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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’?”]

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.

Getting the Reformation Wrong

Many thanks to IVP for sending me a review copy of James R. Payton’s Getting the Reformation Wrong (IVP, 2010).

★★★★☆

James Payton Jr. has done an outstanding job identifying and correcting a number of common mistakes that people make when talking about the Reformation. I have to admit that my review of this book is biased by the fact that Payton routinely provides support for a number of things that I argue in my church history class. So, if he agrees with me, he must be right! Even without that, though, Payton has put together a very clear and readable book that should be helpful to anyone wanting to get a better handle on the Reformation.

Summary

The structure of the book is pretty easy to follow. Each of the twelve chapters identifies some mistake that people commonly make in understanding the Reformation and Payton’s suggestion for a better approach. Along the way, Payton argues that we need a much better understanding of: (1) the relationship between the Reformation and medieval calls for reform; (2) the influence of the Renaissance on the Reformation; (3) the progressive nature of Luther’s theological “breakthrough”; (4) the conflict and disagreement that took place among the various reformers; (5) the real meaning of sola fide; (6) the real meaning of sola scriptura; (7) the role of the Anabaptists; (8) contemporaneous Catholic reform movements; (9) the transition to Protestant Scholasticism; (10) whether the Reformation was a “success”; (11) whether the Reformation is a “norm” for today.

Strengths

Without a doubt, the greatest strengths of the book are in its clarity and readability. I wouldn’t hesitate to require a book like this in a seminary or even an undergraduate context.

And, as indicated above, I wholeheartedly agree with the corrections that Payton offers. He does a great job identifying a number of common mistakes that people make that are really out of joint with the scholarly consensus on the Reformation. There is certainly room for debate on many issues relative to the Reformation. But Payton focuses on those areas with widespread consensus in the scholarly community and significant misunderstanding at the popular level.

Weaknesses

The one real drawback to the book is that it does require the reader to have some knowledge of the Reformation. Of course, that’s pretty much required by the book’s title. It’s hard to get the Reformation wrong unless you know something about the Reformation in the first place. So, this isn’t the right book to begin your understanding of the Reformation, though it would make an excellent companion to a more generalized introduction to Reformation history and thought.

There were also a few places where I would not necessarily agree with Patyon’s understanding of certain aspects of the Reformation. For example, although “justification by faith” was unquestionably a fundamental doctrine for Luther, I would not necessarily agree that Luther used it like a scholastic theologian who identifies “basic postulate” and then rearticulates “all teaching to comport with that postulate” (p. 94). That seems to be over-reading Luther’s use of that doctrine and runs the risk of downplaying other doctrines that were also fundamentally important.

A similar example of oversimplification was Payton’s statement that Luther focused primarily “on the individual and his or her needs” while Zwingli and other reformers were more concerned about the “community” (p. 101). Although Payton doesn’t present this as an either/or, it still seems like an unfortunate way of characterizing Reformational thought since all of the Reformers had a strong emphasis on both. The fact that they expressed those interests differently, which they clearly did, does not mean that we should see any of them as neglecting or downplaying either.

Conclusion

Nonetheless, these are relatively small quibbles on particular points of interpretation that do little to impact the value of the work as a whole. Getting the Reformation Wrong is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to understand the Reformation better. If you don’t really know anything about the Reformation, don’t worry. At least you haven’t misunderstood anything yet. But, if you do know a few things about the Reformation, then this might be the perfect book for you to read and make sure you haven’t gotten something wrong.

Flotsam and jetsam (1/4)

At stake in the fight between Frances and the APA is more than professional turf, more than careers and reputations, more than the $6.5 million in sales that the DSM averages each year. The book is the basis of psychiatrists’ authority to pronounce upon our mental health, to command health care dollars from insurance companies for treatment and from government agencies for research.

So how did Amazon do it? How did they compete with the Mighty Apple, when everyone was predicting they would be crushed by a more sophisticated machine? They used a four-prong strategy.

Luther’s great insight was that obedience to God which springs from faith exhibits itself in the course of our ordinary, daily vocations.

It seems then that this paradox is part of our moral experience. It is inevitable that we will sin. In an important sense we cannot but fail morally and yet we are responsible for our moral failure. On the face of it, there appears only two ways to address this. One is to deny we are responsible for our moral failures. The other is to claim that we can achieve moral perfection. But both claims seem to be obviously false and as such are implausible.

Luther’s great discovery – the sweetness of God’s justice

Today is Martin Luther’s 527th birthday (Nov 10, 1483). I don’t keep that many candles in my office, so I thought I’d recognize his birthday by posting his description of how he came to discover the true meaning of “the righteousness of God” in Romans. As he tells the story toward the end of his life, this was the pivotal turning point in his understanding of the Gospel and the grace of God.

I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: “The justice of God is revealed in it.” I hated that word, “justice of God,” which, by the use and custom of all my teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically as referring to formal or active justice, as they call it, i.e., that justice by which God is just and by which he punishes sinners and the unjust.

But I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God. I said, “Isn’t it enough that we miserable sinners, lost for all eternity because of original sin, are oppressed by every kind of calamity through the Ten Commandments? Why does God heap sorrow upon sorrow through the Gospel and through the Gospel threaten us with his justice and his wrath?” This was how I was raging with wild and disturbed conscience. I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant.

I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.'” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.” All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which he makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.

I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise. Afterward I read Augustine’s “On the Spirit and the Letter,” in which I found what I had not dared hope for. I discovered that he too interpreted “the justice of God” in a similar way, namely, as that with which God clothes us when he justifies us. Although Augustine had said it imperfectly and did not explain in detail how God imputes justice to us, still it pleased me that he taught the justice of God by which we are justified.

From the Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Works (1545).

Flotsam and jetsam (10/29)

It was not Luther’s intention to divide the Church, much less to start a brand new church. To the end of his life, he considered himself to be a faithful and obedient servant of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Though Luther renounced his monastic vows and married a former nun, Katarina von Bora, he never forgot that he had received a doctorate in Holy Scripture. His vocation was to teach the written Word of God and to point men and women to the Lord of Scripture, Jesus Christ.

Baptism is a secondary doctrine, but one that Baptists honestly believe is taught in the New Testament and should be embraced by other believers. To argue baptism is a primary doctrine is sectarian and smacks of a bapto-centric spirit that values the sign of the new covenant over the realities of the new covenant, even if implicitly. But to argue that baptism is unimportant or a matter of adiaphora is to disregard a doctrine that Scripture ties to the gospel (Rom. 6), missions (Matt. 28), and the church (Acts 2). Baptism is very important, but it is not of first importance.

For megapastors, platform time is the price of participation. Entrepreneurial pastors live to speak. Or perhaps more accurately and fairly, they live to influence, and they exercise much of their public influence by speaking. If they are not given a speaking slot, they are likely to conclude that their time can be better spent elsewhere.

So why does it matter?  Well, I think it was a good thing that Christian theologians (even some heretics) were public intellectuals and that theological debate was part of the larger cultural landscape.  It helped hold folk religion at bay.  Without that public theological discourse, American Christianity has by-and-large fallen into the hands of folk religion and folk theology–an anti-intellectual mix of cliches and religious urban legends and individual “spiritual” feelings.

 

Flotsam and jetsam (10/18)

Flotsam and jetsam (10/7)

Life got a tad busy there for a while, so I’ve been a little out of touch for the last week. I’m not even going to try and link to all the interesting posts since the last flotsam and jetsam, but here are a couple from the last few days.

Book giveaway – The Theology of Martin Luther

As I mentioned after last month’s book giveaway, a generous individual has decided that he would also like to share the wealth (i.e. give away a book that he accidentally bought two copies of). So, this month we’re giving away a new copy of Paul Althaus’ The Theology of Martin Luther. Although this book was published in English in 1966, I think this is still one of the best books around for understanding Luther’s theology. So, if you’re interested in engaging Luther’s thought more closely, this would be a great place to start.

As with our previous giveaway, the rules are simple. If you’d like a chance to win the book, you need to do at least one of the following. Each different way that you enter the contest will increase your chances of winning. (Assuming that I don’t just decide to give the book to the person whose name has the same numerical value of the guinea pig I had when I was a kid.)

  • Blog about the giveaway and link to this post
  • Link to the post from Twitter and let me know in the comments
  • Link to the post from Facebook and let me know in the comments
  • Comment on this post and indicate that you want the book
  • Come up with a list of 95 Theses that you’d really like to debate with someone. Write your theses on an old-looking piece of paper and making a video of you nailing your theses to the front door of some church (not your own). Bonus points if you can get the pastor to come out and yell at you.

Miroslav Volf on the eschatological significance of human work

I was recently re-reading portions of Miroslav Volf’s Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work, and I was struck again with his vision for relating human work in creation with the eschatological new creation. Volf devotes considerable attention to rejecting the idea that there will be an eventual “annihilation” of this world following by an entirely new creation. Instead, he contends that a more faithful interpretation of the biblical narrative would be to affirm that this present creation will be renewed and transformed in the eschaton. Thus, the new creation flows from the current creation, rather than being entirely discontinuous with it.

One of his concerns with the annihilation/new creation framework is that it threatens to rob human work of its intrinsic significance. On that framework, any work that we perform with respect to this creation has only an instrumental value insofar as it improves me as an individual or the believing community as a whole. The effect on creation itself has no lasting significance.

In a renewal/transformation framework, though, he contends that we can understand human work has having eschatological significance in that it participates in the transformatio mundi.

The picture changes radically with the assumption that the world will end not in apocalyptic destruction but in eschatological transformation. Then the results of the cumulative work of human beings have intrinsic value and gain ultimate significance, for they are related to the eschatological new creation, not only indirectly through the faith and service they enable or sanctification they further, but also directly: the noble products of human ingenuity….will form the ‘building materials’ from which (after they are transfigured) ‘the glorified world’ will be made. (91)

Thus, human work has eschatological significance even beyond its instrumental effect on the person performing the work. Indeed, Volf argues that this gives us grounds for affirming that even the work of non-believers might transformatively carried over into the new creation. Any “noble result” of human endeavor may be judged by God as having value for new creation.

Volf wants to be careful, though, to make sure that we don’t begin to think that we are actually the ones who bring the new creation into being. For Volf, new creation is clearly a work of God, but in a way that retains the significance of human work.

Through the Spirit, God is already working in history, using human actions to create provisional states of affairs that anticipate the new creation in a real way. These historical anticipations are, however, as far from the consummation of the new creation as earth is from heaven. The consummation is a work of God alone. But since this solitary divine work does not obliterate but transforms the historical anticipations…one can say, without being involved in a contradiction, that human work is an aspect of active anticipation of the exclusively divine transformatio mundi. (100)

Drawing largely on the resources of eschatology and pneumatology, Volf presents a compelling vision for the significance of human work and how it contributes to the transformatio mundi, while retaining a clear sense of the divine prerogative in new creation.

To that extent, it reminded me of the semi-apocryphal quote attributed to Martin Luther (at least I can’t find where he said it): “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” Given Volf’s framework, this becomes more than rhetorical flourish. Planting an apple tree just might have eschatological significance in its own right. Johnny Appleseed would be so proud.