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Heresy and Difference

March 3, 2014
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Heresy is a tricky word.  I know a lot of people who wish it would go away.  They argue (correctly in many instances) that it is nothing more than an insult.  If you don’t like a belief then call it heresy.  All the word means is “I disagree” with extra venom.  Others (myself included) argue that heresy is a useful word if it is carefully restricted.  Arianism is heresy and has been for centuries.  Pelagianism is heresy.  Identifying something as a named and known heresy is useful – orthodox Christians understand that these beliefs have been carefully examined and rejected as harmful.  Once you realize that a particular view is nothing more than one of these heresies you can reject it because you’ve already done the legwork.  This isn’t a cheap shot but is instead much like realizing that a long math problem reduces down to a problem you’ve already solved and pulling out that known answer.

In the real world the cry of “heresy” can be either insult or a stricter definition and without more discussion one can rarely tell which.  However, the purpose of the word heresy is always to mark a particular belief as non-Christian.  This in itself sometimes meets resistance: can’t we all just be nice and let everyone do their own thing and call it Christian?  While in some ways this seems tolerant, it’s a real mess as far as communication goes.  Words are supposed to mean things and if we agree to let a word mean anything at all we lose its utility.  Perhaps odder still, this is actually in many ways an intolerant position.  If someone has reached conclusions that are nothing like historic Christianity then why do they want the title “Christian”?  Realistically this only makes sense if “Christian” is a way to say something like “correct religion” or “right kind of person” and so I am perpetually confused why people who don’t think that historical Christianity is correct or that it has produced good people treat the title “Christian” as an accolade.

However, simply deciding that some things aren’t Christian (and perhaps that determining heresy is an integral part of what the Church does throughout history) isn’t enough to determine what is in or out.  I actually don’t plan on making that determination in this article.  What I do want to do is talk about are real grades of difference.

Often differences in theological positions are expressed by use of clumsy labels.  In discussions in which the word “heresy” is tossed around these labels are often “conservative” and “liberal”.  Unfortunately these labels are about as useless as labels get.  Liberal simply means “breaking with my tradition” whereas conservative means “sticking with my tradition” and since some traditions have opposite views on some things none of this is very helpful without a great deal more specification.  So what kinds of differences can people have theologically?

The simplest difference is a difference over facts.  A great deal of the debates about homosexuality and the ordination of women (as well as parts of the debates about Calvinism vs. Arminianism and the New Perspective vs. the Old Perspective on Paul) hinge on facts.  Does this Greek word mean “don’t talk” or “don’t yell”?  Does this Greek word mean “homosexual” or “pedophile rapist”?  Did the Pharisees preach works-righteousness or something much more complicated?  When Paul says that prophecy and tongues will cease, is the time he references supposed to be the coming of God’s Kingdom in power and glory or the end of the apostolic era?  The key here is that all of these differences of opinions hinge on one or two relatively clear-cut facts.  We could (theoretically) find additional manuscripts in which someone used a disputed word in a way that made its meaning crystal-clear or specifically discussed the very earliest Church memories of the apostolic teaching in regards to our modern question and these findings would (if judged convincing) settle the debate.  As long as both sides agreed that the new findings settled the matter of fact (e.g., agreed that the new manuscript data settled the meaning of the word) the debate would have to end.

A level up from this is an argument over the integration of facts.  For instance, two people might both agree that Phoebe (Romans 16:1) holds an important leadership position in the church and that Paul elsewhere seems to prohibit female leaders1.  However, one person might believe that Paul’s practice is most important and decide that the contradiction should be resolved in favor of female leaders while the other person might decide that while special circumstances may have applied to Phoebe Paul’s writings are the clearest evidence of his general intent and decide against female leadership in the church.  Neither of these people contests the key facts behind the other’s decision.  What they contest is how to draw these facts together into a larger picture2.  (Not at all accidentally, some of this analysis is very similar to my arguments about the levels at which people may disagree when discussing religion and science.)

Integration of facts into larger narratives and general principles is closely tied to one’s method of reading.  This is where the first really substantiative breaks appear in my opinion.  The example used above points to one such difference.  One could not only apply different weighting to actions and words for a specific debate but make a general reading principle out of this – either “written commands always supersede what appears to be contradictory evidence from the actions of Biblical figures” or “actions show us the real meaning of Biblical statements and when actions appear to contradict statements made by the same Biblical figure the actions take precedence”.  My ancestors adopted an interesting strategy for determining what sort of religious observances were allowed by the Bible (a strategy that resulted in their ban of Christmas): only religious observances mandated or recommended by the Bible were allowed.  Many others have taken an opposite tack: anything is allowed unless it is specifically prohibited.  These sorts of breaks are fundamentally harder to reconcile that breaks about specific facts or their integration into the larger picture because the same facts can end up meaning completely different things to different people.

A step further out is the question about what matters or what constitutes evidence at all.  One of the most fundamental breaks between “liberal” and “conservative” theology occurs when the liberal party is sufficiently liberal to feel that the Bible itself lacks authority in the area of debate.  While there are a huge number of debates that occur amongst people who all agree that the Bible is the source for spiritual and theological authority, these debates are all “in-house” debates compared to debates between people who hold the Bible as an authority and those who do not.  However this is hardly the only source of trouble.  Conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants may find themselves clashing over whether the traditions of the Church matter (one reason that “conservative” is not a hugely useful label in theology).  Effectively these are all debates about what evidence can be brought into the debate courtroom.  The Bible?  The Qu’ran?  The traditions of the Church in 1500?  The records of the early Church councils?  Calvin’s Institutes?  The evidence of logic?  One’s pastoral experience?  Various approaches (like the Wesleyan Quadrilateral) attempt to weight these sources but debates between people who weight sources differently, especially between people who assign no weight to particular sources others think are important, are harder to resolve.

Thinking about these differences can be helpful for thinking about the question of what is “too different”.  For instance, debates between Buddhists and Christians involve a difference of what matters (what texts and what teachers).  So do debates between orthodox Christians and Mormons.  That might be important.  However, debates between Catholics and Protestants also involve one of these differences so perhaps we need to be careful or pay more attention to the content of the differences and not just their type.

One thing that does seem clear is that some differences of theological opinion are too large to fit comfortably under the same terminological umbrella.  Thinking carefully about these differences is useful for thinking about the bounds of theological terms but also for thinking about dialog between camps.  Where do the differences actually lie?  Like Jesus replying to the Sadducees without referencing the texts they might dispute (Matthew 22:31-32) we can sometimes have more profitable dialog by clearly identifying the types of ideological differences that we have.


[1] Both of which are contested facts.

[2] To use another example, charismatic and cessationist Christians both generally agree that the apostles did miracles and that these stop being a normal part of the record by the time of the early Church Fathers.  While there is some disagreement about facts (namely whether miracles disappear entirely or just get de-emphasized or rarer) the main issue is interpretation and integration of these facts.  Charismatics say that miracles are a proper part of Christian ministry that got lost while cessationists claim that they were part of kick-starting the Church and faded away once the Church got going.  Both interpretations are dealing with the same basic story (one familiar to most Christians) about apostles who did miracles followed by an absence of such stories from later eras.

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