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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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20 Christian academics speak about God, faith, and science

Here’s an interesting video of 20 Christian academics answering questions related to science, reason, and faith. Along the way, they comment on miracles, free will, the problem of evil, foreknowledge, evolution, and son on. And, the academics run the gamut from evangelicals like J. P. Moreland and William Craig to thinkers who reject almost anything miraculous or supernatural in the world. So, it’s a good video for getting a feel for how a broad range of Christian intellectuals respond to these questions.

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.

Heresy.

Saxon (via Flickr)

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’?”]

Why is it popular to be a heretic?

“I’m a heretic and proud of it!”

That’s a popular thought these days. Many are proud to align themselves with ideas and beliefs rejected by the church as heresy. Why is that? What motivates us to self-identify with those once condemned?

I’m sure that everyone has their own complicated reasons for making such a statement, but in Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth Alister McGrath offers several interesting reasons for the ongoing popularity of heresy.

1. Heresy is creative and innovative. McGrath quotes Will Herberg: “Today, people eagerly vaunt themselves as heretics, hoping that they will thereby prove interesting; for what does a heretic mean today but an original mind, a man who thinks for himself and spurns creeds and dogmas.” Heresy is novel. By contrast, orthodoxy seems stale, moribund, even boring.

2. Heresy is the underdog. With our pervasive tendency to suspect that some kind of power play is at work in nearly every situation, it is all too easy to believe the various narratives suggesting that what we call “orthodoxy” is really just the version of Christianity that gained power and succeeded in crushing its competitors. So Walter Bauer, Bart Ehrman, and even Dan Brown come along with their stories of an oppressive orthodoxy, and many are quick to believe, because it fits our own narrative of oppressive power. Consequently, we see the heretic as the oppressed underdog. And, we love the underdog. Just consider all the movies that involves some oppressed individual standing on his/her own against the system. We revel in the uprising of the individual who fights against the odds and overthrows the oppressor. So, placing the heretic in that role, is it any surprise that many relish the thought of being a heretic, the hero in their own movie?

3. Heresy challenges authority. This one is similar to the last. But, here the emphasis isn’t so much on the underdog resisting the oppressor, but just the challenge to any kind of authority. And, as with the previous one, this resonates in a culture that praises those who challenge authority.  We resonate with the image of the heretic who refuses to bow before orthodoxy and instead stands up and shouts even more loudly. Orthodoxy is “the man,” and heresy refuses to give in to the man. We love that.

4. Heresy is free. The term “heresy” itself has strong associations with “choosing” or “choice.” And, as we all know, we like our choices, our freedom. So, the heretic is the one who freely explores all the various options, refusing to be bound by old ideas, and boldly striking out in new directions. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, is trapped, locked behind the walls of its own convictions. And, who wants to be stuck in orthodox when you can be the free heretic? That’s not a terribly difficult choice.

So, according to McGrath, heresy’s popularity derives largely from the fact that we picture it in ways that resonate with powerful ideas in contemporary culture. The heretic is the innovative underdog who challenges authority and freely chooses for himself what he will believe. The orthodox person is the oppressor who refuses both to see other possibilities and to allow others to explores those possibilities for themselves. Which would you rather be?

What do you think? Is this an accurate picture of how people view heresy? Do you agree that these are the reasons so many people like the idea of being a “heretic” today? Or, do you have a different explanation for why it seems to be so popular these days to call yourself a “heretic”?

You might also be interested in:

The painful truth of how denominations see each other

Thanks to Brian LePort for pointing out this fabulous chart on understanding how various Christian denominations see each other. Since it’s close to where I live, my favorites have to be how Evangelicals are seen by the Reformed, and how the Reformed are seen by evangelicals. As with all of them, there’s a lot of painful truth in there.

Bait-and-switch evangelism

“Okay, I’ll go back. But no Jesus stuff this time.”

What exactly does it take to make a 4-year-old declare that she’s all done with Jesus stuff? Bait-and-switch evangelism.

Here’s what happened.

The Tragedy Begins

It’s the day before Easter. And, unexpectedly for the northwest, it’s a beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon. So, my little girls grab their mom and head down the street to a church that is hosting an Easter carnival. Holding hands, they skip down the sidewalk with images of Easter egg hunts, candy, and cheap carnival games dancing through their young minds, never knowing what is really in store for them.

(This would be a good place to picture a dark cloud suddenly drifting in front of the bright, spring sun, casting a shadow across our happy scene. Or, just imagine some ominous music playing in the background. Either way, you get the point.)

Arriving at the church, the first thing they see is a big booth set up for face painting. Now, I have to admit that I’ve never understood the allure of face painting. But, for little girls, The thought of having someone smear cheap paint all over their faces in a way that vaguely resembles a flying bug is nearly irresistible.

So, they stop. And the tragedy begins.

Because, of course, this is the Gospel booth. And, from the Gospel booth there is no escape. It’s kind of like the Twilight Zone.

The Gospel Zone

Almost as soon as the girls sit down, one of the volunteers launches into the Gospel story. And my girls sit through it patiently. They’ve heard it before, but they’re too polite to interrupt. And, from the enthusiastic presentation, my wife suspects that they might be the only new people the church has seen all afternoon. She doesn’t want to ruin the fun. So they listen to the story.

Twice.

That’s right. Apparently they weren’t sure that my girls caught everything the first time. And they really wanted it to stick. So, as soon as they were done with the story, they launched into it again.

The Twilight Zone does not surrender its victims easily.

Emerging from the Gospel booth almost 30 minutes later, they discover that the carnival is over. No more candy. No more games. No Easter egg hunt. They’ve missed it all.

Bait-and-switch strikes again.

The Old Switcharoo

SwordsmanSr via Photobucket

Bait-and-switch evangelism is any time we tell people that they are getting one thing, and then we slip them the Gospel while they are there. Want some candy? Sure, come and get it. Oh, by the way, you’ll have to sit and listen to this story first.

Are we trying to make little kids hate the Gospel?

Why do we do this? Deep down, are we that afraid that they won’t want to hear? Do we doubt the power of the message that much? Do we think the Spirit can’t handle things?

And, what are we subtly communicating to ourselves and to other people about the Gospel when we do this? I’m afraid that we’re hinting that we really don’t think that the Gospel is all that. If I’m really convinced that I have the most amazing story that will transform your life forever, I’m not going to invite you over to my church for a football game and then try to slip it in between commercials. I’m going to invite you over to hear the story.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with parties, carnivals, football games, or any of the various ways that churches can connect with their communities, share life together, and allow the world to see a redeemed community in action. That must be done. And, along the way, we will have opportunities to share the Gospel as an organic expression of living in community together. But, that’s very different from the bait-and-switch.

When we trick people into hearing the Gospel, we annoy them and we undermine the very message that we’re seeking to promote. I’m sure it works at times, but pragmatic effectiveness is not an adequate measure for appropriate Kingdom living.

The quote at the beginning of this post? That came from my daughter one year later. A full year after her experience at the Easter carnival, she remembered what happened the last time she stepped into the Gospel zone, and she wasn’t about to let it happen again.

No more Jesus stuff for her.

The bait-and-switch at its finest.

6 Megatrends impacting the church today

The American church is quickly “morphing into something new.” This is the conclusion the Barna group drew after analyzing 5,000 interviews conducted in 2010 and identifying the following 6 patterns or “megathemes” from the research. (HT Charles Savelle)

  1. The Christian Church is becoming less theologically literate.
  2. Christians are becoming more ingrown and less outreach-oriented.
  3. Growing numbers of people are less interested in spiritual principles and more desirous of learning pragmatic solutions for life.
  4. Among Christians, interest in participating in community action is escalating.
  5. The postmodern insistence on tolerance is winning over the Christian Church.
  6. The influence of Christianity on culture and individual lives is largely invisible.

Although I think the research done by the Barna Group is always worth noting, I do worry that their interpretation of the data tends to skew in a notably negative/pessimistic direction. As Bradley Wright argues in his book Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths From the Secular and Christian Media, we need to be much more careful with how we use statistical analysis to draw conclusions about the health of God’s people. So, we may need  a more nuanced look at some of these megathemes (particularly the last one).

I’d also like a little more explanation of what it means to say that the church is both “more ingrown” and more “interested in participating in community action” at the same time. Or, how the church can have a greater role in community action and yet still have a largely invisible impact on society. That’s an interesting juxtaposition of themes.

And, I’m a bit surprised by #2. Based solely on the churches that I’m involved with, I would have said that there’s a growing trend toward greater outreach (mainly “soft” evangelism and community action). But, that could be just my limited exposure to the church as a whole.

Nonetheless, these themes are worth reflecting on and clearly identify a number of “systemic” issues that we need to wrestle with today.

Seminarians are getting younger

USA Today reported last week on a growing trend in US seminaries – younger students.

For years, churches across the USA have prayed that more young people would explore careers in ministry as a wave of Baby Boomer pastors prepares to retire. Now it seems their prayers are being answered.

For the past 10 years, the estimated median age of candidates for master of divinity degrees has fallen steadily, from 34.14 in 1999 to 32.19 in 2009, according to an analysis by the Center for the Study of Theological Education (CSTE) at Auburn Seminary. That marks a reversal: From 1989 to 1999, the estimated median age had climbed steadily from 31.4 to 34.14.

The article offers three possible explanations: (1) there are more twentysomethings in America today, (2) younger people are more inclined to pursue “altruistic” jobs than before, and (3) more financial resources are being targeted at younger students. Regardless, it seems that after several decades of rising ages at US seminaries, seminarians are now getting younger again.

Is the God of Christianity the God of Islam?

Fellow ThM Students,

You may find interest in a debate between myself and Dr. James McGrath of Butler University and Ekaputra Tupamahu, a student at Claremont, on the question of whether Jew, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God. I say “no”; they say “yes”. And it has now spread to his blog as well.

If you’d like to weigh in feel free to do so here.