It isn’t exactly PC to talk about heresy. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, and that it isn’t pervasive. Accusing others of holding (not to mention teaching) unorthodox beliefs is perceived as mean-spirited, brutish, even un-Christian, particularly in an American context which has difficulty speaking of truth and error. We prefer to chalk differences up to points of view and clashes in perspective, even though a better way forward might demand that we undertake the hard work of discerning that which is in accord with sound doctrine (Titus 2:1). Of course, this would require that the body be given the tools to think theologically–something which many Christians (not to mention pastors) woefully lack. I think it would be hard to make a case for strong, sound, theologically thinking Christian people as the norm, rather than the exception, in our churches today. God help us all.
So why the rant on heresy? Partly because I care about truth. The discourse over truth is nothing new–as long as people have thought, they have been concerned with truth. And from time to time, conceptions of truth have been divergent, and the conversation surrounding how one determines which school of thought is dominant has been intense (for instance, in moral philosophy the differences between Kant and Mill). Even divergent schools can both possess value, or glimmers of truth, which later yield a better conception of understanding after having moved further along in history. The theological divergences which have emerged throughout Christian history are such instances, such as classical Calvinism and Arminianism. Though persons on either side of the aisle in this debate might strongly disagree with the position of their opponents, this does not mean that one or the other falls outside the bounds of historic orthodoxy. Members of each party, though their convictions are strong, are willing to concede that we now see “through a glass, darkly.” Though they believe that there convictions are true and that they are doing their best, they ultimately concede God’s thoughts are higher than our own (Isa. 55:9).
This week I had the occasion of reading an excerpt from a new book to be released by a somewhat popular writer, speaker, thinker, and provocateur hailing from the emerging sector of Christianity. Like a canary in a mining tunnel, this person is right to perceive that something is wrong, but their identification of the problem is, in my opinion, far from correct. This writer chose to rail against the antiquated nature of “Christianity” in its historic forms, claiming that the Christianity which he had encountered and received only provided answers to questions of another age, coming across as stale, out of touch, and lacking relevance for our world today. Rather than complain (though in effect, he is doing this), this person has set out to explain their own beliefs for what Christianity can and should be in our world. Thus, they attempt to overcome the baggage of historic Christian belief and provide something fresh, in touch, and relevant to our times. Among their opening comments, they identify the previous 1500 years of Christian thinking to be the most problematic, making me wonder if (roughly) the first 500 years were somehow more pristine, and if so, how this author gained access to those earliest truths through the fog created by medieval and post Reformation Christianity.
While I am thankful that there are concerned Christian people out there writing books, heading out on speaking tours, and leading congregations in such a way that they are connecting with our world, at times I am deeply disturbed by the lack of concern for integrity with the best of Christian theological reflection and historic practice. This isn’t universal, but it is common enough that it is difficult to ignore. I have a great deal yet to learn about our history and our theology, but I know enough to see that one of the by-products of some of the proposed elements of a “new” Christianity seem to lead down a dangerous path of faulty doctrine and distorted witness that points to something which may resemble the Kingdom of God, but ultimately is a kingdom of our own making. I can be stronger here–sometimes the ignorance of historical theology results in heresy being taught today. There, I said it.
While in seminary my wife had a teacher who challenged her class to invent a new heresy, and if they could do so, they would automatically be awarded an A for the semester. It couldn’t be done. Heresies are pervasive throughout Christian history, and they are easier to identify when you are familiar with that history. This is how to avoid heresies–by knowing where we’ve come from. Within our own history we have seen thinkers who not only possessed good minds, but were intellectual giants, and it is only to our detriment that we write off their contributions as antiquated and out of touch with our current realities. What could be more important in our time than rich thinking on the Trinitarian nature of God, or upon the nature of human beings and how God has provided for their redemption? Some of the claims internal to our tradition do not lose relevance for they are true.
When I discussed these thoughts with my wife, Molly, she was right to point out that I should temper my attitude and be a little more generous when engaging those with whom I disagree, and I am glad to heed her words. But part of my reply was quite sharp, and I ask you the question I posed to her (though here I state it a bit more mildly):
“Where would we be without people like Augustine, who stood up boldly to Pelagius and fought for the belief that human beings are sinful and in desperate need of the grace of God?”
To cite another example, Wesley wasn’t exactly mild in his responses to Whitefield’s Calvinist leanings, though the two remained friends. This post sheds some light on their relationship.
There is a need for people like Augustine still today, as we are not dealing with only sheer matters of preference, but with truth. I, for one, believe such a thing exists.
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