Emergent No and Heresy

The word ‘heretic’ or ‘heresy’ always sends shivers down my spine. It is one thing to read about Marcion the heretic of eighteen and a half centuries ago. It’s quite another when someone uses it in conversation in all seriousness.

A few days ago I read on Emergent No a discussion on what does and does not constitute heresy. You can read about it here, including the 69 comments (at the last count). The list that the good people on that blog produced contained some pretty fundamental issues, and some not so fundamental.

The latter not-so-fundamental classification troubled me. I too am concerned about the ’emergent church’ and the effect it is having on souls before God. I am concerned that it seems to be culture and experience driven, with biblical truth taken for granted. However, I also believe that it is a many-headed animal which will take time to master and get the better of. Therefore I will reserve final judgment for the moment.

However, it does no good, in my view, start throwing the term ‘heresy’ around, and then having been challenged, to hurriedly lash together a quick definition. Unfortunately, the Emergent No list has sticky tape and bits of badly knotted string all over it.

Now, my own definition of heresy not well formed. I am still working it out, and writing this post helps. Heresy is certainly deviation from those beliefs which, if not believed, would result in damnation. However, it would seem to be more. ‘Heresy’ derives from the Greek word hairesis meaning ‘choice’. The word was originally used in connection with the choice of a philosophical school an individual may follow. However, it may also occur within the Christian church and is characterised by factionalism. The factions may form around both fundamental and non-fundamental doctrines.

George Gillespie, a Scottish Commissioner to the Westminster Assembly in the 17th century, has written helpfully on this matter though his language is a little opaque. Having reviewed the Scriptures he gives six helpful marks of true heresy, which I summarise with my own words and comments:

  1. It arises amongst members of the church, or an assembly professing to be a church. In other words, it is an irrelevant term to apply to adherents to non-Christian religions such as Buddhism or Islam. However, it would apply to Mormons or J.W.s
  2. It is an error voluntarily and freely chosen, both when initially proposing it, and in the maintaining of it or adhering to it. This in contrast to those who are compelled, say, under persecution to accept an error.
  3. When it chooses an error, it is accompanied with a rejecting of truth. Something which is already accepted as truth is kicked out in order to accommodate the error
  4. It is an error which is professed and maintained, as a result, becomes a ‘scandal and snare’ to others. In view here is the effect the profession has on others in the fellowship, drawing them into sinful behaviour. Views that are privately held are not the concern at this point.
  5. It is an error which contradicts some primary and substantial truth which is grounded upon, or, by necessary consequence, drawn from, the Bible. The subtlety here is that, historically, heretics have always appealed to Scripture, but they have always failed to agree with some primary truth that follows from Scripture.
  6. Heretics are schismatics and draw others away to their heresy. Their tendency to factionalism always leads to separation.

These points raise a few challenges to the modern church:

  1. Heresy fits nicely with our Western trend to individualism and freedom of choice. As the church accepts individualism, we should see more heresy.
  2. It shows the need for a fully worked out confession of faith in order to be able to identify what are primary truths, and therefore what are heresy (note that adherence to the Scriptures is not enough!)
  3. Teachings which lie outside the confessions may not in themselves be heretical. It may take a considerable amount of time and effort to work out whether such teachings really do undermine what has been commonly accepted. But then, if they do, what is to be done about it?

There may be more which I have not thought of. But it leaves me with problems regarding the Emergent No people – by what standard are they defining heresy? Frankly some of the issues they raise have not appeared in any confession, creed or basis of faith I have ever seen. They need to work a bit harder, IMHO.

Emergent No and Heresy

4 thoughts on “Emergent No and Heresy

  1. John says:

    Good post – the stuff on Emergent No is, frankly, scary.

    I was interested to hear you, as an evangelical, saying that Scripture is not enough – a link with those of us of a more catholic persuasion who honour the tradition of the Church more explictly 🙂

    I would, though, disagree with you to some extent about the centrality of formalised confessions. Creeds have a tendency to ring-fence our faith, keeping us within safe, comfortable areas and preventing growth (not that we don’t need to exclude some things!). They also tend to fossilize our faith, establishing what we believe now as normative. This is not a huge problem for short creeds that stick to fairly fundamental things but longer documents (such as the EA one) tend to stray into areas of legitimate difference between Christians. Unfortunately, it’s often these fringe elements that people seize on as “heresy”.

    pax et bonum

  2. Stephen says:

    Ah John!
    I might have known you would pick up on my weaknesses with language! Perhaps I should clarify. I didn’t say “Scripture is not enough” – you have extracted it from its context. But, I should have said “professed adherence to Scripture is not enough”, which is slightly different from what I actually said.

    The point I was trying to get at, however inexpertly, was that just because someone says that they adhere to Scripture does not mean that he/she actually does. This is because sometimes a person does not have an understanding of the fulness of scriptural teaching on a topic, or that they have not understood it. Hence, profession in itself is not enough.

    The value of confessions or creeds is not that they are a traditions which offer an alternative to scripture and at times may compete or even override it. Rather, they, serve as summaries of truths received and accepted by the church as scriptural. For this reason creeds and confessions can be ditched if found to be in error. This is of course what happened at the Reformation.

    I think the problems you identify with confessions are not problems with the confessions themselves, so much as with the hearts of those people exhibit the problems. Just because some people suffer from allergies doesn’t mean there is something wrong with nuts.

    I struggle to accept the concept of ‘legitimate difference’, as you put it. Differences occur – true enough. But I do not believe that scripture speaks with multiple voices on particular issues. We must believe that there is a truth to be found, even if on the way to discovering it many claim to have found it in different places. Fool’s gold is not the same as real gold, much as we would want it to be.

    Thanks for your thoughts. 🙂

  3. John says:

    I suspect we’re not actually too far apart on interpretation – we just use different language. You say “sometimes a person does not have an understanding of the fulness of scriptural teaching on a topic”, which means that we need to understand the Christian traditions of interpretation of that Scripture.

    That, basically, is what I mean by “tradition” – the witness of the church through the years as to its experience of God. Tradition should not stand against Scripture – when correctly understood, they should be in harmony because both are talking about the same God. However, that harmony may change (witness the church’s attitude to slavery, which went from pro to anti, while grounding both in Scripture).

    As for confessions, I pretty much agree – the problem is the way they are sometimes drawn up and the way they are sometimes treated.

    And finally 🙂 by “legitimate differences” I just mean that we are not and should never be clones of one another. God is too big to be grasped by any human being, so Christians will always have different perspectives on God and hence different opinions. Arriving at the truth about God requires that we use all those opinions, because they all reflect the greatness of God, rather than insisting only on our own insights, which perforce miss much of what God is about.

    pax et bonum

  4. The Hedonese says:

    Since much has been said about an emerging postmodern culture, i find Lesslie Newbigin’s view rather helpful.

    Undeniably, truth does not hang in thin air apart from history, language and particular human culture. However, he would insist that this does not entail the false assertion that no culturally-embodied truth claim “makes contact with a reality beyond the human mind”.

    While he agrees with the postmodern replacement of ahistorical, disembodied truth with a Story, he denies the postmodern skepticism that there is no overarching truth among the many ‘mere’ stories. Again, he wrote, “The church’s affirmation is that the story it tells, embodies and enacts is the true story and that others are to be evaluated by reference to it.”

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