Saturday, August 29, 2009

What about Heresy?

If people now have trouble with creeds, as some of us do, many have even much more trouble with the idea of heresy. In fact, heresy is now generally seen as something so odious it is seldom mentioned in "polite" Christian circles.

"Whatever Became of Heresy?" is the title of one subsection in my forthcoming book "The Limits of Liberalism." As I write there, "throughout most of the history of Christianity, the treatment of heretics has been so harsh and so many 'heretics' have suffered so much that most of us in this age of tolerance and humane treatment for all naturally shy away from those pathetic practices of the past." But should we do away with the concept of heresy altogether?

Carl E. Braaten is a contemporary theologian who has dared to write about the necessity of keeping the concept of heresy. Braaten (b. 1929), an eminent Lutheran theologian who is conservative but not a fundamentalist, is the author of "That All May Believe: A Theology of the Gospel and the Mission of the Church" (2008). (I have a review of that book in the July 2009 issue of "Missiology: An International Review.")

In his book Braaten forwards what he calls “Evangelical Catholicism.” With that emphasis, he speaks for many (conservative) theologians and church leaders who believe that everything is not permitted. He thinks there are scriptural and creedal norms that must be regarded with utmost seriousness. I agree.

If there is a central Christian Story, as I have repeatedly affirmed on this blog, then believing Christians, as opposed to cultural Christians, can surely be expected to agree with the basic expression of that Story--as, perhaps we could say, expressed in the creeds. Those who do not or cannot in good conscience agree with that basic expression may then rightfully be labeled with that odious word "heretic."

Then the question becomes, What does the church, or what do Christian institutions, do with regard to those who appear to be "heretics"? Certainly, I do not believe that they should be punished, mistreated, or harmed in any way. Regardless of what people do or do not believe, they should be treated with respect, kindness, and consideration.

Because of all the negative baggage carried by the word “heretic,” perhaps a different term should be used altogether. But surely there needs to be some way to distinguish between those who are Christians because of what they believe and those who are Christians because of their cultural identification but who do not, or who no longer, hold to the central Christian beliefs.

One final caveat: it must be remembered that while the word "creed" comes from the Latin "credo," meaning "I believe," the New Testament perspective on belief has far more to do with a life commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord than to intellectual assent to doctrinal propositions.


  1. I received the following e-mail message from Dr. E. Glenn Hinson, one of my seminary professors (although he is not a lot older than I) and an esteemed friend. Dr. Hinson taught at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for many years and is currently Senior Professor of Church History and Spirituality at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky.

    This is what he wrote, and I post it with his permission:


    I have published numerous essays on the issue of creeds, orthodoxy and heresy, and related topics, mostly in ecumenical discussions. I adopt a more favorable stance toward public confessions of faith than Baptists have traditionally accepted. For our corporate life we need such statements, as early Christians found. I would be very insistent, however, that human beings cannot express the mystery of God in a proposition that can bind the conscience. With the First London Confession I would say, "God alone is Lord of the conscience." That means to me that churches are in no position to impose faith. "To be authentic and responsible," our forbears insisted, "faith must be free." We trust the Spirit to guide us.


  2. One person's witchcraft is another person's revealed religion, a roughly remembered saying goes. And no thinking person I know denies this. The saying asserts the relativity of truth claims, relativity deriving from competing points of view, contexts, cultural settings, historical moments, social settings, etc. In a word, the foundations of any such truth claim is impossible to show, let alone to hold to. Such foundational approaches to truth have been shown to falter against the scrutiny of contemporary epistemology. So to affirm "scriptural and creedal norms" is to come dangerously close to denying this now axiomatic relativity that informs not only our lives, but the lives of those who wrote scripture and creeds. Can anyone maintain intellectual honesty and good conscience and still insist on the idea of heresy? I think not. Apart from such foundational truth, the notion of heresy is really just institutional tyranny.

    Rather, I think another approach is warranted. In abandoning the foundational approach to truth, religious folk must embrace an epistemology that can commit to truth claims while suspending ultimate judgment. They must hold to faith while living a life that puts truth claims to the test, and that with a view toward and openness to the abandonment of truth claims that do not prove valid in the test of daily living, thinking, ethical performance and ongoing developmental change. To put it briefly, creeds are out, life, even Christian life, as an experiment in moral living, as a research project, is in.

    If the word heresy stems from a Greek stem that means "to choose," (hairein) -- and it does -- then, choice, heresy, becomes the normative idea rather than the non-normative . Searching and choosing the right affirmation of faith is what motivates all of the life of the faithful.

  3. Dialogue is only possible where there are different viewpoints shared freely, so I appreciate the thoughts shared by MPH and look forward to dialogue on the important points raised. I will probably make several responses on upcoming blogs, beginning after the next one. For now, just a few brief comments.

    Concerning the last paragraph, that is a significant point—and one made by Peter Berger in his “The Heretical Imperative” (1980). I will probably make further reference to Berger at some point—both to the book just mentioned and to the contribution he has made to what is often called “the sociology of knowledge,” a very important topic. His ideas about “plausibility structures” are worth considering well.

    Still, “heresy” is not generally used with the meaning it originally had in Greek. According to a contemporary English dictionary, the first meaning of “heresy” is “An opinion or a doctrine at variance with established religious beliefs,” and it was in that ordinary sense that I used the word in my blog entry.

    The only saying that I could find similar to the one at the beginning of MPH’s comments was “one person’s religion is another’s witchcraft,” but his point is well taken. But I want to insist that there is a difference between recognizing relativity and espousing relativism, just as there is a difference between acknowledging plurality (of religions) and endorsing pluralism.

    As I see it, “contemporary epistemology” is more and more postmodern epistemology, and there is no reason to assume that such a method of knowing is the only one acceptable or the only viable one. (Epistemology is “the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge, its presuppositions and foundations, and its extent and validity.”)

    My own approach is basically a foundational one, and I have written two rather lengthy essays on “presuppositionism.”At some point I will share more of those ideas—and in a way that those who are not familiar with the technical terms can understand.

    My epistemological stance has been largely formed by reading Michael Polanyi (whose “magnum opus” is titled “Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy” (1958), and I will also share some of those ideas later. His ideas provide an ample basis for maintaining intellectual honesty and good conscience and still recognize the validity of the concept of heresy. (And speaking of “intellectual honesty,” the book I plan to write after I finish the current one I am working on and the next one is “Christian Belief and Intellectual Honesty.”)

    Whenever the notion of heresy leads to “institutional tyranny,” forced uniformity, or violation of the freedom of conscience or the freedom of thought, it should be opposed and rejected—and I repudiate the use of the concept of heresy for those purposes.

    The first blog entry I want to make in response to MPH’s thoughtful comments is about conflicting truth claims. That is an issue I have wrestled with for decades. John Hick, one of the Christian liberals I seek to rebut in my forthcoming “The Limits of Liberalism,” wrote about conflicting truth claims in his “Philosophy of Religion” years ago—and it is an important and difficult topic. Maybe by this time next week I will be able to post my views about that matter. When I do, I hope you will read my posting and make comments.

  4. I was delighted to receive an e-mail message from Dr. Carl Braaten, whom I quoted in my blog entry. He wrote, and I quote him with his permission,

    "For a Baptist you have come a long way to agree with a Catholic view of Creed and Dogma. I agree that heretics should not be persecuted. It is rather the case that the orthodox are more likely to be shunned and reviled in their own liberal Protestant denominations. They will not be hired to teach in any of their seminaries, unless they adopt the new doxy of relativism, pluralism, feminism, antinomianism, multiculturalism, etc."

  5. "The Divine was expansive, but religion was reductive. Religion attempted to reduce the Divine to a knowable quantity with which mortals might efficiently deal, to pigeonhole it once and for all so that we never had to reevaluate it. With hammers of cant and spikes of dogma, we crucified and crucified again, trying to nail to our stationary altars the migratory light of the world. Thus, since religion bore false witness to the Divine, religion was blasphemy. And once it entered into its unholy alliance with politics, it became the most dangerous and repressive force that the world has ever known." Tom Robbins in Skinny Legs and All page 407-408

    Carl Braaten was a major influence on me during my years at seminary. He is a wise man and assisted many of us to understand the ground of our theology.