The Arrogance of Heresy

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Fighting Heresy

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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.

Christianity and Other Religions

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Cults and new religious movements in literatur...

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Are people who are not Christians going to hell? Is there truth in non-Christian religions? Can Christians learn something valuable about their own faith from non-Christian religions? These questions concern at least those Christians who are orthodox with a small “o,” those who believe the doctrines of the Incarnation of God in Christ as fully God, fully man, and who believe that his life, death, and resurrection brings hope of eternal life and freedom from sin.

Many Christian Fundamentalists and even some Evangelicals believe that non-Christians are going to hell. Forget euphemisms such as “they are lost;” let this believe stand out in its full starkness. As a child in the Churches of Christ, I attended a “gospel meeting” in which a preacher said if non-Christians are not lost, why send missionaries to convert them. This was sloppy argumentation on his part, and I believe the Fundamentalists to be incorrect.

As an orthodox Christian, I believe that all who go to Heaven do so through Christ, whether they recognize that during this life or not. One can affirm the uniqueness of Christianity and the unique truth of Christianity without damning those who have either not heard about Christianity or do not seriously consider it due to the depth of the faith in which they were reared. The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner referred to “anonymous Christians,” good non-Christians whom God would save, would send to Heaven. C. S. Lewis, in the last volume of the Narnia series, The Last Battle, has a follower of the false god Tash, a good man, saved by Aslan the Lion (a Christ figure) because, as Aslan puts it, “You thought you were worshiping Tash while all the time you were worshiping me.”

To the argument that there is no need to send missionaries, my reply is, “Isn’t Christianity good news. Isn’t it a good thing to spread the message of Christ? Maybe that message will turn the lives of people around who would not be open to any grace in their own religion. And if Christianity is ultimate truth, isn’t it a good thing to spread it without presuming that those to whom you’re preaching are going to hell?”

As far as Christians learning from other religions, why not? God can spread His revelation to whom He wills, and other religions may contain partial truths without containing the fullness of Christian faith. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, multis gentilium facta fuit revelatio, “to many nations revelation has been made.” From the Hindus Christians can learn more about the immanence of God (without accepting pantheism). From the Buddhists Christians can learn about letting go of desires that get in the way of God (without accepting the atheism of Theravada Buddhism). From Taoism Christians can enrich their sense of the unity and mystery of God (again without accepting pantheism). From some Native American religions Christians can gain a sense of God’s closeness to the natural world and that His love extends to plants and animals, not just man–and one could go on.

This is not to say that all religions make the same claims, as the philosopher John Hick believes. He thinks that all religions are about calling people to a high moral life–but one does not have to be religious to believe this. Plus, religions make contradictory claims about reality; Sankara’s pantheism is not the same as Christian theism, and atheistic Theravada Buddhism which denies any individual self or soul is the opposite of Christianity on those two points. The Christian theologian Stanley Hauerwas has said that “If all Jesus said was for us to be nice to each other, why the h… did they crucify him?”

Christianity, I believe is ultimately true–not just true for me, but true for everyone at all times. But as a Christian, I can still learn about my faith from studying other religions–and I can admit that Christ can save whom He wills, including non-Christians of good will and who accept God’s grace–which may be something that occurs postmortem. Finally, Christians should present the gospel as the good news of what Christ has done for mankind and not just a means for avoiding hell.