The heresy of all doctrines…

June 17th, 2013
by Chris

 

Love the title? Well, when we talk about God, we are going to be saying things which are apparently contradictory, so why not start with what may be an oxymoron, may be a form of koan, may be a juxtaposition of thesis and antithesis requiring a synthesis. Or something else.

Of course, the definition of a heresy is something which contradicts doctrine in some way. Wikipedia has it as something “strongly at variance with established beliefs or customs”, but if you look at lists of early heresies from a Christian point of view, you will find that all of them are at variance with one or other doctrine, usually those surrounding the nature of Christ or the nature of the Trinity. More recent accusations of heresy will be found to be at similar variance with the statement of faith of a particular denomination or with what a neo-conservative group or individual determines is traditional belief or practice; these do not always get as far as being a formal statement of faith of a group, particularly where this is an attempt to find a common ground of universal exclusion for Christianity as a whole.

I am regularly accused of being a heretic. There is therefore a strong probability that comments will come in saying that I am just excusing myself; far from it. I would be disappointed if I were not being called a heretic, because then I would be doing something wrong; I would be complicit in excluding diverse ways of looking at something which in practice transcends any individual way of looking at things.

How can any doctrine actually be a heresy except in relation to some other doctrine? Well, of course, it can’t; what I am proposing above is itself a form of suggested doctrine, and I carefully included “all” in the title to ensure that at first glance it would be self-referring and therefore apparently self-contradictory.

[If this troubles you too much, think of it as a “metadoctrine”, i.e. a doctrine about doctrines, which is a different category and therefore not self-referring (most logical paradoxes turn out to be category errors). To me, the self-referring set is to pure maths and logic as the divide by zero error is to algebra. ]

Why might I think that doctrines should be regarded as heresy? Well, let’s start by looking at a set of Scriptural passages . Let’s start with Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then shall I understand fully, even as I have been fully understood”.

A doctrine is something which is seen as absolute; not a guideline, but a firm division. If we follow Paul, however, there can be no firm divisions in what we see now; we are seeing in a mirror, dimly (or in a glass, darkly) with the suggestion both that we are talking of an ancient mirror which was always a distorting surface to some extent and that we are talking of a “Plato’s cave” where all we can see is flickering shadows cast on a wall by the things which are the true reality. This is not the stuff of which to make any hard and fast rules, far less something of which you can shout “heresy” and prepare the bonfire and the stake (or, these days, exclude the “heretic” from among you).

Doctrines, in effect, become laws; laws as to how we are permitted to think, perhaps, but certainly laws as to what we are permitted to say (do I hear “heresy” again?). Paul has interesting things to say about laws; in Romans 3:21 he says “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it”; in Romans 7:6 “But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit”; in 1 Cor. 15:56 “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law”; in Gal. 3:10 “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse, for it is written “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them”. For Paul, faith eclipses law completely, and faith is effectively subordinate to love; Paul cannot define love adequately, though in 1 Cor. 13 he writes an impassioned description. He follows in this Jeremiah 31:33 “ “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Paul considers that the law is superseded, and that the emotion of the heart, the relationship with God as expressed through Christ by the Holy Spirit, negates it.

So where is heresy to Paul? Heresy is a breach of this new law, which we have assiduously constructed to replace the old one which he conceptually tore down.

Jesus himself, in proposing the Great Commandments in Matthew 22:37-40 says that love, of God and of your neighbour, is the one foundation of law and prophets alike. Paul says we can forget all but that foundation.

Let’s also wheel out the old Protestant principle of “sola scriptura”, i.e. “scripture alone”. This is very commonly combined with “rationally interpreted”, and is not infrequently coupled with quotation of Rev. 22:18-19 and Deut. 4:2, though more commonly the former, as the latter probably rules out all of the Bible except the Torah or Pentateuch. I think this general idea can be backed up by the fact that Jesus says “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mk. 10:14, Mt. 18:3). Children are not going to be capable of leaps of intellectual reasoning, so “rationally interpreted” should not, to my mind, mean the extraction of doctrine from multiple sources, attempted harmonisation of several passages or the establishment of overarching metanarratives; a simple reading should be sufficient. Doctrines are universally extracted by these means. What children are definitely capable of and known for is simple, uncomplicated emotional attachment; love and trust, and that for a person rather than for an idea or a formula. Anything beyond that detracts, as Jesus indicates – the children shall be first in the Kingdom.

Many doctrines which give rise to the loudest shouts relate to the nature of God, Jesus or the Trinity. I dealt with idolatry as regarding conceptions of God and not just solid images of God in my previous post “Bible Study 103/ Idolatry and eisegesis”; to me, concepts about God are a form of idolatry in the first place and so definitely heresy, but unavoidable if we are to talk about God at all. In the case of the Trinity, it seems to me that any attempt to put the Trinitarian concept into words other than the creeds is near-certain to fall into one of the many declared heresies. Why do we not go a step further and say that the creedal version is itself a heresy? Would not “Shema ha’Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad be as far as we should go? Judaism certainly thinks so.

I’d like to add into the issue of doctrine that of metanarrative, the extraction of a story-arc for the whole, particularly when that story-arc is then used as a straightjacket for the text.  Metanarratives are the delight of literary critics everywhere, and where extracted do sometimes cast the story (or stories) in a new light, but it’s only ever one new light; there can always be others, and they’re all valid, all adding to the meaning of the original text. Where metanarrative is used to confine or twist the meaning of the text, we should stop doing it; where it’s presented as being effectively the whole story, it becomes a heresy.  

My pet example of this is the metanarrative of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA), though atonement theories generally are prone to the same fault. It’s also doctrine for most Protestants; where it isn’t doctrine (remaining Protestants, Catholic and some Orthodox) there’s a slightly more open metanarrative doctrine which has most of the same flaws but leaves another atonement theory open.

PSA reads the Bible as effectively starting with Adam and Eve and original sin; the garden of Eden is not interpreted as in the world, but as being heaven. There is then a creation marred by sin (and implicitly irredeemable) and the whole objective is to deal with this sin. The covenant with the Jews fails to do this despite repeated application of prophets, so Christ is sent to die on the cross to pay once and for all the debt occasioned by all this sin; this pays the debt such that we can go on to heaven after death. Eventually the irredeemable material world will be wiped out and made anew and we can all then come back. All we have to do to get that afterlife is to believe that Christ did this.

I keep coming back to the problems with PSA; as bad scriptural interpretation; as psychologically damaging; as projecting a God-concept which, if true, would make most reasonable adults want to have nothing to do with God; and as I concentrate on here, as diverting our attention from a whole lot which is going on in Scripture which does not fit this story arc.

In this conception, the only points in the long story of covenantal Judaism which occupies over three quarters of the Bible were to establish original sin and mess up repeatedly, ending up a figure of pity at best, of derision or downright hatred for most of Christianity’s history and to have a few scattered verses made to point prophetically to the coming event of Christ.

In this conception, the only point in Jesus’ lifetime teachings was to convince followers that he was personally the megasacrifice which would put right everything which was wrong and give people an exit visa so they could get out of this mess. The rest, including a lot of teaching as to how we were to treat each other (and particularly how to treat people who were not like us or even, shock horror, were our enemies), is really incidental; if we are to think about it at all, it will naturally follow from believing a few simple things about Jesus.

Sometimes it actually does. Very often it doesn’t.

Another thing. If you follow PSA, you have to have a concept of God as authoritarian to the exclusion of merciful and loving; it is difficult if not impossible to square the son-sacrificing figure who does so because he can’t exercise the mercy which has been dinned into us through the Hebrew Scriptures as being as important a characteristic as is justice (which, in any case, implies “mercy” in Hebrew usage) or a figure to fear (which actually implies that you should be in awe rather than that you should be terrified).

You also need to stick with the concept of the Transcendent God, utterly separated from us and remote, to the exclusion of the all-pervading Immanent God of, say Psalm 139:7-10, or the Lukan version of Paul in Acts 17:28 as “he in whom we live and breathe and have our being”. Teilhard de Chardin was accused of being a heretic for his “Ground of all being” thinking.

You also need to consider the world as intrinsically worthless, only to be escaped by death (or, if you insist, rapture) and to be demolished and rebuilt, after which we can return, with no conception of working to bring into being the Kingdom of God on earth as Christ proclaimed was already happening.

Any idea of universal salvation is heretical too, as you have to wriggle round reports of Jesus’ statements that he had come to save everyone, no exceptions (I paraphrase from a few scriptures there).

It is hardly surprising, with this background of thinking, that Christianity as a whole is widely seen as aggressive, dangerous, unfriendly, authoritarian, corrupt, hypocritical, bigoted, chauvinist, unfeeling, inhospitable and even diabolical. Something which, in Christopher Hitchens’ words, poisons everything.

And yet I see cries of “heresy” and “He’s a false Christian” “he proclaims a false Gospel” and worse levelled against people trying to steer Christianity away from this pernicious metanarrative, this pernicious doctrine. I see pickets outside the door where some are due to speak. I fail utterly to see patience and kindness in those comments and those pickets, I do see jealousy, boastfulness, arrogance, rudeness, insistence on one way, irritability and resentment. If I required nothing else to see that the heresy-callers are wrong, it would be that they display no love. They are clashing cymbals.

You can tell me what scripture says, but as soon as we start to interpret it, that isn’t scripture any more, that’s opinion.  We may differ about what scripture is, but your opinion, even if it’s that of your church as a whole and backed by a host of theologians, is not even scripture. It may be tradition – most doctrines are. Traditions change. Traditions need to, or they die.

Can I really call all of these doctrines and metanarratives heresies? After all, I may be falling into a lack of love myself.

Well, I think I can if they are held up as being THE ONLY way in which Scripture can be interpreted, THE ONLY way to think of God, THE ONLY way to think of Jesus. Doctrines may not be “wrong” in themselves as long as the theology and logic which goes into their extraction from scripture is sound, but they are inevitably wrong as soon as someone says “that is the truth and anything else is heresy”.  The only heretics are the heresy-hunters.

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