Heresy is not a popular word nowadays. It implies that within religion (and more specifically Christianity), there is such a thing as a wrong answer; that it is not just about my opinion or feelings about things, but that the will of God has been revealed, made known and defined, and that I must submit my own will to it. The idea that there is such a thing as objective truth in any sphere (bar the realm of empirical science of course) is not well received by the modern mind, and when applied to religious questions, objectivity is seen as something implausible, even abhorrent.
Even amongst Christians (though admittedly mainly amongst Protestants) it is being increasingly suggested that doctrine isn’t really that important, and the great measures that the early Church went to in order to ensure correct belief was just so much hair-splitting. What matters is that we love one another, and that we affirm the ‘basics’, whatever those basics might be agreed to be (I’ll come to that a bit later). However, from the earliest periods of the Church’s history, before her creeds were given official formulation, right belief was considered to be of paramount importance, and definitive of whether or not one was a Christian.
Christianity was unique in this respect – the Jews had a set of laws and practices, and so can be said to have been more considered with ortho-praxy (their doctrines in fact being formulated at least partly in response to Christianity); and the pagan religions were characterised more by their annual round of cultic practices and festivals. Christianity obviously shares both of these elements too, but there is a sense with the Church that what one believes is also of central importance. As Frances Young writes in her introduction to the doctrinal controversies of the early Church:
‘Already in the New Testament we find internal controversy and attempts to establish true over against false teaching. The conflict with false teaching was deepened in the struggle with Gnosticism in the second century, and with other “Satanic” heresies as the centuries progressed. There can be no doubt that these struggles contributed to the shaping of the creeds, and provided precedents for what happened at Nicaea. Bishops had met in Council before to deal with members of their own number who failed to teach what their consensus demanded. Excommunication had been used before, and false teachers anathematised…
…controversy undoubtedly contributed to the formation of the creeds, and also to their adaptation as “tests of orthodoxy”. But the concern with “true doctrine” or “orthodoxy” pre-dates its association with creeds, and the authority of the bishops to determine true doctrine pre-dates their use of creeds to impose it.’
The Making of the Creeds (2002), pp.13-14, SCM Press.
The creeds themselves developed out of confessions of faith made by early Christians and passed down to succeeding generations, in a context of catechism and reception of sacraments (especially baptism) – they started out as summaries of the Christian story which believers were inaugurated into, and spoke of what God has done in Christ. The question of how our salvation was achieved, and who Christ must be in order for Him to have achieved it, are different questions, ones of doctrine rather than narrative. It is the concern for right doctrine that enabled the Church to flesh out those initial statements of faith and definitively state what all Christians must believe (and conversely what would make one a heretic if they were to change these doctrines).
Now this immediately raises the question of who is doing the defining – i.e.; who is the Church? In discussions with Protestants I have encountered the claim that the Church is merely the aggregate of all those Christians who hold to a minimum set of ‘orthodox’ beliefs, usually defined by the content of the Nicene Creed. Some will also go on to claim that they believe in the Church as a visible entity, because Christians are people, and people are visible – their unity (via shared belief) may be invisible, but they are not. Unfortunately though, this is insufficient on a number of levels. Firstly there is the issue of how we are to identify this sum total of Nicene Christians. Where are they to be found; do we conduct cross-denominational surveys to locate them?
No doubt Christians of all stripes who affirm what is in the Nicene Creed have much more in common than they do with the more liberal members of their own denominations, but it seems that for all intents and purposes this definition still leaves us with a Church that is unidentifiable as a distinct entity, and therefore invisible in its essence. The Catholic Church indeed affirms that an invisible dimension exists, and it is something along the lines of what is outlined above regarding shared belief, but its claims to visibility are much more literal. This leads to the second problem – how can this dispersed, cross-denominational, non-institutional Church define anything for belief in the first place?
When the Church claims to be visibly One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, it does so on the basis that there is an institution one can point to and find these elements within it. It does not mean that each and every Catholic (or even the majority of Catholics) are perfectly set apart and one with the will of Christ, perfectly adherent to the whole of the Faith, and perfectly in tune with Apostolic doctrine – this indeed would be both an arrogant claim and a grossly inaccurate one. The claim is that although individuals are an integral part of the Church, there is also a distinct institutional aspect (namely the Magisterium) to which one can look and see what has been defined for belief.
It is also often claimed by Protestants that if Catholics were to ‘tone down’ some of the claims made for the papacy, that the road to unity would thereafter be straightforward. This might hold for the Orthodox, for whom the papacy is the only really substantive point that sustains the schism between East and West, but the problem for (most) Protestants is that they do not recognise a visible, institutional Church at all; or if they do, then this makes nonsense of the articles in the Creed regarding the Church’s nature. For here is the rub – for there to be orthodoxy (and by implication, heresy) there must be an organ which can visibly and definitively say what it is that Christians believe. This is something that the sum total of orthodox believers cannot do, for they are not one ‘thing’, and do not speak with one voice.
And this leads to my final point – on what basis does one decide that the Nicene Creed is a test of orthodoxy? I do not deny that many fundamental doctrines are outlined there, or that it is a good starting point for dialogue, but doctrine develops, and why should a Christian receive that body of teaching, and nothing else (or even just the bits that they prefer)? The Creed is only held to be authoritative because it was pronounced to be so by a visible, institutional Church, which claims to speak with divine sanction, and infallibly so. If these claims are rejected, due to a rejection of later doctrinal definitions, then there is no good reason why one should have any confidence in the Creed itself, or anything else that the Church has defined.
Basically, either the Church is possessed of a recognisable (i.e.; institutional) means for determining and proclaiming what is and what isn’t orthodox doctrine, so that we may know with confidence what is to be believed, or it isn’t. Either the Church is the ultimate foundation and guarantor of the Truth (c.f.; 1 Timothy 3:15), from whom we humbly receive all we need to know for our salvation, or we are left to figure it out ourselves. We cannot say yes to her authority when she gives us the Holy Scriptures, and then no when she speaks of the corporeal Presence of Christ in the Eucharist; we cannot say yes when she gives us the Nicene Creed, and no when she tells us that we are to honour and revere (and ask for the intercession of) Our Blessed Mother. We cannot have our cake and eat it too. If we cannot accept the Church’s authority in this way, we cannot speak coherently of orthodoxy, and heresy becomes just what the modern mind sees it as – opinion.