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.


*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.

8 thoughts on “Sincere Heresy

  1. rilla

    I came to similar conclusions when I was taking a class about the early Christian church. It was interesting to see this body of men trying to decide what should be truth and what shouldn’t be truth. It put such a human face on the whole thing.

    That’s about the time that *I* became a heretic.

  2. Phil L

    “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.” …
    It seems to me that in today’s postmodern culture, this is more likely to happen than in previous times. When people believed that truth was absolute and our role as limited humans was to sincerely and humbly seek that truth, it left a lot of room to vigorously debate issues in a spirit of love. I wonder if sometimes we avoid debating some of those issues because our view of truth is so flexible that we think that others’ truth is as valid as my truth, but I don’t like that truth so I’ll start my own church because there is no chance of continuing on a mutual journey toward a common truth.

  3. Toni

    I’d understood the definition of a heretic was someone who held to a belief that would cause them to lose their salvation: that Jesus was just one path of many to salvation, for example.

  4. Marc Post author

    Isn’t that more like apostasy? If you abandon belief that leads to salvation, haven’t you simply given up the faith altogether?

  5. Andrew

    and some would say that “a belief that would cause them to lose their salvation” is a heresy in itself, because it presupposes one can do anything to lose or gain salvation…

  6. Marc Post author

    Good point, Andrew. I was thinking something along those lines, but didn’t know how to say it.

    Having said that, isn’t there something to “right belief”? The believing doesn’t save, but if you no longer believe, then…

    (that whole “confess with your mouth and believe in your heart” thing)

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