Gnosis- Beyond Belief?

(This post follows on from “No Gnosis” and covers some of the same ground, hopefully not too repetitively)

I bought Elaine Pagels’ “Beyond Belief: the Secret Gospel of Thomas” primarily because I wanted to see her arguments for the Fourth Gospel being to a considerable extent a reaction to the Gospel of Thomas; there is some interesting insight there; a convincing argument was made for John being a reaction to Thomas, which brings up the probability that Thomas is actually earlier than John, promoting its status to something far more in line with Jesus Seminar thinking than with more conservative views. It also included a spotlight on the idea that the experiential basis of the two authors is very similar, but John is very strong on the concept that all experience of God is through Christ, while Thomas considers direct experience of God to be the aiming point; John then uses typical gospel-writers’ licence to cast Thomas in a bad light wherever possible.  Using my own terminology, this is the typical conflict between the Christ-mystic (John) and the God-mystic (Thomas).  

It does sadden me that there has been so much historical conflict, but I can well understand it; I spent quite some time being antipathetic towards the Christ-mystic governed theology of the mainstream Christianity I was brought up in, and to Paul, who I fixed on at an early stage as being primarily responsible (along with John). I didn’t much like Trinitarian theology either; as a God-mystic, my sense of a fully immanent and entirely unitary God was so strong that I did not want to support what I considered a dilution of monotheism.

However, it is just that Trinitarian theology which allows for meeting of mind between the God-mystic and the Christ-mystic (and I assume for this purpose that what both are experiencing is in fact the same root experience, modified in its description through the thinking and particularly the belief-structures of the individual mystic).

There is to my eye little functional difference between mainstream Christian theology’s view of the nature and activity of Christ from that of the nature and activity of God, save perhaps for the insistence that such of God’s nature and activity as we are able to experience or witness is to a nearly exclusive extent Christ, insofar as it is not the Holy Spirit (and possibly the ascribing of events of natural evil {i.e. evil events which do not flow from man’s doing} to God rather than to Jesus).  Conservative theology is, perhaps, identical to mainstream on this point, but the results in practice in conservative evangelical churches seem to be a focus completely on Jesus/Christ where more mainstream churches would insist on focus on God. It thus follows that mainstream-to-conservative theology and practice would see the God-mystic’s actual experience as being experience of Jesus, were the God-mystic not to insist on using God-terminology rather than Jesus-terminology.

I cannot see that a mere difference of descriptive language where it is clear that the essence of what is being talked about is the same should be sufficient to fuel an 18 century long antipathy, dating this from the time of Irenaeus, and frequently attended by cries of “heresy” and more dangerous actions based on that charge.

It is, in fact, Irenaeus who is the hero or anti-hero of Pagel’s book, rather than Thomas. I found her picture of him and his stuggles with a very early Christian community under persecution, a community fractured and still with no really clear single identity, to be surprisingly endearing, and certainly conveying an understanding of the motivations behind his Five Volume “Against Heresies”. To understand all is to forgive all, or so it is said, and I may have moved some little way towards forgiveness of a man I see as the first main mover in the heresy-persecuting strain of Christianity which resulted in the destruction of so many ancient texts which would have been invaluable to historians and the lack of which moved the centre of the developing Christianity away from the experiential to the doctrinal, a trend which is perhaps now beginning to be corrected. Most seriously this antipathy towards supposed heretics caused many millions of deaths of “heretics” over the ensuing 18 centuries.

I’m moved a little way only; it is still difficult for me to feel empathy for someone who will advocate killing people for having what he considers an erroneous intellectual definition of a technical theological term.

The thing which most strikes me from Pagels’ account of Irenaeus is the difficulties he faced bringing together a coherent group where various elements seemed bent on going in widely different directions. Of course, what resulted was his condemnation of two things which have since become very major threads of Christianity; firstly the reinterpreting of scripture by individuals or small groups to produce views divergent from his orthodoxy (or rather proto-orthodoxy, as orthodoxy had not yet been defined), thus undermining any sense of coherence of the movement; secondly an insistence among the “Gnostics” of the importance of personal experience and it’s primacy.

Of course, the first has since the 16th century been the result of the principle of “sola scriptura” which is the watchword of the Protestant Churches, and which has contributed to their fragmentation into thousands of different denominations; the second results in the charismatic movement which to some extent crosses the other bounds of denomination and theological complexion, and not infrequently leads to variant theological concepts.

There was another thread which Irenaeus disliked intensely, that being the very Gnostic idea that (to put it trivially) spirit was good, the world was bad. His arch-enemy in this was probably Valentinus; for Valentinus the world of matter was a mistake, and to be escaped from, initially via Gnosis giving consciousness of the spirit within and then on death to be fully freed from the taint of the material. For Irenaeus, as for most proto-orthodox Christians, the world was created by God and was good; the problem was with mankind, not with the entire creation.

Again here, the more conservative churches seem to me to be preaching that the one important thing is salvation, that what matters is the state of one’s immortal soul, to the effective exclusion of what is done here and now. This is a position focussed on what happens after death, not on what we do in this life; in other words the Gnostic’s “escape from this world” theology.

So far as eschatology, “end times”, was concerned, Irenaeus held to the view of a thousand year reign on earth, a reign of God on earth over a perfected humanity; the Gnostics on the other hand looked to an end to the tainted earth and its possible eventual reconstruction. They had no proper attachment, in other words, to what was done here and now; no engagement in the church which Irenaeus looked to promote and extend.

It is curious that the conservative-evangelical tendency these days seems to be a focus on “end times” very different from this proto-orthodox (later to become orthodox) position; no kingdom of God on this earth is really looked for (even if there is an advent of the end times, the faithful will be caught up in the “rapture” to heaven) Rather salvation is described which gives an afterlife in heaven (rather than hell), a heaven removed from the earth except when the earth has been destroyed and remade. This is, of course, the position of John Darby and those who have followed him (and the Scofield Reference Bible which was based on his speculations).

Irenaeus would have hated Conservative Christians, particularly Rapture-believing Conservative Christians, and more particularly Charismatic Rapture-believing Conservative Christians. Even more so if they also had the bad grace to be members of any group separate from the Catholic Church.

Which is curious, considering that Conservative Evangelical Premillenial Charismatics commonly allege that they are “fundamentalist” in going back to the principles and beliefs of the early Church, in which Irenaeus is the effective father of orthodox creedal doctrine, the original heresy-hunter.

Somehow, I find the idea of a cage fight between Irenaeus and a modern Fundamentalist a particularly heart-warming concept.

However, Irenaeus would also have hated anyone who espoused the idea that personal experience was vital, so not only my friends the charismatics, the “born again” would be targeted, but also the mystics, and that includes me. Also, in all probability, Saints Athanasius, Gregory of Thessalonica, Maximus the Confessor, Basil, Gregory Palamas, Simeon the New Theologian, Gregory of Sinai, Isaac the Syrian, John of the Ladder, Augustine, Francis, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas a Kempis, Teresa de Avila and John of the Cross, just to name a selection of those actually sainted among Christian mystics since Irenaeus’ time.

His reasons for hating those espousing personal experience included, of course, the fact that this gives a new source of inspiration potentially at odds with the organised “one church”. This is true.  All those I mentioned in my catalogue of Saints managed to keep their expressions of their inspirations sufficiently within the bounds of doctrine for the time being not to be declared dangerous heretics – in St. Athanasius’ case not to remain so declared -though in some cases, notably that of St. Francis, I find it difficult to work out how; many others have just about managed the same but have had their works sidelined (for instance the writer of the Theologica Germanica and Meister Eckhart), but others again have been anathematised. I regret all those sidelined or anathematised whose thoughts we have lost. A little more flexibility of doctrine, a little more willingness to contemplate either change or at least a re-examination of past theology, and that need not have been so.

However, there is another aspect of Irenaeus’ criticism which I have to take more seriously, this being that privileging personal peak spiritual experiences produces a division in the church, a two-speed Christianity.

I’ve been very conscious of this for myself, as there frankly aren’t very many contemplative mystics in Christianity, or at least not very many who are prepared to be open about their spiritual vision. For a long time I found it extremely difficult to understand why anyone who had not had a peak spiritual experience would actually bother with or gain much from Christianity, and since reading excerpts from the Oxyrhyncus sayings when I was 15 I’ve been convinced that Jesus was actually pointing at personal experiential (i.e. mystical) faith as the goal of his followers (I’ve since come to think he was pointing at other things as well, but am still confident my 15 year old thinking was right).

It has certainly been difficult learning to talk with Christians who have not had similar experience, particularly as, unlike all the other contemplative mystics I’ve encountered within Christianity, I didn’t have a background as a practising Christian at the time of my experience, so I lacked personal experience of being where others seem to be. I’ve hoped to find similar experiential focus among the “born again”, but been hampered by the fact that until very recently all those who would testify to me of a “born again” peak experience were also wedded to a very conservative theology which I can’t cope with (quite apart from not considering it justified by scripture).  All my efforts in that direction to date have yielded a situation where I have an experience which non-peak-experience Christians haven’t shared; they may wish (and often do) fervently to share it, but I cannot tell them how to achieve that.  There is a gap, and it’s a damaging gap.

Equally, there’s a damaging gap between the “born again” and those long term Christians who haven’t had the same experience, so far as they can tell, and frequently can’t adopt the same route to get there as the “born again” testify to.  I can understand Irenaeus’ concerns here, but his route of denying expression to the mystic or the born again (if different) does not work for me.

This gap of experience is something I am looking to work on. That may, I think, be as simple as learning to find a weaker form of the same root experience in those who don’t think they have it and help fan it into flame, but in that case I am still in need of better techniques. It may just mean strong advocacy of personal spiritual practices alongside any more public devotion, though I have major difficulty in promoting a strong personal spiritual praxis to those who have no “feeling” for what may be gained.

Then again, it may be that the “born again” experience is actually accessible even to those who seem immune, given some adjustments in presentation.

This is something I am praying for a solution to.

No gnosis?

I wonder how many of us have paused to consider that we might be Gnostics?

Many people have never heard of Gnosticism; some have come across the description “The Gnostic Gospels” to describe the documents found at Nag Hammadi in 1945; not translated into English until 1975, they have become famous mostly for having the first complete text of the Gospel of Thomas. Others have come across reference to the second century bishop Irenaeus who inveighed against Gnosticism and whose works are now the best source for the contents of many lost “Gnostic” books. Some recall that Simon Magus (mentioned in Acts 8:9-24) was called a Gnostic by Irenaeus and Justin Martyr; others recall that the Albigensians or Cathars who were wiped out by the Albigensian Crusade of 1208-1321 were Christian Gnostics.

So what is Gnosticism?

The roots of Gnosticism seem to lie in Neoplatonic philosophy, in Zoroastrian dualism and in Merkabah mysticism. It is difficult to describe Gnosticism completely accurately, as there have over the last two thousand years and more been many “Gnostic” groups, the traditions of which have varied; some argue that all of these are merely offshoots of a much older secret tradition.

However, classically, Gnosticism had first the characteristic that salvation (or personal fulfilment) comes from esoteric or intuitive knowledge; secret teachings and/or personal revelations. Commonly the esoteric aspect involved the reading of works of scripture using a key to symbolism which unlocked a completely different meaning from that gleaned from a straightforward reading. These concepts are commonly linked to the words “Logos” and “Sophia”. This also led to a tendency to reject central authority in favour of individual understandings.

Secondly it was normally dualist, and postulated a remote “true deity” from which came emanations; a more proximate emanation from that deity, the demiurge, was commonly regarded as the actual creator and was commonly regarded as evil, sometimes identified with the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, sometimes with the Devil or Satan.

Thirdly, Gnostics were either seriously ascetic or completely self-indulgent; in either case this flowed from a contempt for the irredeemably flawed material world; for them the unseen higher world of spirit was pure and true, the material world was debased and valueless.

Fourthly, Gnostics had a huge tendency to produce extremely variant readings of passages of scripture, sometimes diametrically opposed to the overt reading. This was particularly irritating to the early Church, because Gnostics could nod and agree to things which they actually interpreted completely differently from the expected way. Much as Conservative and Historical-Critical Bible scholars end up with completely different readings…

The works of the New Testament may well already display Gnostic thinking. In particular, Mark refers to keeping teachings secret and to additional secret teachings, the Fourth Gospel starts with a completely emanationist prologue and continues with a theology drawn from Philo of Alexandria with an emphasis on Logos and Sophia. Paul certainly talks of levels of understanding, outer and inner knowledge, and talks of Christ living in him, which plays to concepts of gnosis.

Irenaeus wrote the first major Christian attack on Gnosticism, commonly called “Adversus Haereses”, otherwise “On the detection and overthrow of the so-called Gnosis” in around 180. There have been multiple attacks by the Church since then on people identified as Gnostics – the Valentinians, the Bogomils and the Albigensians are obvious candidates. Most of these have involved major persecution.

Now I have a degree of sympathy for the Gnostics over the ages, not least because the Church has tended to anathematise, kill and massacre them while the alleged Gnostics have normally merely tried to spread their beliefs. Their characterisation of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures as the evil demiurge is entirely understandable to me; a vengeful and capricious tyrant with no native mercy unless persuaded by prophets of his chosen people is an entirely justifiable natural reading of much of those scriptures, and it seems to me that some relic of that spreads to the Reformed image of a God unable to exercise mercy without the bloody and painful sacrifice (possibly self-sacrifice) of his son and then condemning to eternal torment all those who for whatever reason are unwilling or unable to accept that this is what the true nature of God is.

It is wholly unsurprising to me that this image gives rise to Satanist Gnosticism which sees this God, the God of Christian fundamentalists, as evil incarnate, and the adversary, haSatan or Lucifer the light-bringer, as the true lord to be followed and revered. I understand them, but I cannot be one of them, as I think this image is completely flawed. However, were the fundamentalists to convince me that their vision were true, I would have to be a Satanist. I would have to join the opposition to this tyrannical monster.

However, who now is the Gnostic? It seems to me that all of the Protestant denominations have a Gnostic flavour, as all espouse the individual’s relationship with God, i.e. personal relationship (scripture alone, interpreted by the individual) rather than central authority. Further, the evangelical and Pentecostal strains now prominent emphasise personal experience, which goes further down this path.

None say that scripture is sufficient without external guidance – yes, I know we Protestants supposedly hold to “sola scriptura”, but every Protestant I talk with refers to interpretational authorities against what I consider a natural reading; this is an esoteric knowledge. So it’s Gnostic. Catholics rely on the Pope, who relies on theologians, which is also esoteric knowledge. So it’s Gnostic.

The reinterpretation of the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures as a mere source of prophecy of Christ is, let’s face it, completely Gnostic – Judaism doesn’t interpret it that way. You need the esoteric key to do that…

The dismissal of the whole of the covenantal relationship with Israel evidenced by the Hebrew Scriptures as, effectively, a failed experiment plays to the image of the God of Judaism as a demiurge. OK, it also makes out God to be a lot less than omniscient and omnipotent – rather a bungler, in fact. But then, so does the doctrine of “original sin”, so denigration of the deity is apparently de rigeur in modern conservative Christianity. He seems reduced to something less than God – oh, yes, a demiurge.

Are we, therefore, all Gnostic now?  Well no, I don’t think so. I think historical-critical scholarship makes clear the developing understanding of God in scripture, I think historical-mythological scholarship gives us a better way of interpreting scripture, I think there is no substitute for personal experience of God through the presence of Christ in us, through the coming of the Holy Spirit upon us. I think we cannot have anyone else’s experience; you cannot have mine, I cannot have yours. Neither of us can have Pope Francis’.  Or Luther’s, or Calvin’s*.  Or, indeed, that of Jesus.

I think all of us can learn from each others’ experiences as we can translate those into human concepts, into human words. But those words are not the experience, our relationship with God is just that, unmediated (except perhaps in the beginning), direct and transforming.

Let us be transformed together.

Not perfect yet

In conversation with an atheist friend last night, I found him taking something of the same position as an old internet forum adversary has been taking recently, only much more politely. He wondered how I could possibly be a Christian, the adversary is given to loudly proclaiming that I’m not a Christian (and, commonly, that I’m a dangerous subversive serving “another God”, by which I anticipate that as he’s a t least a token monotheist, he must mean the Devil).

So there we have it. If atheist and somewhat strange fundamentalist both think I’m not a Christian, I’m probably getting something right…

I suppose the first thing to say is that I don’t believe in any doctrinal statement as an absolute at all. As per my “The Heresy of all Doctrines” post, I think it necessary not to believe in any of them absolutely, even if as a scientific rationalist (at least in one of my internal personae) I also have to believe that they are all theories and are therefore falsifiable.

I do not have a similar problem with an emotional commitment of love and trust in God, for which the historical word is “Faith”. Nor do I have that problem with Jesus, insofar as he is still a viable object of love distinguishable from God. I can, therefore, comfortably declare my devotion to and following of the way of Jesus insofar as I can, and my faith in God, my love of and trust in God. I can also declare a pervading consciousness of the presence of God, sometimes massively heightened in which case I can use the words “filled with the Holy Spirit” comfortably.

But I don’t believe in a physical resurrection on the third day (technically I remain open to conviction, but it’s vanishingly unlikely I could be persuaded, particularly as I have myself in the past felt a tangible apparition). I don’t need to; Jesus returned and continues to be with his followers in every way which matters to me without the need for something I can only see as “zombie Jesus” shambling around and walking through walls for an indeterminate period after death.

I don’t believe in an afterlife in the sense that either of my friend or my adversary think of it either. We’ll come back to that.

I don’t believe in a literal heaven and hell after death either, though I hold out the possibility of something analogous to hell in certain cases.

I don’t believe that there will at some point in the future be a “Last Judgment” at which a great separation will occur between the “saved” and the “damned” according to sin, nor that there will be a literal destruction of heaven and earth and a rebuilding of them.

I don’t believe in original sin or, indeed, that sin is a fault in God’s creation (which I remind my readers Genesis 1:31 has God pronouncing to be “very good”, a chapter and a half before the issue of sin first arrives, but when it is clearly latent and will arise).  

What I do believe in connection with those last four is this. There is in me something which is God; there is also in me something which is self-centred and therefore inimical to union with God. That part of me is an inevitable consequence of my having self-consciousness and therefore free will, and this is how I view the parable of the garden in Genesis 3, as a story of the start of self-consciousness in mankind, and it’s unfortunate side-effects.

I have experienced union with God, at least in a partial way, and long to be one with God again; this means that I wish to remove those desires and tendencies I have which are inimical to that union, which is what I regard as “sin” (more mundane sins flow from that; in the sense that there is “original sin”, that is what it is.) Jesus shows me a way to this, to a significant extent through his “Kingdom” statements – and these also show me that this union with God can be sought for here and now and, above all, communally and for the world as a whole, not restricted to humanity as a whole.

I also experience this union with God, this partial entry into the Kingdom as being an entrance into atemporality (rather than eternity); I therefore experience God as being in part atemporal, this being the state of his continuing Kingdom.

Of course, the self-centred part of me can have no place in God’s Kingdom whether on earth or elsewhere. At this point I note the author of the Theologia Germanica writing “Nothing burneth in Hell save self-will. Therefore it hath been said ‘put off thine own will, and there will be no hell’” (from F.C. Happold, “Mysticism” p.297).

Now, I have had experiences in the past which have forcibly diminished, if not completely removed, elements of my self-will, and some of these it would not be unreasonable to describe as “hell on earth”. They haven’t been forever, as in the worm never dying and the flame never being quenched (Mk. 9:48) but it has sometimes seemed that way.

Having recently stopped being severely clinically depressed overnight, I can also attest to a remarkable feeling of resurrection within myself; one day I was dead to emotion, which might as well have been dead; the next I was as if reborn with heightened emotions, heightened insight into my life, restored consciousness of the presence of God and hope. I also identify that as a deliverance from slavery and a return from exile, and can look to the rebirth, deliverance and return of others and, in time, the world.

As to what happens on death, therefore, I can envisage that sufficient attachment to one’s self-will could at that point lead to something akin to hell; as entry into the Kingdom is entry into atemporality, it could be in some sense eternal. What I expect and long for, however, is reunion with God in that atemporality, with all self-will destroyed.

Which leads me to say that I do not see resurrection in my own body (whether or not “perfected” in some way or survival as something which can reasonably be called “Chris” as a possibility. I therefore have some difficulty in “looking to the resurrection of the dead” as I seem to find myself saying regularly, except in a way so metaphorical as to be unviable.

It follows also that I cannot see the crucifixion as being in any sense whatever a payment to Satan (ransom), a sacrifice bringing back honour to God (satisfaction) or a substitutionary death and agony substituting for one which is due to us (PSA). But I can see it as exemplary in many, many ways, and I can see Jesus dying for our sins in the sense that his death and subsequent events bring to us knowledge of his Way which we now follow, as Jesus dying through or because of our sins in that individual and collective human sin killed him and as Jesus dying with us in sympathy with the human condition.

Now, not only am I confident that all of these views represent authentically Christian ones, I also consider them more thoroughly grounded in scripture than others, and most particularly more thoroughly grounded than the metanarrative which has God create something perfect which is then ruined by one man and one woman’s disobedience, requiring eventually the incarnation of God in human form who dies horribly as a sacrifice to himself to set things right, but only for those of us who believe that to be the case, others being consigned to everlasting torment; then at some time in the future the elect will be restored to a newly created world free from these problems, the old one and everything in it having been destroyed.

So yes, I consider myself a Christian. I also consider the vast majority of Christian doctrine to be in error to at least some extent, and I acknowledge that I would probably not have been accepted as a Christian by most people claiming that title between, say, about 200 CE and now. But I am not yet a very good Christian, and I don’t expect them to be either.

Arguably, there’s only been one Christian, and, as Friedrich Nietzsche, said, he died on the cross. Though Nietzsche erred; Jesus was not actually a Christian, he was a Jew.

We are not perfect, but in Wesley’s terms, we are going on to perfection.

The heresy of all doctrines…


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.