Listening to Heresy: How Error Can Refine Truth

I have written before (here and here) about why it is that dogma and doctrine are important, so I will not revisit that point today, but rather treat it as a presupposition for what I am about to write. What I would like to focus on today is the role that heresy can play in helping the Church to refine her understanding of the Truth. Heresy, whilst something that cannot be tolerated in and of itself, as it leads us astray (sometimes in very subtle ways – a point to which I shall return to later) from the salvific truths preserved for us by the Church, can actually play a positive role as, by showing us what it is we don’t believe, we are able to reassess more precisely what it is we do believe.

As the saying goes, God writes straight with crooked lines, and whilst there will always be those wishing to stretch the boundaries of what can be believed (often with good intentions in mind), the Holy Spirit can use their errors to lead the Church to clarify the finer points of what it is that God has revealed. Looking briefly at a few of the more (in)famous heresies might help to illustrate this: Arianism claimed that Jesus was, whilst a particularly exalted one, only a creature, and was not of the same substance as God – this claim forced the Church to weigh up a complex array of scriptural data, which seemed to support both the orthodox and heterodox opinion, to see what its overarching narrative seemed to point to, and to go into a deeper understanding of what it meant to say that Christ is our Saviour.

Similarly, the claims of the Docetists (that Jesus only appeared to be human) made the Church reinforce what it believed about the Incarnation, the physical, historical nature of our redemption, and the importance of God’s having genuinely assumed human form for what we believe about creation and the goodness of material things (and therefore of the whole sacramental economy). Nestorianism and Eutychianism, by emphasising to too great a degree the distinction between the two natures in Christ, and the depth of their union, led to a more careful and balanced treatment of Christology, which resulted in the great Chalcedonian definition which still nourishes our faith today.

So, we can see from the few examples above (and there are many more) that heresy acted in these cases as a sort of whetting stone for the Church to sharpen her doctrinal blade upon – this is not to say that the Church would never have arrived at such precise definitions without those heresies (as if truth needs error to be truth) but that in a world where falsehoods exist almost as a matter of course, the Holy Spirit was able to use them to our profit, and lead us into a greater depth of understanding. In an excellent collection of essays on the great heresies, edited by Michael Ward and Ben Quash, the latter compares this beneficial aspect of heresy to the use of parody in the arts:

The positively instructive aspects of heresies can perhaps best be compared to the value of parodies in literature or art. This is to offer a counterbalance to Irenaeus’ image of the mosaicised fox and king, whereby the rearrangement of pieces to form the fox makes it simply impossible to see that there was ever a king there beforehand. By contrast, we can learn a lot from parodies about the original being parodied, and come to appreciate it in new ways. Heresies are a bit like this: closely imitative of the real thing, forcing us to ask what makes the real thing real and the parody a parody.

Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why it Matters What Christians Believe (2007), p.8, SPCK.

            So, just as when we see something parodied, it often makes us better appreciate what it is that we cherish about the real thing, when the Church recognised opinions that were straying into an area that might obscure or distort Christian teaching, she was led to reconsider the essence of that particular teaching, and more carefully define its shape and texture by imposing the limits of dogmatic definition. This leads to two very interesting questions though – firstly, is heresy always something obvious, and secondly, if the answer to the first question is no, does the Church therefore ‘create’ heresy by making such definitions?

I would submit that first of all, no, heresy is not always obvious – in fact, more often than not the points made by heretics were earnest attempts to insist on this or that aspect of a teaching, but that distorted them in subtle but significant ways. In their zeal for one aspect of Christian doctrine they were led to neglect another, equally important one (this is very much the case in the Christological debates). Also, it has often been the case that heretics have settled for a more ‘straightforward’ or ‘black and white’ option, which, whilst appealing in that it is easier to comprehend and to compartmentalise, does not do justice to the sheer radicalness of what Christianity has to say – orthodoxy often involves breathtaking balancing acts, and the heretics have just as often been guilty of playing it too safe, too easy.

Given though, that the points made by heretics have often either been subtle, or have been attempts (understandable in and of themselves) to make Christian teaching more acceptable, can the Church then be accused of ‘creating’ heresy – i.e.; given that the pitfalls that the heretics fell into were oftentimes natural enough mistakes to make, can we say that the Church, in making dogmatic definitions that employ very precise criteria, be accused of turning people who one day believed themselves to be orthodox, into those who are now falling short of what Christians should believe?

This accusation has been made many times with respect to the Council of Chalcedon and the churches of the East (i.e.; the Assyrians and the Chaldeans) – as they were not present at the Council (for whatever reason – there were many), did the findings of Chalcedon turn them into heretics overnight? The answer I think is yes; but a distinction must be made briefly between formal and material heresy – the first is to know a certain doctrine, to know it thoroughly, and to reject it; the second is to hold to a position defined as heretical, but without full knowledge that the position is heretical, and so without culpability. The churches of the East would fall into the latter category.

The reason this distinction is important is because it brings to mind the fact that we are not here dealing with opinions, but divine Truth. It is not the case that one group over here decides one thing, and another group disagrees, and is to be condemned for a difference of outlook. Either the Church has been given divine sanction with which to preserve, interpret and teach the truths of the Gospel, or she hasn’t. If we agree that she has, then her judgements are very important indeed, and what she teaches is the Truth is not just so today, and was not yesterday – it has always been so.

So, it is not so much the case that the Church’s definitions ‘create’ heresy; they reveal it – once these definitions have been made, and one finds oneself holding an opinion which contradicts or undermines them, then one is left with the choice either to submit to the teaching, or not. If, once the dogmatic definition is understood, and we accept the Church’s authority to make such a definition, yet still reject it, we are in the position of being a formal heretic, and are culpable for that. Otherwise, all the Church’s teachings do is to clarify and reveal truths which were always ever so – those who do not know the fullness of the Truth, for whatever reason, cannot be held culpable for that, but it remains the Truth nonetheless, as it ever was even before we knew it.

Having said all this though, it is important to remember why these definitions are required at all – to remind ourselves why we need orthodoxy, and should reject heresy. In the epilogue to the collection of essays mentioned above, Michael Ward gives a good summary of why this is so:

The positive content of Christian faith is the more excellent way to live life as a member of the Church, and that positive content consists of God’s glory and our enjoyment of it. We have had occasion several times in this book to refer to Against Heresies, the classic heresy-hunting work of Irenaeus, but it is worth emphasising what is perhaps the most famous line from that work, which has already been quoted in Chapter 7, namely: Gloria Dei vivens homo – “the glory of God is a human being fully alive” (IV. 20. 7). These words of Irenaeus are but a gloss on Jesus’ saying in the Gospel of John (10:10): “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”…

…It is for freedom that Christ has set us free, and that freedom is not only a freedom from error, but much more importantly, a freedom for worship, a freedom for faith and hope and love.

ibid, pp.131-132.

            Basically, if we love Jesus Christ, and want to give ourselves to Him, to respond properly to His call to follow Him, and have that abundant life, that perfect freedom, both in our worship and in our daily lives, we need to know who we are worshipping, and how to live all that out (the heresies of Pelagianism, Gnosticism and Donatism are good examples of where to go wrong in this latter area). Therefore, whilst we must always be charitable to and tolerant of all persons, we must fight against and be intolerant of heresy – of ideas that would undermine or subtract from the great riches of Christian truth that have been preserved for us, and which help us to know, love, and serve Our Lord.

So, whilst we may learn from heresy, past and present, we must never compromise with it, and whilst we may be kind to and tolerant of those who hold to heretical ideas, we must, in keeping with the first and second Spiritual Works of Mercy, admonish and instruct them, yet, as Saint Peter tells us, to always do so ‘with gentleness and reverence’ (1 Peter 3:15). If we do not, the world certainly will not help them, and they will be left liable to further error, which will in turn lead them further away from the nourishing truths that alone can guide them safely to Our Lord, in all His fullness. If we love them, we must give them the truth, for Truth and Love, having the same source, are always one.

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