The gift of heresy

"Really, Watson, you excel yourself," said Holmes, pushing back his chair and lighting a cigarette. "I am bound to say that in all the accounts which you have been so good as to give of my own small achievements you have habitually underrated your own abilities. It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt."
Sherlock Holmes to Watson in The Hound of the Baskervilles

Christian theology is not a completed project but an ongoing journey. Along that journey many of us take wrong turns and head up blind alleys. Sometimes those alleys are a harmless waste of time, other times they are more serious, leading to what the church comes to consider heresy.

But we need to be clear of a few things about heresy:

1. Those who embrace what come to be seen as heretical opinions are usually sincere people in pursuit of the truth of God in Christ. That are not trying to "distort the truth" or deceive people. The church may come to discern serious problems in the positions espoused but that should not be taken to mean that those who embrace heretical positions do so as a result of a desire to lead people astray. Even a smidgen of knowledge about Apollinarius, for instance, would reveal that he went astray in his very attempt to defend Nicene orthodoxy and oppose Arius.

2. The pursuit of truth will often lead to dead ends and sometimes those ends are judged heretical but that does not mean that the routes were not worth exploring nor that they are obviously "dumb." Heretical views always spring from some genuine insights into God and usually have some sensible logic underpinning them.

3. Even in matters heretical some heresy is worse than other heresy. For instance, Docetism (which denies the humanity of Jesus) and Arianism (which denies the divinity of Jesus) are worse than Nestorianism (which affirms both but, in spite of Nestorius' best intentions, failed to do justice to the unity of Christ).

4. Indeed, the heretics offer a gift to the church for it is the very exploration of certain theological dead-end routes that enables the church to clarify its own thinking on the matters concerned. To corrupt Holmes, heresy may not possess "genius" but it can stimulate "genius" in others. Without various Christological heresies the church would not have clarified some central matters about the person of Christ and of the Trinity, for instance.

5. Holding heretical opinions does not make one a heretic. If that were the case LOADS of Christians would be heretics. I know plenty of Christians (including Christian leaders) who are holding heretical views without realizing it. To be a heretic one must know that the opinion runs counter to the mind of the church and still hold on to it in spite of that.

So I am glad for the presence of those who come to be designated heretics in so far as their provocations help the church to clarify its own mind. They were, for the most part, sincere people with some sensible ideas that deserved exploring.

I am less pleased when some Christians return to heretical opinions after their problems have been exposed and the church has rejected them. That, to quote Proverbs, is like a dog returning to its vomit.


Marc said…
I've been thinking similar things in recent years, but you've articulated them much more clearly than I could have.

As it happens, the first major paper I wrote in seminary was about the Nestorian controversy. The controversy itself seemed to me to be a lot of hairsplitting to the point that it wasn't entirely clear to me that Cyril and Nestorius were saying significantly different things (and, as I recall, Nestorius' position 'won' over Cyril's in a later ecumenical council--yet Nestorius is the heretic!).

What I found most interesting and helpful from my study, however, was the very thing you mention in point 1: that heretics are (most often?) sincere believers with good rather than evil intentions. Nestorius was trying to defend Christ in one way or another. Arius, I'm sure, was trying to defend God... etc.

Good intentions are not enough, of course, but it was nevertheless an eye-opener for me.
Anonymous said…
Surely universalism is heresy, don't you think?
Robin Parry said…

I don't

Anonymous said…

You wrote... "To be a heretic one must know that the opinion runs counter to the mind of the church and still hold on to it in spite of that."

Are you seriously trying to tell us that universalism doesn't "run counter to the mind of the church"?!
Robin Parry said…

I am. By that I simply mean that universalism has never been declared heretical by an ecumenical church council. The fifth ecumenical council did have a postscript denouncing a certain kind of universalism but not the kind that the likes of Gregory of Nyssa defended.

Universalism is, in my view, a live candidate for adiaphora—neither dogma nor heresy but permitted opinion.

Anonymous said…
So, Robin, what you're saying then is that Christians can hold any, shall we say, 'unconventional' idea/belief and it won't be deemed heretical until an ecumenical church council declares it so. Despite what you claim, universalism definitely runs "counter to the mind of the church".
Robin Parry said…

Well, that depends on what you mean. If you mean that it has been a minority view within Christian theology then you are right. The majority Christian view has been to deny that all will be saved.

But then there are all sorts of minority views within Christian theology that are hardly heretical. For instance, premillennialism, while popular among certain Protestants is very much a minority sport. Is it thereby heresy? I don't think so. It is, in fact, the earliest Christian view on the millennium. There are countless examples like this of views that most Christians think are wrong but which are not heresy.

My claim is that universalism falls into that zone. It was one of three views on hell accepted within parts of the early church (alongside annihilationism and eternal torment). It became very much the minority view after Augustine's time but never disappeared.

It was certainly opposed by some as wrong but that does not make it heresy.

I do think that for something to count as heresy it does need an ecumenical consensus.

I am interested to know what you mean by your assertion that universalism "definitely runs counter to 'the mind of the church.'"

It def runs counter to the mind of some of the greatest theologians of the church—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant—but that, to my mind, is not the same thing as running counter to the mind of the church.
Robin Parry said…

Thanks. That is helpful. My view on Nestorius is that he was trying to achieve the same end as Cyril—maintaining the full divinity and humanity of Jesus as well as his unity.

However, I do think that Cyril's way of achieving that end was better than Nestorius' and that Nestorius' way could have worked against the very goal he was aiming at.

I think that Cyril's approach was very insightful.

But I do not see Nestorianism as anything close to as problematic as Arianism, etc.

And you are right, Arius was deeply concerned with protecting God.

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