Some words carry a load of emotional impact and heresy is certainly one of those words. A charge of heresy in the religious world is as explosive and damning as a charge of racism would be in the political. Being proclaimed a heretic puts the accused on the immediate defensive. No one wants to carry that label around. It automatically leads to ostracism because the religious authorities feel compelled to protect the rank and file church member from the defiling thoughts and words of the false teacher.
What is heresy anyway and why is the term so emotionally charged. Simply defined, heresy is a religious understanding that stands in disagreement with orthodoxy. Orthodoxy, in contrast, is the codified and formalized teachings of the church as handed down from early church leaders. How did orthodoxy come to be such? Is it really anything more than what a certain group of men believed at some point in the ancient past? What makes the ancient understanding more creditable and sacred than a more recently developed one?
Can temporal proximity to the original writings of scripture actually insure that the scriptural grasp of the early clergy was superior to that of more recent Bible students? That seems to be the gist of the argument in support of all the various formalized and documented church creeds that supposedly define orthodox belief today. No one seems to claim that the creed developers were divinely inspire in their work, though some might contend that divine providence guided their work.
This is the same line of reasoning that wants to uphold the original King James Translation of the Bible as the only true English language text. This contention of providential guidance in canonizing the Bible, translating the Bible, and formalizing the tenets of orthodoxy, seems to me no more than an attempt to rationalize the larger issue of the inerrancy of the Bible. Inerrancy is essential to Christian fundamentalism because to that group the Bible explains how to please God and go to heaven, so the “instruction manual” must be complete and infallible. Otherwise, the whole salvation process goes astray with the orthodox result of eternal hellfire. If the Bible is not a prescription to be closely followed, then inerrancy in transcription, canonization, and translation is not nearly as much an issue. It is the difference between understanding the gist of the Bible versus knowing assuredly every jot and “tittle” of the law. Inerrancy would not be required for the former but would be for the latter.)
If one does not see God’s miraculous intervention in the development of creeds, then you are obliged to admit that creed writers were likely as prejudiced and misguided in writing their creedal statements as any random sampling of modern theologians. Men are conditioned by their previous religious history and training whenever they approach a religious issue.
The creed writers were admittedly closer in time to the events of the New Testament than we are, but in contrast we benefit from 1000-1500 years of more biblical study and reflection than those early scholars. The scriptures themselves admonish the believer to study and grow. Growth obviously involves a change in understanding. Yet the creedal statements and their supporters say by implication that any study or thought which might contradict the established teachings of orthodoxy is forbidden. In fact, it is more than forbidden. It is soul damning. It is extremely dangerous to other believers who might be corrupted by unapproved ideas, i.e. ideas contrary to orthodoxy. The poor, earnest believer, in trying to grow and develop in his spiritual understanding, is apparently in very real danger of coming to believe something thereby that will ultimately damn him and others as well. What a monstrous conundrum this is. It is obviously better to ignore personal study except in the shallowest sense and rely on others to indoctrinate in time- tested dogma.
Some might argue that the creeds have survived so long without any lasting challenge precisely because their teachings are indisputable. More likely, the creedal statements have survived so long because as explained above, they have been closely guarded and perpetuated by the established clergy in all ages. Prior to the printing press, a relatively late arrival on the theological scene, the maintenance of orthodoxy was a given because the clergy were largely the only educated class capable of reading. The common man could not challenge their position on any issue based on a personal knowledge of the Bible. Thus for the first 1000 years or so after the creeds, their survival was almost a foregone conclusion. Clergy established orthodoxy, taught orthodoxy to each other in church schools and seminars, preached orthodoxy to the masses, and used the power of the church to suppress anyone or anything that they deemed offensive to the orthodox position. In such an atmosphere orthodoxy could not be challenged.
Luther’s reformation activities and those of others like him were stimulated by the wider availability of the printed Word and men’s ability to study the scriptures personally. The Reformation was all about challenging the orthodoxy of that day. Many today hold the belief that the old pre-Luther orthodoxy was flawed and that we now hold a new, improved and now infallible orthodoxy. If the old orthodoxy was in error, how can we know the new is perfect? In fact, all this historical reflection reveals is that orthodoxy is simply the prevailing understanding of the day. It is subject to change and is definitely not infallible.
Post Reformation, orthodoxy has taken on a slightly updated meaning, brought about by the proliferation of different religious denominations. Orthodoxy to many now means the doctrinal positions of my chosen church or religious group. That group may be the one I was born into and the only one I have ever experienced, but I know their orthodoxy is sound because it feels right and sounds right. No one seems to recognize that repeating the same story over and over for 1000-1500 years will make it all sound right, especially if that story is the only story you have ever heard.
Again the established church hierarchy continues to have a vested interest in protecting and defending the orthodox position of their particular persuasion. After all, they are formally trained in church doctrine as a pre-requisite for the ministry. They are hired by the local church to teach and uphold the doctrinal distinctives that identify their denomination. Without an adherence to these doctrinal distinctives that actually define the local orthodoxy, the local denominational group loses its identity as such. Traditionalists within the group and bound to be upset and the unorthodox clergyman is likely to be dismissed. As in the ancient past the clergy have a vested interest in maintaining that which protects their position in society as paid professional. There is no professional reward for advancing new religious thought. Exactly the opposite is true. You lose your job.
Finally, I believe there is one additional facet to the seeming infallibility and longevity of orthodoxy in religious circles. Much is taught in the scripture about faith as a prerequisite for the believer. That emphasis has been used at least indirectly to bolster the acceptance of the orthodox position in all ages. The faith in God that the Bible teaches has been stretched into a reason for accepting the teachings of orthodoxy. To deny or challenge those beliefs has become a demonstration of a lack of faith. Since faith is required, anything that reflects a lack thereof is damnable. To question the teachings of the church, the clergy, and their creed is therefore sinful. Again the safest thing the common man can do is to accept what the church teaches so as not to endanger his soul.
Of course, man’s natural laziness factors in to this also. It is much easier to let someone else tell you what to believe than to expend the personal effort to study and think profoundly about spiritual realities.
Given all the above, it is quite reasonable for anyone to seriously question any aspect of the orthodox position he has been taught. Cries of heresy mean nothing at all. Each individual must ultimately be convinced in his own mind of what he believes and what will guide his own personal life. Personal study and reflection supplemented by free discussion of issues are still the best ways to learn. Jesus said, “Seek and ye shall find.” Don’t be deterred in your seeking by fear of upsetting the status quo. No man ever did more of that than Jesus himself. In making all things new Jesus introduced a new reality that is largely unrealized in our day. Orthodoxy in all its various flavors has largely suppressed that realization for two millennia. A little heresy is required to unlock the hidden treasures of God’s marvelous nature and work.