminius.