United methodist bishop Joseph Sprague publicly denies that Jesus rose bodily, that he is eternally divine, and that he is the only way to salvation. He has been charged four times with teaching heresies, and four times denominational representatives have acquitted him.
This is not a lone incident. For decades before his retirement, Episcopal bishop Jack Spong publicly repudiated nearly every line in the Nicene Creed and yet was never disciplined by his denomination. Examples could be pulled from Congregational, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches. Mainline leaders seem to perceive heresy as somehow an outmoded concept. Or, at least, they see the heresy trial as an inappropriate venue for addressing such teachings.
Whatever their reasons, we are mistaken if we think modern objections to the prosecution of heretics come from sloppy thinking. To put the best face on it, such extreme leniency arises, rather, because many people are repulsed by the ways orthodox Christian belief has been defended—in particular, how heretics have been prosecuted and punished.
Much more has been at work in historical heresy trials, George H. Shriver insists in his Dictionary of Heresy Trials in American Christianity, than a simple desire to protect the faithful from bad doctrine. "Politics, jealousies, power struggles, anti-intellectualism, miscommunication, limits of knowing, grudges, personal animosities, confusion of ethics with doctrine" have all entered into the picture, coloring not only the motivations of would-be defenders of the faith, but their actions as well.
Indeed. One need only think of the closed, secret trials and torture implements of the Inquisition. Shriver's conclusion: "The heresy hunters have…often allowed themselves to pervert Christian ethics in their pursuit of their goal of discrediting persons they have labeled 'heretics.' "
The truth of this objection to "heresy hunting" is only too clear from church history. But those who would use this historical evidence to attack all forms of heresy prosecution find it convenient to ignore one small fact: Apart from Jesus, no one has ever been exempt from mixed motives and unsavory methods.
This means that the process of defining orthodox belief has always been mediated by, as historian R. Scott Appleby puts it in a U.S. Catholic article, "human agents who have a tendency to let their own passions, misunderstandings, and political rivalries intervene."
So, read the Old Testament. Or review the squabble between Peter and Paul over circumcision. The Holy Spirit has always found it necessary to work with the human materials at hand. And those materials have always been the same—not pretty. There was metaphorical (and sometimes real) blood on the floor of every one of the early church councils at which orthodox Christian doctrine was defined and embodied in creeds.
Yes, it does take faith to believe that the decisions of these councils actually reflect belief as God would have it. It is the same act of faith that allows the Christian to look around a church, see the assortment of annoying and downright unsavory characters occupying the pews, and affirm that the church is still, somehow, the "body of Christ."
Romancing the Heretic
The popular image presents the heretic as a courageous, powerless loner, exploring what fellow Christians refuse to explore and paying the price at the hands of unprincipled church leaders motivated by entrenched prejudice. This holds no more water than the picture of the heretic as a black-hearted subversive and orthodox leaders as saints riding in on white horses.
To take just one example, think of Arius. This was the man whose teaching that Jesus Christ is less than fully divine (for a modern version, talk to a Jehovah's Witness) rocked the early church and led to the first ecumenical council. He and his followers were far from a weak, oppressed minority beset by power-hungry orthodox leaders. As Tom Oden puts it in his Rebirth of Orthodoxy, they "lived by collusion with political oppressors. They had plenty of intellectuals and power manipulators on their side, while orthodoxy had to be defended largely by nonscholars and laypeople, by modest men and women of no means, by lowly persons who had no training or special expertise but understood their lives in Christ."
On the other hand, Arius's opponent Athanasius, the bold Christian thinker whose leadership helped move the Council of Nicea to condemn Arius, was no triumphant political manipulator. He was "exiled a half-dozen times and chased all over the Mediterranean world during the Arian times." The example can be multiplied on both sides.
To be sure, the inquisitorial practices of some past heresy hunts have left a permanent stain on the church—although the scale of what we might dub "heresy abuse" is often overblown. (Contrary to popular fiction, being charged before one of the Spanish Inquisitions was not a guarantee of an auto-da-fé. Statistical studies show that fewer than 2 percent of those charged were condemned to death.) Still, we must not deny or defend travesties that did occur. At the same time, we must recognize the depth of the problem heresy trials have attempted to address. In most cases, not political but pastoral concerns have driven the church to prosecute teachers of aberrant doctrines.
The problem is that the preached word has power—one way or the other. Every Sunday, unsuspecting people enter churches shepherded by those whose theological openness leads them to teach things we used to call heresies. What they hear in such teachings is not just divergent opinion. It is potent misdirection, capable of turning the sheep away from salvation.
And this is the nub. As a teacher of mine once put it, if Jack the Ripper is abroad in your town, killing people and mutilating their bodies, the city's leaders must track him down and render him unable to inflict further harm. And if, as the historic church has always—until today—agreed, a person insists on teaching beliefs that threaten the eternal lives of all who hear them, that person must be disciplined and his harmful teaching rendered null within the church.
It is easy for a comfortable "Christian" society to demonize the mechanisms the historic church has developed to deal with heresy. But to wink at heresy is to suck the life from faith.
Heresies are worth fighting against, through the same kinds of mechanisms that the church has always used. Yes, these mechanisms are tainted by politics and pride. But somehow still, we must believe, they have been used and will continue to be used by the Holy Spirit for the health of his church. In Appleby's words, "What we hold devoutly to be true, what we identify as the very core of our Christian identity, has come to us through the imperfect channel of human history."
Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine.
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