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What Is “Heresy” and Who Is a “Heretic”?

Rob Bell is a heretic. Rob Bell is not a heretic. You are a heretic. I am proud to be a heretic. Everyone is a heretic.

I hear statements like these all the time. The fourth one prompted yesterday’s question: “Why is it popular to be a heretic?” And, we’ve had a good discussion around the extent to which cultural tendencies might contribute to the popularity of describing oneself as a “heretic.” But, such statements raise two other important questions: (1) What is heresy? and (2) What does it mean to be a heretic? Interestingly, people often answer only the first question without recognizing that the second is a different and equally important question.

Today I’d like to start pressing more deeply into what terms like “heresy” and “heretic” even mean. And, we’ll begin with the issue of heresy itself, since it’s impossible to talk about what it means to be a heretic without some understanding of heresy.

What is heresy?

According to Alister McGrath, the term heresy (hairesis in Greek) originally referred to any “act of choosing,” and over time came to include broader ideas like “choice” or “school of thought” (Heresy, 37). So, the term itself wasn’t necessarily negative. It wasn’t until the second century that Christians began using the term in a more pejorative sense to refer to a “school of thought” that needed to be rejected for some reason.

But, that still doesn’t answer the question of what qualifies something as a heresy? And, that is where the challenge lies. That question actually implies a number of other related and equally difficult questions:

  • What distinguishes a heresy from something that is merely incorrect or questionable?
  • What distinguishes heresy from “orthodoxy”?
  • Who determines when something qualifies as a heresy?

It should come as no surprise that people have offered a variety of answers to these questions. So, instead of trying to define “heresy” in one quick post, I’m going to do a short series on different ways that people have tried to define heresy. When I’m done, I hope that we’ll have come to a better understanding of what heresy is.

5 Common Approaches to Understanding Heresy

Specifically, we’re going to look at five different ways that people have defined heresy. I’m sure there are more, but these are among the more common approaches. Over the next few posts, we’ll take a look at each of these and see if they can help in the process of understanding heresy.

  1. Heresy as deviation from an ecumenical council.
  2. Heresy as a suppressed orthodoxy.
  3. Heresy as a social construction.
  4. Heresy as deviation from the “center.”
  5. Heresy as a threat to authority.
  6. Heresy as a failed orthodoxy.

I’ll link the posts to each of these as we go. So, stay tuned for more.

You might also be interested in:

Flotsam and jetsam (4/28)

  • Jerry Bowry argues that the modern seminary system is broken and we are facing The Seminary Bubble. Although his criticisms focused primarily on mainline seminaries, I found this comment particularly interesting:

Historian and sociologist Rodney Stark finds that the historical pattern fits the current one. Decentralized church systems with a history of less formal schooling historically outperform top-heavy ones with heavy academic requirements.

Admittedly, Austen’s world is idealized, yet consider this: who would you prefer your daughter to bring home? 1) a young man whose sexual imagination has been formed by Jane Austen along with Homer, Virgil, The Song of Solomon, Dante, and Shakespeare or 2) a young man who has spent the last ten years of his life fantasizing about women whose images he has objectified and consumed through pornography?

In light of this reality, Warren is only capable of talking about such social relationships and the nature of social injustice as sin in terms of the abstract.  The concrete reality of unjust relationships does not become part of his discussion because his theological language is not apt to describing relationships in terms of power.  Warren’s silence on the issues of racial and economic justice is indicative of the silence of many European-American churches that choose to remain quiet while instances such as the hanging of nooses in public spaces continues to occur; thus, churches with predominantly minority members are left to shoulder the burden alone in confronting domestic terrorism.

The fact is, there never was a golden age of the church. The New Testament church was just as messed up as the 21st century church. And I take that as an encouragement rather than a rebuke from the past. The early church was full of greedy, bickering, sinful people who did not get along with each other, did not listen to their leaders and even split off from one another when disagreements became too heated. And sometimes their leaders said bad things about each other. Let’s not forget that all of Paul’s opponents were not non-believers, but followers of Jesus who happened to disagree with the apostle. Not unlike what we experience today.

The new universalism is not the old universalism. Fair enough. But those of us who reject even the new universalism aren’t gleeful about it. We might even wish it were otherwise. But we also recognize that even our wishes, hopes, and desires need discipline.

Origen, Barth, and Bell: Theological Perspectives on Hell and Universalism

Let me begin by making two statements: 1. I have read Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins.  2. I am not interested in giving a long critique of the book.  Several people have already written good ones, and another review from my perspective would add nothing to the conversation.  What I want to do here is attempt to answer the question, “Is Rob Bell saying anything different than what Origen and Karl Barth claimed?”  In the last month I have heard Bell’s view of hell likened to both of these men as well as C.S. Lewis.  (I cannot, however, speak to Lewis’ view b/c – to my shame – I have only read the Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity).  Ironically, if you Google image “Universalism” both Origen and Bell’s pictures show up.  Origen was excommunicated for some of his teaching, being accused of saying that even the devil might have a shot at redemption.  At the end of Barth’s life he often had to defend himself against the accusation that he was a Universalist.  Is there any correlation between these men?

Origen

The notion that Origen taught that all people would be saved, including the possibility of Satan, has been around for some time.  The reality is that Origen was much more “orthodox” than what he is given credit for.  According to the historian, Justo Gonzales, Origen proposed many doctrines, not necessarily as truths to be generally accepted, nor as things that would supersede the clear doctrines of the church, but as his own tentative speculation, which was not to be compared with the authoritative teaching of the church.  He was in line with what was considered orthodox for his day.  It is unfair to take later matters settled by the church (some several hundred years later), and then look back on his teachings and scold him for wrestling with them.  However, the question is whether or not Origen taught that all men would eventually be saved, even Satan.  The answer is that he postulated some type of universal reconciliation because of his view of free will, but never affirmed it as orthodox or in line with Scripture. In his book, First Principles (1.8.4), he says, “So, too, the reprobate will always be fixed in evil, less from the inability to free themselves from it, than because they wish to be evil.”  Once in hell, the choice to choose otherwise will never be exercised because the will of man will not choose otherwise.  Concerning the possible salvation of Satan, Origen did not teach the possibility that he would be saved.  In a debate with a man named Candidus, Origen was defending his notion of free will, and said that Satan could be saved if he wanted, but that he would not be saved because of his choice to live in rebellion. Origen’s point was that Satan did not want salvation because his free will choice.  He writes in a letter defending himself against the above accusation, that anyone who would claim that Satan would be saved was a “madman.”  Although he was labeled a heretic in 399 by a council in Alexandria, and then excommunicated as heretic by the 5th Ecumenical Council in 553, Henri Crouzel says this was more from the musings of Origen’s followers than Origen himself.  Origen postulated a reconciliation of all things, but did not affirm it as orthodox.  He also did not teach any type of post-mortem changing of the heart.  Although he wanted to defend the notion of free will, he affirmed that the reprobate’s will was fixed in sin and rebellion.

Barth

When it comes to nailing down Karl Barth on the issue…good luck!  According to Oliver Crisp and Geoffrey Bromiley (translator of Barth’s Church Dogmatics into English) his theology cannot escape the accusation.  Karl Barth taught that Jesus Christ was both the subject and object of election.  As the subject he is the electing God.  As the object he is the elect man.  Simply, Barth sees Jesus as the representative of all men, not only some of them.  (He had a major beef with Calvinism!)  If Jesus represented all men, took the condemnation that was to fall on all men, then the logical conclusion of Barth’s theology would be that all men would be saved.  This is what Barth hoped for.  The problem is that he wasn’t sure it would happen.  When asked if he was a Universalist, he denied the label.  Furthermore, he taught that although all men were elected in Christ, their election still had to be actualized through the exercise of faith, and that the gospel had to be preached if there was any hope for man.  Thus, in the end you can take one of two approaches with Barth.  You can side with Oliver Crisp, who says that Barth was either a Universalist or incoherent in his doctrine.  Or, you can opt for George Hunsinger’s view that Barth was not a Universalist but an agnostic.  He simply left the question open ended with a strong tilt towards universal hope.

Bell

So where is Bell?  Again, good luck.  I think he wants to keep the free will of Origen, and the hope of universal reconciliation like Barth.  Unlike both of these men, however, he seems to go further and claim a definitive reconciliation of all people, including post-mortem redemption.  If all are not saved then love does not win, which is the premise of his book.  He redefines the term aion to refer to an “intense experience,” not a period of time with beginning and end (by the way, it’s never good to get one definition of a word and apply it to all uses of that word) (57).  Going so far as to say that, “forever is not really a category biblical writers use” (92) Thus, hell is not forever in the sense of time.  It’s just a “period of pruning” or a “time of trimming” or “an intense experience of correction” (91).  Hell can be now, on earth, as we reject God’s way and God’s story of love.  Hell can be a place we go to after death.  The picture John gives us in Revelation, however, is of a city with open gates in which people can “come and go.”  Bell suggests that if someone dies and goes to hell and is finally overcome by the goodness of God in Christ and repents, it is possible that God will let them into heaven whose gates are always open.  (I wonder if that also means those in heaven can leave?)  Hell, even one of their own making, has finally pruned their resistance.  He says that Christians should long for this (111) and admit that these questions “are tensions we are free to leave fully intact.  We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires”(115).  If he is genuine in this statement, he affirms that he’s not sure if there is a universal reconciliation.  (If he’s wrong, though, doesn’t it end really badly for people?!)  Furthermore, Bell is not a traditional Universalist (i.e. everyone gets in regardless of what they want).  However, he seems to be advocating a type of Christian Universalism.  Jesus is necessary.  Everyone gets in, but everyone gets in only because of the sacrifice of Jesus.  In this sense Bell is exclusive.  Also, the sacrifice of Jesus was inclusive of all.  Bell says that “Jesus does declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody” (155).   He also says that people just might not be aware that it is Jesus doing this for them (155).  Buddhist will use a different name.  Muslim’s will say Allah.  In this case, the gospel in the Bible is not the only way to heaven (i.e. Believe this or you don’t get in).  Jesus is the only way, and the Christian church (especially those that mix the warning of eternal conscious judgment in hell with grace) doesn’t get to lay claim on the only exclusive message.  The message is really love.  So although Bell is not a traditional Universalist, he does appear to be advocating a view of Universalism (i.e. an Exclusive (Jesus alone) Inclusivist (Everybody) Pluralist (Many Ways to Understand) Universalism) that puts the love of God and the cross of Christ squarely in the middle of every persons salvation.  This allows him to have some vague tie to evangelical Christianity, even though his definitions behind the terms create something new.

If I’m reading Bell correctly, there is indeed a piece of continuity between his view and those of Origen and Barth.  There is the hope of universal reconciliation.  I think that all Christians would hope for what these men hoped for, the salvation of all men.  At that point our desires would be in line with God’s.  However, in the end Bell is very different from Barth and Origen.  Bells view is different from Origen b/c he postulates, not a fixed will of rebellion in hell, but the possibility that the will may always change, even post-mortem.  Origen may have questioned, but never considered it an “orthodox view” as Bell does.  Origen also never separated salvation from the Christian gospel or thought that the beliefs of Roman pagan religions were somehow coterminous with the gospel of Jesus.  Bell is different from Barth in that Barth never separates salvation from a choice that is made in the here and now.  Barth never spoke of a hell as a time of “pruning.”  More pointedly Barth never called for a softening of the biblical text or a “better story” that excluded judgment or widened itself to encompass other religions (Neither did Paul in Acts 17).  If anything Barth called for more proclamation and the indiscriminate preaching of the unique Christian gospel (not a widening of it) along with a warning for those who rejected it.  They hoped for a universal reconciliation, but thought it not possible or, at best, were agnostic about it.  In the end, neither Origen nor Barth, say what Bell is now saying.

Flotsam and jetsam (3/25)

I’ve been on a mini blog sabbatical the last couple of days. It’s spring break around here. And, while I never actually take time off for spring break, I do use it to get caught up on all the projects that have been piling up around my office. It’s my version of spring cleaning. But, here are a couple of interesting posts from the last few days.

I have seen evidence of three characteristics that seem to pass as virtues today. In some parts of the Christian world, these are now embraced as Christian virtue: doubt, opaqueness, and an emphasis on asking rather than answering questions.

That is, people become Universalists because they need to, not because it’s true.   All who become Universalists do so because they fear the consequences of their loved one’s rejection of salvation.

No doubt, some Christians get worked up over the smallest controversies, making a forest fire out of a Yankee Candle. But there is an opposite danger–and that is to be so calm, so middle-of-the-road, so above-the-fray that you no longer feel the danger of false doctrine. You always sound analytical, never alarmed. Always crying for much-neglected conversation, never crying over a much-maligned cross. There is something worse than hurting feelings, and that is trampling upon human hearts.

The temptation to idolatry is multifaceted and ever-present, and therefore must be fought without respite.Harmonizing Keller, Wright, Beale, and Scripture leads us to three antidotes: (1) the identification of idols and their attractions; (2) the embrace of the gospel and its idol-destroying promises; and (3) the worship and imitation of the One True God rather than false gods.

It is sometimes stated that the life of the historical Jesus ends with his death, and there is a sense in which this is true. Historical study can only provide access to the human life of Jesus, and his human life, like all human lives, ended when he died. The resurrection per se is not an event like other events in human history, and for this reason cannot be studied with the tools of historical study, either to confirm it or deny it. This does not mean, however, that one cannot attempt to evaluate the historicity of some of the events mentioned in the stories that also include details connected with the rise of Christian belief in the resurrection.

  • Roger Olson has an excellent post on what he means by “the new fundamentalism,” the growing “via media” between traditional fundamentalism and post WWII evangelicalism.

What I see emerging, that in my opinion is not being recognized by most evangelical leaders, is a third way–a via media between movement fundamentalism and the postfundamentalist evangelicalism.  People from movement fundamentalism are emerging out of their isolation into this third way and calling it “conservative evangelicalism.”  People from postfundamentalist evangelicalism are adopting this third way and calling it “conservative evangelicalism.”

Before you criticize, be sure you understand the person and perspective with which you are taking issue. If you lack understanding you are essentially picking a fight with an opponent who does not exist. You’ll make a lot of noise, sell a few books, or attract people to your blog, but your criticism lacks wisdom and integrity.