This may seem an odd choice on a website, but I found this article very instructive. Maybe you will too.
Heresy: The Temptation to Settle for a Smaller God
The name Arius is synonymous with heresy. As first-year seminarians know, Arius denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. What is less well-known is what made Arius a heretic. His heresy was not caused by theological recklessness or a lack of piety. It was his devotion that got him into trouble.
Basically Arius wanted to safeguard the God-ness of God. Ironically, in trying to do this, his teachings lapsed into a gross over-simplification. In his anxiety to defend God’s divinity, Arius lost the thread of orthodoxy and became a heretic.
Heresy is a kind of over-simplification
Heresy is not a word we use much these days. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as: “Theological or religious opinion or doctrine maintained in opposition, or held to be contrary, to the ‘catholic’ or orthodox doctrine of the Christian Church.” But the dictionary definition doesn’t help us understand what is at stake.
Tom Long once observed that the greatest heresy the Church faces today is not atheism, but superficiality. When, not long after hearing Tom’s remarks, I repeated them in an academic address, I was greeted with cries of “foul!” by a colleague who said that neither atheism nor superficiality could be considered a heresy. Only departures from accepted doctrines – like Arius’s rejection of the divinity of Christ, for example – are heresies.
In a sense my colleague was right. But Tom was also right. Tom points to the very essence of heresy, the thing that makes a teaching depart from orthodoxy in the first place: its superficiality.
One of my seminary professors described heresy as an attempt to reduce the irreducible tensions of our faith. These tensions in our faith, he believed, are given to us by the Bible and are enshrined in the church’s historic confessions. They are necessary to convey the unfathomable mystery of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Orthodoxy preserves the tensions. Heresy tries to resolve them. Thus heresy betrays the mystery of God by trying to make God more understandable, easier to handle, smaller. Heresy, then, is a kind of superficiality, an over-simplification. Heresy opts for half-truths that have no choice but to become a whole lie.
This is why we consider the fourth-century theologian, Arius, a heretic. He refused to cling to the mystery of Jesus Christ, fully divine and fully human. He tried to resolve faith’s irreducible tension in favor of Christ’s humanity at the expense of his divinity.
From Arius’s perspective, he acted piously. He tried to safeguard the divinity of God against the dangerous idea of the incarnation. Arius was a theological conservative. And Athanasius and his colleagues who prevailed in formulating the Nicene Creed – the gold standard of orthodoxy – were the radicals.
Arius’s argument was consistent to a fault. He contended that it was impious to say that God became flesh. Flesh changes. Flesh decomposes. Flesh rots. God is immortal, invisible, and eternal. Arius’s theology was based on his profound devotion to the doctrine of divine immutability – God does not change. God will not rot!
Athanasius, on the other hand, was willing to hold two contradictory, but essential, truths in tension. Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human. He knew what was at stake if we let go of this tension. He understood that if Jesus Christ is not fully human and fully God then neither our knowledge of God nor our atonement with God are sure. Only if Jesus Christ is fully God can we say that when we come to know Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we encounter the very heart of God. Conversely, if Jesus Christ is not fully human then we remain unredeemed.
Jesus Christ, fully human, fully divine: this is a mystery. Not a puzzle, nor a riddle, but a mystery. Turn it around! Upside-down! In every light! From every angle! It remains unfathomable!
Matters of heresy and orthodoxy are matters of consequence today no less than sixteen centuries ago, because the Christian faith lives on mystery. And mystery is preserved in our beliefs through the irreducible tensions that greet us in the Bible and in the Church’s confessions.
The quest of orthodoxy is to preserve these tensions. Orthodoxy’s struggle to hold on to paradoxes, contradictions, and tensions at the heart of our faith is necessary not only to bear witness to God, but to maintain a sane view of ourselves.
Recently I was reminded of this fact as I sat quietly preparing for worship in our home congregation. A friend approached me and said: “I see you’re sitting on the back row again. Does that mean you’re a saint or a sinner?”
I smiled and said, “Simul justus et peccator.”
My friend smiled. She had taken a theology course with Dr. Cynthia Rigby, and she knew the passage I quoted. It’s from Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, and it describes the irreducible tension at the heart of humanity.
We are always, and at the same time, both justified by Jesus Christ (simul justus) and sinners (et peccator). To let go of one side of this tension (our justification in Christ) is to lose the assurance of God’s grace and to tumble into self-loathing and hopelessness. To let go of the other side (the fact that we never stop being sinners) is to lose hold of the reality of our need for God’s mercy and to risk falling into self-righteousness and cheap grace.
Sometimes today’s heresy becomes tomorrow’s orthodoxy
It’s tricky sorting heresy from orthodoxy. Today’s heresy can become tomorrow’s orthodoxy. This is why the “dictionary” definition of heresy does not help us much.
Usually something is thought to be a heresy because it calls into question conventional ways of thinking about God. Athanasius, the champion of orthodoxy, for example, was thought by Arius and his party to be the innovator and impious radical. From their perspective, Athanasius was the heretic who would sacrifice the incorruptibility of God for the sake of the doctrine of incarnation.
Jesus himself was considered a heretic and blasphemer by many of his religious contemporaries because of his views on the Sabbath (see Mark 1:21-31, 2:23-28 and 3:1-6). Peter had a lot of explaining to do to his early Christian friends when he extended the gospel to uncircumcised gentiles (Acts 10-11:18). Paul was the bad boy of the early church because he preached that in Christ there is now neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female (Galatians 3:28).
Charges of heresy are sometimes leveled when, in fact, a teaching is just new, different, strange, or innovative. God is on the move, and sometimes God moves faster than religious people.
C. S. Lewis once wrote, “God is the great iconoclast” who shatters our ideas about God time and again. Nobody ever said that following a living God would be easy (see: Hebrews 10:31). But, if there is one lesson we ought to have learned from the Bible, it is this: God’s Spirit relentlessly unfolds God’s Word in our world.
The church’s concern over orthodoxy can lead to heresy
When it comes to heresy in the Reformed tradition, no century was quite as bumpy as the nineteenth. No place was quite as perilous to preach or teach as Scotland, the home of Presbyterianism.
The most notorious of Scottish heresy trials culminated in 1831 with the deposing (we’d call it “defrocking” today) of a devoted young pastor, John McLeod Campbell, who served in the community of Rhu west of Glasgow. John Macintyre once observed that “heretics and those accused of heresy are more loveable than their accusers. This is certainly true of McLeod Campbell.”
Campbell’s trial illustrates the consequences of a church that rests on the laurels of its past creeds (in this case the Westminster Confession) while refusing to continue to think biblically and theologically about faith in the midst of contemporary life. It was the church’s desire to preserve “Westminster orthodoxy” that led it to place that confession’s authority above the Bible.
It is hard to imagine today, but Campbell was tried as a heretic in part because he preached that God is love. He taught that Christ died for all humanity. He insisted that faith consists in our confidence in God’s faithfulness to do what God has promised. He preached that Christ died to reveal the loving heart of God toward all humanity, not to change God’s heart toward us or to win the benefits of salvation for a select few.
Campbell’s teachings may appear to us so clearly orthodox that we cannot fathom why a church would declare him a heretic. But, while most of Campbell’s opponents were willing to maintain that God loves, they would not say God is love. To say “God loves” can mean simply that God arbitrarily chooses to love certain people, while arbitrarily choosing to hate others. To say “God is love” is to speak of the essence of who God is.
When McLeod Campbell laid out his arguments citing the Bible and other confessions, including the Heidelberg Catechism and the Scots Confession, as authorities supporting his teachings, he was sternly told by opponents: “We are far from appealing to the word of God on this ground; it is by the [Westminster] Confession of Faith that we must stand; by it we hold our livings.” In other words, the Westminster Confession tells us what the Bible means.
It is ironic that a court of the Church would refuse to admit the Bible into evidence, but perhaps it should not be entirely surprising. After all, the Bible is rich in precisely the kind of tensions that serve as signposts of God’s mystery. Being reminded that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him might not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16) jeopardized the prosecution’s case and complicated a settled view of God and the world.
We do well to remember that the canon, that collection of texts we call the Holy Bible, preserves the mystery of God in part through the tensions among the books that bear witness to a God much bigger than our categories. The Gospels, each of which is titled in Greek, Kata (“According to…”), can never be harmonized without irreparable loss. Taken together, the great faith confessions of our Church, assembled as a Book of Confessions, bear witness to the greatness of the God revealed in Christ. And they do this not least in the contradictions that linger between the statements of faith composed in various historical eras in response to specific crises.
Orthodoxy is willing to be surprised by God
George Tuttle described the Church of Scotland in Campbell’s time as “suffering from theological bankruptcy and party strife.” Ministers were so afraid of being perceived as unorthodox they sacrificed the sense of adventure which is essential to orthodoxy. The church forgot that orthodoxy’s duty is to preserve the irreducible tensions in our faith – if, that is, our faith is to be true to the always surprising God revealed in Christ. It was the church, anxious for its orthodoxy, which fell into heresy in its controversy with McLeod Campbell.
Superficiality is the essence of heresy, and we live in an age custom-made for heresy, addicted to shallowness and factionalism. Political pundits compete to reduce the most complex issues to slogans. Radio talk shows appeal to the lowest common denominator, addicted to sensationalism and rage. Even preachers are encouraged to follow suit.
If heresy means settling for a smaller god, orthodoxy must be prepared to be surprised by God, by God’s greatness, grace and mystery. The adventure of orthodoxy inevitably leads us to St. Paul’s song of wonder: “O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are God’s judgments! How unfathomable God’s ways!” (Romans 11:33).
Used by permission
Michael Jinkins is currently the President of Louisville Seminary; he wrote this article when he was dean and professor of pastoral theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books, including Letters to New Pastors (Eerdmans), Invitation to Theology (InterVarsity), The Church Faces Death (Oxford), and Invitation to Psalms (Abingdon).