Theology & Spirituality

“The Heresy of Today Will Be the Orthodoxy of Tomorrow”

“Heresy” apparently has become the new buzzword these days within Christian circles. There are plenty of individuals trolling through blogs and social media forums, posting articles, and publicly declaring others as given over to heretical ways of theological expression.  All the while they themselves exude a confidence in their own aptitude to judge what’s what in terms of the parameters of orthodoxy. Personally, I am hearing the words “heresy” and “heretic” thrown around more these days than the highly circulated buzzword, “missional,” which says something.  Everybody and their brother is trying to tap into the “missional” vein of the Church, and every churchy discussion seems to be absorbed by the theme.  Not to detract from the subject at hand, but I mention this word in particular because I sense a natural parallel between how that term has been used and how the word “heresy” is currently being used by many.  These terms are often utilized in overly generic sorts of ways, which leaves the details of their definitions ambiguous at best.  In the end, this amounts to individuals defining these terms in their own ways, thinking their definitions to be both self evident and universally acknowledged.  This seems to be the furthest from the case, though.  I am not convinced that we all know what it means to be “missional” even though we sure are talking about it a lot.  I am even more unconvinced that we actually understand what it means for someone to be “heretical” even though we lob the term around with unabashed cockiness more frequently than we should.  

Granted, there may be more of a catholic understanding of what heresy means in actuality (as opposed to what the word “missional” means), simply because the word has been in circulation much, much longer. Yet, those who tend to throw the word around the most today seem to be allowing catholicity and the wider Tradition to define their rationale the least.   

For example, I have seen a few blogs explode recently with critical comments geared towards authors who have come to reject the Penal Substitutionary Theory of atonement (which plenty of Christians never bought into in the first place). One blogger, who happened to be a well known musician, was lambasted for vocalizing his views on the matter, and both he and others who jumped to his defense were dismissed as “heretics” by the swarm of rancorous commenters.

Nowadays people are decried as heretical for believing that women can become priests/ministers. Others are heretical if they believe women’s ordination to be heretical. People are heretical for being Protestant. Others are heretical for not being Protestant enough.  Churches that don’t transform the entirety of what they do for the sake of evangelism are deemed as dead and apostate by others.  Other traditions would see the churches that undergo these sorts of transformations as deviating from Christianity’s ancient traditions.  

Within the Anglican communion in this country, as I have experienced it so far, some people who are a part of the Episcopal Church can be quick to label the more conservative jurisdictions as heterodox because of their Evangelical and schismatic tendencies. From the other end of the spectrum, those who are a part of the more conservative Anglican jurisdictions can be quite expeditious in condemning the Episcopal Church for any great number of perceived shortcomings, especially in terms of social-ethical issues. The schism between the jurisdictions occurred over sexual and gender issues mainly (women’s ordination, the blessing of same sex unions, and the ordination of LGBT persons to the priesthood). What confuses me is why the schism occurred over ethical and moral theology issues rather than over other the deeper and, in my opinion, more pressing theological issues. Not to downplay the matters surrounding these ethical debates, but several priests, theologians, and Bishops in the Anglican communion have denied such things as the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the reality of Christ’s resurrection, etc., for a very long time now. Yet the communion stayed intact all the while (albeit uncomfortably). I am not sure why the denial of Trinitarian theology is not a deal breaker for several conservative Anglicans whereas the acceptance of practicing homosexuals at the altar is. How is it that such moral “heresies” automatically justify schism whereas the graver theological ones do not (especially whenever these things were deemed as heretical by Ecumenical Councils a long time ago)? I am legitimately confused by this, but perhaps my perspective is far more short-sighted than it should be.

At the end of the day there is a lot of labeling going on out there, and I hope that we all will learn to pause a bit whenever we find ourselves tempted to make such deprecatory pronouncements towards others and the traditions they belong to. Even if we disagree vehemently with someone who embodies a different flavor of Christendom than we do, is it really our personal place to condemn someone and their thoughts as heretical? Are we as individuals to take such a task upon our own shoulders?  Wouldn’t such an action, itself, actually be somewhat heretical? An Abbot of a monastery once told me that the definition of “heresy” is “to think according to one’s own thoughts.” This does not mean that we should not press on to think for ourselves, or to come to logical conclusions on our own. The way that he explained it to me was that we should not think in isolation; we should not come to premature conclusions apart from wrestling deeply with the wider communion and Tradition of the Church. It is about not speaking on our own behalf but about speaking in alignment with the Church in a catholic way.   

The problem, however, is that we all look at catholicity differently and we all seem to define orthodoxy differently. Oddly enough, we tend to forget the gravity of this dilemma whenever we are calling each other heretics. Some would see the Westminster confession as one of the most orthodox things ever written. Others, like me, are repulsed by it (probably more than I should be). Whenever we want to give into the temptation to quickly label those who disagree with us as heretical, we would be wise to pause and ask ourselves whether or not we are speaking on behalf of ourselves or on behalf of the wisdom of the wider Christian tradition.  Granted, this is no easy task given the state of division within the Church today and our increasing inability to locate and work from places of common ground.  Apparently it is easier to dismiss each other as heretical or deviants than it is to actually talk with one another and collaborate together.  

Perhaps someone who has more of an Evangelical background will push back against all of this and say, “We need to speak on behalf of the plain Truth of Scripture.” I completely agree. Yet, I am not so confident that I am mature enough to do this in many Biblical matters because what is plainly true to me will not be so plain and self-evident to others. For example, an Anglican will read the Scriptures and see themes of New Creation, Resurrection, and Transfiguration all over the place. We don’t see the rapture or the theology that popularized the Left Behind series laced all through the Scriptures. The Evangelical Dispensationalist, on the other hand, will have a much different take on things.

Coming back to catholicity.  Whenever it comes to the pronouncement of something as heresy, as far as I can see it in the history of the Church, it is never an individualistic project, but a communal one. In other words, the condemnation of certain teachings comes from a deliberate decision that is corporate in nature (like the Ecumenical Councils). Just because my favorite author or my favorite pastor or (better yet) favorite blogger denounces something as heretical, this does not necessitate that it is so and that I should go about parroting such people. I used to tell my Reformed Baptist friends that just because John Piper tweeted about it, it doesn’t automatically mean that he is the one who is orthodox and upholding catholicity.

Father Conrad Noel, a priest within the Anglo-Catholic stream of the Anglican tradition, wrote quite a lot about heresy and orthodoxy in the early 1900’s. The title of this article is a quote of his, and it most likely grabbed your attention, as it did for me the first time I read it. And, more than likely, it probably prematurely incited the angst of certain individuals who parade themselves about as the heresy police of our day. Regardless of how others may feel, I find Father Noel’s thoughts to be rather enlightening and convicting. So, I thought I would share a few of them here.

Looking back into the Tradition of the Church, and how we can apply the wisdom of ages past to our modern era, Father Noel exclaimed that the “heresy of today will be the orthodoxy of tomorrow.”1 Now, this is not a sweeping assessment in his mind. Not everything that goes as heresy these days will inevitably become orthodox. This is certainly not his point.  Yet, not everything that is dismissed as unorthodox today will be viewed as such tomorrow. There are plenty of people who were deemed as heretics throughout the ages and were later canonized as Saints. On the flipside, there were plenty of people who were celebrated as the orthodox heroes of their own day, but later had their teachings overruled by the Church. One only has to think of Origen. There were many who knew him who didn’t challenge his theology but viewed his teachings as fully legitimate. Later on, however, the Church condemned some of these teachings.

We can see the same sort of trend in the writings of John Cassian. In his Tenth Conference (chapter 3), the story kicks off with a monk who has given himself over to anthropomorphism, something that was quite common for the desert monks in that region at that time. Yet, it is clear enough in Cassian’s eyes that even though this was a widespread and acceptable practice among these early desert monks, they were not orthodox in what they were doing.

Coming from the other angle, I think of Maximus the Confessor and others like him, who were dismissed in their own day and even punished for their actions by the Church, only to later have their teachings accepted. Those who were once “heretical” were canonized as Saints. Maximus had his hand cut off and his tongue cut out so that he would be prohibited from spreading his “false” teachings anymore. Later on, he was canonized. Peter Abelard’s teaching on the Trinity was viewed with great skepticism and even hostility in his own time, only to later be vindicated by the tradition that came after him. Aquinas spoke rather highly of his work. Joan of Arc was also executed a heretic but later was vindicated and canonized. Chrysostom was exiled for being too Origenist.  Now, he is deemed as one of the most important figures and Saints in all of Church history.  The list could go on for miles and miles.  

So, things are not always what they seem. Some of the “heretics” of Church history turned out to be some of our greatest Saints and some of the “orthodox” of Church history wrote a lot of heterodox stuff. This is what Father Noel meant by “The heresy of today is the orthodoxy of tomorrow.”  

 I don’t take this to mean that we should not have the grit to take a stand for things or that we should refrain from holding fast to our deeply established convictions. Rather, it simply means that we should be willing to question ourselves, taking the time to fully wrestle with the issues of our time which are frequently sacked as deviations from orthodoxy. It means that we should pump the brakes a bit and slow the pace at which we finalize a verdict about others on our own.  It means that we should gravitate towards self-awareness with the understanding that perhaps we don’t always see or understand things as clearly as we should.  It is not an attribute of the humble man to believe he is right in all things theological.  It is not an attribute of a humble woman to believe herself to be a bastion of orthodoxy in and of herself.  It is not the mark of a true ascetic to believe himself to be in the right while countless others around him are in the the wrong.               

I find, again, Father Noel’s words to be quite convicting here, especially if we find ourselves to be automatically dismissive of the viewpoints of others:

“The real heretics are the unbalanced fanatics who insist on one side only of the truth.”2

There is a propensity towards reduction-ism and oversimplification within the teachings that have legitimately been dismissed by the Church as heresy. Many of the cults which are offshoots of Christianity couldn’t make sense of the Trinity. So they came up with a more simplified notion of God and built a theological framework off of it. Many of the great heresies of history struggled with the same thing. “How can Jesus and God the Father be of the same essence? Impossible!” So, the Trinity was traded out for a more simplistic notion of God, one which the mind could better wrap itself around.  Such heresies either viewed God as being one being behind three different masks or as being three separate beings who don’t share a common nature or substance. Others stumbled over another issue and asked, “How can Jesus be both divine and human?” Such frustrations caused people to err on one side or the other of Jesus’s being. Jesus’ being became more simplified.  The balance was either tipped towards his divinity or towards his humanity.  

The “orthodoxy” of heretics is always that which is most easily explainable.  It is a reductionistic approach that obliterates the capacity for mystery.  In Father Noel’s teaching, the invitation to orthodoxy is not an invitation to a form of zealous fundamentalism, but an invitation to mystery.  

This is where we need to ask ourselves an important question. Do we condemn others in order to keep things simple, clean, easy, and plain for ourselves? Do we need to have explanations for everything in order for orthodoxy to be orthodox for us? Does our orthodoxy lead us to a sterile simplicity, intellectual ease, and seamless compartmentalization, or does it invite us more deeply into the divine mystery of the inexplicable-ness of God and his ways? I fear that many who take it upon themselves to be heresy guardians dismiss the teachings of others, not so much because these teachings are self-evidently unorthodox, but because these teachings are simply unfamiliar to their systematizing rationalizations. Rather than allowing themselves to be challenged by the thoughts and ideas of others and the robustness of other Christian traditions, these heresy-mongers often just dismiss other viewpoints because they are too lethargic to be challenged intellectually and conversationally.         

“If heresy be the blind adherence to one aspect only of the truth, how may we describe orthodoxy? The term nowadays has none too pleasant a sound and is often confused with conventionality. People who pride themselves on their orthodoxy are often those who are afraid of mental adventure, and refuse to think things out, but without adventure there can be no coming to the truth.”3

*The bust in the picture is of Father Conrad Noel in Thaxted, England.

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TJ Humphrey

TJ Humphrey

TJ is a student at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and aspiring to be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. He is an avid reader, especially in works that deal with relational ontology, liturgical theology, and the ecclesial life of the Church. For fun, TJ loves to spend time with his family, travel, go backpacking in the mountains, watch a good hockey game, sip on a good bourbon, and geek out with a good theology book.

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