A quick thought on Heresy

I am writing more frequently these days in my newsletter “Lectio Letter“, but now and again I’m posting some of these quickfire thoughts on this blog too…here is one;

Heresy is a term woefully out of fashion. Too close to the tolerance and open-mindedness that pervades our sense of goodness in this era. But Ben Quash in his opening to “Heresies and How to Avoid them” helpfully explains the significance of unity in the midst of the extraordinary diversity that the church of Jesus Christ is meant to embody;

“From its very beginnings, Christianity said that neither your race, nor your sex, nor your social class, nor your age could ever be a bar to full membership of Christ’s body, the church. Anyone could be a Christian: you didn’t have to be born in the right place at the right time to the right parents. Christ’s salvation was offered to you whether you were a Jew or a Gentile, a slave or free person, a woman or a man. This was radical stuff. What, though, was left to mark a Christian out from a non-Christian? The answer was: your faith – what you believed in, as embodied in your practices and confessed with your lips.”

Ben Quash “Heresies and How to Avoid them” p.1

Importantly, Heresy isn’t just about believing the wrong things but actively teaching them to others. We are all Hetredox, that is, having incomplete and incoherent views of God in Jesus. Our life in Christ is secure without needing the exactly right formulations of Christian belief tripping off our tongues.

The impulse which creates heresy is not the pure evil of anti-Christ. Most early church heretics are in fact, sincere, scripture-attentive believers. They marshall scripture to support their claims but most often they are trying to untie a riddle, tension or mystery. It is not that they say the wrong things, but that they attempt to say too much or stop short and say too little. They simplify, make straight forward and wholly understandable the unknowable depths of Christian confession. A trajectory our modern desire to make things simple may too often fall into. We are restrained to say Jesus of Nazareth is 100% God and 100% man. Simplifiers want to say, either that he is only or predominantly God or Man. They want to give percentages, accuracy and reduce the mystery that 100%+100% still equals 100%. That the three in one trinitarian confession must either be three or one. They want to shrink Christian confession down to such a tangible concept that they pull the awe and mystery required for worship out of the whole thing.

This last point is what is most significant. Orthodoxy, that is the right teaching or belief of the church is not only right thoughts. Doxa, the word from which Orthodoxy is made, is right worship. Our knowing enables our worship, which far from being just our songs and services but is our whole lives. Orthodoxy should lead to orthopraxy, which is a lived-out theology that glorifies God and leads to the flourishing of all creation as it works in awareness of the reality that God has revealed.

Part of why Christian theology can be so head-spinning is not because it is complex, it is in fact simple. It is held together by the confession of the Church throughout history in the power of the Spirit who confesses an interconnected web of affirmations that make up the reality of God revealed most clearly in the person of Jesus.

What so often takes place in heresy is the sole attention on one doctrine, the person of Christ, atonement, trinity and attempts to unpick that knot. Much like when I attempt to untangle my garden hose only to realise the loops and knots I have loosened in one part of the hose have created similar problems in the section of hose behind me that I am not fixated on.

Ben Quash quotes the church father Iranaeus who creates a memorable metaphor for how this interconnected web, tangled hose or in his metaphor jewels in a mosaic come together to form a faithful and beautiful picture of the God we come to know in Jesus Christ. He says of the impulse of heretics;

“the manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the King, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what are king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the King.”

Iraneaus, Against heresies, book 1, chapter 8, paragraph 1

As Ben Quash goes on to say;

“Heretics have often been shy of the full radicalness of Orthodox Christianity, such that they are alternatives have been almost rather common-sensical by comparison… This puts paid to any idea that orthodox beliefs some sort of easy way out of intellectual hard work; heresy is more off in the easier option.”

Quash, p.7

Learning about historical heresy teachers us that rather than follow our noses and a commonsense approach to putting ideas together that make up christian belief, we are in fact invited to bow the knee at the extraordinary revelation of who God is that is gifted and revealed by the very one who is revealed. The revelation that is just too beautiful, glorious and good news to ever have been constructed by human minds.

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