“Heresy” is a dirty word to many Americans. It brings forth images of heresy trials, the Spanish Inquisition, and the burning of Michael Servetus. Yet the concept of heresy is essential for Christianity unless one waters down Christianity to the point that it merely means, “Be nice to one another.” As I heard Stanley Hauerwas once say, “If all Jesus said was that we should be nice to one another, why the hell was he crucified?”
The word “heresy” has to do with division–a heretical doctrine is any false doctrine that, if taught, leads to division in the church. Heresy is dangerous in that heretical doctrines, if followed, can oppose teachings essential for salvation. For example, teaching that Christ was not raised from the dead implies, as St. Paul put it in I Corinthians 15, that “we are of all men most miserable…. and we are yet in our sins.” To deny the Virgin Birth leads to adoptionism and denies the full divinity of Christ. If Christ was not divine, how could He save people from sin and death?
The true source of heresy is arrogance, human pride, the primal sin. It is man wanting to go his own path instead of following St. Vincent of Lerin’s formula, “what all men have at all times and everywhere believed must be regarded as true.” It can be an intellectual arrogance–”I am too sophisticated and modern to accept miracles.” It can be an anti-authoritarian arrogance–”I am not going to accept what a bunch of church politicians said at a council 1500 years ago.” It can be an arrogance of someone wanting to live a life in opposition to traditional moral standards: “I know the church condemns abortion, but I think it’s okay in certain situations, and the church is just wrong on that issue.”
Now if a Christian holds heretical opinions but keeps them to himself, he is not a heretic–a person becomes a heretic when he teaches false doctrine. If that person, once warned, does not stop teaching false doctrine, the Bishop, if he so chooses, can excommunicate that individual. A heretical priest or bishop might be defrocked. One of my huge problems with the Roman Catholic Church is that it allows too often heretical teachers and churches to prosper. Why is John Dominik Crossan still a member in good standing of the Roman Catholic Church even though he denies the bodily resurrection of Christ? Hans Kuhn is a raving fundamentalist compared to Crossan. Why are priests who openly support practicing homosexuality allowed to remain as active priests? Why are Roman Catholics who openly espouse abortion allowed to take communion? That is for the Roman Catholic Church leadership to answer–they may have Jesus’ attitude that God will separate the wheat and the tares at the end of time. But what about the present when heretical teachers are leading sheep astray from the truth?
Mainline Protestantism, especially in its seminaries, is doing better than in the past–many younger professors are quite orthodox. It is oftentimes the older teachers who deny fundamental doctrines of the faith such as the bodily resurrection of Christ. Renewal movements in the United Methodist Church have worked wonders in taking it away from the liberal Protestant theology it had adopted from the 1950s through the 1980s. Thomas Oden of Drew University has been a leading voice for restoring a “catholic” (in a broad sense) orthodoxy to the Methodist Church. There are orthodox voices at some mainline Presbyterian seminaries now, something that was nearly unheard outside of Union in Virginia years ago. To his credit, Pope John Paul II did a great deal to reverse the radical trends asserted in “the spirit of Vatican II.”
I pray that these renewal movements will continue and that Christians will be humble enough to accept the wisdom of men and women over the centuries whose collective voice is wiser (and reflects the influence of the Holy Spirit) than anyone’s individual notions of what Christianity is. Only with humility toward God, toward Christ and His apostles, and toward Holy Tradition can one overcome the sinful pride that results in heresy.