Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Ten propositions on heresy

by Kim Fabricius (his 25th set of propositions!)

1. Heresy comes from the Greek hairesis (literally “choice” or “thing chosen”) and denotes an “opinion” or a “school of thought.” In I Corinthians 11:19 the RSB translates haireseis as “divisions”, the NRSV as “factions”; and while Paul suggests that “there have to be (δεῖ) factions among you,” as a way of separating the wheat from the chaff, nevertheless, as the context confirms, he deploys the word in a negative sense. See also the list of vices (“works of the flesh”) in Galatians 5:20: “factions” (NRSV), “party intrigues” (REB).

2. Of course what constitutes heresy is not pre-packaged; there is no timeless, pure dogma, discovered, simpliciter, like a diamond. On the other hand, a purely constructivist account of orthodoxy is inadequate, as if it were costume jewellery. There is a real sense in which dogma gives expression to what has been given to the church from the beginning, to what the church already knows before it recognises it, yet comes to recognise it only through relentless arguments about it, arguments issuing in fine and fragile articulations that say neither too little nor too much, and sometimes say it in negatives (cf. the apophaticism of the Chalcedonian Definition). The rough diamond has to be cut.

3. The early cuts, set in the creeds, were made in the context of ferocious Christological controversies. In dispute was the very identity of God, the God who creates and redeems us, to whom the church witnesses and prays (lex orandi, lex credendi). The arguments were not “academic,” what was at stake was “personal,” viz. the experience of salvation in Christ, and the transmission, through careful conversation, of the parameters within which the experience may be realised. Augustine called sound doctrine the hedge that protects the field where the Christian encounters God. I would only add that a hedge is made of shrubs, not bricks and barbed wire.

4. Another image: if orthodoxy is the bull’s eye, heresy is, as Rowan Williams puts it, the “near-misses” – which actually help guide the church towards the target (cf. Schleiermacher’s reference to his own teaching on God as “inspired heterodoxy”). The early heretics were generally neither knaves nor fools but pious and passionate men, zealous for God, morally serious, scrupulously scriptural. They were very clever, but conventional, fetchers and carriers for the zeitgeist. Heretics like a “wrap”, and heresies are fastidiously neat and tidy, the product of minds stuck inside the box of common sense. “Consistency,” said Oscar Wilde, “is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” Unsurprisingly, then, heresy is aesthetically unattractive, even ugly.

5. I think it was Alfred North Whitehead who said that there are no such things as whole truths, there are only half-truths, and treating half-truths like whole truths plays the devil. Whitehead might have been talking about heresy. Heretics are one-eyed, they lack the “vision thing”: failing to see the bigger picture, they take the part for the whole. That’s why heresy is inevitably rather boring. Heretics have no sense of adventure; they go only so far, they won’t go “all the way.” You could say they are theological prudes, often wearing philosophical chastity belts, who resist being ravished by revelation.

6. Marcion was a literalist who couldn’t get his head around the apparent contradictions between Old and New Testaments, and so he hacked the Bible in two. Arius was monomaniacally monotheist and uncompromisingly conservative and resistant to conceptual innovation; his “notion of unity is devoid of the richness – and the mystery – of God’s unity. It is devoid of the unity of love” (Arthur C. McGill). Eutyches was “a confused and unskilled thinker ... blindly rushing forward to defend the unity of Christ against all attempts to divide Him”; while Nestorius, if not perhaps a Nestorian, launched such a “maladroit, crudely expressed exposition of the Antiochene position” on the two natures of Christ that he was never able to explain coherently what constitutes His centre (J. N. D. Kelly).

7. And then there are those perennial pests, Pelagianism and Donatism (technically a “schism,” an error of love rather than faith). A fair-minded comparison of Pelagius’ exegesis of Psalm 14, and Donatus’ interpretation of the parable of the Wheat and the Tares, with Augustine’s is initially embarrassing. But when the bishop of Hippo raises the bar, deconstructing the human soul and insisting that God is always greater than we think, the two heresiarchs, the one monkish and severe, the other hawkish and charismatic, both perfectionists, are out of their depths. They are noble figures, and theirs are heroic theologies, but, as Rowan Williams observes, commenting on Augustine’s legacy, “God asks not for heroes but for lovers; not for moral athletes but for men and women aware of their need for acceptance, ready to find their selfhood in the longing for communion with an eternal ‘other’.”

8. “Remember,” wrote Chesterton, “that the church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer.... This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into the foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad.” And the mark of the mad: “this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction.” And so: “Whenever we feel that there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth.” Heresy is uncomfortable with the oddness of God.

9. “The truth of dogmas does not depend on the fact that the church maintains them. But is this really so? This is an abiding question, and dogmatics must always leave it open!” (Gerhard Sauter). Tradition always gets the benefit of the doubt, but might some of it be but “agedness of error” (Milton)? An ancient dogma, now widely contested, is the divine impassibility. With Moltmann, Jüngel declares that the cross “has destroyed the axiom of absoluteness, the axiom of apathy, the axiom of immutability, all of which are unsuitable axioms for the Christian concept of God.” Process and liberation theologians join the troops, while Thomas Weinandy and David Bentley Hart mount rearguard actions. Were the Theopaschites (if not the Patripassianists) right after all? In any case, claims to infallibility – a kind of tradition fundamentalism – bring orthodoxy into disrepute, and church history is littered with enough ill-conceived defences of orthodoxy to warrant theological vigilance and modesty. Moreover, while doubt plays black to trust (Wittgenstein), the acute post-enlightenment awareness of the historical and social location of ideas, and the undeniable insights of Tendenzkritik regarding the power-interests that texts serve and legitimate, entail a loss of dogmatic innocence that must give suspicion its due.

10. Finally, what do you do with heretics? Burn ‘em (though in fact none of the early heresiarchs were murdered)? Or at least track them down and corner them? If you’ve got a magisterium, you can fire the Küngs and the Currans. If you’re a powerful and aggressive church leader, you can threaten to take your ball and go home while at the same time invading other pitches (or is it Bishop Akinola who is the [Donatist] heretic?). Karl Barth warned against witch-hunts against Bultmann, and the author of the Barmen Declaration found the contemporary “confessional movement” “dead, cheap, fly-sieving, camel-swallowing, and Pharisaic.” On the other hand, I’m sure Barth would have approved of declaring apartheid a heresy. Finally, however, Stanley Hauerwas is right: “That one of the tests of orthodoxy is beauty means orthodoxy betrays itself if it is used as a hammer to beat into submission those we think heterodox.” And, of course, unless orthodoxy itself issues in orthopraxis – because truth is not so much thought as done (John 7:17) – well, hypocrisy isn’t heresy, but it ain’t pretty. The telos of orthodoxy is not conformity but faith working through love in joyful obedience.

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