Thursday 26 November 2015

Know-it-all heretics

Eunomius has everything figured out. Which pretty much summarises everything that is wrong with his theology. Divinity is, Eunomius claims, unbegottenness (which is why he thinks that the Son cannot be divine). Basil is aghast: “How much arrogance and pride would it take for someone to think that he has discovered the very substance of God?” (Against Eunomius, 1.12). Eunomius is like every other heretic: an aggravating know-it-all.

Arius is certain that the Son is not co-eternal with the Father. Apollinaris, agreeing that Arius must be wrong, knows that Christ can be fully divine so long as he is not fully human. Nestorius, going with the dismissal of Apollinaris, figures out how the divine and the human natures interact in Jesus (even in Mary’s womb!). Eutyches, standing with the church in rejecting Nestorius, solves the metaphysical problem of two natures (or one or three—the numbers all blend together). The early christological heretics all claim to understand the relation of the divine to the human in Christ. Each heretic solves the problem with confidence, but the church confidently keeps the problems and so keeps the faith.

The orthodox tradition maintains the tension between the knowable and the unknowable in its affirmations. We cannot know what divinity is in itself, just as we hardly understand the nature of humanity, but it seems necessary to say—if salvation is real—that Christ is fully divine and fully human and that these two “natures” are not merely pressed up against each other or mixed together, but are somehow united in the person of Jesus Christ. But orthodox theology rarely attempts to specify that “somehow”.

The heretics prefer to iron out the creases in their doctrines of God and Christ, leaving a smooth surface where everything is laid bare. But the orthodox tradition leaves the bedsheets in a crumpled pile, with hidden and mysterious crevices. Ironing the divine linen is an impossible task, for God is like a fitted sheet—accomodating yet unwieldy. Talk about God will always have hidden depths and untidy corners. “Heretics were too clever by half, thinking they could know God precisely so as to define the divine Being in all exactitude” (Frances Young, God’s Presence, 253).

Rowan Williams points out that the word “heresy” comes from the Greek hairesis, which connotes making a choice that creates division—“a heresy in St Paul is… choosing to belong to this little group rather than the whole fellowship” (“What is Heresy Today?”). The heretic is the one who looks at the doctrine of God and says “I understand this” or “I can prove that this is so” in such a way as to exclude all other understandings. The creeds, by contrast, were written to establish unity within the church through prayer, contemplation, and interpretation. To riff on Robert Jenson, there is nothing as capacious as a creed.


Dale said...

Interesting post.

I have to say though, I've been reading a lot of 4th c. theology lately, and I think this is an old slander, a cheap shot. The "heretics" so hatefully denounced in that era are simply catholics, with slightly different views! It's just that their side ended up being smashed by Theodosius, and then there was a thorough case of the winners writing the history. The claims made by Athanasius, Basil, the Gregories, are no less bold and speculative. Tacking on emphatic odes to mystery doesn't erase one's speculations, and one's contentious mis-readings of the Bible, or one's unfair, straw-man attacks on one's opponents. Do we know, for instance, that Eunomious really thought that all there was to divinity was unbegottenness (=aseity), or did he just view that as essential to God, as it were part of the divine essence, or a fundamental attribute on which, in some sense, others depend? I don't know. But the polemics in that era are so brutally unfair, that I have to wonder. Much recent scholarship, e.g. this book tries hard to see past the polemics, and to understand these "heretics" as merely other 4th c. catholics, trying to make sense of it all, just like their Nicene opponents. In a way, the so-called "Arians" (ridiculous name, btw) were the conservatives, basing their views largely on Origen and his successors. Of course, the Nicenes were heavily influenced by him as well. And both sides were fairly heavy users and abusers of the sort of eclectic Platonism then prevalent. It's a shame that so many of these works are now lost, so that mostly we have to go on just the accounts of opponents who literally hate them. Imagine trying to reconstruct, for example, the views of Bill Clinton, if all you had to go on was some transcripts from the Rush Limbaugh show!

This charge of "rationalism" I think was much promoted by Cardinal Newman in the 19th c., and surely owes something to various Enlightenment-era attacks on Christianity, and one theism in general. e.g. Spinoza, Hume. I think it's very often an ad hominem though; I mean, short of Hegel, who really thinks they've got God all figured out?

Anyway, Happy Thanksgiving!

John Tracey said...

There is a lie in this article that may well be innocent in that the lie is deeply rooted in the church’s teaching about itself. But it is still a lie no matter how orthodox it might be.

That lie is - “The creeds, by contrast, were written to establish unity within the church through prayer, contemplation, and interpretation.”

The foundation creed of the Roman Imperial church, the Nicaean creed, originally contained the following -

“And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not, or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence [from the Father] or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion — all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.”

Anathamatization included executing, imprisoning or exiling those who do not agree with the homoousios proposition. It included banning their writings and executing, exiling or imprisoning those found in possession of their writings.

“Unity” was achieved through the extermination of dissent, not through prayer, contemplation and interpretation as the church has historically claimed.

Elizabeth and John said...

The assumption that only heretics have the right answer seems to me just that - an assumtpion. Why cannot the same charge be levelled at orthodoxy, which, as John Tracey rightfully points out, went to great lengths stamp out anything looking like a deviant opinion?

John said...

Ben, I think you take a much later understanding of "heresy" and claims it as the etymology of the Greek term "hairesis". This is back to front. The term meant "choice": and was used to refer to the process of considering an issue and making a choice as to meaning. It is a natural and commonplace human undertaking.
Only when the Church Fathers decided that they needed to exercise their authority and claim power over all of the church, did the term come to gain the sense of "diverging from the right path" or "making an choice that is incorrect".
And then the Reformation came and placed strict doctrinal requirements as intellectual determinants into the midst of the faith. And so "hairesis" as "heresy" or "totally incorrect belief" was born.
Your commentary is looking in the wrong direction and offering unhelpful observations on the basis of anachronistic etymology. That leads you to adopt a hugely romanticised view of the creeds. They were instruments of oppression and attempted conformity, not placid little invitations to meditation!!!

Steve Wright said...

Thank you all for taking the time to disagree with this post. Of course the heretics have often been mistreated and misrepresented by history, but the narrative of the church fathers as power-hungry villains is equally unreal. The rhetoric and strategies of the orthodox hardly differ from those employed by the heretics. As dissatisfying as it is for the modern person, the early Christians were not pluralists and were struggling for identity--heretics and orthodox alike. The creeds were consensus documents born out of liturgy and consideration that were used as signs of unity and are overall less rigid in their christological definitions than the alternatives being advanced by the heretics. The creeds deliberately exclude the views of the heretics, yes, but this is because these views were deemed to threaten the central tenet of Christian belief and practice: the saving work of God in the incarnation of the divine Word in Jesus of Nazareth. Differences of opinion about such matters were rarely treated as benign by anyone in the ancient church.

John Tracey said...

Hello Steve,

You seem to be ignoring the process of anathematization. This alone dismisses your assertion that the creeds were consensus documents. The creeds are the consensus of the powerful Roman elite under the control of Caesar Constantine, not of the international body of Christ at the time.

The truth of our church is very uncomfortable. Sugar coated apologia does not bring us closer to God. Before the internet we had an excuse for not knowing the truth of our church as it was all locked up in academic theological libraries. Today we have no excuse except ignorance and denial to perpetuate orthodox myths of the church. The historical, political and economic context of the state religion of the Roman empire(s), Holy Roman empire and Christian Kingdoms of Europe is now clear for all to see. Similarly, online Greek and Hebrew lexicons allow us to look closer at the bible on its own terms rather than refracted through the lens of the creeds.

What I think is more significant than the difference between the creeds and the cosmology of the persecuted heretics (whose theology we do not know as all their writings were destroyed), is the difference between the creeds and the cosmology of the bible. It is the difference between the perspective of tribal indigenous Hebrews and their land covenant with God and the perspective of the Roman imperial state and Caesar’s claim to universal (catholic) sovereignty over land and people. Jesus proclaimed the Jubilee year - the return of ancestral land to its tribal custodians in accord with Moses and Joshua’s allocation. He told his disciples to continue the passover ceremony, the commemoration of liberation from empire and the return to Abraham’s ancestral land, in remembrance of him. Yet the father of our church banned Jews from Israel and banned the passover pilgrimage. The state religion of Rome is not, I suggest, what Jesus had in mind.

Dale said...

" the church fathers as power-hungry villains is equally unreal."

Well, both sides in 4th c. catholic disputes were glad to appeal to the power of emperors to smash the opposition. But that both sides were to some extent ungodly in this way doesn't at all exonerate the pro-Nicene side.

"The rhetoric and strategies of the orthodox hardly differ from those employed by the heretics."

It depends on the person. From the little we know, some of the so-called "Arians" had a reputation for learning - they were mocked as eggheads. Probably, they were not at all like the hothead Athanasius. And let's be honest, his behavior and writing are disgraceful in any era; all Christians are forbidden from hating their opponents, above all, fellow Christians.

"The creeds were consensus documents"
This is what the catholic narrative says, but we need to consider what actually happened in 380-381, resulting in todays "Nicene Creed." Note the sequence of events, and also who attended the council.

"overall less rigid in their christological definitions than the alternatives being advanced by the heretic"

Well, a single theologian's work will always be more specific that these group compositions. The "heretics" (non-Nicene) creeds were, I would say, no more speculative than those of the Nicenes. e.g. and

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