Saturday, June 28, 2008

How Not to Be a Heretic

Jason Scully's review of Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why It Matters What Christians Believe is intriguing and makes me want to read this book. Here's an excerpt from the review:

When Jesus says, "The Father is greater than I," are we supposed to think that he is inferior to the Father? Does Jesus' prayer, "Not my will but yours be done," imply that Jesus is subordinate? Today, and throughout history, some people have concluded from such statements that Jesus is not fully God. In the fourth century, the Council of Nicaea condemned the teachings of Arius, a priest who had tried to make sense out of these perplexing questions by claiming that Jesus was a created being inferior to God. Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why It Matters What Christians Believe (Hendrickson, 2007), a collection of essays edited by Ben Quash (professor of Christianity and the Arts at Kings College) and Michael Ward (chaplain at Peterhouse College in Cambridge), attempts to prevent modern Christians from stumbling upon ancient heresies by showing how the church dealt with these problems in the past.

The book is based on a series of sermons on the contemporary relevance of ancient Christian debates. Each chapter covers a different heresy on either the person of Christ, the nature of the church, or Christian living. Topics range from Docetism (the belief that Jesus only appears human) to Donatism (the belief that Christian ministers need to be flawless in order to administer the sacraments).

The contributors, who include both pastors and scholars, keep the tone practical by focusing on the lasting implications of each heresy covered. So, for example, we learn more about the dangers that the heresy of Arianism presents to modern Christians than we do about Arius himself and his condemnation. Each chapter ends with advice on how to avoid the contemporary forms of heresy. Suggestions range from participating attentively in worship to reconsidering the way one thinks about salvation.

According to the contributors, heresy is attractive because it appears to solve a specific problem, but it does so at the expense of the coherence of the Christian faith. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, protects the faith in its entirety. Each new heresy about the person of Christ, the church, or Christian living has caused the church to further refine its understanding of Christ's saving work.

A guiding principle of this book is that heretics are not villains but genuine truth-seekers. Gone is the usual list of theological errors and reasons to reject them. Instead, each essay begins with a sympathetic presentation of the heretic's position. According to Ben Quash, who authored the prologue, we "have reason to be grateful to heresies because they have forced us to think our belief out more deeply and thoroughly." By understanding the logic and motivation behind heresies, we can more fully appreciate the orthodox answers.

1 comment:

DavidB said...

I found a pretty informative discourse on the interaction between Tradition and revelation gained from the workings of the Holy Spirit, and basically, how to avoid the heresies caused by putting undue stress on one over the other rather than reconciling them. From the Anglican-Orthodox Cyprus Agreed Statement (2006), pp. 70-71 (found on the Anglican Communion website):

"The Church is alive because truth and new life have been given to her, and her existence depends on the gift of revelation that she has received from God. Revelation is Tradition and becomes Tradition within the Church. It is so precisely because it was transmitted (paredothe) in Christ and the Holy Spirit. It becomes Tradition because the Church preserves it throughout her history, as the power of her life. The preservation of the truth in the midst of the diversity of the new life in the Spirit should not however be understood in a narrowly conservative way. Tradition is not a principle which strives to restore the past: it is not only the memory of words, but the constant abiding of the Spirit. It is a charismatic, not a historical, principle.
19. Such an approach raises many questions, regarding the continuity of Tradition, respect for both change and continuity in the Church’s application of reception, and the basis on which Tradition and innovation can be reconciled. It is the problem of reaching a proper synthesis between Christology and Pneumatology. Christology represents historical facticity: ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever’ (Hebrews 13.8). The Spirit is freedom and change. Innovators appeal to the Spirit in support of their innovations, yet the ancient Church often identified innovation with heresy. We may ask how the Gospel could be received in a fresh culture if all innovation were to be condemned as heresy. If we follow the Fathers of the Church, we may come to the following conclusions:
i. In defining a new dogma the Church has always built upon an already existing one. There can never be innovation in an absolute sense: there must always be some continuity with what has been received by previous generations. That is why, in the doctrinal disputes of the patristic period, all parties sought support for their views in the Scriptures: they were concerned to demonstrate continuity. The Fathers made no distinction between the binding nature of the authority of Scripture and that of the Tradition expressed through the Councils: for them both were equally inspired by the Spirit. What mattered was continuity as the ground on which innovation or change could be acceptable in formulating a new dogma. The Council of Chalcedon built upon Nicea’s Christology in order to extend Christ’s consubstantiality with the Father to his consubstantiality with humanity, while the Sixth Ecumenical Council appealed to Chalcedon’s two natures Christology in order to teach the doctrine of two energies and two wills in 70
Christ. In this way the Church’s authoritative teaching was extended, while its new articulation was consistent with what had already been received. New definitions could only be received by the Church if they were in conformity with accepted dogmas.
ii. In such circumstances innovation is not heresy. This is not to affirm the notion of the development of doctrine as some have understood it. There is no growth from smaller to greater, as if the truth of the Gospel needed to progress and improve. At each stage of reception the whole truth is being received, albeit in new forms in response to new challenges from within a culture or from a different culture. Two attitudes to reception are equally wrong and dangerous. One is that of the revolutionary innovator who, by appealing to the freedom of the Spirit or the demands of inculturation, refuses to consider whether the new stands in continuity with the old. The other is that of the conservative formalist who rejects the inculturation of the Gospel and its application to the contemporary needs of humanity. True and proper reception avoids both these dangers and, in a balanced synthesis of Christology and Pneumatology, seeks to respond to new demands of human culture in faithfulness to what has been transmitted from the past."