Monday, September 03, 2007

Heretics, part 1

Bored holes through our tongues
So sing a song about it
Held our breath for too long
Till we're half sick about it
Tell us what we did wrong
And you can blame us for it
Turn the clamp on our thumbs
We're so whipped out about it

Heretics -- Andrew Bird

Some of my friends already know the story of my second baptism. Or rather, my second water baptism. (There is stuff in the Bible about a believer's second baptism; after water, then the Holy Spirit. I guess this story is about my third baptism.) My parents did not baptize my brother, my sisters, and I when we were infants. Instead, we were supposed to make our own choice when we grew up. I held out the longest, I think; anyway, it was a long time, and I was baptized at age 20 in the Presbyterian church in Seattle I grew up going to (at 8th Ave S and S 200 St, across the street from where Mt. Rainier is right now; they moved it into Olympic Elementary, where I went to the first grade). There are pictures floating around of the whole thing, of Pastor Ben Lindstrom blessing me and marking the sign of the cross on my forehead. It was as good as I could imagine; I still look back on that event with a sense that it was very good indeed.

After I got to Utah, married Sarah, and settled in, Sarah and I decided that we wanted to declare our membership in Maranatha Baptist Church after some years of going there. This meant to us that we were affirming our relationships with the people there, kind of like saying that we were part of a family now.

There was just a little catch. One of the Baptist distinctives is full-immersion water baptism. What that means is that the ceremony that marked a passage into spiritual adulthood, that publicly stated my faith and commitment as a Christian, that symbolized my death and rebirth into a new life, just as Christ died and lived again, not to mention the spiritual ramifications... that wussy sprinkling of water on top of my head just wasn't making it for the Baptists. My membership of Maranatha would be inaugurated in a white robe, holding my nose, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, underwater.

Or not.

Pastor Emerson came to our apartment to talk membership over with Sarah and I. I brought up the fact that I had already been baptized, so this wouldn't, couldn't mean exactly the same thing to me, and he seemed to accept that. He also wanted me to know that nevertheless, this was the Baptist way, their interpretation of the relevant Biblical sources, so it was not optional. The question then was whether or not I would accept that.

Welcome to the world of heresy and orthodoxy. Heresy means the wrong way; orthodoxy means the right way that heresy is wrong about. Sometimes, claims that violate some discipline's received wisdom are called heretical, but you will most often hear about heresy in the context of religious doctrine, where heresy means wrong belief.

Heresies, like Patripassianism and Arianism and Pelagianism and Manichaeism, are named after people, not ideas, and if you know what these people were thinking or disagreeing with in the context of their times, you are a historian. In fact, some of the theological issues involved are so abstruse that from a distance, if you don't know your history, you might not remember which idea is orthodox and which is the heretic. If I say homoiousios, for example, and say that it's a word used to say that Jesus was like God the Father, it sounds pretty innocuous. Until I tell you, you may not recognize it as one of the distinctives of a heresy that nearly split the Christian church down the middle in the 4th century.

Who orthodoxes the orthodox? How can we tell the orthodox from the heretical?


Jen said...

It's nice to hear your thinking on this. I wrestled with the decision of whether or not to be baptized at Maranatha, and ultimately decided against it. I find myself struggling again with the decision...under different circumstances now though. With kids now, it changes my motives a bit...puts things into perspective more. I can't be a "member" of our current church unless I'm baptized (because I was infant baptized by sprinkling not dunking). Every so often, it comes to mind and I wrestle for a while, then continue to put it off. I don't like that...doesn't seem right. It's one thing to decide yes or no, but I strongly suspect God doesn't appreciate fence-sitters.

Dan Lewis said...

Jen, you reminded me of something Martin Luther once said, "Esto peccator et pecca fortiter, sed fortius fide et gaude in Christo", or "Be a sinner and sin boldly, but more boldly have faith and rejoice in Christ".

In this context, I guess I extended that to "obey boldly". I had to trust in God's leading me to participate in this community as my only justification for my dunking, because I saw no other reason.

I don't think that God deceives us, but I think you can earnestly live a Christian life that you also look back on with regret. The clarity of hindsight and of God's spirit certainly lead me to that conclusion about my life. But bold obedience in error is better than obedience not courageous enough to fall into error.

This is something that troubles me about the heretics; maybe they promoted something that reveals itself as really wrong in hindsight, and took views of Jesus or the Bible that were, in the long run, debilitating for their spiritual lives and the life of the church.

But they were the cream of the Christian church; Origen, for instance, was anathematized in 553, but many of his works have been preserved because of his outstanding commentary on the Bible.

It's sometimes difficult to tell the madmen from the geniuses.

vince said...

Two wonderful people from Maranatha Baptist Church history are Jim and Annette Williams. They were both 'sprinkle'-baptized as infants. They asked if they could become members of the church be were told that Baptists only recognize believer's baptism by immersion before local church membership was allowed. But they were welcome to stay and participate in worship with the congregation. It was recognized that they were believing Christians.

The Williams wanted to participate as Sunday School teachers, as Deacons, etc, but Maranatha required membership for these positions. This local membership is not identical to being members of (as protestants put it) the invisible body of Christ. Membership in a local Southern Baptist Church did require immersion baptism to conform to their understanding of the bible. The Williams would have to be 're-baptized' as adults to acknowledge the Baptist tradition of immersion baptism as a symbol of a 'grown-up' decision of faith to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Serving in another Christian denomination that did not hold to the Baptist interpretation would be an excellent choice, if the Williams did not want to be re-baptized. There is not a 'one-and-only-church' clause in Baptist theology. For the Williams, however, Logan did not have any other 'bible-teaching' alternative among the infant-baptizing churches. So the Williams decided to

1. make their public statement of belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior,
2. be re-baptized in the Baptist tradition to submit to the local body of believers,
3. state that they believe that God honored their first baptist.

The Williams taught Sunday School classes. Jim was a deacon. Jim became an elder.

As far as heresy:

I am certain that the Baptist tradition would not raise sprinkling-baptism to the level of heresy. It would be a disagreement of biblical interpretation, but the baptists would not anathematize the infant baptizer!

Heresies are extreme 'wrong-thinking' positions that would put one outside the limited doctrines of orthodox Christianity. There are not many 'right-thinking' requirements for most Christian denominations. The Nicene Creed probably covers the doctrines. Thus, the Mormon doctrine of three separate gods of in Godhead could reasonably be put in the category of heresy. Orthodox Christianity is Monotheistic with a trinitarian footnote.

There are a lot of little things Christians could disagree upon and still be within the 'one catholic (universal), apostolic church' and not be called a heretic. Mode of baptism is probably one of those non-heretical differences. There were both modes in Catholic history. I don't think any of the creeds (until you get to Baptists) included a mode of baptism. But since nearly all Baptists consider baptism a symbolic act, they would not insist that God only accept immersion-baptized people.

I think that most denominations and most Christians have very few things that are heresies.

Having said all that ... I keep running into too many Christians in conservative evangelical circles that have a very well-defined concept of what right-thinking Christianity is. This is certainly what Dan it talking about. Many of my thoughts on the age of the earth, on God's grace towards non-Christians, Bible understanding ... etc etc etc, would bring anathemas from some. So it goes.

Jen said...

I like that, Dan, "obey boldly." I like the third thing that Vince says the Williams' did...state that they believe God honored their first baptism. I think that hits on where I'm stuck. I do believe God honors my first baptism and I cower at the thought of being rebaptized and thus, in my mind, saying, "the first time wasn't good enough." I want to submit to and identify with the body I'm worshiping with and serving and God wants that and He isn't dishonored by my doing so. Hmmm. That's kinda I've struggled with this for fourteen years, and suddenly it doesn't seem so complicated. Thanks Dan and Vince!

(p.s. Vince, I"m quite certain some of my hubby's ideas would be anathematized as well, but he thinks about things a lot, and has a genuine desire to know and understand truth....some of his "heretical" thinking is probably more honoring to God than some of my "orthodox" behavior that I perform out of obligation and guilt that it's the "right" thing to do. )

jonathan said...

Just to throw another perspective into this discussion which I am joining late about baptism by immersion. Not all baptism by immersion is orthodoxy, either. I was baptized by immersion at the age of eight. It was in a LDS stake house somewhere north of the metropolis of Kimberly, Idaho. Was that baptism acceptable? No. Why not? It was preformed using a false priesthood, a false faith, and for literal cleansing.