Saturday, August 09, 2008

Defining Heresy part two

My posing the question about the definition of heresy has created an interesting conversation -- something I of course like to see! Michael raised the question of my equating heresy and heterodoxy. With that in mind, I looked up the terms in the Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology (a largely British work published in 1983). In this dictionary Alan Richardson does short work with the term heterodoxy = "Contrary to the received opinion; unorthodox." Stephen Sykes, however, goes into some detail as to the definition and usage of the term heresy.

He writes:

The traditional meaning of the term was rigorously defined in medieval canon law to signify the sin of a person who, having been baptized and calling him or herself a Christian, denies a defined doctrine of the faith even after having been formally instructed. 'Formal' heresy is such persistent adherence to erroneous teaching; 'material' heresy means adherence to error, without any culpability (for example, because the truth has never been presented as such). The definition of heresy is logically dependent, therefore, on that of defined doctrine. It presupposes that Christian truth may be known in such a way that one can recognize doctrines bearing a certain resemblance to the truth, but denying its substance. (S.v. "Heresy." By S. W. Sykes, , The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, Alan Richardson, editor. Westminster Press, 1983).

Such a definition of heresy requires a central teaching office/creedal formulation by which one is judged or judges oneself. For a noncreedal church like mine, the idea of heresy is problematic. I suppose we could say that one is heterodox -- that is, one is doing things or believing things that are contrary to received tradition (the way we've always done things) -- but it would be difficult to say that one is a heretic. In this day and age, in which most people wander from one denomination to another, an age that is ecumenical in practice even if not in name, calling one a heretic is difficult. But of course, we can still try!

However, if we use Michael's definition that includes schism (breaking fellowship or relationship) then the founders of the Disciples would affirm the word. For they were deeply concerned about the breaking of fellowship within the Christian community. It is why they embraced John Locke's ideas of a simple gospel that reflects the Biblical witness. Indeed there was the belief that only that which is clearly stated in the New Testament should be held up as necessary. Thus, while Alexander Campbell believed in the Trinity (in principle) he would neither use the word nor require it of others. This allowed him to stand in fellowship with Barton Stone, who likely was of an Arian persuasion. They disagreed as to the divine nature of Jesus, but they joined together in Christian fellowship.

1 comment:

Steve Kindle said...

Discussing heresy/heterodoxy gives me an opportunity to opine about a notion of mine that has been a long time coming. As a former theist (in the classical sense), I thought of God as “out there”, speaking the world into existence, looking down upon the earth and me, rearranging events in time and space (miracles), and revealing God’s self from time to time to humans, either in bodily form (theophany) or through visions, audible voice, etc., finally to end all such revelatory moments with the culmination of the completed biblical canon. The ultimate elucidation of this from a Fundamentalist/Evangelical perspective is found in Francis Schaeffer’s God Is There and He Is not Silent.

For Martin Heidegger, the essential question is, Why is there something rather than nothing? For me it is, Why did God choose to leave us with a verbal revelation and make us depend upon faith and fallible human reason when God could have (since God can do anything) personally intervened in such a way to make clear beyond interpretive effort, what God expects of humanity?

Seeing the considerable damage that verbal revelation dependent faith has caused (theology from above), (everyone is a heretic from someone’s point of view), I am driven to the conclusion that God is not just unwilling to clearly intervene, but cannot. (This is also the answer to theodicy, but that is for another response.)

Therefore, from a panentheistic perspective, all theology is from below, that is, originates in the human. However, this does not mean that the human is unaided by God, for God is prompting us all to move forward in love and become love. Yes, this is halting, backpedaling and far from completed, yet it is in process. It is by its very nature incomplete and somewhat ambiguous, and not confined to one religion. But it is all we have to go on. So, let’s ease up on heretics and realize that we all get it wrong to a greater or lesser degree, yet are bound together by God’s pursuit of us that never fails when we act out of love. (Okay, let’s now parse the notion of what an act of love is and create more heretics by our disagreements over this. In that case, I think something other than God is doing the prompting!)