Eric Nelson’s newest book, The Theology of Liberalism: Political Philosophy and the Justice of Godis a compelling and fascinating dive into the theological origins of liberalism. It spends most of its time looking into the intellectual origins of the most influential liberal political theorist of the twentieth century, John Rawls. Interestingly, Rawls’ undergraduate thesis at Princeton was directly inspired by neo-orthodox theologians Reinhold Niebuhr and Philip Leon. Why does this matter? As it turns out, Rawls was a closeted Augustinian, and his account of liberalism very much reflects this sensibility. But Rawls, as Nelson points out, stands out because his forebears in the liberal tradition held to a very different set of theological convictions that were Pelagian in origin. How so? 

Two points stand out in the primary conceptual development of liberalism that are absolutely essential, and both points, according to Nelson, are derived from theological debates between Augustinians/Calvinists and Pelagians/Arminians. The first had to do with original sin. Augustinians believed that in the fall of Adam all humanity fell, so that all humankind is born with a depraved human nature—in Augustine’s words, “turned in on itself.” We are born bent toward self-love. In relation to God, this means we are unable to obey God’s righteous law and are, therefore, not worthy to merit salvation apart from God’s grace, and God’s grace alone. That scary word “predestination” merely names the fact that if one believes that they are unable to merit salvation through any of their actions, then their hearts and wills shall remain in rebellion to God’s righteous law until God himself intervenes to renew the human heart that is spiritually dead. So those who are regenerated, raised to new life, by God’s Spirit have received this divine work as a gift through God’s grace and therefore deserves no merit. So far so good.

Nelson explains that for modern liberal political philosophers (John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, John Milton), this was unacceptable. They sought to vindicate God from the apparent injustice of imputing sin to human beings that they did not deserve because they did not commit Adam’s sin but inherited it. For God to impute such sin would be an injustice, so the doctrine of original sin should be discarded because of its defective view of God’s justice. Secondly, they sought to vindicate humanity from a dark and helpless status as depraved sinners who had no natural ability to follow God’s law. Likewise, God was on the hook for allowing a lot of evil and bad stuff to happen in this world for no discernable reason. And so, as these philosophers reasoned, the traditional answers to these questions supplied by orthodox Augustinian Christianity were inadequate and unjust.

The Theology of Liberalism argues that the solution these philosophers offered and endorsed was human freedom. If humans are free, then God is exonerated from being unjust because humans and humans alone are now responsible for their sin. God, no longer the terrible and predestining potentate, is free to judge each person according to his or her deeds. Furthermore, human freedom implies that humans possess the ability to live moral lives by freely choosing to do the right and are no longer hemmed in by sin but are ennobled as responsible agents who can freely choose righteousness unencumbered by a fallen will.

Thus, God and man are vindicated from the heavy load of the theodicy problem, but only at the cost of Christian orthodoxy. Humans are no longer sinners, and God is no longer the omnipotent God who freely gives his grace to a lost and depraved humanity. The metaphysical commitment to human freedom led to the political commitment to preserve a sphere of autonomy. Nelson summarizes, “If what has transcendent value is the freely chosen right, then individuals must be allowed to make choices in every facet of their lives” (19). The first bedrock conviction of liberalism—human freedom—arose because if humans are going to be held to account before God for their actions, then they must be free to choose, without hindrance, their own actions and path in life.

In our own day we see where this has led us. While this emphasis on human responsibility is a good thing, we have made an idol of free choice to the point that we will defend freedom of choice as an ultimate value in and of itself. But if Nelson is right, this intuition is driven by an essentially Pelagian impulse that humans have it “in our power to choose not to sin.” For an Augustinian, this is a gross distortion of reality, both empirically and theologically.

Nelson’s book explains that the second bedrock conviction of liberalism has to do with the issue of representation, and once again this takes the form of a theological debate that has political implications. Who counts as a legitimate representative of the people? The question arose in 1640s and ’50s England during debates between Royalists and Parliamentarians. Calvinists overwhelmingly supported the Parliamentarians, and Royalists, majority Arminian and anti-Calvinist, supported the king. But the background debates as to the nature of representation hinged on theological debate about the representative nature of Adam and Christ. Had all humanity fallen in the fall of Adam? Was Adam, as the Calvinists had adamantly argued, the “federal head” of all humanity? The debate about representation also connected to debates about the representative role of Christ in his salvific works.

Calvinists used the idea of representation of Adam and Christ to make an argument about the Parliament being a better and truer representation of the people because a closer similarity to the thing being represented. A true representation of something will have a closer likeness of the thing it is representing. So argues Henry Parker—a staunch Calvinist—who uses the theological rationale in regards to representation to assert, “For the Parliament being the representative of the people becomes thereby their living soul, including the will and desires of all the people, as comprehending them all.” Adam shared the same essence as his descendants and was, thus, a fitting representation. On this score, kings and monarchs are poor representations because they do not possess “a more full or neer” representation of the people.

Royalists, unsurprisingly, rejected the representation argument, asserting that similitude was not required for an agent or body to represent another. Kings and the Parliament were both authorized by the people, and both were representatives. All the of the detailed metaphysical accounts about representation were easily dismissed by claiming authorization was just a mechanism whereby one group authorizes a representative, whether it was a body or an individual. It was no accident that those who rejected the representation arguments were also Arminian anti-Calvinists who likewise rejected the representation arguments about Adam and original sin. As it turns out, there was a strong link between rejecting representation metaphysics and rejecting claims for Parliamentary superiority over the monarchy.

The story gains further relevance when Thomas Hobbes, the famous political philosopher and staunch Royalist, sides with the Arminian position, developing a similar account in his Leviathan. Hobbes shares the general Arminian denunciation of original sin and theory of representation that supports it, but for reasons Arminians would object to, namely, God’s will is the only measure of justice and injustice. As Hobbes puts it, “The power of God alone is sufficient Justification of any act he does… That which he does is made just by doing it.” We call this voluntarism. Rather than justice having an objective, transcendent standard, it is arbitrary in the truest sense: it is based upon whatever God does.

An interesting twist that Nelson points out is that Locke is hard to place in this debate because he straddles the fence. Theologically, Locke is an Arminian who rejected the Calvinist position on original sin. But he also defended an account of representation that appears quite sympathetic to Calvinist arguments. Whatever his sympathies, Locke’s Arminianism eventually leads him to embrace the authorization account that dismisses the importance of representation because it takes it out of the realm of what those who consent had in fact consented to, and not what someone else had said or done beforehand. Thus, we see how both the debate around representation and original sin come down to this crucial issue of the consenting individual, which becomes the center of the liberal tradition.

By far and away, I think it’s fair to say that the Pelagian nature of contemporary liberalism is the dominant strand, but it’s not the only strand. Calvinist Parliamentarians were making arguments about representations that were genuinely democratic in nature, stressing the importance of representative assemblies. Jeffrey Stout made this point awhile back in Democracy and Tradition. Responding to the critique of liberalism by Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, and Alasdair MacIntyre, Stout argued that liberalism need not be mere proceduralism or rights-based essentialism. There are liberal traditions. The Alasdair MacIntyre and Patrick Deneen criticisms of liberalism are helpful and on point in many respects, but, if we buy Nelson’s genealogy, then we can make a distinction between Pelagian-inspired accounts of liberalism (à la Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant) and ones with a stronger Augustinian sensibility that are more realistic about human fallibility, anti-utopian, and less centered on voluntary consent. Burke’s vision of society as a “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” carries forth the spirit of the Calvinist argument about representation.

Does this mean that Augustinian Christians should reject classical liberalism given that its primary heritage is Pelagian in inspiration? Not categorically, but I do think those Protestants and Catholics of an Augustinian bent cannot merely defend it as unproblematic. At the very least, there is, in the DNA of liberalism, a deeply embedded Pelagianism that we must come to grips with if we seek to redeem it from its worst propensities.