What is Heresy? Sugar in my coffee.
I like coffee. I’m drinking it right now. Hot and steaming, black and strong. Perfect.
I have one very important rule for my coffee: don’t put anything in it! A good cup of coffee needs no help. Leave it alone.
But, what if, unknown to me, someone had polluted my coffee with vile sugar. Reaching over to take a drink, I wouldn’t see the danger. It looks and smells just the same. Outwardly, everything is fine. But, the nature of the coffee, it’s very essence, has been changed…corrupted.
If you had asked me what I thought heresy was when I started writing this series, I probably would have given you an answer that sounded a lot like sugar in my coffee.
The coffee is the essence of Christianity, it’s core beliefs and ideas about Jesus and the Gospel. This is the very “center” of the Christian faith, without which, you just don’t have Christianity.
The sugar is some belief that maintains the outward form of Christianity – i.e. it continues to talk about Jesus and the Gospel – but at the same time it undermines the very essence of Christianity.
For example, Gnostic Christians could at times sound very orthodox. They talked about Jesus, the Spirit, God, salvation, the church, and many of the other core aspects of Christianity. Too many people, they looked like just another cup of coffee. But, on closer examination, you find something very different. The gnostic belief that the world is inherently bad necessarily undermined any concept of the incarnation. And, their understanding of salvation, with its emphasis on secret knowledge, tended to be elitist and works-oriented. (To be fair, gnosticism was a diverse movement that is impossible to summarize this simply. So, this is a bit of a caricature. But, you get the point.)
So, what made gnosticism heresy wasn’t that it had been condemned at an ecumenical council; it was understood to be heresy long before Nicea. And, it wasn’t just a power play or an attempt to establish community identity. What made gnosticism heresy was that it held beliefs that necessarily undermined and corrupted the very essence of Christianity. Once the church realized this, declaring it heresy was the only real option.
I have to admit that there’s still a lot about this approach to heresy that I find attractive.
- It understands that heresy arises from within the community. Some of the other views tend to portray heresy as something coming from outside that the church needs to defend itself against. But, heresy is better understood as something that develops within the church itself, making it both more difficult to identify and more challenging to address.
- It realizes that heresy can look orthodox. This discussion would be much easier if certain ideas would come pre-labeled as heretical. But, that’s not how it works. And, the challenge is that heresy often appears to be very orthodox. Indeed, that’s why it often took the early church long years of wrestling before they came to a final conclusion on some issue. So, just because something appears orthodox on the surface, we can’t simply assume that it’s safe to use.
- It emphasizes that “heresy” is only about central issues. “Heresy” as a label should not be applied to peripheral issues. If we’re going to use it at all, we should reserve it for issues that lie at the very heart of Christianity.
Nonetheless, there are a few problems with this approach.
- It assumes agreement about the “center.” This is a pretty big problem. The only way for this understanding of heresy to get off the ground is to have some concept of the “center” or the “essence” of Christianity so that we can identify those things that corrupt that center. So, if we’re not careful, this approach simply relocates the debate from “What is heresy?” to “What is the essence of Christianity?” And, indeed, those two questions are inseparable.
- It doesn’t cover all heresies. Or, at least, it doesn’t unless you expand the “center” to include far too much. For example, what are we to do with Donatism? It was declared heresy, but to include in this view of heresy, the “center” needs to include the universality of the church and the nature of the sacraments. Some may be comfortable with that, but I’d prefer an understanding of the “center” that is more limited.
- It often treats heresy as self-evident. How do you know when some ideas strengthens or weakens the center of Christianity? This definition, at least as it’s often used in discussion, tends to assume that the answer to this question is relatively self-evident. Of course gnosticism undermines the essence of Christianity. That’s easy to see. Really? Then why did so many Christians follow it for so long, and why did it take the early Church so long to counter it? Or, more challengingly, what about Arianism? That kept the Church busy for decades. And, if you asked an Arian, they wouldn’t be so inclined to think that it was just self-evident that their view undermined the essence of Christianity. Quite the contrary.
- It has an “intellectualized” view of heresy. This is actually one of the things I like about this approach, since I tend to like intellectual things. But, this approach views heresy as an exclusively intellectual reality. It’s all about ideas and their adequacy. But, if the “power struggle” and “community identity” approaches taught us anything, it’s that identifying something as heresy is more complicated than this.
So, I think there’s a lot to be said for this approach. And, our eventual definition of heresy will need to capture these strengths. But, there are some things here that we’ll want to try and avoid as well.
[This post is part of our series on “What is ‘Heresy’ and Who Is a ‘Heretic’?”]