Tag Archives: ecumenism

My Troubles with Heresy and Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy and heresy are interesting things.

Over the past year or so, I’ve come to believe that the limits of true Christianity are often inscrutable. That is, I’m willing to count not only the orthodox as true believers, but also many heretics, as well. I’m finding that this position is becoming increasingly hard to hold without some measure of doublethink. On the one side of things, the weight of church tradition stands firmly on the side of a sharp distinction between heresy and orthodoxy, with only the orthodox being counted as true believers. But on the other hand, the weight of church history stands firmly on the side of pluralism, because if only the orthodox are true believers, then no one is a true believer.

On the one hand, church tradition. Ever since Justin Martyr’s denunciation of Marcion in the second century, extending all the way to contemporary culture warriors, the church has had a strong tradition of heresy-hunting. This view makes sense for two reasons. First, in order for an ethnos (a “people,” which is the way the early Christians saw themselves — as a race) to be a true ethnos — that is, for all the members of the ethnos to share common practices — ethnic boundary markers must be in place. It must be very clear who is and who is not part of the Christian people. By necessity, that entails defining what is right practice (orthodoxy) and wrong practice (heterodoxy/heresy) and setting those up as religio-ethnic distinctives. Second, this view is the most scientific. According to the scientific method, a hypothesis is either right or wrong — there is no “maybe” in a rigorous description of how the world works. Likewise, since God is knowable and has revealed himself objectively, it is possible to determine exactly what modes of worship and service he finds acceptable and which he finds unacceptable. Therefore, we may distinguish very easily between right and wrong worship.

On the other hand, church history. Since 1054 CE, every Christian has been a heretic. (1054, of course, was when the Great Schism took place, with the Eastern and Western churches excommunicating each other.) To an Eastern Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholics and Protestants are heretics. To Catholics, Protestants and the Orthodox are heretics. To Protestants, Catholics and the Orthodox are heretics. Each subgroup of Christianity has claimed to be the only right way to worship God. The problem, of course, is that each side uses the same text (the Bible) to support their views, and each side is deeply convinced of their own superiority over the others. So, among the Christian churches, it is impossible to distinguish between right and wrong worship.

Thus, the two sides rage inside me. It is intensely difficult to believe, based on church tradition, that there is a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable worship, while also believing, based on church history, that it is impossible to know what that distinction is.

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An Ecumenical Definition of Inerrency

I find this definition of inerrency to be quite helpful. I think it can accomodate both a conservative and a liberal view of Scripture — in other words, it would help reconcile the two perpetually warring clans of Christianity.

“Since therefore everything which the inspired editor or holy writer expressed is to be valued as expressed by the Holy Spirit, it is to be confessed that the books of scripture teach with certainty, fidelity, and without error the truth which God wants to have set down in the Holy Scripture for the sake of our salvation.”

[Anton Vögtle, “Die Konstitution über die Offenbarung,” quoted in Werner Harenberg, Der Spiegel on the New Testament (London: Macmillan, 1970), 55.]

This definition allows for many of the points of friction between conservative and liberal Christians to be smoothed away. Did Moses write the Pentatech or was it edited over the course of several centuries? Doesn’t matter. Does Genesis 1-3 address human origins or is it a metaphor for the human need for God or a critique of other, contemporaneous religions’ view of the divine? Doesn’t matter. Are the Gospels concerned primarily with the historical or the theological? Doesn’t matter.

In short, each group could maintain its own particular understanding of Scripture — it would be unfair, for instance, under the guise of ecumenism or Christian cooperation, to try to force a Young-Earth Creationist to give up his/her hermeneutic — while still finding common ground to accept the other side’s position as valid. Each side could then be captive both to conscience and to consensus.

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Christian Cooperation in a Nutshell

“Many live in the illusion that the true unity of the church would be won if the great majority of Christians would agree to the same dogmatic formula. But identity of dogmatic formulas is of no importance. There must be unity in faith, that is, in unconditioned trust in the Word of God. Each one may say it and confess it as he wishes.”

Manfred Mezger, quoted in Werner Harenberg, Der Spiegel on the New Testament (London: Macmillan, 1970), 39.

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