In evangelical Protestant circles – to the highest degree in apologetics, followed by theology and Christian philosophy, it is popular to denounce theological views as “heresy”. For a while now, this has struck me as a little odd, and in this post, I’ll explain why.
The concept of heresy arose within Catholocism, and on traditional Catholic assumptions, it makes perfect sense to decry something as “heresy”. For one thing, that statement – in a Catholic context – has a well-defined meaning. For another thing, it is often pretty clear what opinions will and won’t be heresy.
Here’s the Catholic definition of “heresy”:
In Canon Law, Heresy is defined as the pertinacious denial or doubt, by a baptized Catholic, of a truth of Divine and Catholic Faith proposed as such by the Supreme Magisterium of the Church (Canon 750 Â§ 1 Code of Canon Law). (from defide.com)
The early 20th century Catholic Encyclopedia, in discussing the blameworthiness of the heretic, also gets to the heart of the matter:
The guilt of heresy is measured not so much by its subject-matter as by its formal principle, which is the same in all heresies: revolt against a Divinely constituted authority.(“Heresy“, section IV)
A heretic, then, is a Catholic who culpably rebells against Mother Church, by denying or doubting something Mother commands her to believe. Heresy in this proper, Catholic sense of the word, is a quasi-legal concept – just as some act can be “illegal” only relative to some law or government, so a belief can be heretical only relative to the commands of an ecclesial body, namely, God’s one true church, headed by the vicar of Christ himself, currently this gentleman.
Note that it would be simply confused to call a non-Catholic a “heretic”. It’s a concept that applies within the group only. Outsiders with importantly false opinions will rather be called “scismatics” or simply “unbelievers” or “infidels”.
So what’s the problem? No problem at all – all this is just part and parcel of accepting the claims which the Catholic Church makes for herself. The problems arise when non-Catholics help themselves to heresy-language.
A popular evangelical apologetics outfit defines “heresy” as follows:
heresy: Doctrine which is erroneous in such a way that Christians must divide themselves as a church from all who teach or accept it; those adhering to heresy are assumed to be lost, although Christians are unable to make definitive judgments on this matter. The opposite of orthodoxy. Adj.: heretical. (from here)
Here, heresy is thought of as a claim or doctrine, not as a belief (or lack of belief). That’s fine. What is “heresy”? It isn’t just a theological claim which is false, or which is unjustified, or refutable, or some combination of those. Rather, it’s a claim such that if someone publicly teaches it, Christians are obligated to not associate with (i.e. be in the same church organization as) that person. Basically, a “heresy” here is a separation-justifying false bit of theology. OK, but which are those? Outside the Catholic context, there’s no ajudicator. Unlike the US Government, there is no Decider.
Who, after all, could lay claim to that role? Not the apologist. Not the organization he works for. Not some ecclesial body – there is no such body which even alleges jurisdiction over all Christians – whether we mean all Protestants, all evangelicals, or all true believers in any church group, Protestant or not. President Bush? He’s got his hands full already.
It is common, with such apologists, to appeal to the tenets of “historic Christianity” (a mere logical construct, of course – and not a well-defined one). This is really a roundabout way of appealing to the idea that some theological claims are essential to Christianity – such that if one doesn’t believe any one of this set of claims, one isn’t a Christian, or isn’t fully a Christian, or at least, isn’t “a Christian” in the most proper sense of the words. Of course, Christians should only form churches with other legit Christians, so it would follow that a person teaching something inconsistent with one or more of these core beliefs – while claiming to be a Christian – would be a heretic.
Now this, on a theoretical level, makes sense. Surely, not just anyone ought to count as “a Christian” – more should be required than a willingness to wear that label, as it were. Still, on a practical level, this ain’t much help. For, who has the authority to define what this essential set of beliefs? The Catholics have an unequivocal answer:
But what authority is to lay down the law as to what is or is not essential? It is certainly not the authority of individuals. By entering a society, whichever it be, the individual gives up part of his individuality to be merged into the community. And that part is precisely his private judgment on the essentials: if he resumes his liberty he ipso facto separates himself from his church. The decision, therefore, rests with the constitutional authority of the society–in the Church with the hierarchy acting as teacher and guardian of the faith. (Catholic Encyclopedia, “Heresy”, section VIII)
An even more useless definition of “heresy” is offered in this book – a popular ecumenically-minded (and, I should say, worthwhile) theology textbook.
…heresy is not a form of unbelief; it is a faulty or inadequate understanding of core Christian beliefs that arises within the context of [Christian] faith itself. (McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 4th ed., 116)
(McGrath is discussing a historical figure here, but it’s pretty clear in the context that he himself endorses this way of thinking.) There are two problems here. First, the definition is patently too broad – presumably not any theological inadequacy would do – a serious error must be in view. Second, who gets to specify what the inviolable “core” beliefs are? If you’re going to go around appealing to the essence of Christianity, this is an intensely practical question. McGrath probably should have discussed it, as the historical figure whose thinking about heresy he’s discussing is the philosopher-theologian Schleirermacher. (Also, here.)
Let it suffice to say that no one, least of all McGrath (pp. 82-4), would accept him as the Decider. But if not him, who or what?
What I’m driving at is this: in Catholicism, there’s a Decider, and there’s a well-defined group – Catholics. If I’m your fellow Catholic, and you assert that a belief of mine is heretical, we can just look it up, and see who is right. We can even bring in the help of a doctrinal expert, who in most cases will be able to definitively settle the matter. We can even bring in a quasi-legal apparatus – courts, lawyers, the whole nine yards. And then, if it turns out I am a heretic, I have a choice to make: Rome’s way, or the highway. And if my accuser is mistaken, presumably the church authorities will tell him to pipe down.
In contrast, outside the context of Catholicism, suppose you, my fellow non-Catholic self-professed Christian, assert that one of my opinions is “heretical”. I say, “Says who?”, because I’m not a member of your denomination. You say, according to Historical Christianity. I say, you’re just faking it now – what does that even mean, and even if we do precisely enough define that term, why think that it holds something essential to Christianity which I deny? So you say, what’s the issue is the Essence of Christianity – you’re denying an essential belief. And I say, according to whom? As best I can tell, I affirm all the truly essential beliefs of Christianity. The point is just this: outside the context of Catholicism or something like it (Orthodoxy, or some denomination with highly defined required beliefs and procedures for enforcing them), it is useless and a waste of time to throw an accusation of “heresy”. Why waste time with the attempt to bully me out of my opinion, when you could instead be stating (1) evidence that my belief is false, and (2) evidence that my false belief is harmful to the cause of Christ, indeed, so dreadfully harmful that I should be pruned off the vine, as it were. Either I’m in your church group, or I’m not. If I’m in it, you can appeal to its authority. If I’m not, you’ll have to stick with whatever sources of evidence I accept in theology – things such as the Bible, reason, experience, certain councils, church fathers, mainstream opinion through certain eras, or whatever – this will be different for different people. This is complicated, and hard, and the temptation to lazily dismiss opinions as “heretical” will always be there. But that’s just theological life without the domineering presence of Mother Church. In sum, one should leave aside the language of heresy, unless one is operating within the sort of canon-law machinery that puts teeth into such accusations.
In this blog, then, I’m going to eschew deriding certain trinitarian theories as “heretical”. The worst accusations I can lob are: false, contradictory, unintelligible, unjustified, unbiblical, practically harmful. But “heretical”? That’s for some authoritative ecclesial body or bodies to decide – whether they be the Roman church, the Orthodox tradition, some Protestant denomination(s), or just each local assembly. Whatever a group forbids to be taught on pain of expulsion from that group – that is heresy, relative to that group. Even if I wanted to run some sort of Spanish Inquisition, in an ecclesiastically non-homogenous context, it’s just useless to denounce something as “heresy”. The relevant paradigm is that of a rational conversation between friends, not a trial.
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