My good friend and conversation partner, Paul Axton, does this thing to me sometimes that always shuts me down. In my theology classes, I’ve often referred to Jürgen Moltmann’s eschatological work Theology of Hope for a response to the liberal critique of Jesus’ eschatology. Helpful little book and helps me make my point to my students that it is not possible to separate Jesus’ eschatology from his message—even if it is not always clear to everyone what his eschatology is.
On three different occasions I can remember, however, when I’ve been in conversation with him about it, Paul has said to me, “Now, of course, you are aware that Moltmann is a heretic,” and then proceeded to explain to me exactly why he is. And, for the life of me, I never can quite understand exactly which of Moltmann’s beliefs or theological points Paul takes exception to, though he’s been careful to explain it in detail each time. Truth is, Paul is just so much smarter than I am.
Now, I have no doubt that Paul is right. In fact, when he says this to me, I tend to laugh because I know it’s coming and it always cracks me up. And I’m nearly convinced that that’s one of the reasons he says it to me. I think the last time he said it, I said something like, “Yes, I know…but you never have been able to explain it to me in any way I can make sense of.” It’s just Paul trying to help me not be a heretic myself without knowing it.
And that is kind of why I’m writing this. Lately, I’ve been thinking about heretics, what makes them heretics, and their heresies. I don’t know why it is that I’ve been thinking about them, but I think that there is something about the heretics that I like, even if I think they are still heretics.
For instance, one of the neat little perks that I enjoy working at a Christian college is I receive catalogs of theological and exegetical books every quarter from all of the great publishers of good Christian literature. A few of the folks I work with jokingly refer to these catalogs as theology porn, because we often feel a little lustful when we open the catalogs and begin browsing for titles we want to read. I even caught myself thinking, “Oh, I would stay up all night reading that one.”
In one of the catalogs I receive, there are a few works on the heretics—and I can see in the summary descriptions some of the heretics they cover. Standard fair—Sabellius, Arius, the Gnostics, the neo-Platonists, etc. I know who these are and I know why they are heretics and why it is important to consider their teaching heresy.
But there is always one listed that gets me. They always list Pelagius as a heretic. Pelagius was a contemporary of Augustine who claimed that it was possible (though no one did it) for a person to go their entire lives without sinning. Pelagius was reacting to Augustine’s teaching that people were born inherently sinful (they couldn’t help it).
Granted, Pelagius probably oversimplified things a little—the truth is probably somewhere in between Augustine and Pelagius’ views. But I’m not sure that should qualify him as a “heretic,” though that is what he was branded. Augustine’s views won the day and Pelagius’ ideas were branded “heresy.”
Stan Grenz states, “The term heresy is generally reserved for any belief that claims to be Christian and scriptural but has been rejected by the church as sub-Christian or antiscriptural.” Strictly speaking, “heresy” is teaching which contradicts proper biblical teaching.
The trick, of course, is determining what we mean by “proper biblical teaching.” Who determines which teachings are “biblical?” In Pelagius’ day it was meetings of leaders in the catholic church all over the world. These meetings were called “councils.” These leaders would get together and discuss these issues, sometimes for years at a time, and then determine what they believed was “orthodox” teaching. “Orthodox” simply meaning, “correct teaching.”
Funny thing is, before a doctrine (teaching) is orthodox…it isn’t. And what makes it orthodox isn’t necessarily the nature of its inference from scripture—what makes it orthodox is that church leaders found it to be inferred in scripture. Therefore, Augustine’s teaching about the sin nature became orthodox when certain Christians labeled it as such. And Pelagius’ teaching about free will became heresy in the same way.
Now, I don’t mind saying that many times those early councils got it right. Sabellius was an early heretic who developed an understanding of the trinity which theologians today call “modalism.” He believed that the Father, Son, and Spirit were all “faces” or “manifestations” of one divine being—God. Therefore, in the Old Testament, God was sort of in “Father” mode. Then, in the gospels, he appeared in “Son” mode. Later, in Acts, he appeared in “Spirit” mode. This was Sabellius’ attempt at understanding a very difficult theological topic, the nature of God as three persons in one being.
The early church councils correctly determined that Sabellius’ teaching on trinity was less-than scriptural. For instance, if the Father and the Son are the same person, who on earth is it that Jesus spends so much time praying to? And, who is he talking about when he says he is going back to the Father and is going to send another, the Holy Spirit (not return in a different form)? The early church council labeled Sabellius’ teaching a heresy because it didn’t do the concept of trinity justice.
But here’s the thing…once a doctrine is labeled a “heresy,” it is just sort of assumed that the person who created it is a “heretic.” And those kinds of labels have a tendency of creating an “us against them” mythology which is very dangerous because it seems so objective. “We know correct teaching and this is not it.” It gives people the impression that there are heretics and orthodox and we are all either one or the other.
The truth, however, is different. Let me explain.
Sabellius’ “heresy” was, in-fact, a very poor understanding of trinity. And, believe it or not, trinity is a very important doctrine. The nature of God as a community of divine persons in one being is central to our understanding of humans created in his image to be in community with him and with one another. This is vital, and I dare say maybe even essential tenet of Christian faith.
That said, I’ve been in many churches and heard a lot of teaching and I’ve yet to see a youth minister teach the doctrine of trinity to a youth group without articulating the exact same heresy that Sabellius did. In fact, I’ve seen many preaching ministers do it as well. Anytime someone compares the trinity to water (ice, steam, liquid), they’re using Sabellian modalism to proclaim the very same heresy that the church labeled as such a millennia and a half ago. The truth is, even though it’s considered heresy, most Christians still believe it without much reflection. I guess they’re all heretics.
Should we run around screaming “heresy, heresy?” Of course not. The truth is, people who describe trinity this way are just doing as Sabellius did, trying to understand a very difficult doctrine the best way they can. They need instruction and help to understand it properly, and I think God understands that they’re doing the best they can.
But here’s the thing—here’s what I’m getting at. The nature of “orthodox” teaching is tenuous at best. Our theology is a construct. It is based on revealed scripture, but that scripture is read through the lenses of our culture, our upbringing…our worldview. And, therefore, our theology can always be mistaken.
I say this because I am a heretic. There are many beliefs I have which someone in a position of authority in some church would label as “not orthodox” or unbiblical. My understanding of Jesus’ atonement as non-violent, rather than the crude exchange I read in penal substitutionary atonement is “heresy” to some. My rejection of dualism and my understanding of the nature of hell would have me branded and burned at the stake in some traditions. My teaching on Christian pacifism and open theism is offensive and radical to some Christians.
For these reasons, according to some, I’m a heretic. This is even though I have reached the conclusions I have at the end of so many years of study. And, in all probability, I will most likely reach new and different conclusions as I continue to study.
When I think about it, I’m actually pretty comfortable being a heretic. I like being an outsider in these kinds of discussions.
When I think about it, I’m actually pretty comfortable being a heretic. I like being an outsider in these kinds of discussions. I like the freedom of being able to work through these puzzles and ask the tough questions. The way I see it, all of the prophets in scripture were “heretics” of their days. They were the ones who God used to point out when he saw that orthodoxy had become nothing more than authorized heresy.
But it’s hard to be a heretic. It’s not easy to stand on the outside and try to scare up the courage to say things which aren’t the status quo. Status quo is popular. It’s comfortable. It’s reassuring. It makes people feel secure and safe. And when you shake that up, they get upset sometimes. And sometimes they throw stones.
And being a heretic means you have to take chances. You have to really think and you take the risk of actually being wrong sometimes and being proven wrong. It’s not easy to say what you think is true knowing that someone might be able to demonstrate you’ve developed your understanding of the truth poorly. And when you change your mind, people think you’re flaky—like Clark Pinnock (one of my favorite heretics).
The Anabaptists were hated heretics. Stan Hauerwas once said (and I can’t remember where) that the only thing the Catholics and the protestants could ever agree on was that it was a very good idea to kill the Anabaptists (I want to say it was in his lectures on The Abolition of War, but that may not be right). But, boy, were those guys and gals ready to die for their Jesus. And they did. And their deaths judge our namby-pamby, happy-go-lucky, comfortable, weak, greedy, and even violent Christianity. They saw Jesus as someone who brought a radical new way of living. And it scared everyone so much, they killed those heretics. Just like when Augustine encouraged the Catholic Church to kill the people who didn’t agree with his theology.
Anyway, I always think of heretics as underdogs. They tried—most often they failed. They were often doing their best. Sometimes they were horribly wrong, though they were almost always sincere. But every now and then a heretic, like Pelagius, is right. And we find out later that it was wrong to call him such. And, even though that label has stuck and people will always see him as such, I believe that God will vindicate that heretic in the end.
The last thing I think about heretics…Jesus was a heretic. I don’t mean that he had wrong teaching. But he was thought of as a heretic. And he was the kind of heretic who was actually right about everything. But it didn’t matter, because they’d branded him that way.
Who is it who determines who’s a heretic? Who gives them that authority? I don’t know. But I don’t mind being called one.
 Stanley Grenz, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 58.