Category Archives: Church History

Forced Choices: Who Is Your Favorite Church Mother?

In our last Forced Choice, I asked everyone to select their favorite church father. And I can’t say I’m terribly surprised that Augustine ran away with almost 34% of the vote. He got off to a fast start and never looked back. Irenaeus started off more slowly, but eventually came in second at 20%, with Athanasius close behind at 16%. Nobody else hit double-digits. Probably the most surprising was how badly the great Greek theologians (Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and John of Damascus) fared. Given how well Eastern Orthodoxy did in our earlier poll, one might have expected a slightly better showing here. Which, of course, raises the question of how many people like Eastern Orthodoxy in the abstract without having spent all that much time reading her most influential thinkers.

This week, we’re going to change the channel and ask: Who is your favorite church mother? Now, I hope I’m not insulting anyone’s historical intelligence. But I think there’s a distinct possibility that many of you are not as familiar with the church mothers as you are the church fathers. So, unlike past polls, I’m going to provide a little information about the individuals you’ll be voting on. As with prior polls, this is not a comprehensive list. And if you think that I’ve excluded someone who absolutely must be on a list like these, please feel free to let me know in the comments.

Here Are the Contestants

Thecla. According to the Acts of Paul and Thecla, Thecla was a young, noble virgin who converted to Christianity and ministered alongside Paul.  During her ministry, she was threatened with rape, prostitution, and martyrdom. But she persevered through it all to become one of the most revered women in the early church.

Perptua and Felicity (d. 203). These two young women were Christian martyrs in the third century, and the story of their faithfulness in the face of certain death was one of the most widespread and influential martyrdom accounts in the early church.

Brigid of Kildare (451-525). Brigid is one of the patron saints of Ireland, famous for founding a number of influential  monasteries throughout Ireland.

Cecilia (d. ca. 180). Another famous martyr of the early church, Cecilia died sometime during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (ca. 161-180). According to tradition, officials attempted to smother her with steam, but she did not die. Then they proceeded to try and cut off her head, but she still didn’t die. And through it all she was singing praises to God. For this reason she is known as the patron saint of musicians.

Macrina the Younger (330-379). She was the sister of Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Peter of Sebaste, and she played an important role in discipling and shaping these key Christian leaders. Gregory portrayed her as the ideal Christian philosopher and teacher, and he even said her philosophy was further advanced than that of Socrates!

Monica (ca. 331-387). Monica was the mother of Saint Augustine of Hippo. Augustine wrote extensively about his mother, speaking highly of her life in Confessions and the obviously important role she played in shaping him into the person he would become.

So, Which Is Your Favorite?

(See the poll in the sidebar.)

 

Church History as a Pastoral Discipline (ETS papers)

Every evening I try to convince my youngest daughter that she should eat her vegetables while they’re still warm. And every evening, I fail. She waits until the bitter end, and then chokes them down with lots of water.

My students often do the same with church history.

Like many seminaries, we require all of our students to take a church history survey course. And whenever I teach the class, I ask the students to tell me where they are in their degree program. I do this partly get to know the students a bit better, but mostly because I’m always intrigued by the number of students who wait until the very end of their program to take church history. For many, church history is the vegetable of the curriculum. They’ll choke it down, but not before they have to.

After all, does it really matter for life and ministry today? Who cares what happened almost 2,000 years ago to people whose names we can barely pronounce and who lived in places we’ve never been?

At ETS, Sean Lucas, pastor of First Presbyterian Church (Hattiesburg, Mississippi), presented a paper that pushed back on the devaluing of church history for pastoral ministry. According to Lucas, church history is a fundamentally pastoral discipline, one that no pastor should be without.

And to support his case, he offered four characteristics of church history that every pastor needs.

1. Church history is critical. We establish our identities through the stories we tell ourselves. In America, we tell stories about the rugged individual who overcomes obstacles and achieves outcomes that far exceed expectations. So we form our identity around concepts like individualism, freedom, and hard work, among others. We embed these concepts in the holidays that structure our calendar and shape our narrative. And, if we’re not careful, we come to think that these stories are part and parcel of the Christian narrative. But church history challenges our stories by exposing us to hear the stories that God’s people have told at different times and places. By studying church history, we come to realize that the stories our culture tells are not necessarily the same as the Christian story. Church history creates the space for pastors to be self-critical and reflective, stepping outside culturally dominant stories, and allowing the Christian narrative to become the dominant force shaping Christian identity.

2. Church history is cross-cultural. To step into church history is to step into a foreign country, a place removed from us in time, space, and culture. In this way, studying church history has the same value as talking with Christians from other parts of the world: it stretches our horizons and challenges our assumptions, allowing us to think more deeply about our own culture and how it shapes our assumptions and resulting theology.

3. Church history is prophetic. It’s easy to look at the sins of the past and recognize how wrong they are. Distanced from the muddying effects of the “present,” we can look back and see slavery, racism, and others for the wrong that they are. Great. What about our own sins? What do allow to slide past us unnoticed because they are clouded in the fog of our own present? What sins will future generations judge us for? Studying church history can’t remove all the blind spots, but it can help. Prior generations can serve a prophetic role by expressing their own views of sin and injustice, views that are often rather different than our own.

4. Church history is wisdom. Ultimately, pastors need church history because church history is all about learning from the wisdom of the past. Church history is not primarily about names, dates, and places. Those are involved, for sure. But at its core, church history is about being mentored by those who have gone before so that we are better equipped to live and minister in the present.

In sum, church history is a profoundly pastoral discipline. Learning from the wisdom of those who have gone before challenges, stretches, and shapes us for more effective ministry in the present. Neglecting church history is the height of arrogance, the suggestion that we already know everything that we need and that we have nothing to learn from Christians with other perspectives.

My only critique of the paper is that I would have liked to hear more about how Lucas uses specific case studies to press this point home. It’s one thing to talk about the importance of church history for everyday ministry realities, but it’s another thing entirely to see this at work. Otherwise, I thought Lucas made his point very clearly:

Church history is for pastors.

A Declaration of Faith from St. Gregory the Wonderworker

[This is a guest post from Michael Fletcher, a Th.M. student at Western Seminary.]

St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (ca. 213-270, also known as Gregory of Neocaesarea, Gregory of Pontus, Gregory the Wonderworker, or simply The Wonder Worker) is memorialized on November 17. When he become Bishop of Caesarea, there were only 17 Christians. When we died, there were only 17 pagans left in that region. As his name states; there were many Wonder Workings done by the Spirit through Gregory. Saint Gregory of Nyssa said that Gregory of Thaumaturgus was the first person known to receive a vision of the Theotokos (Mary, the Mother of God). In that vision, the Theotokos and the Apostle John gave him a statement of doctrine on the Trinity. That statement is here re-told:

There is One God, the Father of the living Word, who is His subsistent Wisdom and power and Eternal image: perfect Begetter of the perfect Begotten, Father of the only-begotten Son.

The is One Lord, Only of the Only, God of God, Image and Likeness of the Deity, Efficient Word, Wisdom comprehensive of the constitution of all things, and power formative of the whole creation, true Son of true Father, Invisible of Invisible, and Incorruptible of Incorruptible, and Immortal of Immortal and Eternal of Eternal.

And there is One Holy Spirit, having His subsistence from God, and being made manifest by the Son, to wit to men: Image of the Son, Perfect Image of the Perfect Life, the cause of the living; Holy Fount; Sanctity, the Supplier, or Leader, of Sanctification; in whom is manifested God the Father, who is above all and in all, and God the Son, who is through all.

There is a perfect Trinity, in glory and eternity and sovereignty, neither divided nor estranged. Wherefore there is nothing either created or in servitude in the Trinity; nor anything superinduced, as if at some former period it was non-existent, and at some later period it was introduced. And thus neither was the Son ever wanting to the Father, nor the Spirit to the Son; but without variation and without change, the same Trinity abides ever.

What’s Your Favorite Heresy?


There’s something attractive about every heresy. Otherwise, no one would had bothered with it in the first place. People didn’t come up with the ideas that eventually came to be labeled as heresies because they were bored and wanted to rile the “powers that be.” No, heresy comes from an earnest attempt to answer life’s most difficult questions. Although the answers heresy offers were eventually found to be inadequate and/or unacceptable, that doesn’t change the fact that they were honest attempts at good theology – attempts that many people found compelling for some reason.

So every heresy has some attraction. For example, consider the following. (These are over-simplifications, but you get the point.)

  • Adoptionism: The belief that Jesus was born as a regular human, and was adopted into the divine life at some specific point (e.g. baptism, resurrection). With this one, we get an obviously human Jesus. He can empathize with our weaknesses, because he lived a frail human life just like ours, untainted by some divine nature lurking behind the scenes. And we also get the image of a relationship with God that can be achieved through faithful living. If Jesus did it, so can we.
  • Docetism: The belief that Christ’s physical body was an illusion and that he didn’t really die on the cross. In one fell swoop you eliminate all the difficult questions surrounding the incarnation (since it never happened) and how the divine nature can suffer (it didn’t). 
  • Marcionism: The belief that the god of the OT is a separate (and rather nasty) being from the loving God of the NT; so, Christians shouldn’t have anything to do with OT scriptures or those aspects of the NT that have been corrupted by OT influences. Forget about all those troubling OT passages about wrath and violence, and get rid of some difficult NT passages at the same time. And you get a God who is all about love and forgiveness. Sounds good to me.
  • Modalism: The belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit are simply three “aspects” of the one God (kind of like the idea that I am one person who is a father, a husband, and a teacher). The Trinity is confusing. So forget about notions of God somehow being both three and one. Let’s just go with oneness. That’s much easier to understand.
  • Arianism: The belief that the Son was the first of all the created beings and the one who serves as the intermediary between the infinitely transcendent Creator and the rest of creation. This one is particularly helpful because it does away with so many problems at once. The incarnation isn’t an issue because the Son is a created being to begin with. There are no trinitarian problems because there’s no real Trinity. And you get to keep your completely transcendent Creator without worrying about how he can be involved in the suffering of a fallen world (he’s not). 
  • Apollinarianism: The belief that in the incarnation the Son only assumed a physical, human body and not a truly human soul (i.e. the Son puts on a human body kind of like I might put on a costume). With this view, offers a more readily understandable view of the incarnation. It’s not that you really have a union of two natures (divine and human), but you have a divine person simply clothing himself in human form for a time. That’s a picture I can wrap my mind around.
  • Nestorianism: The belief that the incarnation involves the union of two complete persons: the eternal Logos and the human Jesus. This one is basically the inverse of Apollinarianism. Instead of solving the problems of the incarnation by basically denying that there’s a fully human person involved, Nestorianism solves the problem by making the “union” more of a partnership. You’ve got two full person who just work really closely together. I can get on board with that.
  • Pelagianism: The belief that God has already graced us with everything that we need to achieve salvation; we simply need to be disciplined and use these God-given gifts to walk the path laid out for us. This one is great because it so clearly teaches the goodness of God’s creation (especially humans), avoids the difficulties associated with the concepts of total depravity, original sin, and predestination (by denying or significantly redefining them), emphasizes the importance of discipline and godly living, and decries any form of “easy-believism.

I could go on: Adoptionism, Gnosticism, Montanism, Monarchianism, Donatism, and more. Every one of them offered something compelling: an approach that made difficult questions understandable. And they all thought they were defending Christianity against ideas that would ultimately undermine Christian faith, life, and ministry. Although they all went on to be condemned, that doesn’t change the fact that they each have their attraction.

What’s your favorite heresy? Which of these, or some other, do you find most compelling? 

I have to admit that I can see the attraction of several of these heresies. But, if I were to pick my favorite, it would have to be Adoptionism (though Pelagianism is a close second). I think I just grew up on so many stories of the human Jesus, and so much emphasis on how important it is that he was truly human. So, I don’t find myself gravitating toward heresies like Docetism or Gnosticism. Their Jesus is too transcendent and otherworldly to tempt me much. But the earthy, faithful Jesus of Adoptionism is someone I can get behind. And I suppose that Adoptionism and Pelagianism both tempt because they both play to my own achievement mentality. At its core, the Christian life is about disciplined faithfulness. Just follow Christ’s example: be disciplined, work hard, and live faithfully. That’s all it takes.

I like that. Of course, that’s because deep down I really want the story of salvation to be about me and what I can achieve.

What about you? What’s your favorite heresy?

A Prayer for Sunday (Leo the Great)

[This is a guest post by Michael Fletcher,  Th.M. student a Western Seminary.]

St. Leo the Great (ca. 391 – November 10, 461) helped identify Christ as One Divine person with two complete natures, human and divine. One of his letters, Leo’s Tome, was strongly influential at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. He also met Attila the Hun in 452 and helped ward off his invasion of Italy. And he officially became recognized as a Doctor of the Church in 1754. The Church is truly indebted to this servant of God.

This is listed as Sermon 1 and was preached on the day of Ordination. This is very much a prayer and an encouragement to the church to pray.

Let my mouth speak the praise of the Lord, and my breath and spirit, my flesh and tongue bless His holy Name. For it is a sign, not of a modest, but an ungrateful mind, to keep silence on the kindnesses of God: and it is very meet to begin our duty as consecrated pontiff with the sacrifices of the Lord’s praise. Because in our humility the Lord has been mindful of us and has blessed us: because He alone has done great wonders for me, so that your holy affection for me reckoned me present, though my long journey had forced me to be absent. Therefore I give and always shall give thanks to our God for all the things with which He has recompensed me. Your favorable opinion also I acknowledge publicly, paying you the thanks I owe, and thus showing that I understand how much respect, love and fidelity your affectionate zeal could expend on me who long with a shepherd’s anxiety for the safety of your souls, who have passed so conscientious a judgment on me, with absolutely no deserts of mine to guide you.

I entreat you, therefore, by the mercies of the Lord, aid with your prayers him whom you have sought out by your solicitations that both the Spirit of grace may abide in me and that your judgment may not change. May He who inspired you with such unanimity of purpose, vouch safe to us all in common the blessing of peace: so that all the days of my life being ready for the service of Almighty God, and for my duties towards you, I may with confidence entreat the Lord: Holy Father, keep in Your name those whom You have given me (John 17:11): and while you ever go on unto salvation, may my soul magnify the Lord (Luke 1:46), and in the retribution of the judgment to come may the account of my priesthood so be rendered to the just Judge that through your good deeds you may be my joy and my crown, who by your good will have given an earnest testimony to me in this present life.

By the grace of God, may our Church leaders have this heart of humility and may we pray this way for the them.

 

What is Heresy? Final Answer

What is heresy? This has proven to be a remarkably difficult question to answer. Along the way, we’ve tested a number of possible solutions:

And, with each, we saw that there were good reasons for rejecting it as an adequate definition of heresy. So, we still don’t seem to have a particularly good answer to our question.

But, instead of trying to take each as an adequate definition in its own right, what if we took the strengths of each and used them all to build a definition of heresy? What might that look like?

1. Heresy requires an exercise of authority.

Both the Conciliar Answer and the Just Shut Up! approach recognize that some kind of authority is inherent in the idea of heresy. After all, someone needs to make the final decision as to what does and doesn’t qualify as heresy. I’ve already explained why I don’t think authority alone suffices to define heresy, but that doesn’t mean authority isn’t part of the equation.

Now, as a good evangelical Protestant, the question always arises: Whose authority? Alister McGrath suggests that heresy requires the authority of ecumenical gathering (Heresy: A History of Defending Truth). In other words, unless Christians everywhere can agree that something is heretical, we shouldn’t use the term. And consequently, he pretty much limits heresy to the first few centuries of the church. But, he fails to mention that even these earliest councils weren’t as “ecumenical” as we think (a few hundred bishops from mostly Greek-speaking churches hardly qualifies as fully representative of the whole church, regardless of how good their conclusions might have been). And, as I’ve argued before, such an approach necessarily robs us of the ability to deal with any possible heresies that arose after this time.

But, if I can’t appeal to ecumenical gatherings or to an official magisterium, where can I turn? I’m comfortable saying that the authority in view here is the authority of whatever ecclesial body you are a part. I realize that this makes “heresy” a bit messy in that something might qualify as heresy for one group of Christians and not another. But, complex issues like heresy and orthodoxy are rarely simple.

What this primarily means is that my view would reject the idea that heresy can be a purely individualistic affair. I can’t determine by myself what “heresy” is, though I can certainly offer opinions as to what some group should declare to be heresy.

2. Heresy necessarily involves power and exclusion.

If heresy involves the authority to identify something as “off limits,” then it necessarily involves both power and exclusion. I don’t mean the power to physically coerce someone into believing what you think is correct, though power has often been used that way in the history of heresy. I’m simply talking about the fact that any authoritative declaration that something qualifies as heretical is inherently an exercise of power. And, when that power gets exercised, it necessarily identifies some group as an “other” who lies beyond the pale of orthodoxy.

And, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with either of these. In and of themselves, neither power nor exclusion are bad. Church leaders sometimes need to use both for the benefit of the body (e.g. excluding a dangerous person from a children’s ministry).

But, I think it’s important to be clear that when we use the label “heresy” we are wielding the power to exclude. My fear is that if we don’t make this explicit, we’ll wield the power without being aware that we’re doing so. And, that is exceptionally dangerous. It’s like giving someone a box and not bothering to mention that there’s dynamite inside. We can’t wield carefully what we don’t know that we’re wielding.

So, we must always be mindful that calling something “heresy” is necessarily an exercise of power that should be done with care, prayer, and great hesitation.

3. Heresy undermines the Gospel.

As I mentioned in Sugar in My Coffee, the idea that heresy at its core is something that undermines the essence of Christianity is the approach I resonate with the most. And this for two reasons. (1) Heresy is about essential, rather than peripheral, matters. Granted, it’s not always easy to tell the difference. But, it’s still important to emphasize this throughout. And, (2) heresy comes from within. We make a mistake when we see heresy as something that attacks Christianity from without. Instead, we must realize that heresy is always something that arises from within the body and must be dealt with as such.

But, although I like this approach, I think it needs to be strengthened in several important ways. First, it needs to make the appeal to authority/power more explicit as I’ve done above. Rather than simply presume that heresy is self-evident, we need to recognize that sifting heresy from orthodoxy is a difficult process that will often require a final decision to be made by those entrusted with the authority to do so. Second, we need to realize that the “essence” of Christianity is more than a set of beliefs. (It’s not less than that, but it is more.) So, I wonder if it would be worth exploring whether “heresy” is a concept that could be applied to lifestyles as well as theologies. If a group’s lifestyle runs contrary to the essence of Christianity, wouldn’t it be worth calling it heresy even if that group maintained the outward form of right belief? In other words, can we have a heretical counterpart to orthopraxy as well as orthodoxy? And, finally, I think the idea of Christianity’s “essence” is far too vague. I’d rather say that heresy is something that undermines the Gospel itself. I realize that gets us into a discussion of what the Gospel is. But, I’d rather have a productive discussion about the nature of the Gospel than spin our wheels chasing some abstract “essence.”

So, What Is Heresy?

This is far from final, but here is what I would propose at this point as a definition of heresy:

Heresy is any form of Christianity (in practice or belief) that undermines the Gospel (explicitly or implicitly) and is determined to be such by the recognized authority in a given ecclesial body.

What do you think?

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What should you do with my dead body?

photo credit: 18thC tombstone, Ecclesmachan - Kim Traynor

No, I’m not dying. Well, actually I am, but I’m not dying any faster than the rest of you. Of course, maybe I am and I just don’t realize it. But that’s a topic for a different post. To the best of my knowledge, you won’t need to figure out what to do with my dead body any time soon. But, I want to ask the question anyway.

“I don’t care what you do with my body. It’s not me. Just throw it away.”

I’ve heard that sentiment many times from Christians. And, it worries me.

We should all affirm that “the story of me” does not end with the death of my physical body. Or, better said: “the story of me” continues because it has been drawn into the story of Jesus through the power of the Spirit. So, whatever I believe about what comprises a human person (one part, two parts, thirty-nine parts, whatever), we should affirm that physical death does bring the story to an end.

But, that’s not the same as saying that my body is extraneous and irrelevant. God created me with a body. And, in the end, he will raise me to live again as an embodied being. That should lead to the conclusion that my body is an important part of who I am. It’s not an annoyance that I just put up with for a time. It’s how God created me. And, I fear that the “just do whatever you want with that dead hunk of meat” stems from (and contributes to) a persistent failure to appreciate this fact.

Augustine wrestled with this very issue in City of God 1.13. In the previous chapter, he assured Christians that even if they were martyred and had their bodies torn apart or burned, they didn’t need to fear what would happen in the resurrection. God knows how to handle things, and he’ll get it all straightened out in the end. But, he didn’t want anyone to draw the conclusion that this means we can just do whatever we want with people’s bodies after they died.

This does not mean that the bodies of the departed are to be scorned and cast away, particularly not the bodies of the righteous and faithful, of which the Spirit has made holy use as instruments for good works of every kind. For if such things as a father’s clothes, and his ring, are dear to their children in proportion to their affection for their parents, then the actual bodies are certainly not to be treated with contempt, since we wear them in a much closer and more intimate way than any clothing. A man’s body is no mere adornment, or external convenience; it belongs to his very nature as a man….The Lord himself also, who was to rise again on the third day, proclaimed, and commanded that it should be proclaimed, that the pious woman had done ‘a good deed’, because she had poured costly ointment over his limbs, and had done this for his burial; and it is related in the Gospel, as a praiseworthy act, that those who received his body from the cross were careful to clothe it and bury it with all honour.

These authorities are not instructing us that dead bodies have any feeling; they are pointing out that the providence of God, who approves such acts of duty and piety, is concerned with the bodies of the dead, so as to promote faith in the resurrection. There is a further saving lesson to be learnt here – how great a reward there may be for alms which we give to those who live and feel, if any care and service we render to men’s lifeless bodies is not lost in the sight of God.

So, Augustine wants to walk the line between two false ideas:

  1. Our story is entirely wrapped up in our physical bodies.
  2. Our story has nothing to do with our physical bodies.

The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between. And, he thinks that how we treat people’s bodies after they’ve died has significance for life and ministry today. We should treat people’s dead bodies in a way that respects the person, honors God’s grand purposes for the physical world, and manifests faith in the resurrection. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily lead to any definite conclusions regarding specific burial practices (e.g. cremation), but it does provide a wise set of ideas to keep in mind when dealing with the issue.

Salvation pertains to everyone, but theology to only a few – Erasmus

[This is a guest post from Michael Fletcher, a Th.M. student at Western Seminary.]

Erasmus (formally Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus), was born October 28th, 1466. Today marks 545 years since his birth! Erasmus was a Catholic priest and theologian during the reformation period. With the rise of clerical abuses in the church, he was very committed to reforming the Church from within. Today, I am sharing an excerpt from his book Enchridion militis Christiani, namely, The Manual of a Chrisian Knight. I believe it’s an interesting thought for today, even though it was written in 1503. What do you think?

How can it be that these great volumes instruct us to live well and after a Christian manner, which a man in all his life cannot have leisure once to look over? In like manner as if a physician should prescribe unto him that lieth sick in peril of death to read Jacobus de partibus, or such other huge volumes, saying that there he should find remedy for his disease: but in the meantime the patient dieth, wanting present remedy wherewith he might be holpen. In such a fugitive life it is necessary to have a ready medicine at hand.

How many volumes have they made of restitution, of confession, of slander, and other things innumerable? And though they boult and search out by piecemeal everything by itself, and so define every thing as if they mistrusted all other men’s wits, yea as though they mistrusted the goodness and mercy of God, whiles they do prescribe how he ought to punish and reward every fact either good or bad: yet they agree not amongst themselves, nor yet sometimes do open the thing plainly, if a man would look near upon it, so much diversity both of wits and circumstances is there. Moreover although it were so that they had determined all things well and truly, yet besides this that they handle and treat of these things after a barbarous and unpleasant fashion, there is not one amongst a thousand that can have any leisure to read over these volumes: The great volumes. Or who is able to bear about with him Secunam secunde, the work of St Thomas? And yet there is no man but he ought to use a good life, to the which Christ would that the way should be plain and open for every man, and that not by inexplicable crooks of disputations, not able to be resolved, but by a true and sincere faith and charity not feigned, whom hope doth follow which is never ashamed. The theology appertaineth to few men, but the salvation appertaineth to all.

And finally let the great doctors, which must needs be but few in comparison to all other men, study and busy themselves in those great volumes. And yet nevertheless the unlearned and rude multitude which Christ died for ought to be provided for: and he hath taught a great portion of Christian virtue which hath inflamed men unto love thereof. The wise king, when he did teach his son true wisdom, took much more pain in exhorting him thereunto than in teaching him Those be noted that of purpose make the faculty which they profess obscure and hard, as who should say that to love wisdom were in a manner to have attained it. It is a great shame and rebuke both for lawyers and physicians that they have of a set purpose, and for the nonce, made their art and science full of difficulty, and hard to be attained or come by, to the intent that both their gains and advantage might be the more plentiful, and their glory and praise among the unlearned people the greater: but it is a much more shameful thing to do the same in the philosophy of Christ: but rather contrariwise we ought to endeavour ourselves with all our strengths to make it so easy as can be, and plain to every man. Nor let this be our study to appear learned ourselves, but to allure very many to a Christian man’s life.

What Is Heresy? Just Shut Up!

Blank, white space. Just staring at me. Mocking me. Daring me to write what I really think.

I know perfectly well what I’m supposed to write. I paid attention in class and studied hard for the test. More importantly, I know how this prof works. He’s not looking for anything creative, interesting, or, heaven forbid, new. He just wants the “answer.” You know, the one he gave in class. The one that’s “right.”

One problem. I disagree.

To be honest, I’d probably want to write something else, anything else, even if I didn’t disagree. That’s just who I am. But, this time, I really do think there’s a better answer. And, I’d love let it free, tracing the contours of something different with the tip of my pen.

But I can’t. I need the grade. And, in this class, rejecting the teacher’s authority is the only real heresy.

photo credit: Roujo (via Flickr)

In one of our earlier posts on the meaning of “heresy,” we looked at the idea that the early church created the concept of heresy by using its power to crush the opposition and claim the label “orthodoxy” for itself. And, we saw that one major flaw of this approach is believing that the early church had the kind of institutional and social power necessary for this narrative to work. It didn’t.

But, the situation was far different in the Middle Ages. By that time, Christianity had been the official religion in the west for hundreds of years, and it operated with the (often begrudging) support of rulers and people alike. With money, land, titles, and influence, the Church had power. And, as Alister McGrath points out in Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth, this led to a different view of the nature and function of “heresy.” Heresy came to mean anything that went against the established authority of the church.

Some of the heresies in the Middle Ages looked surprisingly like earlier ones. The Cathars, for example, recapitulated many Gnostic beliefs. So, to find them labeled “heretics” is not surprising. But, other movements seem different. Were the Waldensians really that bad? Sure, they criticized the corruption and materialism of the church, called for significant reform, and embraced the ideal of poverty. But, was that very different from what the Franciscans did a short while later? Yet the former were excluded as heretics, while the latter became one of the most enduring institutions of the Catholic Church. What was the difference? Although this is oversimplified, the key difference is that the Waldensians not only criticized the church, but they rejected its authority. The Franciscans, on the other hand, though vocal critics at times, remained in full submission to the ecclesial hierarchy.

You can see the same dynamic at work with Martin Luther. If you search the writings of the early Luther, you will find very little that had not been said before, and by people who retained their good standing in the church. But Luther, as we all know, did not. And the key shift came not with his 95 Theses but at the Heidelberg Disputation where he clearly refused to submit to the authority of the medieval Church.

The fastest way to be declared a heretic in the medieval world was to reject the authority of the Church. Indeed, you could believe and teach an impressively broad range of ideas at that time. But, if you got the attention of Church leaders for some reason, and they told you to shut up, you’d better shut up. Otherwise, things would get very unpleasant.

photo credit: Teddy Lambec (via Flickr)

But, although this became a common way of using the term “heresy” in the Middle Ages, it is not a particularly helpful approach to defining the nature of heresy.

1. It fails to distinguish heresy from schism. At the very least, this is a rather different use of the term than what we found in the early church, which operated with much less clearly defined authority structures. Indeed, the difference is so significant, that many scholars prefer not to use the term “heresy” for these movements, instead describing them as “schismatic” – i.e. movements whose overall theology does not seem heretical, but who rejected Church authority and either left the Church or were kicked out. Indeed, even the Catholic Church seems to recognize this distinction, having backed away from the language of “heresy” in recent years when describing Protestant churches. We’re definitely more schismatic than we are heretical – at least, most of us are.

2. It turns any rejection of church authority into heresy. Yet, this simply is not the case. Suppose, for example, that a Catholic priest becomes convinced that the celibacy requirement is a mistake, rejects church authority, and gets married. He will certainly come under severe censure, and he won’t be able to serve as a priest anymore. But, he would not be viewed as a heretic. And, I’m sure we could come up with countless other examples. But, if rejecting church authority is not sufficient to make you a heretic, then rejection of authority alone cannot serve as our definition of heresy. It could be part of the definition, but not the whole thing.

3. It depends on a problematic view of church authority. I won’t say too much here because I don’t want this to become a discussion of competing views of the Church and the nature of ecclesial authority. But, at the very least, we should recognize that if we’re not careful, we could develop a definition of “heresy” that would silence the prophetic voice in the church entirely. I think you can operate with a high view of church authority without making the mistake of thinking that anyone who rejects that authority is necessarily a heretic.

So, although “heresy” in the Middle Ages often referred simply to a movement that rejected church authority, I don’t think that is an adequate definition of heresy in itself.

[This post is part of our series on “What is ‘Heresy’ and Who Is a ‘Heretic’?”]

Spurgeon documentary online

Here’s a documentary on the life of Charles Spurgeon. I haven’t watched it yet since it’s just over an hour long, but it looks interesting. And, as far as I can tell, it’s well done. If anyone gets a chance to watch it, tell us what you think. (HT Dane Ortlund)