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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’?”]

The tyranny of individualism in interpretation

Kent Eilers posted a nice quote from D.H. Williams, warning about the Protestant tendency to emphasize individual Bible reading so much that we end up with individual “popes,” each with their own authoritative interpretation. The quote ends like this:

 It is a Pyrrhic victory for Free church Protestantism when the net effect of its teaching results in the replacing of the tyranny of the magisterium with the tyranny of individualism [Retrieving the Tradition, Renewing Evangelicalism (Eerdmans, 1999), p. 201]

You can read the full post and comments over at Theology Forum.