Here’s a question – what exactly is the damage that heresy does? I think I’ve demonstrated in past posts that heresy doesn’t bother me very much, but often when it is discussed, it is presented as if it is this incredibly damaging thing, as if it has the power to destroy in its very existence, like a plague against which orthodoxy is the only inoculation.

It seems like, given enough time, the good ideas will rise to the surface. Hopefully this is true of theology the way it is true for engineering. Powerful ideas will move people closer to God and terrible ideas will eventually be identified and discarded. The Holy Spirit bears witness to the truth in scripture and reason and experience and tradition. And we’re all limited, contextual creatures who see now in a mirror darkly.

So, clearly many people think I’m missing something big here. Tell me.

(Bear in mind that I don’t equate saving faith with cognitive assent, so I’m not going to be very amenable to the argument that if people are tricked into ‘believing’ wrong things they’ll go to Hell. Feel free to make the argument – my comments aren’t moderated, and you might convince me. It’ll be tough without being able to point to examples in Hell, but obviously I like a good argument.)

12 thoughts on “Heresy

  1. Me too, I want to hear an answer to your question.The Greeks were all worried about good reasoning, (the word “orthodoxy” means correct thinking) and they thought a society could pull itself up by its boot straps by reason and will power alone. Paul shot that theory down in Romans.But our Church Fathers were all Platonists, so I think they, and we, inherited their Greek assumptions. There is a place and time for it, no question. The notion of clear, logical and disciplined thinking is central to Western Civilization. But does God decide what to do with us on the basis of our mental skills?! Be careful what you wish for. “the measure you give will be the measure you receive”Jodie


  2. Doug,The birds are singing, the weather is beautiful I have tomatoes to transplant, but I feel I must answer your question. The reason: I have worked for many years in what was called cult ministry but is now ministry to new religions. Basically my ministry was and still is to those groups who consider themselves to be “Christian, “but have pushed somewhat beyond Christ.For instance, for a while, in Sacramento, there was a group called Free Love Ministries who later changed their name to Aggressive Christianity. They owned a commune not to far from where I live now. They didn’t emphasize the atonement of Christ. They cared little about the deity of Jesus Christ, they certainly did not care anything about the grace of God in Christ Jesus. Rather they emphasized that Christians were suppose to do all kinds of works for salvation. That included speaking in tongues for two hours a day, leaving your family behind if they didn’t agree with the leaders’ position, and the big one, getting rid of the demons inside of you. Eventually this group insisted that two marriages end because the wives were spiritually dead and full of demons. The wives were put to hard labor with their ex-husbands over them. (In case you think this was a case of patriarchy run amuck, this group was run by a husband and wife team and it was the wife who made those kinds of “spiritual” decisions.) One of the “dammed” wives eventually left and sued them; they lost all of their property and left town. They still exist, I think in New Mexico, with about 15 or so people.That is an extreme case, of course, but the point is one step away from Jesus Christ can lead any direction. The Arians are another example. If Christ was created or was simply adopted by God because of his goodness, he becomes an example to follow, not a Savior who gives us new life. Who can live up to the holiness of God. We need the grace and regeneration of Jesus Christ. If Jesus is not Lord there are other lords waiting in the wings, perhaps lords who want to devour us rather than save us. Now to those tomatoes.


  3. Well, obviously I’m not the guy who can answer this question for you, but I have a quick thought:Thoughts matter. Not as much as actions, but the way we think shapes how we act. So there is <>some<> validity to being concerned with what is “right” thought, or “right” belief. Mind you, I think there are more dangers in heresiology than in heresy, but I don’t think we’re wrong to inquire after what is true. Really, I think the problem comes when you combine the pursuit of truth with power over others. So long as everyone is willing to accept that we have no legitimate power over other people in their pursuit for truth then there is nothing wrong with claiming some things to be true and others false. Once we decide we can force others to think what we believe is right then we are in danger…


  4. Viola,That is an excellent example of something, but is it of Heresy doing harm?“guns don’t kill people, people kill people” ?Jodie


  5. The constraints of blogging necessitate a referral. Read Harold O. J. Brown’s book <>< HREF="" REL="nofollow">Heresies<><>. He’s an irenic, Harvard trained historian of doctrine. He does the best job I’ve seen of setting historical contexts and tracing implications of various positions. He’s also very honest about mistakes made by the orthodox. I think if you read this book – or skim it in your library – you’ll find some answers to your questions about the dangers of heresy and how a broadly catholic orthodoxy maintains the witness of the Scriptures to the reconciling work of Jesus Christ. (No orthodox person would say that orthodoxy <>con<>tains the fullness of the faith but merely that – as a < HREF="" REL="nofollow">pattern of sound words<> – it <>main<>tains the apostolic witness to Jesus. When dealing with mysteries, a latitudinarian approach is best: keep folks from making fruitless errors, and leave the Holy Spirit to do the work of doctrinal sanctification.)


  6. Chris: You really do love those Timothy quotes don’t you?You’ve mentioned Heresies before, and I’ve got it on my list of things to read when I have time and occasion. Having skimmed over Trinity Evangelical International University’s online materials, I’m not so sure I’ll find Brown easy to swallow, but you never know, right?And I have to say your espousing a latitudinarian stance really surprises me. That definitely doesn’t come out in your blogging, particularly re: John Shuck. I’m not carrying the guy’s torch or anything, it just comes to mind. I would think that a latitudinarian would be characterized by…latitude.


  7. Doug,I’m curious that you don’t like quotes from the Pastoral epistles. The “clergy crisis” we have in the PCUSA comes from us ordaining too many MoWaSs who are either unfit or unwilling to shepherd congregations – in other words, they ain’t pastors. And so letters that were written to pastors sound strange to them. Nevertheless, if you want me to quote from other parts of the Scriptures that denounce heresy and idolatry (even – gasp – from the lips of “pluralist” Jesus), I can do that. But first, would you kindly point me to the parts of Scripture you consider authoritative? I’d hate to just throw the opinions of iron-age men at you when we could both hear a word from God.As for the TIU stuff, it wouldn’t surprise me if you never read it. I went to a liberal seminary and we never read dissenting opinions. Yet when I went across the street to the “Christian Taliban Madrassah” (< HREF="" REL="nofollow">SBTS<>), we were required to read from Roman Catholic sources, Rauschenbusch, feminist and liberationist perspectives. Funny how the < HREF="" REL="nofollow">faculty<> sort of missed that balance when they were building “diversity” into the curriculum.* And I am latitudinarian in so far as Christian orthodoxy allows. There’s lots of places where disagreement doesn’t lead to deception in the church. I don’t think Arminians are going to hell and I’m not particularly strident about the Reformed Tradition being the only true witness within Christianity (though I believe it to be truest, we can still learn from other Christian traditions). I’m even tolerant of Liberal Christians (such as Tony Campolo). But I don’t see much Christianity in “Progressive Christianity” and so I can’t really recognize it as part of the family.You probably consider yourself tolerant, but I bet you’ve got some places of intolerance in your life that stick out like a sore thumb if someone else is looking at you. I simply acknowledge the truth: I’m tolerant of people, open to new ideas (hint: gnosticism and panentheism isn’t new), and intolerant of deception.Chris *(I sat on the Academic Affairs comittee through three faculty searches and a curriculum revision. To enhance diversity – and enforce racism – the searches made sure that only “racial-ethnic minorities” had a chance to be interviewed; I guess they didn’t think minorities could compete on equal ground with whites. Smells like racism to me, but whatever…)


  8. Chris:It isn’t that I don’t like quotes from the pastoral epistles – like any part of the bible, there are quotes I’ll like and quotes I won’t like. That’s pretty universal. I just thought it was interesting that it keeps coming up. I disagree about why we have a clergy crisis and why parts of some epistles might sound strange, but that’s another matter.I’m sorry you never read dissenting opinions at the liberal seminary you attended. I guess any institution can fail. I’m glad you were later introduced to dissenting voices in the tradition (or re-introduced, etc.) I reject the implication that liberals, or liberal institutions, resist encounters with dissenting opinions. Frankly, I see tolerance of dissent as a liberal value.I don’t really appreciate the implication that I don’t admit the truth about my own biases. I do over and again in this very blog and in my comments when I think its germane. If that hasn’t been clear, then let it be clear now – I acknowledge that like everyone else my biases color my beliefs. The difference seems to be that when you see your biases, you see orthodoxy, and when I see my biases, I see biases. I try to defend them rationally or work to change them if they are indefensible (when they are brought to light), but I don’t have the functional assumption that I need to use authority to force them on others. I’m just as convinced as you, but I choose to limit my activity trying to convince rather than coerce.Your explanation of “latitudinarian” seems to amount to “I give latitude to those I agree with.” Or “I’m latitudinarian in so far as [my interpretation of] Christian orthodoxy allows.” And *everyone* does that. Frankly, I don’t see much Christianity in some conservative/Evangelical Christianity. But I’m not going to stand here deciding who’s in the family and who isn’t. That’s not how families work. You get, and you try to love, the family you have. So that’s what I try to do. Otherwise, its not a family, and I want it to be.


  9. Chris: I belatedly clicked your [faculty] link and found you were referring to Louisville Seminary. When did you attend? I’ve had some friends attend and graduate recently who don’t seem to have had your experience there. Not close friends, but still, they gave the impression that they were stretched and challenged and whatnot.


  10. I graduated in 06 – and I imagine that you knew a few of the young women who came here to work with NNPCW. There were plenty of stretching and challenging times – some of them built into the curriculum. But some 85% of the readings were materials that challenged a religious tradition with which most of the students weren’t familiar with in the first place. Challenge the tradition if you like – that keeps it fresh – but teach the tradition first! (Our students don’t know the tradition – failing the < HREF="" REL="nofollow">BCE<> some 45% and the < HREF="" REL="nofollow">theology exam<> nearly 50%.)I’m a bit of an oddball. I stopped school in the middle of college to start a family. In the < HREF="" REL="nofollow">three year hiatus<>, I studied the Scriptures and the Reformed tradition (theology and history). When I came to seminary, I was already very well grounded. That enabled me to recognize right off that the structure of our theology class was built on Schleiermacher’s <>On Religion<>, not on any of our confessional documents. Because I knew the tradition so well, I was able to hear what wasn’t being taught. Evangelicals and confessionalists were regularly caricatured in class, professors trotting out tired strawmen and then acting as if they had done their duty of presenting the other side. But it could be that I’m a little sensitive here.


  11. Chris:Well, that’s ok. Clearly I’m sensitive on my own pet issues.I definitely agree that the tradition should be taught before it is criticized, even torn down if that’s what the class is about.I would say the *traditions*, since i don’t buy the idea of a monolithic, self-evident orthodoxy. But at least, in the PCUSA, things like the Creeds and the Confessions. And *all* the Confessions, not just Westminster 🙂Come to think of it, when a prof wanted to teach and then critique, s/he could contact theologians who represented the viewpoint in question and ask them what books best represented it. Maybe that would help prevent the straw man problem, since you’d be more likely to be dealing with the best arguments a theological position has to offer to date. That’s more fun anyway, since it makes you think much harder about our position, and as a bonus its respectful – and I think our denomination needs a lot more practice respectfully disagreeing…


  12. Viola: I don’t doubt your garden is far more rewarding, but thank you for the comment.I think your example is a good example of a severe abuse of authority. I don’t think the problem was works righteousness, but rather authoritarianism. And its always a red flag when any religious group encourages you to sever your connections with people outside it. That’s definitely a cult practice in the usual definition of the term.For myself, I see a difference between beliefs that are heretical and beliefs that lead to damaging or evil behavior. The two aren’t the same for me, and I think there are orthodox beliefs, at least historically speaking, that definitely lead to evil behavior.


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