What’s so bad about heresy?

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Half of the people who attended the First Council of Nicaea were camera-shy

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.

Shield of Trinity

Could you explain that again?

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.


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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

14 responses to “What’s so bad about heresy?”

  1. Kevin says :

    Just seen this and thought I’d make a brief comment before going to bed. I totally agree with your general view about heresy, indeed I’d quite like Christians organising Churches Together sort of things or city-wide missions to invite groups like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses along. By doing stuff together, we’re not claiming agreement on every last bit of theology, are we? I rather think we’re seeking to live out the ‘one body, many parts’ thing. Let God deal with questions about who’s right about this or wrong about that, I’d say.

    Where I disagree with your post is on the doctrines about the nature of the Christian God. If there is a god like the Bible says – creator and sustainer of the universe – then why should it surprise us that we find it so hard to explain his nature? Theologians over the last 2,000 have come up with a range of metaphors and it doesn’t really bother me that none of these metaphors have enjoyed anything like universal acceptance. Can you explain why it bothers you…?

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I don’t think I’d say it bothers me, exactly. This all stems from a realisation I had a while back that even the most careful rephrasing of doctrine could (and would in some circles) be knocked down as heretical. So ultimately, you end up with an approved set of “magic words” which apparently mean the right thing but can’t be expressed in different words. And I wondered exactly what use that was, and how anyone would benefit from it.

      I don’t really care if people want to make doctrinal statements that are self-contradictory – they don’t do anything for me, but that’s their problem, not mine. What I can’t make sense of, though, is the way these doctrines have been set in stone as True Belief, based on some idea that the early ecumenical councils (the first being about 300 years after Jesus’ death, so hardly contemporary) had some mystical hotline to the truth. Given the timeframe involved, and the nature of the arguments at the councils (yes, definitely arguments, not debates), I find it hard to see why their views should be pickled in aspic.

      But these conclusions can’t be challenged – apparently, they’re every bit as infallible as the Pope speaking ex cathedra, so the theologians you mention have almost certainly been guilty of heretical ideas in trying to explain and develop doctrine. I think the question is not so much why is it so hard to understand a creator/sustainer God, but why would anyone think the last word in understanding Him (even a small part of His nature) came from a fractious and controversial meeting 1500 years ago?

      If I believe in anything, I believe in continuing revelation, not the conclusions of a committee meeting.

  2. sixpointnineme says :

    Recovering Agnostic I have some bad news for you: You are a heretic and will burn in Hell!!

    As Kevin mentioned, if you believe in a God that is omnipotent. there should be no doubt in your mind that he/she/it would be capable of all the traits that you enumerated.

    On the other hand it strikes me as weird, how this omnipotent and omniscient God could not have foreseen that his creatures would be unable to know what is correct, and would never stop fighting about it. Will this bickering have no end? Maybe this deity could have made a list of what is the right answer to all this confusion? I am sure this would have avoided countless deaths and suffering. May I add, that unfortunately this 2,000 year discussion amongst theologians, has not been that. We have not been witnesses of debate and civilized confrontation of ideas until recently.

    I enjoyed your post very much. It is a clear demonstration of how religion is an invention of men and used mostly to have power over others.

    Oh, and by the way the good news is that Hell does not exist, so don’t you to worry about eternal damnation and burning in Hell.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      You are a heretic and will burn in Hell!!

      I get that a lot! 🙂

      Actually, I got it quite a bit even when I was keen and fully involved in the church, rather than sitting on the fringes being cynical. There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere, but I wouldn’t like to guess what it is.

  3. Joan Barleycorn says :

    Flicking through the TV channels the other night, I happened upon a programme on English attitudes to Catholicism and dissent. Apparently the Quakers put more emphasis on listening to the ‘light within’ (by which I assume they mean ‘the holy spirit’) than either doctrine or the Bible. A recipe for anarchy in the closed minds of those who need their faith to be ‘drawn up’ for them but liberating for those who are open to accessing the ‘living waters’. I stopped giving a fig for ‘closed theology’ some time ago. Hence my description of myself as a ‘Christian of sorts.’ The Anglican church is a broad communion but I’m pretty much out in the margins. Maybe that, coupled with a busy job and an agnostic husband, is why I only seem to turn up these days on high days and holidays.

    IMO the church hangs on to ridiculous doctrines because it fears if it deconstructs or rejects its position on these things it will become even more opaque and wishy-washy. (Anglicans) or lose it unique voice as the true faith (R.C’s). To talk of the spirit of God and its relationship with the human heart would be much too simple. Though establishing what is implied by the term ‘spirit of God’ would divide theologians till tea time.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I think you’re pretty much right. And I think it’s also the case that the longer a belief has been held, and the more it’s held up as “What We Believe”, the more loss of face there would be if it were changed.

      It seems to me that the RC way of dealing with this is to subtly shift position inch by inch with cleverly worded statements, as if they’re afraid anyone will see them moving. The Anglican way, on the other hand, is to view everything as metaphorical, and pointing to a deeper truth, which allows you to get away with just about anything.

  4. raintreebranches says :

    I don’t have any words of wisdom or constructive criticism to add but– just wanted to say I really enjoyed this post! 🙂

  5. James says :

    I have always marvelled over the strange blindness among well-informed Christians to the implications of truth-by-committee that the councils were did. If all men are flawed, and the councils were composed of men, then the doctrinal interpretations could potentially be flawed also – or at the very least, do not command unquestioning acceptance among members of the faith like the view that God exists or Jesus is really important.

    • James says :

      Please pardon my bad grammar, I didn’t revise before posting!

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        No problem. Just don’t do it again! 😉

        But yes, I agree. It’s an interesting exercise to imagine how the church might have been different if a few tight arguments had tipped the other way, or a few more people with a certain view had turned up to a council. Even without that, there’s a hint of the way law courts and the Vatican work in the conclusions of the councils – they never say a previous council was wrong (although certain members of the council were deemed not only wrong but heretical), they just “refine” their position.

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