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)

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

On Getting Jesus Right-- Heresy Revisited

Scot McKnight has an excellent post on the importance of getting our language right in reference to understanding Jesus' relationship to the Father. His post and the comment thread are worth your time. Of course, this gets us into Trinitarian language and the question of heresy.

Scot recommends two very good books-- Robert Heine, Classical Christian Doctrine: Introducing the Essentials of the Ancient Faith, and Ben Quash and Michael Ward (editors), Heresies and How to Avoid Them. In addition to these, I would encourage you to read Alister McGrath's Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth. McGrath defines heresy as
A heresy is a doctrine that ultimately destroys, destabilizes, or distorts a mystery rather than preserving it. Sometimes a doctrine that was once thought to defend a mystery actually turns out to subvert it. A heresy is a failed attempt at orthodoxy, whose fault lies not in its willingness to explore possibilities or press conceptual boundaries, but in its unwillingness to accept that it has in fact failed.
McGrath notes that in theology, doctrine "preserves the central mysteries at the heart of the Christian faith and life" (p. 30). That these central affirmations are mysteries is important. Doctrine is not, nor has it ever been, an attempt to explain and understand God exhaustively, as if that were possible. When St. Augustine says that if we can explain it, it isn't God, he is not suggesting that theological investigation and doctrinal explications are insignificant and unimportant. He is reminding us "that the human mind struggles and ultimately fails, to cope with the grandeur of God" (p. 29). But while our doctrine cannot disclose God exhaustively in God's grandeur, it can and must disclose God decisively in his character.


John Meunier said...

Thanks for the reminder on Augustine. That is something I need to put on my computer where I can see it.

I notice that we all strive for and many of act as if we have figured God out. I'll note that more than a few laity want us to do that for them, which may be why certainty is such an attractive pastoral quality for some people.

Rick said...

Thanks for posting this again. I have referred to it over at Jesus Creed.

I am amazed at the resistance to the idea of heresy. There seems to be a sense that it is oppressive and divisive.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Indeed. In a previous charge, I had a parishioner who would get upset every time I said I didn't know something. Apparently, she believed my job was always to have the right answer.

Allan R. Bevere said...


In one sense, this is understandable as some terrible things have been done in the name of defending the faith. But burning people at the stake, etc. is not a sufficient to abandon orthodoxy and reject the idea of heresy. Human beings have also done terrible things in the name of freedom, and we haven't given up on that idea.

All religions have orthodoxy and heresy as operating categories. Indeed, McGrath notes that every worldview, religious and secular, holds to both concepts. In biology, for example, Darwinianism is orthodox. A rejection of such Darwinian evolution is heretical; for it tears at the very fabric of the modern scientific endeavor and how we have come to understand the world rendering its inter-related investigations unintelligible. In the same way, political parties too have their "orthodoxies" and "heresies," which may indeed shift from time to time, but they are there nonetheless. Current Republican orthodoxy centers around low taxes, while increased government spending is an orthodox doctrine among Democrats. In others words, orthodoxy and heresy are about drawing boundaries; for without them groups have no identity nor do they have guidance on how to proceed in their endeavors, whether they are religious, political, or scientific.

It is also important to note that doctrinal formulations were an attempt to minimize division. The ecumenical councils met to settle disputes, not cause them.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you misunderstood your parishioner. She may have been upset because you didn't research things. You may have just taken the easy way out by saying, "I don't know."

Allan R. Bevere said...


Me? Not wanting to research? You can't be serious.

And, no... she wanted the answer immediately and thought I should always know.

Patrick said...


I think that's due to Orthodoxy being seen as driven by a bunch of self absorbed/interested old men by some mainly on the theological left or just unbelievers.

Some anti Catholic trash has fed into this as well. If the old pre reformation Catholics were for it, then it's suspect to many Prots.

I view Orthodoxy as a valid interpretation of the biblical narrative myself, just pointing out what I've read.