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Calling the “H” word and dropping the “H” bomb

This is really my contribution to the synchroblog Emerging heresy” called for by envoy at the emergingafrica.info website.

I think it’s a great idea to call for a synchroblog on this topic because the Church itself ought to be a universal/global community of unity and brotherly love. In other words, one of the things (I think) that will lead the church into unity is a proper definition of what heresy actually, really, is. To be honest, I see this term thrown around WAY too much around discussions of theology and ideas when, in fact, the word may be quite misplaced and ought not to even be in those discussions.

I’ll probably say a few broad statements in this (much hurried) post merely to get some thinking going. Apologies that it’s hurried – I’m currently in London and don’t have a heck of a lot of time to write my post. Although, I’ve been thinking about this topic for quite some time.

It’s clear both by looking at history and the present day that there are numerous interpretations of the exact same verses. It’s pretty clear to me that we cannot pin final authority to traditions of men or the institutions of men (which is what Luther and the reformers fought against in the reformation) but it has become also clear that final authority cannot be pinned down to the bible alone. Why do I say this? It’s because the bible is interpreted by men, and it has to be. There’s just too much there for it not require interpretation. What this has resulted in is the situation where even though people claim to follow the ‘Bible alone’ it’s pretty obvious that they follow their INTERPRETATION alone, and those people who do not fall within their specific interpretations of specific key topics are labelled ‘heretics’ and excommunicated from those groups.

For me, it ought to be Christ alone and Spirit alone. The semantics of that ought to be worked out in another post, but we need to look at heresy here specifically.

Excommunication is nothing new, except that we don’t burn people at the stake anymore for disagreeing with a particular interpretation. But it’s clear that, throughout history, the label “heretic” has resulted in many various crimes which are clearly not Christ-like and certainly have no place in the church. It’s pretty clear that ‘heretic’ can be used against anyone that doesn’t agree with someone else; and that’s all it is actually ever used for. If you’re a calvinist and I’m an arminian open-theist (I’m not saying that I am) I am labelled a heretic despite the fact that we both read the same Bible and I just present a different interpretation. “How can this be?” asks the non-Christian, or the Christian who has come to the realisation that there’s a big world out there… at some point we have to ask “Who is REALLY teaching heresy, and who isn’t?” and once we go exploring down the road to decide for ourselves we find that we, in fact, may be led to conclusions that are considered heretical in our own grouping… and that simply scares us. And it can even make us question our salvation, or whether God truly does in fact exist.

There is, however, only one bottom line. We can have certain interpretations of the scriptures but there is one universal scripture, or – in fact – only one fundamental. Love each other. Unconditionally. And that, I think, is where the H-Callers simply get it wrong.

To see my conclusion from another angle is to look at our salvation itself. Is Christ concerned with what we believe in? Or, rather, WHO we believe in? It appears that it’s clearly the latter – for whosoever believes IN CHRIST will have eternal life. It’s not for whosoever believes the RIGHT THINGS about Christ will have eternal life. Your salvation must be placed within a person, not an idea, philosophy or systematic theology.

The truth is that you can believe in heresy and still be saved if you believe in Christ; because, if salvation depended on the ‘right’ knowledge alone we would all be in trouble. Anyone who doesn’t see that is simply not honest enough in my books. In fact, I want to say that the idea that salvation depends on if you believe the right things is a type of Gnostic idea– it’s saying that knowledge is the highest thing, rather than Christ (and a relationship) being the true central core of the entire matter.

So my proposal with the word ‘heretic’ is to shift the meaning of this word to where I think it actually ought to be. Christianity is ENTIRELY a relational issue; it’s about our relationship with God, and our relationship with each other. Likewise, it would make both logical and obvious sense to say that heresy is a RELATIONAL issue, not a DOCTRINAL issue.

In other words, heresy is actually an issue of ‘I’m right and you’re wrong.’ When we think in a ‘me vs you’ way the result is to break away from the ‘them’ and form your own little group… your own little ‘us’ — and then, of course, pronounce that ‘they’ are the ‘heretics’ and they haven’t found the ‘TRUE FORM of teaching’ that ‘Us’ Enlightened ones have.

THAT is true heresy, and if you look at the early church that appears to be the way they saw things. This is why, it appears, you could (for example) have so many differing views on hell within the early church and yet no one claims any of those views to be heresy. Heresy is only claimed on those who wish to ‘break away’ with what those who break away call “true teachings.” The Gnostics were certainly those who fell under this category, because for them the true teaching was not salvation in Christ. Gnostics tried to break away from the church relationally.

It is true to say that the doctrine may LEAD to heresy, but not true to say that the doctrine IS heresy. The basic fundamental of the Christian faith, or – shall I say – Christ himself is this : love. I take a cue from seeing heresy in this way from John in the Scriptures :

1 John 2:19 They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.

The issue of heresy is ‘those who went out from us’ not those who stayed but discussed and conversed different interpretations of doctrine. John doesn’t even refer to ‘those who teach differently than us’ but refers to those who have broken fellowship and relationship with the church. Heresy is an uncommitment to our covenant with each other and (ultimately) with God for the sake of pushing our own teachings and views.

To make another sweeping statement : I question the covenantal commitment of a person towards God if that person shows non-committal within his covenant towards the body of Christ. When we entered into Christ and salvation, we entered into his Kingdom and His Community and His body. One cannot love the head only and not the body. We are charged to commit and love both in covenant, friendship, and true love.

I often think of Martin Luther and the situation he found himself in. This may be idealistic to say, but it may have been more correct for Luther to have rather attempted reform WITHIN the church. Although what occurred was probably necessary, we as the church today are more well positioned than any other generation to ensure we don’t do the same things. We must ensure that we do not become heretics : that we show a commitment to our relationships, and trust God to build the church, change mindsets and bring revival. Our relationships must come first, our doctrines second.

By doing this we actually put a significant safeguard on doctrine. Any doctrine that can lead to heresy ought to be examined : and any person with different or even strange theological ideas can work these ideas out within the church and the relationships within the church. We would all be accountable to each other, and the Spirit would work within us to work towards unity in the faith and doctrine. In other words, if God reveals something amazing to me that the church isn’t ready to accept, I need to work this revelation out WITH the church and trust that the Spirit would work this revelation into the church. I must trust that Jesus is building His church, and that my revelation will also be revealed to others and that, eventually, the reform that must take place will take place. To trail ahead of the rest of the church and just leave everyone behind is heresy, regardless of whether my doctrine is in fact more correct. This would be because I would be placing doctrine ahead of my covenantal commitment. Surely that IS heresy!

This works both ways : neither those who are at the back-end (doctrinally speaking) can assert their views as superior and neither can those at the front do so. The church moves forward, organically, and those with a stronger faith ought to bear with the failings of the weak.

If we, today, decided to shift what heresy is from a doctrinal issue to rather a relational issue (or, shall we say, a commitment to relationships and covenant issue) I think there would be a GIGANTIC change in the way the church looks and – overall – preaches the Gospel. The fundamentals would rather shift towards what is the true fundamental- CHRIST. And Christ as a fundamental means there is only ONE fundamental action required on our part – LOVE. And Love means there are a few fundamental ways of living : seeking and saving the lost, and being committed to our relationships to the point that if we’re right about something we still don’t go and try and ‘do our own thing’ at the detriment of these relationships.

Which leads me to say something about what I think of the “Emerging Church” – which is partly what Envoy has called for. Firstly, the label is entirely unneccessary because it creates a subtle ‘us’ and ‘them’ approach. While this may not be deliberate, it certainly makes it way too easy for people to label and form a group out of it (in fact, this has already happened to various degrees.) It also makes people think they know where the wind is blowing, when in fact they don’t. Rather, the wind blows where it pleases and we do harm to the Spirit’s work when we try and label what kind of wind it is. I think, at least.

Secondly, the Emerging Church needs to make sure that it stays clear of heresy — by simply placing heresy in its proper context or seeing it in the proper way. If the “Emerging Church” (whatever that actually is) decides to form its own group and simply do things its own way out of frustration (or, perhaps, even arrogance of its own) it is as guilty of heresy as the very ideas within the groupings it tries to react against. One of those ideas is an ‘us vs them’ approach. We all need to stay clear of this.

Heresy must become a relational issue, not a doctrinal one. This way things may take longer to change, but they certainly would be more Spirit-Led (ie, we trust Jesus to build the church and to cause breakthrough in mindsets etc.) rather than hop on our own bandwagon and say “well, if you can’t keep up with what’s going on we’re outta here.” In fact, this may actually make things QUICKER to change. I admit that it can be terribly frustrating when we are ahead of the others, but the way of Jesus was never to abandon his disciples because they couldn’t keep up. We ought to show the same love towards those covenantal relationships God has placed in our lives.

(PS : I don’t know whether the “Emerging Church” is ‘ahead’ of the others, and it would be harmful if anyone who claimed to be ’emerging’ ever thought so. The only way to really know is to work within the church itself, rather than break away and form some little committee of our own.) (PPS – I say this while not labelling or placing myself as an ’emergent’ in any way, or as anything besides Christian for that matter.)

If the Emerging Church continues to marginalise itself, it simply makes it easier for others to marginalise it. Not only that, but it also becomes the very monster it reacted against. History shows us that this always happens : In twenty to forty years time, the Emerging Church has formulised itself and has it’s own ‘set doctrine’ and ‘ecclisiastical practise’ or whatever; then a new group of Christians rise up to react against what’s going on and the Emerging Church claims them to be heretics. This way, we simply never really go as far as where I think God wants to take us. We ought to see this as an organic process, which involves a growing TOGETHER. The church is not the place for the lone-ranger, regardless of how pioneering he may in fact be.

This is a BODY, after all.

Here are all the contributors to the synchroblog :

Aratus – The Gender of the Creator and Face forward
Cobusvw – Conversing with the heretics
FakeExpressionsOfTheUnknown Who’s Heresy
Liquid Light – Coming out a heretic emerges
Mike Smith – Emerging Heresy
Nic Paton – The Lif Cycle of Heresy and The Blessings of Heresy
Roger Saner Towards a heretical orthodoxy
Steve Hayes Cult
Tim Victor – Confessions of a heretic

Enjoy them all! They all give some varying perspectives – great reads!

About Ryan Peter


Ryan Peter is a writer, journalist and ghostwriter from Johannesburg, South Africa. He writes fantasy, sci-fi, inspirational fiction, and on faith. Ryan is also part of the New Covenant Ministries International (NCMI) translocal team.

12 replies
  1. timvictor
    timvictor says:

    Ryan,

    I like your emphasis on interpretation and differing interpretations and the necessity of them because we’re humans interpreting them from our perspective.

    Several individuals have levelled the accusation of heresy against the “emerging church” and against individuals representative of groups who’re shifting in expression their of Christianity. There is also the subtext present in many conversations with “emergents”, the “Are you really still focused on Jesus and the same fundamentals?”

    I believe the onus is on people on both sides of the fence (of Christian expression) to maintain relationship, to speak with integrity, and to love one another. On my blog I share a bit about the pain of not being received in love for doing the work of the gospel to a culture alien to the evangelical mainstream.

    Reply
  2. Nic Paton
    Nic Paton says:

    Hi Stray
    I am fully in agreement with you regarding the primacy of relationship and love. I think you have made a strong stand for these values, and that is encouraging. Also I think it is fair to say you stand as a critic of the “Emergent Church”, and the fact that you have stayed in conversation with the likes of myself is to your credit.

    However there are a few points I’d like to challenge – (you knew that would happen!) :

    “it would make both logical and obvious sense to say that heresy is a RELATIONAL issue, not a DOCTRINAL issue.”
    We need to work out our semantics, and I don’t think there is space here. But in my view heresy arises because of doctrine. Relationship is a different category of thought to doctrine-heresy, and so to mix them as you do does not make sense to me. We will in time come to understand each other, however.

    “many differing views on hell within the early church and yet no one claims any of those views to be heresy.”
    I am not sure you are correct. Hell was a primary focus for the early church and by the 6th Century CE the idea of Endless Punitive Separation became doctrine and the idea of Universal Restoration had been condemned as heresy.

    “Heresy is only claimed on those who wish to ‘break away’ with what those who break away call “true teachings.””
    You mention the Gnostics as breaking away – I think that the Gnostics were there in the mix before “Christianity” emerged, alongside the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essences and Romans.

    ” it may have been more correct for Luther to have rather attempted reform WITHIN the church”
    That’s mighty wishful thinking, based on a particular myth of unity. From what I can see the Catholic Church at that stage of history was an absolute power, and absolutely corrupt. Do you think Boenhoeffer, one of the most deeply committed pastors of Christian community, should have negotiated peace with Hitler? Or were the hard facts that the empire had crossed a line of corruption?

    “the [Emerging Church] label is entirely unnecessary”
    But I love it! I am happily emergent, for now. I’ll let you know when I start thinking it’s an insult.

    “Emerging Church needs to make sure that it stays clear of heresy”
    But nothing can emerge without heresy. So whether it likes it or not, it is heretical.

    “simply do things its own way out of frustration (or, perhaps, even arrogance of its own”
    Well that’s a wise observation, if in fact the Emergents ARE frustrated or arrogent. Have you met any such people? The emergents I have come across are excited, free, and inclusive.

    Thanks for your thoughts Stray. I know that I come across as contrarian, but believe me I see the heart in this; I trust your motives, evan as I critique your thinking.

    Reply
  3. stray
    stray says:

    Thanks all for the comments!

    Tim, definately agree with you that the onus is really on both sides.

    Nic, I’ll have to address your points :)

    You said : “But in my view heresy arises because of doctrine. Relationship is a different category of thought to doctrine-heresy, and so to mix them as you do does not make sense to me. We will in time come to understand each other, however.”

    What I’m trying to imply is that heresy is not really a doctrinal issue, but merely a misunderstanding that doctrinal differences mean that we cannot build the kingdom together. While some doctrines can lead to a breaking of relationship, it’s the breaking of relationship that defines something as heresy not the doctrine directly.

    You said (about my statement that the early church was quite lenient about the different ideas of hell) : “Hell was a primary focus for the early church and by the 6th Century CE the idea of Endless Punitive Separation became doctrine and the idea of Universal Restoration had been condemned as heresy.”

    Personally, I don’t really consider the 6th century to be ‘early church.’ The 6th century is well into the whole catholic political/institution idea.

    As far as hell is concerned, here’s a quote you can find at this link : http://www.theologyonline.com/forums/showthread.php?t=46234&page=19

    “The Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (1908) by Schaff-Herzog says in volume 12, on page 96, “In the first five or six centuries of Christianity there were six theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, and Edessa, or Nisibis) were Universalist, one (Ephesus) accepted conditional immortality; one (Carthage or Rome) taught endless punishment of the wicked. Other theological schools are mentioned as founded by Universalists, but their actual doctrine on this subject is not known.”

    You said : “I think that the Gnostics were there in the mix before “Christianity” emerged, alongside the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essences and Romans.”

    We would have to both be more studious about it to know the facts, but even if the Gnostics merged Christian ideas with their belief the bottom line is that they were not a PART of the Christian church and therefore heretics by the definition of ‘heretic’ in my post.

    Anyway, I know that I was being idealistic with the statement on Luther but my real point was to show that we don’t really need to go to such length these days to see change happen.

    Lastly, you said (about me saying that the emerging church must stay clear of heresy) : “But nothing can emerge without heresy. So whether it likes it or not, it is heretical. ”

    I agree with your point, but if we view ‘heresy’ by the definition of the post (uncommitment to relationship) then my point is that the emerging church must stay clear of unplugging from relationship for the sake of its own doctrine. In other words, we really don’t want another denomination or anything like it.

    Thanks Nic! As always, great chat!

    Reply
  4. Yvonne
    Yvonne says:

    The thing that interests me about this conversation about heresy is the assumption that there is a single perspective which is more true than all the rest and which can be discovered by a finite being.

    The Jews say that every verse of Torah has 70 faces (70 possible interpretations) and they simply enjoy the process of wrangling and discussing whose interpretation is more plausible, simultaneously enjoying the ambiguity.

    Because we are located in different life situations, cultural backgrounds, etc. our personal spiritual understandings will differ, but they will be true for us. Different people have different understandings of the Divine because they have different experiences of the Divine. This is simply because we are finite beings contemplating the Infinite, which necessarily has a different perspective than us.

    Reply

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  7. […] A Reformed Family Man wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptIn other words, one of the things (I think) that will lead the church into unity is a proper definition of what heresy actually, really, is. To be honest, I see this term thrown around WAY too much around discussions of theology and … […]

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