A few weeks ago this article by Richard Albert Mohler, Jr., theologian and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, made the rounds in fundamentalist circles on the internet through his personal website and social media shares. The article addresses the cultural phenomenon surrounding William Young’s best-selling Christian fiction book The Shack as it finds its way now as a film to the big screen of theaters across the country.
Mohler, as one might expect a fundamentalist theologian to be, is less than impressed with the theology expressed in the Shack. In various places of the article he calls it sub-biblical, dangerous, idolatrous, confusion, and (primarily) heresy. “It is hard not to conclude that theological discernment is now a lost art among American evangelicals,” he writes, “and this loss can only lead to theological catastrophe… The Shack is a wake-up call for evangelical Christianity.”
I was unsure at first of the basis for such doctrinal alarmism. Just when evangelicals, so often bemoaning their limited exposure in popular culture, seem to have finally been offered a golden opportunity to teach Scripture’s real power to address and heal human trauma — they reject it! As I interacted with supporters of the article and expressed my position that correct belief is no substitute for salvation (an idea Mohler would more than likely oppose) I came to understand the drama. In the words of the evangelical pastor who posted the article:
“There is no salvation without correct belief.”
The concerns these people were expressing about The Shack and the aversion to heresy they reflect immediately made sense to me. If you believe that the intricacies of belief itself can be the difference between salvation and damnation, rather than the honesty and humility of a penitent heart, the stakes for incorrect belief could not be higher. Any affront to “correct belief” suddenly poses an eternal threat, and discussions of doctrine and theology take on an apocalyptic humor. Strictly speaking, this is fundamentalism.
Fundamentalism is a dirty word, I know that. Any sense in which my use of it may seem pejorative here is incidental. Fundamentalism in Christianity refers to a constellation of beliefs and behaviors that stem from the infusion of the faith with three traditionally conservative moral values: attitudes towards authority, in-group loyalty, and purity. It expresses itself as strict literalism in biblical interpretation (the exact practice of which can vary wildly), stark in- and out-group divisions (us/them), firm rejection of diversity of opinion, and a demanding sense of in-group loyalty.
Heresy offends against all three of these values. It subverts the authority structures to whom biblical interpretation supposedly ought to defer, it challenges the unity of opinion, it transgresses inner- and outer-group divisions, and redefines the sense of what constitutes purity. Thus we can’t be surprised that fundamentalism, even mainstream Christianity, is so markedly averse to heresy.
What I hope to show is that heresy in Western Christianity is not the monster we fear that it might be. The aversion to heresy we experience in evangelical institutions, I claim, is not just overstated, but entirely misses the valuable gift and opportunity that heresy presents to us both as Christians and as a church that professes hope to grow ever closer to God through scriptural truth.
Elsewhere on his personal website, in an article titled “Heresy and Humility,” Mohler confesses that his adult career has been largely focused on the danger of heresy. A “failure to recognize and refute heresy,” he says,
“means disaster for the church… Heresies are not merely false doctrines; they are false doctrines that, left uncorrected, Christianity cannot survive.”
Before I even go on I must stop here at Mohler’s most basic definition of heresy. This, to me, is wildly anachronistic. It is quite easy for us to look back on history and decide with 20/20 hindsight which beliefs that initially seemed to be heretical (read: false doctrines spelling the destruction of Christianity) turned out to be harmless, and which did not.
I doubt that Mohler would consider Copernicanism to be a false doctrine, the teaching of which Christianity could not survive. Yet Galileo was tried by the Inquisition for just such a heresy, effectively ending his career. Giordano Bruno was accused of and executed by order of Rome for the same heresy in 1600 Common Era (CE). The Copernican heresy has turned out to be by present standards not only factually false but fundamentally nonthreatening to Christian doctrine, least of all a heresy.
It is safe to say that the affront of Copernicanism to Christian geocentrism did not spell out the destruction of the church. By Mohler’s standards it does not even fit the definition of a heresy. Yet who is to say that what we consider to be comparably heretical now to the the Church’s position toward Copernicanism in the 1500s will not in 20, 50, or 100 years’ time turn out to be just as false? Put another way, it is clear how Mohler would have felt about Galileo and Bruno as a 16th century clergyman, and he would have been wrong. For an article that considers its position to be one of “Humility and Heresy,” this argument is intellectual arrogance of the highest order.
I know of no bigger thorn in the side of heresy-aversion than the simple truth that as protestants we are all descendants of heretics. Martin Luther was excommunicated from the Catholic Church for heresy by the sitting pope Leo X (a Medici remembered favorably by Renaissance historians) and declared an outlaw and heretic by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. He is also a heretic by present standards: Luther rejected Hebrews, James, Jude, and the Revelation of John from the Bible on the basis of sola scriptura. If his historical heresy may be vindicated by current standards, his modern heresy resists all vindication: our memory is nothing if not selective.
Least of all let us not forget history’s greatest heretic, Jesus Christ. Teaching against the Jewish leaders, violating intimately held laws of Jewish tradition, and blaspheming Yahweh in John 8 by claiming that “before Abraham was, I Am,” Jesus was ultimately brought by infuriated Jewish leaders before the empire on trumped up political charges to be executed. Christians may now call the Jewish heresy of Jesus Christ the emergence of divine Christian truth — but that is just our perspective. If you don’t believe me, ask a Jew.
What I’m getting at is that as Christians, heresy is in our blood. It’s an integral part of our genealogy. You don’t have to like it, you don’t even have to reconcile with it, but like Tamar’s place in the genealogy of Jesus you can’t do anything about it. Despising it or denouncing it does not render it invisible. It is nothing if not a reminder that when it comes to “correct belief” we could at any moment be completely wrong — which is the source of real humility.
While heresy has played such a critical role in the genealogy of contemporary Christianity, historical attempts to quell heresy, born of heresy-aversion, have brought nothing but grief and pain both to the church and to the secular world.
The institution of the Catholic Church from the very beginning was designed to govern diverse biblical interpretation, yet it quickly became a political authority that ruled states, commanded an army, and oppressed the lower classes. The Council of Nicaea (325 CE), famous for the doctrinal unity it brought to Christianity and held to be the centerpiece of ecumenical orthodoxy, predates the finalization of the orthodox biblical canon by 50-250 years depending on the generosity of your history: the orthodox creeds precede orthodox scripture. The crusades, beginning around the 11th century, are widely known as an embarrassment in Christian history. The Medieval Inquisition under Pope Innocent IV authorized the use of torture to extract confessions of heresy from the accused.
By the Italian Renaissance, the Catholic Church had become a political pay-to-play arena for noble families to enrich themselves and expand their power, realizing peak corruption in the person of Pope Alexander VI, the Borgia pope, who had the pious and honest Dominican friar Girolamo Savanarola tortured and burned alive in the public square for false charges of heresy and sedition. Likewise the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions burnt at the stake thousands of Christian heretics, Jews, and Muslims as well as arresting, torturing, fining, and exiling tens of thousands more.
It’s hard to understate this. Mohler argues that heresy is a life-or-death battle for the survival of Christianity, while history shows that the church’s over-determined attempts to stanch the flow of heresy have been nothing if not a real life-or-death battle for the common person. This is what Voltaire meant, I imagine, when he wrote,
Certainement qui est en droit de vous rendre absurde est en droit de vous rendre injuste.
Certainly anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.
Questions sur les Miracles, Voltaire
The word heresy is descended from the Greek word αἵρεσις (hairesis), which means something like “a personal choice” or “a self-chosen opinion.” Its usage in the New Testament most often refers to distinct sects and factions such as Sadduccism, Pharisaism, or the Nazarenes.
As descendants of heretics we have the personal choice, the unique responsibility, of measuring our adherence to tradition against our own propensity to be honestly mistaken. The harder we oppose and resist heresy, the greater our possibility of becoming hypocrites in the defense of our orthodoxy. We must embrace heresy as we must embrace the responsibility of our choices. There is a time to submit to one another and a time to nail our 95 Theses to the door of the church.
Heresy reminds is that even our best attempts to establish “correct belief” before God could be completely wrong — and that, as the New Testament reminds us over and over, the real concern of our faith is the heart. All the orthodoxy in the world is no substitute for a holy heart, which only God may judge.
Anyone can be confident in an inherited orthodoxy they did not write, but the gift of heresy is the humility to admit that you’ve been wrong and the confidence to stand up for what’s right, even when the church does not. The true test of our faith, orthodox or heterodox as it may be, is the quality of the fruit it bears. And sometimes to get the fruit you have to shake the tree.
Featured image is the hanging and burning of Girolamo Savonarola in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, 1498. It is anonymous, though attributed to Francesco di Lorenzo Rossellini, and hangs in the Museo di San Marco in Florence, Italy.
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