I like coffee. I’m drinking it right now. Hot and steaming, black and strong. Perfect.
I have one very important rule for my coffee: don’t put anything in it! A good cup of coffee needs no help. Leave it alone.
But, what if, unknown to me, someone had polluted my coffee with vile sugar. Reaching over to take a drink, I wouldn’t see the danger. It looks and smells just the same. Outwardly, everything is fine. But, the nature of the coffee, it’s very essence, has been changed…corrupted.
If you had asked me what I thought heresy was when I started writing this series, I probably would have given you an answer that sounded a lot like sugar in my coffee.
The coffee is the essence of Christianity, it’s core beliefs and ideas about Jesus and the Gospel. This is the very “center” of the Christian faith, without which, you just don’t have Christianity.
The sugar is some belief that maintains the outward form of Christianity – i.e. it continues to talk about Jesus and the Gospel – but at the same time it undermines the very essence of Christianity.
For example, Gnostic Christians could at times sound very orthodox. They talked about Jesus, the Spirit, God, salvation, the church, and many of the other core aspects of Christianity. Too many people, they looked like just another cup of coffee. But, on closer examination, you find something very different. The gnostic belief that the world is inherently bad necessarily undermined any concept of the incarnation. And, their understanding of salvation, with its emphasis on secret knowledge, tended to be elitist and works-oriented. (To be fair, gnosticism was a diverse movement that is impossible to summarize this simply. So, this is a bit of a caricature. But, you get the point.)
So, what made gnosticism heresy wasn’t that it had been condemned at an ecumenical council; it was understood to be heresy long before Nicea. And, it wasn’t just a power play or an attempt to establish community identity. What made gnosticism heresy was that it held beliefs that necessarily undermined and corrupted the very essence of Christianity. Once the church realized this, declaring it heresy was the only real option.
I have to admit that there’s still a lot about this approach to heresy that I find attractive.
- It understands that heresy arises from within the community. Some of the other views tend to portray heresy as something coming from outside that the church needs to defend itself against. But, heresy is better understood as something that develops within the church itself, making it both more difficult to identify and more challenging to address.
- It realizes that heresy can look orthodox. This discussion would be much easier if certain ideas would come pre-labeled as heretical. But, that’s not how it works. And, the challenge is that heresy often appears to be very orthodox. Indeed, that’s why it often took the early church long years of wrestling before they came to a final conclusion on some issue. So, just because something appears orthodox on the surface, we can’t simply assume that it’s safe to use.
- It emphasizes that “heresy” is only about central issues. “Heresy” as a label should not be applied to peripheral issues. If we’re going to use it at all, we should reserve it for issues that lie at the very heart of Christianity.
Nonetheless, there are a few problems with this approach.
- It assumes agreement about the “center.” This is a pretty big problem. The only way for this understanding of heresy to get off the ground is to have some concept of the “center” or the “essence” of Christianity so that we can identify those things that corrupt that center. So, if we’re not careful, this approach simply relocates the debate from “What is heresy?” to “What is the essence of Christianity?” And, indeed, those two questions are inseparable.
- It doesn’t cover all heresies. Or, at least, it doesn’t unless you expand the “center” to include far too much. For example, what are we to do with Donatism? It was declared heresy, but to include in this view of heresy, the “center” needs to include the universality of the church and the nature of the sacraments. Some may be comfortable with that, but I’d prefer an understanding of the “center” that is more limited.
- It often treats heresy as self-evident. How do you know when some ideas strengthens or weakens the center of Christianity? This definition, at least as it’s often used in discussion, tends to assume that the answer to this question is relatively self-evident. Of course gnosticism undermines the essence of Christianity. That’s easy to see. Really? Then why did so many Christians follow it for so long, and why did it take the early Church so long to counter it? Or, more challengingly, what about Arianism? That kept the Church busy for decades. And, if you asked an Arian, they wouldn’t be so inclined to think that it was just self-evident that their view undermined the essence of Christianity. Quite the contrary.
- It has an “intellectualized” view of heresy. This is actually one of the things I like about this approach, since I tend to like intellectual things. But, this approach views heresy as an exclusively intellectual reality. It’s all about ideas and their adequacy. But, if the “power struggle” and “community identity” approaches taught us anything, it’s that identifying something as heresy is more complicated than this.
So, I think there’s a lot to be said for this approach. And, our eventual definition of heresy will need to capture these strengths. But, there are some things here that we’ll want to try and avoid as well.
[This post is part of our series on “What is ‘Heresy’ and Who Is a ‘Heretic’?”]
Dr. Bart Ehrman is raising significant questions about the reliability of the Bible. In an engaging way, he is questioning the credibility of Christianity. His arguments are not new, which he readily admits. Numerous Biblical scholars profoundly disagree with his findings. This site provides responses to Dr. Ehrman’s provocative conclusions.
With resources from Alvin Plantinga, Ben Witherington, D.A. Carson, Darrell Bock, Craig Evans, Dan Wallace, and Larry Hurtado, among others, it looks like a great resource for understanding and engaging Ehrman’s writings and arguments.
And, no blog post on Bart Ehrman would be complete without referencing Stephen Colbert’s interview with Ehrman, in which Colbert drills Ehrman on why “the Bible is a big fat lie” and Stephen’s an idiot for believing it. Journalism at its finest.
We were discussing persecution and martyrdom in the early church during my church history class this morning, and I had the students read portions from The Martyrdom of . Polycarp was an early Christian leader (traditionally thought to have been disciple of John the Apostle) who was martyred around AD 155. Regardless of whether you think this account of his death is terribly accurate historically, it’s an amazing piece of Christian literature and a testimony to the ideal of Christian faithfulness under pressure. And, it has two of my favorite quotes from early Christianity.
Here are the relevant portions:
Now, as we were entering the stadium, there came to Polycarp a voice from heaven, ‘Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man’. And no one saw the speaker, but the voice was heard by those of our people who were there. Then he was led forward, and great was the uproar of those who heard that Polycarp had been seized. Accordingly, he was led before the Proconsul, who asked him if he were the man himself. And when he confessed the Proconsul tried to persuade him, saying, ‘Have respect to your own age’, and so forth, according to their customary forms; ‘Swear to Caesar’, ‘Repent’, ‘Say, “Away with the atheists!”’ Then Polycarp said, ‘Eighty-six years I have served him, and he has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?’
But the Proconsul again persisted and said, ‘Swear by Caesar’; and he answered, ‘If you vainly imagine that I would swear by Cesar, as you say, pretending not to know what I am, hear plainly that I am a Christian. And if you are willing to learn the doctrine of Christianity, give me a day and listen to me’.
I have my students read this every year and it never gets old. I particularly like the part where God tells Polycarp to man up. That’s great.
- J.R. Daniel Kirk tackles the question of whether Christianity has really done any good for the world, pointing to adoption, sex trafficking and peace as key areas of contribution. And Andrew Perriman offers his thoughts as well.
- The Vatican has tightened its rules on for disciplining priests involved in sexual abuse cases. NPR has a piece on it here.
- Larry Hurtado is at it again, posting his article “Jesus as Lordly Example.” He also announces the new blog site for his Centre for the Study of Christian Origins.
- Jesus Creed has a nice roundup of recent discussions on science and miracles.
- Inside Higher Ed has a very nice article on the Illinois adjunct who was fired for teaching about Catholic beliefs regarding homosexuality. Unsurprisingly, the situation is more complicated than they first appeared.
- Justin Taylor recommends a book for learning how to write non-fiction book proposals.
- And, apparently spending most of your time sitting down is bad for your health, even if you exercise regularly.
Following up on my earlier post about Mike Bird’s comments on diversity and unity in the early church, I wanted to point out a couple of other interesting posts. As I mentioned before, James McGrath weighed in with a warning that we need to keep in mind the evidence that does exist for diversity, especially in the NT texts themselves. In keeping with this, Darrell Pursiful has now posted a very helpful diagram (also available as a .pdf) of how he understands diversity during the New Testament period.
What do you think about the diagram? Is there anything you would present differently?
Also worth looking at is a post by Ari Katz assesseing assessing Walter Bauer’s original thesis. Katz argues that there is insufficient evidence to support Bauer’s idea that the church in Rome had enough influence in the ealiest years of Christianity to enforce its brand of Christianity on the rest of the early Church.
Michael Bird has posted some interesting comments on The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped our Understanding of Early Christianity by Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger. The book itself sounds like a good discussion of diversity and unity in the early church, pushing back strongly against the current tendency to emphasize diversity at the expense of unity. And, he provides a quote from D.A. Carson’s endorsement that was particularly interesting:
In the beginning was Diversity. And the Diversity was with God, and the Diversity was God. Without Diversity was nothing made that has been made. And it came to pass that nasty old ‘orthodoxy’ people narrowed down diversity and finally squeezed it out, dismissing it as heresy. But in the fullness of time (which is, of course, our time), Diversity rose up and smote orthodoxy hip and thigh. Now, praise be, the only heresy is orthodoxy. As widely and as unthinkingly accepted as this reconstruction is, it is historical nonsense: the emperor has no clothes.
Although this is good reminder that we should not simply assume diversity in the early church, James McGrath also warns that we should not neglect the evidence for diversity that is there.