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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’?”]

Slave owners, sex addicts, and anti-semites: how do you talk about flawed heroes?

Jonathan Edwards? Yeah, I know him. He’s the guy who owned slaves, right?

Flawed Heroes (Will Smith from "Hancock")

I can’t tell you how many times I received a comment like this while I was teaching my Edwards seminar this summer. They came in through the blog, Facebook, Twitter, and email. Despite the fact that Edwards was one of America’s greatest theological minds, apparently the one fact that many Americans have retained about him is the fact that he owned slaves.

Oh yeah, and he talked about hell a lot.

Then I thought about it a bit more, and I realized that Edwards’ isn’t alone. Many people remember some of the great figures in church history primarily by a few of their less attractive qualities.

For example, here’s how many people remember…

  • Jonathan Edwards: slave owner who preached scary sermons about hell
  • John Calvin: intolerant control freak who burned Servetus at the stake
  • Martin Luther: anti-semite who drank too much and insulted people
  • Augustine: woman hater and/or sex-addict who was obsessed with sin

I could probably go on if I got creative. (If you have suggestions for people from church history known primarily by some negative attribute(s), let me know in the comments.) It seems that if you’re a key figure in church history you’re doomed to one of two fates: either most people won’t even know who you are or a lot of people will remember you but think you were a jerk.

I think what bothers me the most is that these comments usually come from Christians. I could understand it if a non-Christian wanted to paint a particularly negative portrait of some Christian leader. But, why are we Christians so obsessed with doing it? Can’t we recognize that our heroes were flawed without focusing exclusively on the negative and caricaturing our own people?

Our theological heroes were flawed and broken human beings just like the rest of us. But, let’s cut them some slack. I wouldn’t want to be known by my least attractive attributes. (Please don’t point out my least attractive attributes in the comments. I’m feeling fragile today, and that would be bad for my self-esteem.) And, I’m sure you wouldn’t either.

So, let’s try this. Extend the same grace to believers from the past that you would extend to the believer sitting next to you in church. The people next to you are flawed too, but you probably don’t point that out every time you talk about them. At least, I hope you don’t.

Church history from the rest of the world

Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia by Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom.

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I teach a church history survey class every year. It’s one of my favorite classes. But, every year I have the same frustration. There’s just not enough time to do much with the history of the church around the world. With just one semester to cover 2,000 years of church history, my goal is to make sure the students understand the narrative that leads to where they are today. And, that means telling a story of church history that is almost exclusively focused on the western church,  leaving out the rest of the world in the process.

To address this weakness, I require the students to do some reading/writing on the history of the church in the rest of the world. And, Clouds of Witnesses would be an outstanding book to use for this purpose. In a series of 17 short essays, the book introduces to key leaders in Africa, India, Korea, and China from the 1880s to the 1980s. The essays are well-written, interesting, and short enough that they don’t bury the casual reader under too many historical details.

I have to admit that I knew almost nothing about William Wade Harris and the influence that he still has on Christianity in West Africa. And, although I’d read more on the East African Revival, the two chapters are Simeon Nsibambi and Janani Luwum were still fascinating. Some other favorite chapters were the ones on Sundar Singh (India), Sun Chu Kil (Korea), and Yao-Tsung Wu (China), all people about whom I knew (and still know) too little.

Unquestionably, the greatest benefit from reading a book like this is the opportunity to see and be challenged by how different experiences in different parts of the world have shaped and colored Christianity. From a political activist in South Africa wrestling with the injustices of apartheid, to a Hindu convert striving to live faithfully in a hostile environment, and a Chinese Christian struggling to reconcile the Gospel and communism, they’re all struggling with what it means to be Christian in their cultural context. So, at every step, the thoughtful reader faces several important questions: (1) How I can learn and be mentored by what Christians have learned from different cultural contexts?, (2) How do you recognize when culture is having a negative impact on the Gospel? and (2) In what ways has my own cultural context shaped, positively and negatively, my experience of Christianity and the Gospel? The opportunity to reflect on those questions alone is worth the price of the book.

Clouds of Witnesses does have a few weaknesses, but they are ones that stem entirely from the nature of the book. First, to keep the book from getting too long, the authors had to restrict themselves to just a few key areas of global history. Sadly, then, there are no chapters on Christian leaders in South America, the middle east, eastern Europe, or the Pacific Islands, all of which lie outside the narrative that most western Christians know. Second, since the chapters are introductory and short, they never provide enough information and they feel somewhat “superficial” in places, just skimming over the relevant information. It’s hard to see how the authors could have done otherwise in a book like this, but it’s worth noting. And finally, the focus of the book is on providing the details of the various stories, not on discussing or evaluating them. So, although the book provides ample opportunity for serious reflection on the relationship between history, culture, and the Gospel, it does not try to provide any direction for that discussion. Again, that’s not the book’s purpose, so this isn’t really a fault. But, if you’re hoping to use the book for that purpose, you’ll need to do some work on your own.

Clouds of Witnesses is a fascinating book that is well-worth reading. Designed to be a companion volume to Noll’s The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global FaithClouds of Witnesses can still be enjoyed on its own. And, although I think it could be used as a supplemental textbook in a church history class, those who have little or no background in church history will still be able to profit from this book. If you need more exposure to the story of Christianity around the world, particularly in the last couple of centuries with the explosive growth of Christianity worldwide, Clouds of Witnesses is a great resource.

[Many thinks to IVP for providing me with a review copy of Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia.]

6 things we can learn about worship from the Dark Ages

Yesterday’s post on 9 things worship leaders need to stop doing raised a number of concerns about modern worship practices. But, as I was reflecting on those issues a bit more, I realized how similar some of them are to difficulties that the church has faced before. And, if God’s people have dealt with these challenges before, wouldn’t it make sense to take a look back and see what we can learn?

So, I thought it would be interesting to start a short series on what we can learn as we wrestle with some of the same challenges in a new historical context. Specifically, I want to look at challenges that developed in the church’s worship practices during the early middle ages, particularly as they relate to the Eucharist (communion), and how that can help us understand the difficulties we encounter today.

For those of you who aren’t into church history, I realize this might sound a little abstract. What could we possible learn from the “Dark Ages.” Well, first, “Dark Ages” is a horrible label for this time period. Far from being a time of unrelieved darkness, the early middle ages are a fascinating time of exploration and discovery in the face of tremendous challenges. But, more importantly, regardless of what we call this time period, it’s still a time in which God’s people sought to carry out God’s purposes in God’s world. Unless we want to believe that God abandoned his people during this time (he didn’t), then we should still be able to learn plenty. So, stick with me.

Here’s what I have in mind. As we look at the eucharistic practices of the early medieval church, we’ll find them wrestling with 6 key issues that I think have parallels to today’s worship struggles. I’ll tackle these one at a time over the next week or so and see what we come up with.

  1. The Difficulty of Language
  2. The Problem of Attendance
  3. The Role of the Visual
  4. The Complexity of Worship
  5. The Design of the Churches
  6. The Understanding of the Act

Charting church history from a Presbyterian perspective – or, what happens when church history is really misunderstood

Many people expressed deep appreciation last week for my (insert superlative here) chart on church history from a Baptist perspective. Indeed, it was almost universally accepted as the only true depiction of church history.

I say almost because Jason Goroncy has demonstrated unequaled audacity by producing his own chart on church history from a Presbyterian perspective.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that his chart is prettier and offers more detail than mine. And starting off with “Jesus MacGod” was brilliant. Nonetheless, he has an obviously skewed understanding of church history. Someday I’ll have to share the Gospel with him so that he can become one of the faithful too.

Here’s what he came up with.

Charting church history from a baptist perspective

Yesterday I commented on a couple of church history charts posted by Jim and Ari. But, since both of those charts were obviously flawed in how they presented the story of God’s faithful remnant through history, I thought I should provide a more accurate chart. Let me know what you think.

Charting church history

It’s amazing what a difference a few lines can make when you’re trying to chart church history. Jim West started things off today by offering the following chart as a nice representation of where various Christian groups came from:

click to embiggen

It’s got an interesting layout, and I love the fact that Willow Creek gets its own box.

Ari has taken exception to Jim’s chart and offers the following in its place:

click to embiggen

Do you see the difference? Isn’t it fascinating how a few lines can can change the way that you tell the story?

Personally, I think that Baptists should be at the top. Everyone knows they came first, but the groups that came along later were so jealous that they persecuted them into hiding until after the Reformation.

On the value of reading Thomas Aquinas

This past Fall semester I took an independent study class on Church History in the Middle Ages as both an overview of the period but also a chance to study one of the greatest theological minds in Thomas Aquinas. At this same time, I was taking a philosophy class and little did I know how much these two classes would be intertwined. This was also the first time I have ever studied Thomas Aquinas extensively so I was in for a treat.

Aquinas has become one of my favorite people to study in church history. One of the things I learned the most about Aquinas is that he had so much to say that helped theology. I valued his insight he gave to theology in his Summa Theologica. I wrote my paper on the development of the Trinity in his Summa. And one of the main points for Aquinas in differentiating between the Persons of the Trinity was his doctrine of Word and Love. I really liked his definition of the Son being Word and the Spirit being Love and how he used these to explain procession and relation in the Trinity.

Another key point that I learned from Aquinas was the interrelation of philosophy and theology. The whole first question of his Summa Theologica is used to defend the superiority of theology over philosophy but that philosophy does have a part to play in the discussion/interaction. This is where Aquinas develops his “handmaiden” view of philosophy. That theology is to be the topic that is to be studied but when needed philosophy can come beside and help theology say things it otherwise would be unable too.

For being a church history fan, I really enjoyed seeing how Aquinas used the early church fathers in his writings. He seemed to rely heavily on Augustine, especially in developing his Trinitarian theology. But Aquinas was not afraid to question and correct what he thought someone from before his time said. His basis for correcting was that there was more revealed information now then they had back then so it was proper for him to reinterpret them. He did this when he questioned Augustine’s understanding of essence but what was funny was he used Augustine to prove his point of reinterpretation. So he question Augustine, interpreted Augustine his way (that is Aquinas), then backed up his interpretation with Augustine.

Finally, and this goes for the study of church history as a whole I have truly come to value history as it pertains to my beliefs. I find it amazing to see where the beginnings of my beliefs came from and how they moved throughout church history. The development, questioning, and acceptance of different theological points throughout church history are fascinating. This is something that I feel is lacking in much of ministry. We fail to explain the history behind some of our beliefs. Yes, I understand not all people are fans of history but I have come to the belief that it is important for those in the church to understand where their beliefs came from. We are great at explaining and defining different theological terms but that is where it is left. There is no discussion of how we got to this point in our theological development. History is important to understand where we are today, especially church history for the church!

For those who feel Aquinas is beyond their understanding I would challenge them take up and read and see how easy Aquinas is to understand. His way of writing is very structured and thorough and thus easy to outline and read (again personal preference). I would recommend a little understanding of philosophy. I believe I would not have understood some of what I read if it was not for the philosophy class, I was taking. I would say to stop waiting and read Aquinas though; he is such a great read!

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.