Tangling with Wolves

Why we still need heresy trials

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 ...

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