Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Defining Heresy

Recently I heard about a man calling another man a heretic. They were friends at one time and had been part of the same Christian community. But one of them moved on to another group of Christ followers and, because of his new affiliation, he was labeled heretic.

I was invited to speak at a small gathering of scholars where the first man was present. Before I arrived, he inquired about my grip on orthodoxy: Was I a heretic? He might have thought so. And I’m fine with that.

When it comes to Christian faith, there are good reasons for paying attention to things that could be deemed heretical. Some early detractors claimed that, if indeed God was fully present in the person of Jesus, then Jesus couldn’t have really suffered and died. God just doesn’t do that sort of thing. Therefore, it only seemed that Jesus died on that Roman cross. It was really just a divinely-inspired illusion. This prompted the apostle John to open one of his letters with the claim,

“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it . . .” (I John 1:1-2b)

It was a heretical thing to John to deny what he had experienced. He saw it all, he was there, he watched as blood dripped and life slipped away from Jesus. It was real and no illusion, and to say otherwise was to create a myth that denied reality. Heresy, in this case, would be a denial of the real.

But the definition of heresy—originally mean to “choose” another thing, something running counter to the tenets of the faith—morphed over time, and turned into anything that challenged dominant religious thinking. For example:

Jesus was a heretic because he challenged the religious elite’s hold on observance of the Sabbath and the forgiveness of sins.

Early Christians were heretics because they believed, along with the Jews, in only one God, denying the existence of the pantheon of gods and the divinity of the Emperor.

Franciscans were once considered heretics because they believed in the poverty of Christ.

And on it goes. But there are real heretics, ones who deny Christ, who set themselves up as ones to be worshipped, ones who demand unquestioned obedience from their followers, ones who create idols of thought and practice and invite others to bow down with them.

But it seems to me that the current definition of heresy, especially in conservative Evangelical circles, is telling me something I don’t already know.

One seminary website includes in its list of distinctive characteristics: The seminary reinforces my beliefs and I won't have to fight for them.

I know people (including myself) who have been labeled as heretics because they believe that there are more ways to try to wrap your mind around the atonement than just the theory of penal substitution. Or because they believe that the Bible is inspired and authoritative, but that the word inerrant is insufficient as an adjective. Or that TULIP is a flawed acronym for God’s reconciling work in the world in and through the person of Jesus Christ.

We need to work on this whole heretic thing. When we draw too many deep, uncrossable lines in the sand, we risk isolating ourselves from everyone else with walls constructed out of our own certainties, never considering that along the way, we just might have gotten some things wrong.

I’m glad that Peter and the first Jewish Christians, realizing that the Holy Spirit fell generously and without ritual qualification on the Gentiles, were able to admit that they had gotten something wrong, that their story was a story for the world and not just for them.

This coming from a group of people who had just spent three years with Jesus. And they still got some things wrong.

Do we have everything right? Is questioning our certainties tantamount to heresy?

No comments: