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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’?”]

What Is Heresy? The “Other” Answer.

Who am I? Well, that’s a difficult question to answer. I could tell what I do for a living, who I’m related to, what interests me, and so on. But, how to get you to understand who I really am? That’s not easy.

Cover, August 2005 Legal Action 7

But, there’s one thing I can do. One way to make some aspect of my identity very clear.

I’m not you.

There, that was easy. All I had to do was set you up as the “other,” the one against whom I define myself. And, it works even better if I can point out a bunch of your more negative qualities as the main ways in which we’re different. (I suppose I could accomplish the same thing by pointing out all the positive qualities you have that I’m lacking. But, who wants to do that?) In one fell swoop I’ve clarified my identity and made myself look good in the process.

Groups do this all the time. The most effective way to establish the identity of your group is to contrast it to some other group. Explain how your church is different (i.e. better) from the church down the street. Point out why the people from that other country are weird. Make sure everyone knows that your group doesn’t act (dress, believe, feel, eat…whatever) like them.

This happens so often, people have turned “other” into a verb. You can now other some person or group by making them the object against which you define yourself. Or, even worse, we even have othering. I agree with Calvin (the cartoon character) that “Verging words is cool.” But, sometimes we go too far.

But, for this to work effectively, the other can’t be too far away. It doesn’t help much to say that my church is different from some church in Madagascar. That doesn’t have any meaningful impact on the people in my church. They just don’t care enough. But, if I say that we’re not like the church right next door, that has impact. And, if I say that we’re different from those people who are actually sitting inside the church! That’s the most effective of all.

As they say, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. That’s because you need a good, close enemy to be your other.

According to many people, this is the best way to understand what “heresy” is all about. Heresy doesn’t fundamentally have to do with what people do and don’t believe. It’s primarily about some group’s need to develop and/or maintain a strong group identity. So, when the early church declared Marcionism to be heresy, they were making an identity statement. By turning Marcionites into the other, they established a group against which to define themselves. They settled the borders of their identity on the backs of those they excluded.

Like most of the definitions we’ve considered in our pursuit of heresy, there are a couple of things here that we need to appreciate:

1. Heresy is a social reality. There’s just no avoiding this conclusion. “Heresy” is a label that one group applies to another. And, all such labels are social realities with social implications. Whether I’m calling you a “nerd,” “jock,” “illegal alien,” or “heretic,” those labels all come with socially-laden meanings that structure society in particular ways. Whatever else “heresy” may be, it is at least a social reality.

2. The early church “othered” people. Again, this seems unavoidable. One of the great tasks and challenges of the early church was to figure out its identity. And, along the way, the early Christians figured out that they weren’t Jews, Greeks, or pagans. Those moves all helped create Christian identity. But, nothing did that more effectively than identifying those sitting “inside the church” who were other. Irenaeus was brilliant at this. No one used theological rhetoric more effectively to identify “Christian” groups who should not be called “Christian” any longer. They were other.

But, as with the “power struggle” motif, I find this approach to heresy ultimately unsatisfying.

1. It is reductionistic. It’s one thing to say that using “heresy” as a label is a social practice with social implications. It’s something else entirely to say that there’s nothing behind the label other than the need to define oneself against another. This approach runs the risk of neglecting the many other reasons that Christian communities have for talking about heresy. All Christians need to be sensitive the possibility that we’re just using “heresy” as label to identify those who are different from us, similar to forcing Jews to wear  distinctive clothing to identify them as the other in the community. But, in the great heresy discussions of church history, I think we can see that more is going on than just this.

2. It downplays the data. The idea that heresy is a social “construction” suggests that there is no reality behind the label other than the inclusion/exclusion process. “Heresy” and “orthodoxy” are like “nerd” and “cool.” These aren’t really truth claims since what it means to be “cool” varies from one group to another. They are purely social realities. But, go back and read Ireneaus and other early Christian authors. Even if what they were doing had social implications, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that they saw themselves as making truth claims. And, pretty important truth claims. Granted, it’s possible that they were mistaken about what they were really doing, or maybe even that they were intentionally misrepresenting themselves. But, where is the evidence for such a conclusion? It’s not there.

3. It seems anachronistic. There’s a lot about the social construction theory that feels like modern thinkers trying to apply modern categories to ancient people. Granted, humans have always been social beings. So undoubtedly some social processes remain the same throughout time. But, social construction arguments often read like they were written by modern secularists who fail to appreciate the fundamental significance of theological beliefs in an ancient world. In our modern world, where people don’t really think that theology is all that important, the suspicion is that any heated theological argument is really about something else. And, I’m sure that is often the case. But, applying that modern suspicion to ancient debates is unhelpful. We just struggle to understand a world where average Christians on the street could debate the intricacies of trinitarian theology with one another while buying bread. For them, theology was much more than sociology.

So again, we have a lot to learn here. A label like “heresy” is a powerful social tool that can be used to create identity by pointing out the other in the room. As such, it’s a tool that needs to be used very carefully. Othering is dangerous.

But, I think we’ll find as we go along, that “heresy” is more than this. It’s a social reality, but not a social construct.

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

The Ehrman project – critically engaging the work of Bart Ehrman

Thanks to Michael Gorman for pointing out The Ehrman Project, a website dedicated to exploring and engaging the work of Bart Ehrman. As the website explains:

 

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.

 

Polycarp was awesome!

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. 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.

Flotsam and jetsam (7/15)

More on diversity in the early church

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.

Diversity and unity in 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.