Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Heretics, part 2: The heretical continuum

I wanted to make sure everyone saw Vince's comment:

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.


Vince is right to point out that heresy suggests a very specific meaning in the context of Christian orthodoxy: doctrine that is so far out of the norm that it must be officially rejected by the gathered church. In the historical sense, there are sharply defined boundaries between orthodoxy and heresy. Either you're orthodox or you're not, just like Vince said. There is basically a list of beliefs that are out-of-bounds enough that they don't deserve the label of Christianity, and there is a list of beliefs that constitute orthodox Christian belief.

These concepts are problematic because of what they don't say about the rest of Christian belief. There is a wide gulf between historical orthodoxy and historical heresy, but any issue that is even slightly more squishy meets silence. You might say, following Paul, that we should "Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters" (Romans 14:1 ff.).

All well and good, but meanwhile, for instance, the issue of gay priesthood is tearing the Anglican church apart (the latest). The crux of the issue is whether or not a particular point of doctrine counts enough to pass judgment on, whether or not it is a disputable matter that gays should be candidates to be priests. Is this issue important enough to cause a schism in the church to preserve the belief? Does the centrality of this belief rise to the same level as the historical orthodoxies?

Suppose, as Vince basically says, orthodoxy is about basic, weighty issues of the nature of God, Jesus, and salvation, and its contents can be confined to the creeds. Or, suppose as the letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 6, put it, that orthodoxy involves the elementary beliefs of "repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment." Where does that leave issues like gay marriage, the gay priesthood, or the other "minor heresy" issues that were not covered in councils hundreds of years ago? Where I think it leaves them is somewhere between the center and the periphery of belief. Our friend Sarah mentioned that her husband had to do a homework at school where he placed a long list of beliefs on this continuum, stretching from "timeless, central" to "temporal, peripheral".

In the context of heresies, thus, all heresies are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Another aphorism is also coming to mind: "One person's heresy is another person's orthodoxy". I suppose over the course of this little series, I will be trying to ask whether we can get any deeper definitions of orthodoxy than "what the orthodox people say". I bring this up because the belief that is orthodox in the end did not necessarily outnumber the belief that was orthodox in the beginning. Is the Kierkegaardian knight of faith, denying the community standard in favor of the will of God, a heretic? Ponder Martin Luther. It may be helpful to remember that I am thinking about this. It also occurs to me that there may be better words for what I am trying to talk about than "orthodoxy" and "heresy". If you know them, please suggest them.

The other reason I tried to talk about my dunking baptism in the context of heresy is because of a commentary on Dante's Inferno: The Figure of Beatrice, by Charles Williams. Williams writes:
[By heresy Dante] meant an obduracy of the mind; a spiritual state which defied, consciously, a power 'to which trust and obedience are due'; an intellectual obstinacy. A heretic, strictly, was a man who knew what he was doing; he accepted the Church, but at the same time he preferred his own judgment to that of the Church.


From the day I read this passage, I've thought of heresy in the context of disobedience to the will of the church. I felt it was important enough to become a member of Maranatha to accept a belief I thought was wrong (or, at best, only weakly justifiable). The heretics are willing to insist, against the will of the church where they are a member, on their own ideas and the actions springing from those ideas. In a sense, they love their idea of the church more than they love the real church; their problem is a lack of humility. We often think of heresy as incorrect belief; I think another aspect of heresy is that it is a belief held against the community.

The gray area of orthodoxy only gives rise to more questions. For instance, where Vince says, "Heresies are extreme 'wrong-thinking' positions that would put one outside the limited doctrines of orthodox Christianity", the hidden assumption is about where those limits are. Are they only the conclusions of A, B, and C ancient councils? And if so, by what authority do they draw their conclusions? If you say on the authority of the Bible, how must you read the Bible? By what authority do you choose the right way to read the Bible? (The Catholics have interesting answers to these questions; friend of the Lewis family Mark Shea wrote an illuminating book on those answers, By What Authority?)

Again, what makes an orthodox belief orthodox? And we might add, what makes an orthodox belief central rather than peripheral?

I also skimmed lightly over a subject that really requires more attention, which is how we should treat the heretics, both in the historical sense and in the more squishy sense of people who hold beliefs we find offensive to our personal definition of orthodoxy. So, we have plenty to talk about.

On a personal note, we had to take our friend Sarah (originally from England, but our friend for many years from her time at USU, now taking up some missionary work overseas with her husband) to Denver International tonight. It was a bit of a strange parting, as we are dear friends, but we are unlikely to see each other for five years, and that at a minimum. When we got to ticketing, we were surprised to find Ina Williams and Kathy Eccles from Logan wearing enormous backpacks, waiting for a ride to begin a hiking trip. Our paths overlapped for about ten minutes, but it was great to see some more friends out here.

1 comment:

vince said...

By the way, I won't cast a heretic to hell ... your safe. But I prefer making words mean something. So there is orthodox Christianity and it means something. I have always liked the Belief Statement at the Salt Lake Seminary website (hope they haven't changed it). They serve all Christian Churches that hold to the Nicene Creed. Let's see. That basically covers Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholics, Reformed Protestants, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Barthians ... in other words orthodox Christians.

I am willing to admit that Mormons, some unitarians, and Jehovah Witnesses are unorthodox Christians, but if I say 'Christian', my first preference is to make it mean what most people mean when they say 'Christian' ... orthodox.

As to whether unorthodox Christians belong in heaven and hell (whatever these are exactly), God will have to decide who belongs where. I am quite hopeful that God's grace is rather broadly given to all takers of the Right-Thinking Test.