15 October 2018

Statement on Social Justice, 9: Heresy

We are just over half-way through our journey through the recently published Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel, which now addresses heresy:

We affirm that heresy is a denial of or departure from a doctrine that is essential to the Christian faith. We further affirm that heresy often involves the replacement of key, essential truths with variant concepts, or the elevation of non-essentials to the status of essentials. To embrace heresy is to depart from the faith once delivered to the saints and thus to be on a path toward spiritual destruction. We affirm that the accusation of heresy should be reserved for those departures from Christian truth that destroy the weight-bearing doctrines of the redemptive core of Scripture. We affirm that accusations of heresy should be accompanied with clear evidence of such destructive beliefs.

We deny that the charge of heresy can be legitimately brought against every failure to achieve perfect conformity to all that is implied in sincere faith in the gospel.

The very notion of heresy is not a popular one these days, because it implies that someone or some community knows the truth and is willing to penalize those who persist in denying it. In a society that claims to value free expression of unpopular ideas, the image of a group of straight-laced men gathering together in a synodical body to test the orthodoxy of one of its members elicits scorn. Not long ago a mainline protestant denomination here in Canada found itself looking into the beliefs of one of its ministers who denies outright the existence of God. Harbouring an atheist in its midst was apparently too much for even this extremely nonconfessional denomination. Nevertheless, many of her fellow ministers came to her defence.

Heresy trials are not pleasant, to be sure. But where a church eliminates even the possibility of disciplining one of its officeholders for heresy, it will likely drift away from the gospel over the long term. Examples of this phenomenon are not hard to find.

What then is heresy? I agree with the statement's authors here: it is "a denial of or departure from a doctrine that is essential to the Christian faith." We know something of the ancient heresies which the church was compelled to address in the early centuries, including Arianism, Monophysitism, Donatism, Eutychianism and so forth. Most of these had to do with the person of Jesus Christ, who is, of course, absolutely central to the faith. Does he have one or two natures? Is he truly God and man? How do we account for Jesus' relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit? The shape of Christian orthodoxy grew out of heated discussions among bishops in the eastern Mediterranean, setting the boundaries beyond which a believer must not go. The Pseudo-Athanasian Creed pronounces in uncompromising fashion: "Whoever desires to be saved should above all hold to the catholic faith. Anyone who does not keep it whole and unbroken will doubtless perish eternally."

What about eschatological views? What about universal and particular salvation? What about invocation of the saints? What about infant versus believers baptism? Are these matters of orthodoxy versus heresy? If you are a convinced paedobaptist, you might indeed judge the credobaptist heretical. Certainly John Calvin did not mince words in condemning the anabaptists, who had the effrontery to repeat their earlier baptism, thereby implying that God's grace given them in this sacrament was invalid and had to be reactivated by their own efforts. If you are confessionally Reformed or Lutheran, you might well judge dispensationalism a heresy. Might these be "nonessentials" improperly elevated to the status of essentials? The statement appears to leave room for this.

But here we encounter a peculiar phenomenon. Despite the fact that popular culture expresses disdain for heresy-hunters, the predominant secularizing trends definitely defend their own orthodoxies, ridiculing those they view as dissenters from their self-defined mainstream. The ideologies I explore in Political Visions and Illusions come with their own sets of dogmas based on a particular vision of the world. With their quest to transform the world according to this vision, they do not easily tolerate dissidents. Through the use of mockery and ad hominem attacks, they seek to make themselves impervious to opposition. We see this in Canada where our current federal government will not bend in its defence of what it sees as "Charter values." These values supposedly include a woman's right to abortion, despite the reality that the real Charter of Rights and Freedoms says nothing about this. The current government inappropriately raises its own fanciful interpretation of the Charter to constitutional status.

Has this secular orthodoxy found its way into the churches? Undoubtedly. Perhaps this is what the statement's authors have in mind, though in the absence of more specificity one is left to speculate. If a denominational assembly pronounces on the $15-an-hour minimum wage, does it thereby condemn opponents as heretics? I doubt that its members would go that far, though I do think it inappropriate for the institutional church to weigh in on a matter of prudential judgement, especially when it seems unwilling to speak clearly on matters much closer to the heart of the gospel message. Confessional pluralism within a denomination does not generally leave people free in absolutely everything, as we readily observe in those ecclesiastical bodies speaking loudly on the virtues of recycling while remaining quiet on the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Next: Sexuality and marriage, complementarianism

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