Guest post by Kris Zyp
A valuable insight on the values of a group of people can be found in what they consider to be the strongest of insults. Within American Christianity, from what I can tell, the most serious insult one can bring against another is to call them a heretic. Nothing could be worse than being judged “incorrect” and out of line with orthodoxy. This is highly telling of the values of the church in America. The extreme view of heretics implies that we consider correct knowledge and accuracy in orthodox alignment to be the most important components of religion. This observation is more than just a conclusion from our insults, but of course corroborated by the common view that “belief” and being Christian is defined by assent to certain truths.
Another insight that this revile reveals is American’s attraction to labeling people. Americans like to over-simplify people by distilling them down to a shallow stereotype. Now I believe labeling and stereotyping does actually have some value. We can’t possibly develop a deep meaningful relationship to the point of fully understanding every person we encounter, reference, or talk to. Labels can give us a helpful starting point to understand where someone is coming from, but one must realize that the uniqueness of person far outweigh any similarities that labels would provide, and we can’t assume that a label is complete in describing someone. By labeling someone a heretic, the point is to discount everything that person says as untrue or misleading.
To consider the label of heretic more carefully, we should look at it’s definition? Technically, a heretic is one who holds opinions that opposes or contradicts widely accepted dogma or doctrines. This can apply to any field, but it is often used within Christianity, and would thus indicate someone who opposes a belief of Christian dogma. However, there is also a colloquial meaning of the word as well. While the technical meaning deals with opposition to a belief, the word is often use to mean someone who is wrong, or is pushing falsehoods. This essentially is the difference between opposition to belief and knowledge/truth (dramatically different concepts).
Does American Christianities view that heresy is the greatest of evils correspond with Biblical teaching? What were the things there were most fiercely opposed by Jesus? Certainly one Jesus’s most ruthless and brutal messages was found in Matthew 23. Here he lays into the Pharisees, dispelling any notion that he always a gentle, good-natured type of guy. Jesus seems to be mainly focused on the hypocrisy of the Pharisees (the leaders) who are portraying and demanding righteousness outwardly, yet are in reality the source of great injustices. Many who read the NT might assume that Jesus’s theology was completely opposed to the Pharisees. However, the main theological distinction of the Pharisees mentioned in the Bible was belief in the resurrection. On this key point, Jesus was totally in the Pharisee camp (on other issues I believe he was more specifically in the Hillel sub-branch of Pharisees). It wasn’t the Pharisee’s incorrectness that Jesus assaulted, it was their hypocritical lifestyle. Here are some other passages were Jesus shows what he most opposes:
Matt 12:24-31 – Attributing the work of God to Satan (actually going on to say that this type of blasphemy against of the Holy Spirit won’t be forgiven).
Matt 12:34, 3:7 – Not producing good fruit
Matt 7:5 – Hypocrisy
Matt 21:12-13 – Most obviously Jesus is opposing the commercialization of the temple/church. Commentators also have pointed out that there was a deeper problem with the money changers, as they were creating an huge barrier to the “gentiles” from entering the temple. Jesus was opposing tribalism as well as commercialism.
Now Paul is more pointed in Galatians in refuting false teaching. However, it is clear from the context of this book that this is not just a general condemnation of any mistakes in teaching, but more specifically a impassioned defense of grace as the sole means of salvation, justification, and sanctification.
To be clear, I did not intend in anyway to glorify and uphold heresy. Opposing dogma founded on centuries of thought, mediation, and study should never be the default. There is nothing inherently smart or worthy about such a position. It is only a last resort when there appears to be flaws worth challenging. And while I believe there is a time and place for such opposition, there certainly is not a time, place, or anything redeemable about espousing falsehoods. Encouraging falsehoods is certainly not something I or anyone else (and very few do) should endeavor to do, but humbling realizing that we do is critical.
I also don’t intend lower the importance of theology. In fact my goal is actually improve the depth of our theology. I believe that fear of heresy can actually be a more contributor to shallow theology. Carefully avoiding anything outside a narrow box of ideas puts us in a position to miss many of the aspects of the incredibly depth and multi-faceted nature of God and his wisdom and glory.
Certainly one of the things that sparked this post was thinking about comments over prominent authors like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell who have challenged orthodoxy, and thus often labeled as heretics. I actually started this post before the huge controversy around Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, but this recent heated topic certainly makes this interesting. Are these men in fact heretics? Well, are they challenging any aspects of Christian dogma? Of course they are. You don’t have to get much past the cover of their books to realize that. Are they wrong in any of their ideas? Again, of course they are. Again, it is easy find probable falsehoods in their writing. They are unmistakeably teaching heresy, this is virtually undeniable in my opinion.
But an important question to ask is who else is a heretic? Was Martin Luther a heretic? Did he challenged orthodoxy? Absolutely, he was one of the most prominent heretics in history. Was he a heretic (falsehood)? Yep, he definitely said some <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Jews_and_Their_Lies“>ridiculous things</a>. But did he bring valuable corrections to the church? Yes, absolutely. And not to exclude myself), am I a heretic? I don’t wish to unnecessarily oppose dogma, but if and when corrections are needed, and I want to be open to challenges. Am I wrong about some things? Absolutely. Let me be the first to admit: I am a heretic too. Is your pastor ever wrong about some things he teaches. I’m willing to bet he is. One of the core problems with the label “heretic” is that a naive and misleading attempt to categorize everything someone says as true and good or false and bad. The reality is that even the best of teachers are wrong about some things, and some of the most heretical teachers have important insights. This makes learning more challenging, but this is exactly why Paul commended the Bereans for consistently going to the scripture, when it would have been much easier to simply give them a list of the teachers that were to be trusted and those who were not.
OK, but surely some of these “progressive” authors are more dangerous, teaching more falsehoods and less likely to be true? Yes, sure. I am not endorsing any of McLaren or Bell’s beliefs. However, at the same time, while most challenges to dogma are likely to be wrong (since they are challenging such well established positions), when such challenges turn out to be valid, they can be absolutely invaluable to Christianity. Many may be wrong, but even one out of hundred that bring correction like Martin Luther did is invaluable to the maturation of the church. In fact many of the “heretics” of the first few centuries were quite wrong, yet still valuable players in the dialogue that led to important early creeds and confessions that likely would not have existed if dogmas had not been challenged. I’m sure McLaren and Bell are certainly no Luther, but only listening to select set of those deemed “safe” doesn’t allow us to broaden our perspectives. I have greatly appreciate authors like <a href=“http://www.thedeepchurch.com”>Jim Belcher</a> who have been willing to listen and learn from many camps in these debates.
It is interesting to note that wide usage of the term heresy was started by Irenaeus who used apostolic succession as a foundational plumbline for what aberrated from orthodoxy and was thus heresy. American protestants generally completely reject apostolic succession. In fact, Protestantism itself is in fact heresy, by definition of the word, since it is founded on opposition (protest) of the dogma of the Catholic church. The words protestantism and heresy are almost synonyms. It is quite interesting twist that Protestants would then takje the word that describes the process towards grace-based liberation they enjoy, and turn it into a devastating insult.
Of course I want to be “right” on every issue just as much as anyone else (I don’t really anyone who wants to be wrong). But I want to place moving closer to God above a “safe” position. I want to be willing to risk being wrong, risk my correctness, if it gives me a chance to understand, love, and appreciate God more thoroughly (and no, I didn’t say that being wrong draws you closer to God, don’t make that logical misstep). Will I read authors that are regarded as many as be heretical? Yes. Will I read them with more suspicion and caution? Yes. Do I expect to receive valuable insights and perspectives that I wouldn’t receive if I only read authors that I already agreed with? Yes, and this opportunity to grow and gain another view of the multi-faceted glory of God makes it all worth it to me.
I believe American Christianity has mistakenly placed being “right” above the pursuit of knowing and experiencing the manifold wisdom and nature of God. Labeling people as good or heretical often just is a tool for increasing the polarization of different camps in Christianity, and reducing our opportunity to learn from each other.