A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, October 03, 2011

What Is Heresy? #4

The Development of Doctrine and the Place of Heresy in that Development

Doctrine does develop. There is no denying that. Those who refuse to acknowledge this are in denial over the reality of the church's continued "process of self-criticism and self-evaluation" (p. 69). As Alister McGrath rightfully notes, "Doctrinal development is the inevitable and proper outcome of the theological watchfulness demanded by the church" (p. 70). At the same time, there must be a consistency in the development from beginning to the present moment. "...Christian orthodoxy is something that is made as succeeding generations inherit ways of speaking about God and Christ that they rightly respect yet equally rightly wish to subject to examination" (p. 70).

One of the earliest theologians to recognize the need for doctrinal development was Athanasius who believed that such development was necessary for orthodoxy. If the integrity of the Christian faith was to be preserved "doctrinal innovation" was required. If doctrine were to be reduced to unimaginative repetition of formulae, it would seriously undermine God's self-revelation as it became increasingly clear to the church.

To suggest that doctrine develops is not "necessarily a cause for theological concern" (p. 68). It was John Henry Newman (1801-1890) who suggested that a distinction be drawn between "new truths" and "further insights." Doctrinal development is not about new truths coming like a bolt of lightning out of the clear, blue sky, but more about further insights that grow out of what has already been planted and nurtured.

McGrath notes that it was the advent of Charles Darwin's book, The Origin of the Species (1859) that gave the issue of doctrinal development a renewed energy in the nineteenth century. "If one could speak of evolution within the biological world, could not the same-- or at least an analogous-- process be determined within the world of ideas?" (p. 69). If doctrine does indeed develop, then the "faith once delivered to the saints" (Jude 3) was not a fully grown tree of doctrine with all the branches and leaves already fully matured, but rather a seed to be watered and nurtured into something larger and more developed.

So if this account of the development of doctrine is correct, where does heresy fit in? Is heresy the wayward attempt at doctrinal development? Is it the appropriate development of doctrine that the church refused to acknowledge?

More on that in post #5.
Previous Posts in the Series


PamBG said...

I'd really like to understand how doctrine develops in the UMC. From you or other readers.

In British Methodism, we don't have the Articles of Religion and we don't actually have a lot of written doctrine.

I see some UMCers on the internet constantly quoting Wesley and seeming to think that good doctrine in the 18th century should be good doctrine for the 21st century. But I have no idea what the "for" arguments are for on-going theological reflection and doctrinal development in the UMC.


Allan R. Bevere said...


As always you ask wonderful questions.

I'm struggling to answer your question because it might be helpful to get at this by looking at something specific. So, what good doctrine in the 18th century is problematic for the 21st century?

Can you give a specific example?

PamBG said...

Then we get into the question of "What is Doctrine?" don't we?

What I admit I'm reacting to is the movement to study in minute detail the originating texts of Methodism in America and to take them as if they are verbally-inspired, inerrant and infallible.

A lot of these texts won't, of course, be doctrine strictly speaking.

Random examples:
* Wesley thought God might call women to preach but he didn't permit it and neither did the Methodist church at the beginning (not doctrine, strictly speaking, but there is this tendency to view eccelisal order as doctrinal.)

* American Methodism spent a scandalous amount of time defending slavery and segregation forcing African-American brothers and sisters to form the AME.

* I'm not defending the lamentable decline in the concept of human sinfulness, but who these days really understands or believes in the concept of the utter depravity of humans? (Maybe the closest thing I can think of to doctrine.)

These are just examples so you can get my drift.

Allan R. Bevere said...


I suppose we do have to ponder the nature of doctrine. While I would not think your examples to be one of doctrine per se, all of them have doctrinal implications.

The other matter that comes to mind for me is that how our doctrine and therefore our moral positions get undermined because we the church seem more stuck in the current culture and what it deems acceptable than anything else.

Whether that latter comment is related to our discussion in today's post on the Catholic Church and health care is something that might warrant further discussion.

PamBG said...

The other matter that comes to mind for me is that how our doctrine and therefore our moral positions get undermined because we the church seem more stuck in the current culture and what it deems acceptable than anything else.

I don't really see any way to avoid this.

For example, I think that a lot of the beliefs that folk take as "classic Christian doctrine" are actually Constantinian syncretism.

There are a whole load of Christian folk - hopefully not Methodist - now asserting that the ordination of women is a sell-out to secular culture. Whereas I think that the "normalization" of the white, middle class, middle aged heterosexual male and the "otherization" of everyone who is not is the real sell-out to secular values.

Allan R. Bevere said...


You have said little I disagree with. So, perhaps the discussion needs to harken back to Scripture. In saying that I am not suggesting that the debate gets easier, but at least we have a central source of authority around which to have the discussion.

PamBG said...

I'm still not sure about how we get at this.

A lot of things about which people have very, very strong opinions are not what I consider, strictly speaking, doctrine.

Isn't a lot of this debate really about attempting to take the latest church hot topic, frame it in some sort of doctrinal frame and denounce those who disagree as heretics?

When I was a 'teen in my denomination the issue du jour was women's ordination (in the late 1960s when no mainstream Protestant denomination was ordaining women). The main arguments were the same as today's hot topic: "The authority of Scripture" versus "justice.

In my opinion, believing in women's ordination does not make a person a heretic, despite the fact that the bible clearly has passages prohibiting women from functions we associate with ordination. But the argument at the time was that obviously you can't take the Scripture seriously if you're willing to set this aside, so obviously you have not committed yourself to Christ, so obviously you must be a heretic. All of which sounds strangely familiar.

So where does that leave the conversation?

Allan R. Bevere said...

It leaves us with the continued struggle to read Scripture faithfully knowing that we see through a glass darkly.

Which is why these kinds of conversations are important and why we must have conversation partners who do not always agree.