Tag Archives: doctrine

Sincere Heresy

Or, Heretics are People, too; or, Erring in Love.

Generally when you hear the word “heresy” or “heretic”, what do you think of?  In the past I would have thought of a heretic at root as someone bent on destroying the faith from the inside with unorthodox theology or doctrine.  The technical definition–belief at odds with established belief of a religious system–is less demonizing; “unorthodox belief” is a gentler way of referring to heresy.  Saying “That’s a bit unorthodox, isn’t it?” has a much more amenable ring to it than does “That’s heresy!”, even though they mean the same thing.

I was reading an essay by Rowan Williams (Archbishop of the Church of England) in which he discusses the Arian heresy, which was a 4th century controversy relating to the relationship between the Father and the Son.  “Arianism” was a particular theological/doctrinal viewpoint in that debate which posited that Jesus was the highest in the created order, but that he was nonetheless created–and subordinate and distanced from the Father.  What was at stake was the both the divinity of Christ (which was already believed, but not codified) and the nature of salvation.  The Nicene (-Constantinopolitan) Creed, which all branches of the Christian church accept, was in large part a response to Arian thought.

But I digress…

I was struck by the following phrase in Williams’ essay: “It is obvious that Arius’ main concern is to secure the uniqueness of the Father and the dependence of the Logos on the Father’s decision” and that Arius argues that the co-eternality of the Father and Son comes “unacceptably close to the ‘two first principles’ error he is keen to rule out.” (Rowan Williams, “Athanasius and the Arian Crisis” in The First Christian Theologians)

And it suddenly hit me: someone holding heretical views is not necessarily bent on destroying the church or in cahoots with devil-worshipers (to put a more popular culture spin on it).  The heretic may well be speaking out of sincere love for God and concern for how he is spoken of and worshipped; a heretic may well be speaking out of sincere love for truth, the church, the body of Christ.  A heretic may well be a person of devout faith.

Arius, at least judging by Rowan Williams’ account, was not interested in destroying the church, but seems to have been speaking out of devotion to God.

Of course, sincerity doesn’t make a heretical belief any less heretical (just as orthodoxy isn’t measured by sincerity) and sincerity can be misguided.  But the language of some in the church today and the unfortunate actions of some in the church in the past would suggest that the heretic belongs in the category of serial rapists and murderers (or worse).  I believe, of course, that heresy can be dangerous and needs correction*, but…heretics are people, too, and may well be erring in love, if that makes any sense.

EDITED TO ADD: This also, incidentally, includes those with beliefs different than ours, particularly between members of the church. Those of us brought up in a more conservative environment would do well to consider that many of those who are wrestling with and rethinking the issues of, say, abortion or gay marriage/ordination, are doing so out of love for and allegiance to Jesus Christ and his way.  Conversely, some of those among the fundamentalist ranks who refuse to even consider reexamining some of these things are doing so out of fear or self-preservation, rather than loyalty to Christ and his way.

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*In the Protestant wing of the church correction of heresy is, I imagine, difficult, because implicit in the Protestant tradition is the notion that if you don’t like my ideas (or I don’t like yours), I’ll just go and start my own church.  And I suspect that there is quite a bit of heresy, in the technical sense of the term, within Protestant Christiainity.

Apostolic and Patristic (and 2000th post!)*

An interesting bit from Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church, one of the texts for the “Patristic Fathers” seminary course I am taking:

I want to emphasize the indissoluble connection that existed between the apostolic and the patristic church.  The two should indeed be distinguished, the apostolic representing the voices of those who were the first disciples and hearers of the Lord.  But far too often we take the artificial boundaries established in textbooks for purposes of clarifying the stages in church history as real divisions.  Calling the time of the apostles “apostolic” and what followed “catholic” [small-“c”] has served not only to distinguish the latter period as post-apostolic but also to depict it as a series of developments not in keeping with the original apostolic charter. . . [by this division] the apostolic reliance on the gifts and freedom of the Spirit  was transformed in into the fixing of tradition and doctrinal content known as “catholicism,” in which a “canon of faith” eclipsed the spiritual simplicity of Jesus.  But it is one thing to observe changes of development and quite another to create a disjunction.  One can point to a formation of doctrinal tradition in the earliest apostolic writings and dependency upon the Spirit’s leading in later patristic texts.  A strict delineation between the apostolic and the patristic is no more than a theoretical construct that fails at integrating the historical evidence.  The manual of Christian practice and worship known as the Didache originated in the area of northern Syria, as did the Gospel of Matthew, and was produced within a generation or less of the Gospel.  First Clement was written, just like Revelation, in the mid 90s of the first century.  Yet one was eventually regarded as apostolic and the other patristic.  The reasons for this distinction are not always apparent, underscored by the evidence that 1 Clement and the Didache were regarded as Scripture (as were some other patristic works) by certain churches.  The distinctions we so readily make today between the apostolic  and patristic were not clear to the Christians who were living in those times. (pp. 52-3)

Still with me?  I bet I lost 95% of you or more.  Anyway, interesting stuff.  Here’s the nutshell version: historically, there is no clear division between the apostolic age (that is, the age  of those who were direct disciples of Jesus, or at least taught by an direct disciple) and the apostolic age (the age of the direct successors of the apostles) and therefore no basis on which to say former age was purer period of the church than the latter.

(I admit you came to mind as I read this, Toni, and your comment here—though now that I’ve read the comment again, it only marginally relates.  🙂 )

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*I never imagined that my 2000th post would be such a dull one.

RLP on hell

I’m not sure how popular or unpopular Real Live Preacher is among my readers, but I usually find his perspective quite refreshing.  He recently did a video series on hell, examining the traditional conservative evangelical view.  He first asked his readers to give him all the verses in the New Testament (he argues the OT has little to nothing to say about hell) that have been used to argue for the existence of hell.  Then he takes them all and lists them, giving brief context, the word used (i.e. Hades, Gehenna), and who the passage says will go to hell.  In  the third video, he gives his take on the issue, based on his study of the NT passages.  And in the fourth and final video, he makes some suggestions.

His conclusion?  1.  Very little specific can be said about hell using scripture; and 2. we spend far too much time sitting around deciding who will go to hell than we do simply loving our neighbours.  He suggests, in a nutshell, that we should stop thinking about hell and whether or not our neighbour will go there and just be a loving neighbour.

There are 4 videos in the series: Part 1 (introduction/set up), Part 2 (the cold facts of the NT—the verses listed), Part 3 (RLP’s conclusions) and Part 4 (some further thoughts).  I recommend it, even if in the end you disagree with it.  (Each video is around 8 minutes long or less.)