Defining Heresy

In an earlier posting I asked the question: What is a Christian? That question came up in part because of questions about Barack Obama's faith profession. By some people's measure, he's not one. The question arises then about heresy -- and who is a heretic.

First, regarding Obama, it might be interesting to point out that in the 1800 election the John Adams campaign ran against Thomas Jefferson's apparent lack of religious conviction. Adams, was in the minds of some the Christian candidate -- note however that while Adams was more "religious" than Jefferson and considered himself a Christian, he was also a Unitarian. What is also interesting is that the group that put Jefferson over the top were Baptists!

But back to heresy. The word heresy is a synonym for heterodoxy -- that is, other than orthodox. To a Trinitarian a Unitarian is heterodox, but wouldn't the committed Unitarian see the Trinitarian as heterodox? Indeed, in many ways Christianity started out as a heterodox Jewish sect and in many ways we remain that. Muslims would consider Christians heterodox as well for we have broadened out the concept of monotheism to allow for a Trinity (that is if you're of the Trinitarian branch of Christianity).

Michael brings up dispensationalism -- in many ways it is heterodox. It is a fairly modern invention that unduly forces Scripture into a box. I might say the same about Creationism, which forces the Genesis text to speak on modern scientific issues. By that I mean, it is making it do something other than what it was intended to do. But the question then remains: who decides what is orthodox and heterodox?

As a Protestant there is no magisterium to decide this for me. As a Disciple I don't have an official creed that guides my interpretation. I am left to reason, tradition, experience, and the Spirit to guide my readings of Scripture and Christian experience. Am I a heretic? In the minds of many I probably am. Do I consider others heretical in their thinking -- well yes I do. But all that means is that as I look at the views of certain others, I've come to the conclusion that their views are deficient in some way. Now the question is: does that make them not a Christian or less than a Christian? Sometimes I feel that way, but the question is: who has given me the authority? I do have the right and responsibility to discern that which is right and good and that which is not. I'm perfectly in my rights to challenge that which I believe is out of character with the Gospel. But the task of ultimately judging what is in the heart of another -- well that's not my job!


Anonymous said…
Are there any theological tenets which are compulsory for a Christian?

Or, for those of us who perceive God as a universal God, any theological/ethical tenets which God desires humans in general to embrace?

Does God expect people who are less intelligent, or less intellectually inclined, or less educated, or illiterate to embrace compulsory tenets with the same degree of depth and understanding as people who are more intellectually adept or better educated? Or is there a different standard?

Mystical Seeker said…
I think that theology matters in some sense. But I don't think that that most of what people argue about matters for purposes of anyone's eternal salvation, and all this focus on who is and isn't a Christian is mostly a lot of wasted effort, in my opinion. Labeling people as "in" or "out" is not what I think religion should be about. Instead of worrying about who gets to belong to one's own exclusive club based on what arcane tenet one subscribes to, why not instead just focus on being as loving and inclusive as possible?
Anonymous said…
My interest in discerning what God wants me to believe, i.e., 'correct theology' is not due to my concern for salvation, which is and always in God's hands, but due to my desire to please God.

Unless one believes that God is only concerned with our ethical conduct, after one is as loving and inclusive as God commands, this question needs to be addressed.

If you think God is only concerned with ethics, then religion, all religions are truly irrelevant. Even many pagans have ethics based on love and compassion

Mystical Seeker said…
If you think God is only concerned with ethics, then religion, all religions are truly irrelevant. Even many pagans have ethics based on love and compassion

And more power to those pagans. Yes, I do think that God is concerned with how we treat other people over and above which estoteric doctrine we hold to. I couldn't disagree more with the notion that all religions are "irrelevant" if God accepts that there is not just one path. On the contrary, any religion that gives people a path for transformation and a relationship with something transcendent is valuable. The idea that there has to be only one valid path or else all paths are worthless (or irrelevant) doesn't hold water. The validity of a path doesn't diminish simply because there are also other paths.
Anonymous said…
Mystical Seeker,

If one thinks that God is ONLY concerned with ethical behavior, then religion is irrelevant.

But if one believes God is concerned about ethics AND about how a human may best participate in a relationship with God, then religion(s) become important, both as a guide and in a sense, as a partner.

I agree that God speaks to different people differently and relates to different people and different cultures through different faith traditions.

So I ask two questions, seeking first principles for Christians in their relationship with God as known in our tradition, and seeking first principles which may apply to non-Christians generally, across all faith traditions. The later question assumes there is only one God, though this God may be known in different ways.

Mystical Seeker said…
If one thinks that God is ONLY concerned with ethical behavior, then religion is irrelevant.

I don't know about ONLY. That's a strong word. I do think that God is primarily concerned with how we treat other people. I also think that religion would only be irrelevant if religions did not concern themselves with ethical human behavior. But they do.

A world without religion would be an emptier place. So would a world without art, music, and poetry. Yet there are plenty of people who seem to do just fine in their lives without having an explicit relationship with God. In any case, if given a choice between a world full of ethical people who had no religion, and religious people with no ethics, I'd take the former in a heartbeat. As far as I am concerned, a "relationship" with God that does not manifest itself in how we treat others is a meaningless, empty faith.

Religion enhances a lot of people's lives in a lot of ways. If God wants our lives to be enhanced (and I believe he/she does), then for people of a spiritual bent, I am sure that God wants them to enrich their lives spiritually via a spiritual relationship--just as I am sure that God would love for those of us who love art, poetry, and music, to get the most out of such things. But our "relationship" with God won't feed the hungry, cure the sick, or end war and oppression, unless we turn that relationship outward and express it in how we relate to others. I couldn't care less about the solitary mystic who contemplates their navel all day long but never goes out into the world in any fashion and never participates in it. We are of this world, and how we act in this world is of paramount important. The best kind of relationship with God, in my view, is one in which we listen to God's call and respond accordingly--by acting in the world as God wants us to.
Anonymous said…

I am not denying the importance of ethics, I am just asking, beyond the ethics, are there any other first principles of Christianity or other faith traditions.

Of course one must be engaged one's neighbors in a loving and compassionate manner to fairly claim the label of Christian.

Accepting that, are there any other first principles?

"Heresy" comes from the root meaning "schism," or "separation." Heresies are not just theological mistakes, but false teachings (usually supported by movements) which either seek to divide the Church or are so destructive or distorting of the Church's mission that they divide the Church whether or not that is their intention.

Bob is right that we who are Protestants cannot decide these things either by a Magisterium (much less one with a pope who can speak infallibly in certain situations) or by pointing to the decisions of 7 ecumenical councils of undivided Christendom. The Protestant Principle is that no one and no tradition is infallible.

So, deciding heresy is not easy. Usually an individual or a group sounds an alarm that others respond to--or not. In our ecumenical age, we want to be as charitable as possible. But every once in awhile there is a threat to the very life and health of the church. The Reformed tradition calls this a Status Confessionis, a situation that calls forth a new confession of the Church--with affirmations and denunciations.
During the Nazi crisis, the Confessing Church correctly discerned that the Deutsze Christen attempts to "Germanize" and "Nazify" the Church by purging Jewish Christian members led to such a Status Confessionis--and produced the Barmen Declaration. The immediate context was ethical, but the response went deeper to Christology, ecclesiology, etc. The same thing happened in South Africa during apartheid and, in the U.S., during the Reagan-Bush I years as we faced the threat of nuclear idolatry (and possible global destruction). I claim that preemptive war and torture call forth such a context today.

The immediate threat is ethical ("How is the Church to live in such a way as faithfully to be the Church here and now?" And is tempted to be deeply unfaithful.), but the responding confession will also be doctrinal ("What must the Church teach in light of this crisis if it is to live that way?").

Eventually, either the majority of the church agrees with the forerunner group that X is heretical or that group is judged heretical instead and the wider Church moves on.

From this response, you may gather that I do not think that the charge of "heresy" is a light one. It is bandied about all too easily--especially to score political points in these United States.
I want to question your statement that heresy is a synonymn for heterodoxy. Heterodox thinking/teaching is anything other than orthodox (however defined and by whomever defined). But heresy is both heterodox AND schismatic--it is anti-orthodox and anti-unity-of-the-body. Something heterodox may become heretical, but it isn't so automatically.

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