Category Archives: Early Church
From the dawn of time we came; moving silently down through the centuries, living many secret lives, struggling to reach the time of the Gathering; when the few who remain will battle to the last.
That’s a quote from Highlander (1986), a movie about a group of immortals destined (doomed) to fight and kill one another until only one is left. One by one, they all get killed off, many of them by Kurgan, the strongest of them all, who wants to bend the entire world to his evil desires. Eventually, the only two still standing are Kurgan and Connor MacLeod, the charming Scottish hero. And, of course, the movie ends with the titanic clash between them as they struggle to see who will be the One.
Because, in the end, there can be only one.
What does this have to do with heresy, you ask? Good question. There are actually two connections. First, after this movie, they made Highlander II, which was a heresy all by itself. But, second, and more pertinent for our purposes, many people understand the development of heresy in exactly the same way as Highlander.
The story goes like this. In the beginning there were many different kinds of Christianity. They weren’t better or worse, just different. And, in some other world, maybe they could have all gotten along. But not in this one.
In this world, there can be only one.
At least, that’s how one group viewed things. They simply couldn’t accept the fact that Christianity might come in different flavors. It was their way or nothing.
Unfortunately for the others, this group quickly grew in strength, numbers, and organization. They were the Borg of early Christianity, assimilating everything in sight. No one could stand against them. And, eventually, they were the only ones left. The others had fallen. And, they became the One.
But, even this wasn’t enough. They weren’t simply content with being the One. They wanted everyone to believe that they were destined to be the One all along. The others had been wrong even to try to stand against them. So, they re-told the story and re-wrote the books. And, in this new story, they were the Orthodox who held faithfully to the truth handed on from Jesus. All those who differed from or disagreed with them were the Heretics, who tried to dilute or distort the truth.
As they say, it’s the winners who write history. And, the Orthodox won.
This is a common way to view heresy today. Heresy isn’t really a thing-in-itself; it doesn’t have any essential characteristics that can help you identify it when it comes along. Heresy is simply a label that some dominant group applies to those it wants to dominate (or already has dominated). So, the statement, “You’re a heretic!”, isn’t really about things like truth or doctrine. It’s about power. Pure and simple.
Now, the first thing that we need to say about this approach is that there’s a lot of truth in it.
1. The early church was diverse. Just look at the NT itself. The churches in Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, and Rome were very different. Peter, Paul, and John all spoke about Christianity in diverse ways. And, moving on from the NT, the diversity grows. Alexandria, Edessa, Ctesiphon, all developed ancient forms of Christianity that were noticeably different from what we associate with “orthodox” Christianity. So, however we tell the story, we can’t slip into a simplistic understanding of the early church, which assumes a single Christianity at the beginning, from which all other groups diverged. As with anything that involves humans, the truth is messier than that.
2. The early church was far from perfect. God’s people are broken. We have been since the Garden. So, we should not be surprised that our story includes things we’d rather not see. And, the early church was no different. A close look shows the church involved in power struggles, personality clashes, manipulation, and maneuvering. In that way, they were just like us. (If you doubt, just think of some of the church business meetings you’ve attended.) So yes, the story of orthodoxy/heresy is also a story of power struggles.
3. “Heresy” is often a power label. One of the concerns that people have with the label “heresy” today is that it often gets tossed around as a power play. Want to shut someone up? Call them a heretic. And, this is often the case. Labels have power. So, it’s easy to use them when we want to control (or end) a discussion/debate. It happens today, and I’m sure it happened then as well.
So, there are some good things here we can learn from. But, ultimately I think this approach to defining heresy fails.
1. It sometimes relies on bad history. Most commonly, people associate the power of the orthodox party with the rise of the church in Rome and its consolidation under Constantine. (Thank you Walter Bauer.) The problem with this is that orthodoxy was well-established long before Constantine. Let’s be clear: Constantine did not create orthodoxy. He played an important role in the development of orthodoxy. But, he comes too late in the story to explain orthodoxy’s “victory.” Another common argument claims that in certain areas, “heretical” forms of Christianity developed first. They were the original forms of Christianity in those areas, with orthodoxy coming along later to squash these indigenous movements. Unfortunately for this view, there is relatively little evidence that this is true. With few exceptions, the existing evidence supports the idea that such “heretical” ideas came only after more orthodox approaches had already developed. Of course, people often argue that this is exactly what we should expect given that “the winners write the histories.” But, that’s simply to dismiss the existing evidence in favor of the story that you prefer. When lack of evidence becomes evidence, you’ve got a creative argument. But not a convincing one.
2. It overemphasizes diversity. Although we should embrace the existence of diversity in the early church, we can’t go overboard. Early Christian churches were not isolated communities that developed idiosyncratic forms of Christianity with little or no input from other churches. Instead, they all shared a common identity as “Christians,” and worked together to grow in their understanding of what that meant and how they should go about living as Christians in the world. Recent studies have demonstrated how extensively early Christians communicated, partnered, and networked with one another. That doesn’t eliminate diversity, but it does put it in context. It was diversity within a shared identity. And consequently, it was diversity with limits. Those limits were not well understood at first. But, everyone seemed to agree that you could go too far. And, they communicated constantly as they struggled to understand the implications of that idea.
3. It overemphasizes power. This probably fits under #1 as well, since it reflects a historical misunderstanding. The idea that any Christian group in the first few centuries had enough authority and power to oppress some other Christian community is anachronistic. That certainly became true later, but not in the beginning. We need to remember that early Christian groups were small, oppressed minorities within a larger Roman power-structure. They simply didn’t have the wherewithal to oppress others overtly.
4. It makes “heretics” the innocent victims. For this argument to work, the heretics have to be the poor victims crushed by the mean orthodox party. So, people often go out of their way to emphasize the good qualities of the heretical groups (i.e. they were egalitarian, open-minded, creative, etc.). But, the sad reality is that the heretics were no better (though probably no worse). They could be just as hierarchical, closed-minded, and oppressive as anyone else. If they eventually “lost,” it wasn’t because they were too nice to win.
So, wherever the concepts of orthodoxy and heresy came from, they aren’t simply labels that we apply to the winners and losers of some ecclesial power struggle. We should recognize the diversity and acknowledge the power struggles. But, there’s more to the story than this.
[This post is part of our series on “What is ‘Heresy’ and Who Is a ‘Heretic’?”]
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“What is heresy?” you say. Well, that’s simple. Heresy is anything declared heretical by one of the first seven ecumenical councils. So, if hold to those councils, you’re fine. If you reject any of them, you’re a heretic.
That was easy.
What is heresy? Of the five answers we’ll be considering, this is one is the most popular and also the least satisfying. It’s the most popular because it’s the easiest and clearest. Many of the councils even provided lists. Arians, semi-Arians, Pneumatomachoi, Marcellians, Photinians, and Apollinarians all live on the wrong side of the tracks. How do I know? The First Council of Constantinople said so. (Now I just need to dig through some history text to figure out what in the world “Photinians” are. Sounds like something from Star Trek.)
But, I really don’t find this approach terrible helpful.
1. It really doesn’t tell us what heresy is. For our purposes, this is really the core problem. Suppose that I asked you to tell me what a “disease” is, and you said “cancer.” That’s kind of helpful. At least know I know that cancer is a disease. But what does disease mean? You can list specific diseases all day long, but you haven’t really answered the question. The same problem is at work here. Arianism is a heresy. Great, but what is heresy? How did the Nicene fathers determine that Arianism was heresy? How did they decide that Arius was a heretic and not Athanasius? Why did they even think that labeling something as heresy was necessary? Questions like these press beyond particular examples of heresy and probe into the nature of heresy itself.
2. It focuses on the seven ecumenical councils. I love this part of the argument, particularly when it gets used by Protestants. Here’s a quick test for all the Protestants out there: name the first seven ecumenical councils and what issues they each addressed…without using Wikipedia. When most Protestants (at least the ones I know) talk about the 7 ecumenical councils, they’re really talking about two: Nicea/Constantinople (most of the time we just mash those two together) and Chalcedon (we tend to skip Ephesus). We know hardly anything about the others. Yet we throw the number 7 around like a holy talisman that wards off heresy. The argument also fails for Catholics who have quite a few other authoritative councils. So, there’s no reason for them to identify these as the sole arbiters of what qualifies as heresy.
3. It takes away our ability to identify heresy today. Do we really believe that anything worthy of the name “heresy” arose in the first few centuries of the church? Humans are amazingly creative beings. We’re constantly coming up with new ways to do stupid things. So, why would we think that the church addressed every possible heresy at these 7 councils? Yet, I often hear people wield this argument almost as a club to prevent people from using the term “heresy” today. “That can’t be a heresy, it wasn’t addressed at one of the 7 ecumenical councils.” Whatever heresy is, it sounds bad. So, we should probably be able to recognize it today.
4. It assumes a problematic level of conciliar authority. Problematic, that is, for Protestants. Even Protestants with a great appreciation for church history have a problem with simply affirming the absolute authority of a church council to define heresy. That’s just not how Protestantism works. We can have high regard for the decisions of an ecumenical council, even choosing to assume that these councils did in fact teach biblical truth faithfully, and thus exercising extreme caution whenever someone suggests that one may have erred in some way. But, we can’t simply say: “The Council taught it. I believe it. That settles it.”
5. We apply the councils selectively. If I said that the Son was a created being who was not eternal with the Father, people would get pretty upset. And, if I said that Jesus was just a normal human person who was chosen and empowered by the eternal Son, a completely separate person, I would have serious job-security issues. But, what if I made an argument like this. (1) Jesus is a single, unified person. (2) Persons have a “will” by which they choose to do (or not do) certain things. (3) So, where there are two wills, there are two persons. (4) Therefore, in the incarnation, Jesus had one will. Otherwise, you’d end up with two persons in incarnation (Nestorianism) or a Jesus who has a split-personality disorder. I know many theologians who hold to this argument or something very like it. And, I can guarantee that I could develop this argument in a book, with very little response from the Christian community. But, there’s one problem. It’s heresy. At least, according to the Conciliar Answer it is. This view is known as Monothelitism and was rejected as heretical at the Sixth Ecumenical Council. (Explaining why it was rejected would take too long. For our purpose, it’s enough to know that it was.) Why do we get all upset at someone who affirms one heresy (Arianism) but not another (Monothelitism)?
So, I don’t think the Conciliar Answer gets us very far in understanding heresy. But, it does point in helpful directions. As we’ll see throughout this series, it’s almost impossible to define “heresy” without taking a close look at the historical situations that caused particular communities to identify some belief/group as heretical. So, studying the first seven ecumenical councils (among others) is a great way to understand what heresy is and how the label has been used by the church. But, that’s a more complex task than simply saying that heresy simply is whatever these seven councils declared to be heretical.
[This post is part of our series on “What is ‘Heresy’ and Who Is a ‘Heretic’?”]
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Rob Bell is a heretic. Rob Bell is not a heretic. You are a heretic. I am proud to be a heretic. Everyone is a heretic.
I hear statements like these all the time. The fourth one prompted yesterday’s question: “Why is it popular to be a heretic?” And, we’ve had a good discussion around the extent to which cultural tendencies might contribute to the popularity of describing oneself as a “heretic.” But, such statements raise two other important questions: (1) What is heresy? and (2) What does it mean to be a heretic? Interestingly, people often answer only the first question without recognizing that the second is a different and equally important question.
Today I’d like to start pressing more deeply into what terms like “heresy” and “heretic” even mean. And, we’ll begin with the issue of heresy itself, since it’s impossible to talk about what it means to be a heretic without some understanding of heresy.
What is heresy?
According to Alister McGrath, the term heresy (hairesis in Greek) originally referred to any “act of choosing,” and over time came to include broader ideas like “choice” or “school of thought” (Heresy, 37). So, the term itself wasn’t necessarily negative. It wasn’t until the second century that Christians began using the term in a more pejorative sense to refer to a “school of thought” that needed to be rejected for some reason.
But, that still doesn’t answer the question of what qualifies something as a heresy? And, that is where the challenge lies. That question actually implies a number of other related and equally difficult questions:
- What distinguishes a heresy from something that is merely incorrect or questionable?
- What distinguishes heresy from “orthodoxy”?
- Who determines when something qualifies as a heresy?
It should come as no surprise that people have offered a variety of answers to these questions. So, instead of trying to define “heresy” in one quick post, I’m going to do a short series on different ways that people have tried to define heresy. When I’m done, I hope that we’ll have come to a better understanding of what heresy is.
5 Common Approaches to Understanding Heresy
Specifically, we’re going to look at five different ways that people have defined heresy. I’m sure there are more, but these are among the more common approaches. Over the next few posts, we’ll take a look at each of these and see if they can help in the process of understanding heresy.
- Heresy as deviation from an ecumenical council.
- Heresy as a suppressed orthodoxy.
- Heresy as a social construction.
- Heresy as deviation from the “center.”
- Heresy as a threat to authority.
- Heresy as a failed orthodoxy.
I’ll link the posts to each of these as we go. So, stay tuned for more.
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Since I’m teaching on Augustine’s Confessions tomorrow, I thought I’d post one of my favorite pieces from Book 1. Confessions opens with Augustine praising this amazing God who has pursued him so graciously and transformed his life so completely. And, here is where he just breaks out in stunned admiration of God’s incomprehensible perfection.
“You, my God, are supreme, utmost in goodness, mightiest and all-powerful, most merciful and most just. You are the most hidden from us and yet the most present amongst us, the most beautiful and yet the most strong, ever enduring and yet we cannot comprehend you. You are unchangeable and yet you change all things. You are never new, never old, and yet all things have new life from you. You are the unseen power that brings decline upon the proud. You are ever active, yet always at rest. You gather all things to yourself, though you suffer no need. You support, you fill, and you protect all things. You create them nourish them, and bring them to perfection. You seek to make them your own, though you lack for nothing. You love your creatures, but with a gentle love. You treasure them, but without apprehension. You grieve for wrong, but suffer no pain. You can be angry and yet serene. Your works are varied, but your purpose is one and the same. You welcome all who come to you, though you never lost them. You are never in need yet are glad to gain, never covetous yet you exact a return for your gifts.” (Confessions 1.4).
While reading Augustine’s work Of True Religion, I was reminded once again of how vain I can be at times and how my vanity dulls my vision of true beauty. “If you take away vain persons who pursue that which is last as if it were first, matter will not be vanity but will show its own beauty in its own way, a low type of beauty, of course, but not deceptive.”
So often I pursue that which is last as if it were first. How many times have I decided to go mountain biking or grab a coffee or watch a manly movie without first considering God and asking him what his will is? These things are so trivial, yet I pursue the like with such fervor. “It is very easy to execrate the flesh, but very difficult not to be carnally minded.” Or as St. Paul says, “I don’t do that which I want to do, but I do the very thing which I hate.” It is such a difficult thing living as a Christian in the world. There are so many temptations, Lord I pray that you delivery me from these and every other unseemly thing.
“Life which delights in material joys and neglects God tends to nothingness…” Do I really believe this? Of course I do! The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics states that in a closed system order always leads to disorder unless energy is added. When I pursue material joys I am not allowing the energy of the Spirit to enter my life, and when no energy is added, I tend toward disorder and ultimately nothingness. (Yes, I just used physics to defend a theological position…I am a geek.)
Back to the original quote, Augustine was also hinting at something else: beauty. He was saying that created matter is beautiful. He is continually urging us to understand that creation is not evil in and of itself. By our idolatry we create a dualistic belief. We call matter evil, even if not blatantly. We say don’t eat this, don’t drink that, don’t have sex, et al. These things are not bad or evil, if we pursue them as though they are first it has disrupted the beauty and goodness but only because of our vanity. Why do we chase after the wind? We have promoted an idea that the material world is evil and this has caused us to not recognize the beautiful. The beautiful is all around us and all beauty points towards the ultimate beauty, the One Beauty, the 3 in One – glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Now comes the question of True Religion: how do we recognize and enjoy the beauty yet not chase after the wind in vain?
We’re still celebrating Augustine week around here, so here are some links to the best Augustine websites around the internet. These should be your starting point if you’re looking for Augustine’s works online, lists of good books and articles about Augustine, or links to other resources. I couldn’t find any good lists of lectures, which is why I compiled my own list of free audio resources yesterday.
Here are what I have found to be the best and most helpful Augustine websites on the internet (ranked by how useful they’ve been for me):
1. Augnet: an excellent resource that should be your starting point; particularly good for its biographical information on Augustine and introductions/summaries of many of his works.
2. Patristics Bibliobraphy #7: your one stop shopping center for bibliographic information on works about Augustine in 15 categories.
3. James O’Donnel: one of the best resources out there, but make sure you use this link since many of the others on the web point to an older (and unused) website.
4. Sant’ Agostino: the “works” link on this site offers a great list of works available online in English.
5. Ad Limina Apostolorum: a great (and easy to use) list of Augustine resources, though many of the links are dated.
6. Dave Armstrong: this link will take you to an archived version of the website (all I could find) with a nice list of online articles.
And, of course, you can’t neglect other websites devoted to patristics or church history in general. The following are among the better of those:
- Christian Classics Ethereal Library
- The Medieval Sourcebook
- New Advent
- Early Church Texts
- The Ecole Initiative
- Patristics in English Project
- St. Pachomius Library
- Bibliographies for the Study of Early Christianity & Patristic Theology
If you know of a really good website devoted to Augustine that you think is at least as good as the six I listed above, please let me know so I can check it out.
Which is bigger: a smorgasbord or a cornucopia? I couldn’t decide, so I just smushed them together into one word. Either way, here’s a list of free, online lectures on various aspects of Augustine and his theology. I really haven’t listened to any of these, though I sampled a few, so I can’t guarantee their quality. But, they are from reputable sources. So they should be good resources for anyone wanting to get more familiar with Augustine.
We’re celebrating Augustine week this week. So, if you know of any online lectures that need to be added to the list, please let us know in the comments.
Here are some individual lectures:
- David Calhoun, Augustine’s Confessions
- David Calhoun, Augustine & the Pelagian Controversy
- David Calhoun, Augustine’s Theology of History
- Steven J. Lawson, The Church Fathers: From Clement of Rome to Augustine of Hippo
- Thomas Lizo, The Mystical Theology of St. Augustine
- Thomas Lizo, St. Augustine’s Theology of History
- Nick Needham, Augustine and the City of God
- John Piper, The Swan Is Not Silent: Sovereign Joy in the Life and Thought of St. Augustine
- Philosophy Talk, John Perry, Ken Taylor and James O’Donnell – Saint Augustine
- Mike Reeves, Introducing Augustine, Pt. 1
- Mike Reeves, Introducing Augustine, Pt. 2
- Cornelius Van Til, St. Augustine
And, the Augustinian Institute from Villanova University offers some great resources on iTunes including:
- The Darkest Enigma: Reconsidering the Self in Augustine’s Thought
- The Hymn to the One in Augustine’s De Trinitate IV
- Facing Wealth and Poverty: Defining Augustine’s Social Doctrine
- Confession and the Contemplative Self in Augustine’s Early Works
- Augustine, Exegesis, and Controversy
- Giving Wings to Nicea: Olivier Du Roy and the Origins of Augustine’s Trinitarian Theology
- Augustine on the Divided Self
- The God of Augustine’s Anti-Manichean Works
- Augustine and the Appeal to ‘Popular Belief’ in Theological Controversies
- Augustine on the Incarnation as Criterion for Orthodoxy
I know that some of you who read this blog are big Augustine fans. So, I’m calling you out. Help us celebrate Augustine week.
We all know about the normal Augustine books that everyone reads: Confessions, City of God, On the Trinity, On Free Will, etc. But, I want to dig deeper. What are those books Augustine wrote that lie a little off the beaten path? The man wrote enough to fill a library. Surely there are a few gems that people seldom consider.
So, anyone out there who likes Augustine, or even if you don’t, what would you recommend? What are the Augustine works that no one ever reads, but they should? You can recommend letters, sermons, manuscripts, whatever. We’re not picky. What are your favorites?
Last spring, as I was getting the Edwards class ready to go, I decided that we needed to celebrate Jonathan Edwards week. That was a great way to get the class started well. So, I’m going to follow suit by declaring this to be Augustine week. I realize that I’m a bit behind, but that’s okay. They used a different calendar back then anyway.
So, for the rest of the week, I’m going to post something on Augustine each day. If you know of any particularly good resources on Augustine, please let me know.