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April 26, 2007

Heretics Unite!

A number of us have been discussing, off-line, this QuizFarm questionnaire designed to determine to what degree one is a heretic. As with most such quizzes, the questions are imperfect, but these things are mostly entertainment anyway, and they lead to interesting discussions.

My own opinion was that several of the questions raised were rather pointless, because one simply cannot know with certainty one way or another via Scripture. Other colleagues rightly noted that, in fact, all of these heretical issues were addressed by the creeds and are thus, indeed, quite relevant and important  Admittedly, while I obviously agree with the creeds, I do not possess a solid understanding of all of the many heresies addressed thereby (although Shelley’s excellent Church History In Plain Language is slowly redressing my ignorance).

Now, I’ve said before that theology isn’t my beat. And that’s for good reason: I don’t possess enough theological knowledge and would rather not disclose my ignorance for all to see (and mock). Even more so, I am weary of theology unnecessarily being used as the Evangelical Church’s blackjack for busting the heads of those who challenge the popular theological preferences du jour.

Of course, true heresy must be corrected. But who determines what is “orthodox enough”? And what are the criteria? I do think the creeds are good criteria. But sometimes it seems that we go well beyond the Word or creeds. As just one example, I have heard it called “heretical” to disagree with Calvin’s model of Sovereignty, never mind the many extrapolative steps one must take to get from the Scripture to Calvinist Sovereignty. But Calvinism, you know, is enjoying a great popular resurgence, so we have to throw the H-word at the dissenters.

I’m afraid there’s no brilliance in this post, only a plea for a generous orthodoxy. Evangelicals and Catholics Together is a great example of this. If we could extend that model to “heretics” like reasonable open theists, reasonable emergent church-ers, and the like, why, we might even have a bit of that Unity thing about which I seem to remember Christ being quite keenly concerned.

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Quick Note: An offline discussion seems to indicate that my point might have been too obscure. YES, heresy must be rooted out of the Church. Of course.

On the other hand, we sometimes use the h-word too carelessly, and that's what I have a problem with. Because then we divide the Church unnecessarily, and dividing the Church unnecessarily seems to have become a core competency of the Church.


Lastly, I *certainly* am not calling Catholics "heretics"!! Anything but! No, my point was that certain fundamentalists *have* indeed referred to Catholic theology as heresy (which I for one think is an incorrect conclusion, one which stems from - again - using the wrong standard). But Chuck, Neuhaus, and the rest saw the Christian unity that lay beyond the disagreement over non-core beliefs. That's the kind of focus on unity that I'd love to see more of.

But true heresy? No, of course the Church cannot tolerate its teaching.


Now, the emergents and the open 'theists' really -are- heretics, having put themselves out of the historic monotheistic stream, beyond anything that not only Jews and Christians, but Muslims, Ba'hai and Zoroastrians could recognize as monotheism.

But to narrow orthodoxy down to a tighter tolerance than the Bible and the three ecumenical creeds would be sectarian. One can still talk about false teaching - teaching that might be able to scrape past the three ecumenical creeds but still lead to a false gospel or false life or worldview, but it is always good to have words mean something. Let's not water them down to sectarian disagreements between orthodox Trinitarian Christians.

Michael Redmond

Well, I'm very relieved now to have written proof that I'm no heretic . I am, in fact, "100% Chalcedon compliant." This discussion is interesting. Since, in theory, the content of the faith via the interpretation of scripture is subject to the conscience of individual believers in the Protestant tradition, how then can it be said that "heresy" exists? It's only a difference of opinion, right -- you have your Christian truth, I have mine? Who says what heresy is -- and on what basis?



I won't argue the emergents, but only because of their resistance to creeds, theology, and the like (makes it pretty tough).

As to reasonable (there are moderated strains with more mystery) open theists, though, I think you are unable to make your case. That said, I'd be interested in your argument, were you to make it here. [Really ... OT as not monotheistic?? Sorry, not buying it.]


Well, you jump to the heart of the matter: criteria. Your point, if I follow your train of thought beyond that which you've disclosed so far, is that it takes "the conscience of individual believers" to even judge a theological notion against Scripture and the creeds, and - so - what kind of authority is that?

You specifically identify Protestants, as if this is a distinctively Protestant problem. I don't think so. Yes, a common reason for Protestants migrating to the Catholic church is this idea that there is a singular, determinitive authority to decide such matters. And so finally there can be theological certainty. But this ultimately doesn't work either, because papal history and theological shifting over time preclude one from arriving at such a comfort.

I'm afraid that the reality for both Protestant and Catholic Christians seems to be that absolute theological certainty is not available to us. We are to rely upon that which is unambiguously declared by Scripture and the creeds, those fundamental claims commonly taught by the Church Fathers and reinforced by the saints since. It's the best we can do; and it's quite good at that.

But, yes, there's the human element, to your point. I *really* desire absolute theological certainty, but - at the end of the day - I have to reluctantly throw up my hands and simply look to God for guidance about Truth, primarily through Scripture but also through those who He has called to explain it throughout history, and patience when I get it wrong. I know no other way. Wish I did.

If you do know a better way, do tell.

Michael Redmond

Dear Allen,

It would be presumptuous of me to say that I know a "better" way, but I certainly know another way, and that lies to the east -- in Orthodoxy.

What is really interesting is that your solution to the problem of theological certainty -- "look to God for guidance about Truth, primarily through Scripture but also through those who He has called to explain it throughout history" -- is, and has always been, the Orthodox solution.

Where you and I differ, I expect, is concerning the identities of "those He has called to explain it."

In any case, the Orthodox have managed to conserve their understanding of the Christian faith for some 2,000 years without a monarchical papacy, on one hand, and a divisive proliferation of sects, on the other. We are witnesses to the Catholic-Protestant experience of Western Christianity, but not part of it.

Christ is risen!



Ha - you caught me flatfooted. Serves me right for leaving out the Orthodox. Although that's telling ... they're never in these discussions, oddly enough. I confess to knowing little about the Orthodox church (though experiencing a Unkrainian Orthodox service while in Nikolaev Ukraine was a cultural treat), although I was intrigued by Rod Dreher's announcement that he'd become a member last year.

Any good online primers for an admitted ignoramus on the Orthodox church to get informed on the most important aspects of the church?

L'alumn: Hoping to get more from you than mere silence, lest you inadvertently demonstrate my point about how many in the Church drop the H-bomb hastily and wrongly. Wouldn't want that, eh?

Michael Redmond

Dear Allen,

I think the appropriate thing for me to do is to take our discussion off this board so that we may conduct it privately.

Everybody here is here because we all share a commitment to "the biblical worldview" and a calling to prison ministry. That's all we need in order for us to make common cause and work together.

Since we all come here from different confessional positions, we have to be on guard that the divisions that so sadly divide Christian from Christian do not get in the way of our common cause. Denominational wrangling of any sort here would benefit only one position -- the Enemy's.

So, as much as I would like to discuss Orthodox Christianity with anybody who is interested in learning about it, I recognize that this is not the forum for doing so.

Back to the topic, which is heresy:

At the risk of sounding pedantic, I'd like to point out that the word comes from the Greek ~hairesis~, which means a picking, a choosing, a taking.

In other words, a man finds himself in heresy when he reads through scripture, or else examines the teaching of the church, and picks or chooses for himself what he will accept or reject. "I'll take grace -- but I won't take judgment." "I'll take sanctification -- but I won't take the cross." That's what heresy usually consists of.

Only sometimes is heresy the preaching of a doctrine that's outright false. That kind of heresy gets all the headlines, true, but the spirit of heresy is the subtle pride that I -- little ol' me -- am the ultimate arbiter of spiritual truth.

That's why the question of ~criteria~ in defining heresy is such a tricky proposition. If little ol' me is choosing the criteria, then heresy can be anything I say it is.

See what I mean?


Open Theism would be better called "temporal henotheism". They do not believe in the God of the monotheists, who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, rather, they believe and teach in a god who is none of those things, and who is temporally localized.

So leave aside their rejection of the inerrancy and authority of Scripture (by rejecting the very concept of prophecy, and thus all of the relevant passages, as well as the temporally-infinite statements of Jesus Christ, and in the OT of God being haOlam) you find that they are simply talking about a being with a different, and finite ousios, putting themselves outside of monotheism, whether Jewish, Greek Persian or what have you.

Now, -I'm- finite in time, which is why I hadn't yet had a chance to reply.



Great response. I'll take you up on your kind offer, after I get through the next two chapters in Shelley's book, which explain the split of Orthodox and Catholic more thoroughly than my current (and all too basic) understanding. That will allow me to be better prepared.


Thanks for your explanation and for taking well my gentle ribbing.

But I do think your understanding is a caricature of OT, a caricature which is unfairly and broadly spread throughout the Evangelical church. Now, I'm not an OTer, but I don't like how the Evangelical church handles their thinking. Their theology is no more extrapolative and no less biblically supportable than many other popular theological beliefs, including Calvin's notion of Sovereignty.

This ... "They do not believe in the God of the monotheists, who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, rather, they believe and teach in a god who is none of those things, and who is temporally localized." ... is simply not true. You use the common error injected into this debate at every turn by the anti-OT crowd that misunderstands power and control to be the same thing. They are not. God, as OTers understand Him, possesses His biblically-evident omnipotence (& its other manifestations/consequences, some of which you mention), but He - and only He - chooses not to use that power to its fullest, instead limiting it in some mysterious way. He limits the use of (but not possession of) His extant omnipotence, so that He can give people true choices, including (and most importantly) the choice to love Him.

Is that reaching? Perhaps. But, again, no more reaching than other theologies we take for granted as "mainstream."

Which gets back to my concerns about our tendency to unnecessarily use theology to divide the Church.

Michael Redmond

Allen, if you're referring to Bruce Shelley's "Church History in Plain Language," well, please be aware you're reading a thoroughly West-centric account. As I recall, the churches of Egypt and Syria get barely a line, and as for mainstream Orthodoxy, any church history that manages to overlook Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom and Anthony of Egypt is definitely "church history lite."

Jason Taylor

As I understand from what little I know, the Emergent Church is really more a social fellowship type of movement rather then a sect as such and can't be called either heretical or orthadox. Being heretical beyond Ba'hai and Zoroastrians does seem an odd phrase. To be that heretical one would have to be just a heathen.

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