What’s so bad about heresy?
I am a man. I am also a woman. I am both married and single. I have two children, but I also have none. Obvious nonsense, but if I claimed to be God, this sort of self-contradiction would not only be fine and dandy, but it would be unacceptable to insist on one or other of the mutually exclusive descriptions given.
For example, Jesus is asserted by the church to be both “fully god and fully man”. There are a number of well-worn heresies that attempt to take this doctrine at face value and make sense of it, and which have been anathematised by the church as a result. Anyone who emphasises that Jesus was divine and suggests that in that case he wasn’t really human in a normal sense is “guilty” of Docetism. If you take the opposite tack and say that Jesus was basically human, and was “divine” in the sense that he was the ultimate man, a sort of perfection of mankind, your heresy of choice is most likely Socinianism. One or the other isn’t enough, you must believe – if not six impossible things – at least two contradictory things before being accepted as a Christian.
Even if you swallow the oversized camel of a nature that’s both human and divine, there are plenty of reasonable attempts to explain it which fall foul of the Heresy Police. If you think Jesus was genetically human, and made divine or “adopted” by God at some point in his life, even at conception, you’re an Adoptionist. The idea of a human body that was driven or governed by a divine nature is Apollinarian. If you think he had two distinct natures, the human and the divine, you’re Nestorian. Even the belief that the human and divine natures were completely joined in one distinct human/divine form (which you’d think would be the “correct answer”) is a heresy, this time Monophysitism.
The reason for rejecting Monophysitism, according to the Council of Chalcedon, is that Jesus is:
to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ
I’m sure that clears everything up.
And this is a perfect example of what I find so frustrating, and why heresy is such an unhelpful concept. I’ve been in difficult meetings where the most important thing is to get something agreed so that everyone can go off and feel like they got roughly what they wanted, and this looks like a classic example of the genre. But even in the face of completely entrenched disagreement, I can’t see the value in “agreeing” something meaningless or contradictory, espcially if it’s meant to stand as ecumenical Christian doctrine for many centuries.
Even if you accept that the resulting doctrines are correct (I don’t), this is problematic because it attempts to codify and privilege beliefs that were held at a particular time (even though the history of the church makes it clear that the matters were controversial even then) and discourages experimentation and consideration of ideas, reducing doctrine to a series of carefully worded statements that are either meaningless or contradictory on the face of it. Worse, any attempt to reword or clarify these beliefs will inevitably fall foul of one heresy or another, and be silenced.
So doctrine is reduced to a series of special and carefully-formulated “magic words”, which are sufficiently opaque to discourage investigation and discussion, and any attempt to explain in different words will inevitably be heretical. The Nicene Creed is meant to be the one thing that all Christians can agree on, but if you asked 10 theologians to explain it in simple language, you’d get 11 different answers, all of which could be viewed as heretical one way or another.
To take another example, similar to the Chalcedonian Creed above, the Trinity is understood as “three persons of one being”, and any attempt to clarify this bizarre belief (as anyone who has attended a service on Trinity Sunday will confirm) ends up either straying into heretical territory or as opaque as ever. If the Trinity is anything other than a nonsensical and meaningless claim, it would surely be valuable to find and allow different analogies to explain it in different ways. Unfortunately, it seems that any such attempt is doomed to stray into an area of the theological landscape which is simply marked in heavy Gothic script “Here Be Hereticks!”
This is a shame not just because of the way it makes these doctrines appear bizarre and unsupportable, but because it stifles investigation and scholarship within the church. Meister Eckhart, one of my favourite Christian thinkers, was accused of heresy and tried by the Pope, simply because he attempted to take a different approach to theology. Galileo Galilei’s treatment at the hands of the Inquisition is well known, and William Tyndale, the Bible translation pioneer, was executed on a charge of heresy. There were many others who suffered similar fates, arguably including Jesus himself, albeit to different standards of heresy.
Heresy isn’t a particularly fashionable thing to talk about these days, but it still has a hold on Christian thought. Go to a Christian discussion forum, and you’ll probably take very little time to find accusations of Arianism, Donatism, Gnosticism and Pelagianism (or at least Semipelagianism) being thrown about and used to dismiss arguments. Even now, it seems, the minutes of those interminable committee meetings from 1500 years ago are still being used to determine which beliefs are legitimate, and which are unacceptable.
If the church really believe that the conclusions of the early church councils were theologically perfect, despite the bitter and divisive arguments that led to those conclusions, they’re free to do so. But if they want to convince anyone else, they need some actual arguments to explain why the church’s position is right – the word of Cyril of Alexandria isn’t really going to cut it. If they’re right, they’ll have good arguments to support their position. But in that case, the way to demonstrate that they’re right is through open discussion and debate, not a huge list of proscribed beliefs.
But I suppose proscription is easier than discussion.