You know those cherub figurines? The chubby cheeks and perfectly tousled hair, chins resting thoughtfully in palms, newly sprouted wings, angelic eyes aglow? Harmless, right? But what if I told you there was a sinister heresy behind those winsome smiles, a dark theology imbedded in the lure of baby fat?
Babies are cute, right? Babies masquerading as innocent angelic beings? Not so much. Oh, come on, you say. Aren’t they just adorable? The heretic Pelagius (354-418 AD) certainly would have thought so. Perhaps he drew inspiration from Greco-Roman depictions of winged infants as manifestations of the spirits said to sway the course of human lives? More likely it was his refusal to allow the Word of God to define doctrine.
You see, Pelagius had this anti-biblical anthropology. Not only was humanity not thrust into total depravity through the sin of Adam, but man could achieve righteousness through his own ability. All he must do is exert the full force of his free will. Sure, he believed God’s grace had something to do with it, but grace was not the sovereign working of God, but merely an example, a map men could follow to chart their own path to salvation. In Pelagius’ view, men might as well have wings for all their inherent goodness.
Which brings us back to the host of baby cherubim… These beatific bairns trace their artistic roots to the pagan bacchanals of Ancient Greece where they represented fertility and abundance. Their appearances then were not so angelic as the modern interpretations, and the babes were often depicted in raucous revelries (sans wings). From there the putti (as they would come to be known during the Renaissance period) found their place as embellishment in Italian statuary, often alongside religious depictions. Italian sculptor Donatello, the so-called creator of the putto, drew inspiration from Greek portrayals, calling the tots spiritelli in reference to the Greco-Roman idea of spirits as the evokers of human thought and emotion. These spirits were often portrayed as plumed progeny. (Think Cupid, the mythological god of erotic love typically portrayed as a fey adolescent with wings.)
Taking off in ancient art and thought, the babes continued their flight into the Baroque and Victorian periods. Now the angelic offspring adorn mantles, oversee family gardens, and perch atop the bookshelves of pro-life ministries.
The problem lies not in the putto’s artistic merit (personally, I’ve always found them unsettling), but in what these images convey—namely the innate purity of infancy. Yet the Bible communicates something quite different. In Adam, all creation has fallen. Not one of us is born innocent but stained by the curse of that first sin. The idea of an age of accountability−some magical benchmark when you become responsible for your individual sin−is Pelagian both in its presumption of innocence and in its implication of free will (ideas that are wholly American and wholly unbiblical). The baby as a sinless being is a common misconception even in Christian circles, so serious is the confusion.
The prevalence of Pelagianism is deadly, for to misunderstand the nature of sin is to misunderstand the gospel. We need a savior because as heirs of Adam we are sinful at birth, sinful from the time our mothers conceived us (Psalm 51:5). Without the doctrine of total depravity, why the need for salvation (Romans 5:12-21)? Both physical and spiritual deaths are results of the Fall.
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—Romans 5:12, NIV
Imbedded in the Pelagian delusion is the belief that our sin is not that big of a deal to God. In this it completely misses the character of God, His unfathomable holiness, as well as the character of man—the chasm that exists between creature and Creator. When viewing sin as a minor slight against God, it’s easy to imagine a way we might maintain our innocence in His sight through the power of our will. But the gulf between us and God is not a creek easily leaped or a river forded; it is a canyon without limit, a rent so deep we cannot comprehend its width or depth. Hence the need for a mediator, a bridge between God and man−the God-man.
Indeed “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” before a holy God (Isaiah 64:6). Yet the hope that is ours is that while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). Repent and believe (Mark 1:15)! That is the message of the true gospel. Forget Pelagius; you cannot save yourself.
For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.Romans 3:28, NIV
So the next time you are captured in a cherub’s seemingly innocuous gaze, consider the lifeless chill of ceramic and recall the deadness of the unregenerate man in his sin (Ephesians 2:1-3). But in all seriousness: the nature of man is no playful thing. Not even babies have wings.
Recommended Reading: The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul