Tag Archives: heresy

Heresy As Extremism: Why the Middle Way is the Narrow Way

Icon of Gregory the Great, from monasteryicons.com.
Icon of Gregory the Great, from monasteryicons.com.

“Sincerity is no guarantee of being correct.”

-Rev. Dr. Mickey Efird

The lies of heresy are not just false, they are false in the extreme.

We’ve examined before in this space how heresy flattens the mysteries of the gospel.  The great doctrines of the church, the Incarnation and Trinity, are in a real sense names for mysteries.  These mysteries the church, we believe, has been led to confess by the Holy Spirit.  In so confessing, we preserve and celebrate the mystery of God and God’s mighty saving work.  Heresy always simplifies that mystery to something more palatable and less gospel.

But heresy can also be understood as a form of extremism.  Jaroslav Pelikan, near the end of Volume 1 of The Christian Tradition, notes, “It was characteristic of heretics that they erred in one extreme or the other, denying either the One or the Three, either despising marriage or denigrating virginity.”  It is worth mentioning that Pelikan, the now-deceased don of church history at Yale, writes this after multiple chapters spent painstakingly quoting and examining what the heretics themselves wrote.  He then quotes Gregory the Great:

“But the church, by contrast, proceeds with ordered composure midway between the quarrels on both sides. It knows how to accept the higher good in such a way as simultaneously to venerate the lower, because it neither puts the highest on the same level with the lowest nor on the other hand despises the lowest when it venerates the highest.” (334-335)

If you’ve ever ridden a bicycle, you know that just a little ways this or that and you will take a tumble.  So it is with orthodoxy.  Precision in thought, as in machinery, only tolerates so much wiggle room. Chesterton noted that many are shocked at the vitriolic arguments about small points of doctrine, but they do so because they fail to recognize that there are no small points about the Divine:

“…it is exactly this which explains what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfillment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious.”

chesterton orthodoxyHeresy, even in the lightest of touches or turns, always perverts Christian truth into something “blasphemous or ferocious,” something extreme.  The Arians, sincere though they were, turned Christians into creature-worshippers.  The gnostic-influenced Christians, who’ve strangely enjoyed a kind of foolish re-appropriation of their literature in the last couple of decades, denied the good not only of God’s creation but the truth of the Incarnation as an affirmation of the physical order (modern Darbyism does something similar with its false doctrine of the rapture).

An inch is everything when you are balancing.

This not only inveighs against those who wish to deconstruct orthodoxy as some kind of conservative fantasy, it also points us to why pious rhetoric that pits “the middle way” against “the narrow way” is ultimately false.  In terms of doctrine, the middle way – the balancing of heretical extremes in order to discover the one way to stand tall amid a thousand ways to totter over – is the narrow way.

Thus we can conceive of heresy, like Pelikan, as extremism.  Examples might include: emphasizing the transcendence of God to the detriment of the immanence of God; emphasizing works of piety so as to leave aside works of mercy; dogmatically adhering to classical Christian teaching in one area of sexuality while completely ignoring others; a simplistic biblicism that ignores experience and tradition (or, on the other hand, a Romantic attachment to experience which runs amok over scripture and tradition); or finally, as Bonhoeffer famously noted, grace divorced from the cross.

An inch is everything when you are balancing, which is why the narrow way of Christian truth is also the middle way.  I’ll let Chesterton have the last word:

“It is easy to be a madman; it is easy to be a heretic.  it is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s head.  It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob.  To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom – that would indeed have been simple.  It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.”

The Gospel According to Frank Underwood

[Warning: Spoilers about a very intense Season 3 House of Cards scene, and broader HOC spoilers, below.]

Photo of Kevin Spacey by Sarah Ackerman, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of Kevin Spacey by Sarah Ackerman, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

What does Frank Underwood believe about Jesus? As Underwood, Kevin Spacey masterfully plays the House of Cards protagonist, a character with moral abandon seldom seen on the small or large screen.  In season 3, just released by Netflix, now-President Underwood is not showing any signs of slowing down.  He (literally) urinates on the memory of his ancestors to open the season, and an episode 4 ethical dilemma finds him talking ethics with a Bishop late one night in a church.  Spacey’s Underwood is so skillfully sleezy that we almost believe him when he tells the good Bishop he wants a few moments alone to pray.

C’mon, do you really think Frank is going to pray to anyone but himself? (To be fair, he has conversed with Satan on screen as well.)  Of course not.  He stares up a crucifix, shares a few critical words with Jesus, and then spits upon it – a treatment not unlike what the real Jesus endured on the cross, actually.  As you can imagine, this scene shocked audiences.  Much has been made of this scene, but the broader implications of his conversation with and about the Son of God has been largely ignored. Here’s a snippet, edited down to the relevant statements:

Underwood: “I understand the Old Testament God, whose power is absolute, who rules through fear, but…him?” [points to crucifix]

Bishop: “There’s no such thing as absolute power for us, except on the receiving end….Two rules: Love God. Love each other. Period.  You weren’t chosen, Mr. President. Only he [Jesus] was.”

(Frank asks for alone time to pray.)

Underwood – looking up at crucifix: “Love? That’s what you’re selling. Well, I don’t buy it.”  [Spits]

Frank, without knowing it, has just made a theological argument for a very old Christian heresy.  Notice the strong division between the  “Old Testament God” and Jesus.  For Underwood, the OT deity is a being of power and intimidation, and, while he doesn’t elaborate, his attitude towards Jesus on the cross indicates he understands the discontinuity: this Jesus wields power very differently than does the fictional President.  This bifurcation between the Old and New Testaments, even to the point of asserting the centrality of different deities to each, is called Marcionism.  The definition from Theopedia is helpful:

“Marcionism was an early heresy led by Marcion, who proposed the first canon of Christian texts. The proposed canon consisted of the Gospel of Luke and several of Paul’s epistles; however, Marcion edited the writings by deleting any references that appeared to approve of the Old Testament and the creator God of the Jews. Marcionism thus rejected the Old Testament God, claiming that Jesus represented the true sovereign God who was different from the God of the Hebrew people.”

Underwood expresses a sentiment that is still not uncommon today, though typically less developed than Marcion’s own views.  Here in the Bible Belt, you even occasionally drive by churches that advertise themselves as “New Testament Christians,” whatever the hell that means.

It’s no surprise that Frank’s gospel is a false one, a heresy (to be fair, he’s kind of an inverse Marcionite, since he identifies with the “Old Testament Deity” that Marcion rejected).  What is a surprise, a problem even now, is how easily we still buy into Marcion’s lie today.  Make no mistake: the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament both contain the revelation of the one God’s gracious activity towards us, God’s creatures.  Where Marcion posited radical discontinuity, the orthodox position has always on a strong connection between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.  There is a beauty to the canon, which is no surprise if you believe (as Christians do) that the 66 books of our Bible represent a beautiful library in which everywhere God is revealed in  loving self-disclosure.

The life and witness of Jesus makes no sense without an appreciation of the Old Testament narrative.  There is no understanding Jesus and his mission apart from his role as Israel’s Messiah, fulfilling the promise to Abraham to “bless many nations” as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.  This same Jesus is sent by and begotten of the Father and united with the Spirit, one God in Triunity, who (Christians believe) is none other than the God confessed still by Jews in the Shema: “Hear O Israel, your God is one.”

Two Testaments. One God.  Frank Underwood is a very effective politician, but as a theologian he is a pure heretic.

An icon of the Holy Trinity, based on the famed Rublev Icon.
An icon of the Holy Trinity, based on the famed Rublev Icon.

The good news is that God’s loving action is revealed in both Testaments, which tell the story of a God radically committed to His creation.  So committed, in fact, that God abdicated all God’s power  and, in Christ, subjected Himself to the totality of wrath, sin, evil, and abandonment that vexes humanity, and submitted to death on our behalf.  In submitting to death, it was conquered, and we were healed.

To Frank Underwood, and to us, the cross is and always remains a scandal.  After all, a God of power is comprehensible, recognizable on the world’s terms.  But what earthly ruler – a Nietzschean like Underwood, a Caesar, or a Putin – would dare endorse the seeming naiveté of a God who gives up power out of selfless, other-regarding love for ungrateful creatures who will ultimately put God to death rather than submit to His Kingdom of love and mercy?

Thus St. Paul said to the Corinthians,

“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved.” (1 Cor. 1:18, CEB)

At least Underwood is honest enough to know that he cannot conduct his affairs as he does and also worship the God who hangs on a cross. Frank understands the foolishness of the cross.  But now the question is to us, followers of the risen Lord. Do we, “who are being saved,” embrace the foolishness that is the cross?

I conclude with the words of Charles Wesley, who captures both the pain and the beauty, the incomprehensibility and the glory of the cross in his excellent hymn:

O Love divine, what has thou done!
The immortal God hath died for me!
The Father’s coeternal Son
bore all my sins upon the tree.
Th’ immortal God for me hath died:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

Heresy Always Simplifies

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I recently finished Ross Douthat’s masterful tome Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. Whether one is Christian or not, it is worth a read. His thesis: one of America’s great present maladies is not too much religion, nor too little, but (ahem) bad religion. Specifically, psuedo-Christian heresies like prosperity preaching, “God within” faux spirituality, and uncritical nationalism.  But he begins by stating a positive case: once Christian communions that were ascendent in the US had a strong, orthodox consensus around central dogmas such as the Trinity and incarnation of Christ – dogmas which defy an easy rationalism.

“What defines this consensus, above all – what distinguishes orthodoxy from heresy, the central river from the delta – is a commitment to mystery and paradox. Mysteries abide at the heart of every religious faith, but the Christian tradition is uniquely comfortable preaching dogmas that can seem like riddles, offering answers that swiftly lead to further questions, and confronting believers with the possibility that the truth about God surpasses all our understanding.” (10)

Throughout its long history, the Church constantly chose the side of mystery and paradox. Jesus? He was fully human and fully divine, not one or the other.  Did Jesus suffer on the cross, or is God truly impassible? Yes – to both.  Should we harmonize the gospels to make one, clear-cut narrative that smooths all the rough edges between them? In this and all other cases, the Church decided that the more complicated path was also the true path.

“The great Christian heresies vary wildly in their theological substance, but almost all have in common a desire to resolve Christianity’s contradictions, untie its knotty paradoxes, and produce a cleaner and more coherent faith. Heretics are often stereotyped as wild mystics, but they’re just as likely to be problem solvers and logic choppers, well-intentioned seekers after a more reasonable version of Christian faith than orthodoxy supplies. They tend to see themselves, not irrationally, as rescuers rather than enemies of Christianity – saving the faith from self-contradiction and cultural irrelevance.” (11-12)

So it may be understandable that we want a faith, want a deity, that is easy to comprehend, reducible to bumper-stickers and theo-nuggets. There could be some appeal to “updating” Christian doctrine so it is more relevant, more pedagogically palatable or accessible to the faculties of reason. But the end result would be something other than “the faith that was once  for all entrusted to the saints.” (Jude 1:3)  Such dogma would be simple, but it would be simply heresy.

Start with Three, and Preserve the Mystery: Thoughts on Trinity Sunday

“So I start here with two principles: (1) Trinitarian terminology should function less to explain the mystery than to preserve it; (2) thinking about the Trinity should move from the three to the one rather than the other way round.” (William Placher, The Triune God, 121)

Trinity Sunday is one of those rented mules of the liturgical calendar; it is there by tradition and necessity, but we often don’t know how to treat it – whether lay or clergy.  The result is typically one of two alternatives: a complete avoidance of the observation (no less an option in Methodist and other semi-liturgical circles than in “non-denominational” and free church communities) or some heretical claptrap that tries to “explain” the greatest mystery of the church with some inane banalities or make it “relevant” (read: about us more than about God). None of these are good options, and both miss the point: as Christians we need to know this God!trinity shield

As one of my seminary professors, Dr. Freeman, used to say, “In the South we are all ‘functional Unitarians.'”  That is, in the Bible Belt we are great at talking about Jesus day in and day out, but we are fuzzy if not totally ignorant about the doctrine of the Trinity and the relationship of the “Three-One” God (to use Wesley’s phrase).  In my own preparation for preaching this day, I found flipping back through the late William Placher’s The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology a helpful exercise.

The postliberal bent to Placher’s work is evident throughout.  That is, he draws on the work of the so-called “Yale School” influenced especially by George Lindbeck and Hans Frei.  The postliberals focus on Christian language as constitutive of belief and practice; Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine puts forth the thesis that dogma functions as a kind of grammar for Christian speech, and  thereby he – heavily influenced by Barth – insists on a third way beyond the estranged twins of fundamentalism and liberalism (hence the name of the school, “Postliberal”). Barth’s Christocentrism and the centrality of the Biblical narrative come through heavily in Placher’s reflections.  Consider the following:

“…Christians start knowing God in God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, in Jesus’ references to the one he called “Father,” and in the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete Jesus promised, who forms and sustains our faith.  The task of any doctrine of the Trinity is thus not to show how an abstract one is three, but to show that these three are one, and this is not an unnecessary complication but something essential to what Christians believe.” (120)

Few things are more harmful to Christian faith and life than the confusion of the Triune God revealed in the life, witness, death, and resurrection of Jesus with the kind of generic, uninvolved God that seems to be the dominant God “believed” by most Americans. (See Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian for more here.)  Because we know God first through Jesus, Placher asserts, we start with three and move to one, rather than vice-versa.  This is precisely not an academic exercise but rather an attempt to be faithful to the Biblical narrative through which God has revealed himself to us:

“What the early theologians said was…something like this: We know from Scripture that the Son is not the Father, for the Son prays to the Father with an intensity that cannot be playacting.  We know that the Spirit is Another the Father will send, and not the same as the Son.  We know that there is one God, and yet we pray to the Son and the Spirit, and count on them to participate in our salvation in a way that would be blasphemous if they were other than God.  We need some terms in order to say that God is both one and three, and so we devise such terms, but it is only beyond this life, in the vision of God, that we will understand how God is both one and three.” (130)

Praise be to God that we are not left with an uninteresting, generic Divinity, but a God who is love itself, a God who not only calls us to love but embodies perfect love as a Trinity of persons – distinct but not different, Three and yet One – a God whose being is not other than the perfect outpouring of grace upon grace. And praise be that this is not a God we can prove through mathematical proof or scientific experimentation, but a God who is beyond our categories and above our feeble attempts at description.  What has thus far been revealed to us is amazing, but more astonishing still is how great the depths of mystery there will be to plumb for all of eternity, when we see this God with sight unobstructed.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Vaccinating the Church Against Modernity: The Hartford Appeal, Then and Now

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In 1975, a group of folks got together to refute 13 heresies of modernism affecting the church(-es).  I don’t know enough to say if they represented a “who’s-who” at the time, but they certainly do now: signees include George Lindbeck, Stanley Hauerwas, Avery Dulles, Alexander Schmemann, Thomas Hopko, Lewis Smedes, William Sloane Coffin, Peter Berger, Robert Wilken and Richard John Neuhaus.  They came from many parts of the Christian family, but agreed on one thing (though expressed 13 ways)…faithful Christians across the board had to stand up against the modernist impulses that were threatening the teaching, preaching, and spread of the gospel.

Their original introduction and the rejected themes are below:

An Appeal For Theological Affirmation
THE renewal of Christian witness and mission requires constant examination of the assumptions shaping the Church’s life. Today an apparent loss of a sense of the transcendent is undermining the Church’s ability to address with clarity and courage the urgent tasks to which God calls it in the world. This loss is manifest in a number of pervasive themes. Many are superficially attractive, but upon closer examination we find these themes false and debilitating to the Church’s life and work. Among such themes are:

1. Modern thought is superior to all past forms of understanding reality, and is therefore normative for Christian faith and life.

2. Religious statements are totally independent of reasonable discourse.

3. Religious language refers to human experience and nothing else, God being humanity’s noblest creation.

4. Jesus can only be understood in terms of contemporary models of humanity.

5. All religions are equally valid; the choice among them is not a matter of conviction about truth but only of personal preference or lifestyle.

6. To realize one’s potential and to be true to oneself is the whole meaning of salvation.

7. Since what is human is good, evil can adequately be understood as failure to realize human potential.

8. The sole purpose of worship is to promote individual self-realization and human community.

9. Institutions and historical traditions are oppressive and inimical to our being truly human; liberation from them is required for authentic existence and authentic religion.

10. The world must set the agenda for the Church. Social, political and economic programs to improve the quality of life are ultimately normative for the Church’s mission in the world.

11. An emphasis on God’s transcendence is at least a hindrance to, and perhaps incompatible with, Christian social concern and action.

12. The struggle for a better humanity will bring about the Kingdom of God.

13. The question of hope beyond death is irrelevant or at best marginal to the Christian understanding of human fulfillment. (1)

There seem to be a lot of seeds here.  Shades of post-liberalism, radical orthodoxy, and emergent Christianity are plenty.  Though many conservative Christians, especially fundamentalists, are stuck in their own varieties of modernism, this seems to be a clear shot across the bow of liberal (think Enlightenment-worshipping) Christianity.  Such Christianities are still alive in both the mainline Protestant denominations and elsewhere.  They were admirably dismissed by H. Richard Niebuhr, who summarized their basic assumptions as, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

Some useful commentary and background was later published as Against the World for the World. The full text is linked below.

Yeah, I know it’s old news.  But for those of us attracted to these ideas today, it is interesting to see the early stages of later seminal works like The Nature of Doctrine.  Do these affirmations hold up 40 years later, or were they wrong from the start?

1. http://www.philosophy-religion.org/handouts/pdfs/Hartford-Affirmation.pdf

Friendship, the Christian Life, and Good Conversation…

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The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.

-John Wesley

I’ve been reminded today, on more than one occasion, of the importance of friendship to the Christian life.  One reason that the ‘lone ranger Christianity’ that seems to be so pervasive these days is a false gospel, a heresy, a perversion of Jesus’ message and life, is that we are simply not constructed to walk with God as if no one else exists.  We need people to hold us accountable.  People to fellowship and learn with.  “Iron sharpens iron,” as we hear in Proverbs 27.

In view of this conviction, I share with you a brief conversation, informal because of the context (Facebook), but still meaningful.  I found this edifying; perhaps you will agree.

We need each other.  There is no true discipleship without the companionship of others on the journey.

Pastor Mack (henceforth PM): I worry about Christians in China especially…

Shawn: Me too, but if there is one thing about the faith, it thrives best under pressure. God bless them.

PM: Yeah one of those amazing paradoxes. It also can’t bear success, which is i think why the US church is in shambles.

Shawn: Dude, you are so right. I don’t think that emergent church or any of these new movements is doing any [darn] good. I mean, do we need to be under pressure to appreciate what we have? It just sucks we can’t praise God as heartfelt in good times as when we need God in the painful times.

I don’t know what the answer is. Human condition, I guess.

PM: I guess there is no ideal time for the church, it’s always under threat either from direct persecution or the milder persecution of respectability.

So much of our faith today in America consists of little more than practical advice about being better dads and moms and citizens and financial planners, or how to think “positive,” it’s no wonder people have a hard time believing in God – we’re not really helping them meet Him.