In last week’s episode (number 31) of the podcast, one of our discussions related to doctrine and dogma had to do with the category of heresy, one that Michial and I disagreed on (as we did, if I remember right, in last year’s follow-up episode on Emergent and the New Calvinism). As I remember both discussions, Michial’s working definition of heresy is that which stands against the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, while my own definition was that which, if taught to a generations of Christians, would result in something other than the Christian church. (Michial, if I’m getting this wrong, do comment and set it right.)
Michial’s criticism of my definition is a valid one: if the definition of heresy is an open, functional one, that leaves the door open for just about anything to become heresy, the only barrier barring anything from the category being the capacity of a heretic detector to imagine a disastrous future. And Michial is right to imagine (even if we didn’t dedicate the time during the podcast to say so) that heretic detectors tend to have lively imaginations. I readily grant that my own definition has that real danger, and people should listen to Michial. That said, I do want to attempt a positive case for thinking and writing about heresy precisely in those dangerous terms.
My functional definition stems from a hunch (and some history behind the hunch) that heretics have continued their innovative work (note that I did not call it creative) in the centuries since the Council of Constantinople (where, confusingly, the Nicene Creed took its final form). Those creeds were written at a time when homoousia and homoiousia were the central theological questions of the moment (in the case of the Nicene Creed), and although I can readily sign on to the former against the latter, I don’t know that our own generation’s teachings that stand the greatest threat to the core of Christian confession take their force to claims of similar natures rather than unitary nature. If folks whose “new” teachings draw their force from that Aristotelian distinction do crop up, the creeds will be handy for countering them. But those teachings that most threaten to turn the worship of Jesus Christ into civil religion, amorphous “spirituality,” or something else in our generation, at least as far as I can tell, draw their influences and their persuasive force from other places.
In other words, although one could stretch the Greek text of the Nicene Creed to counter such latter-day teachings as extreme forms of Italian humanism or blood and soil nationalism, I’d prefer to have texts contemporary to those phenomena (like the Barmen Declaration) address their particular character and engage the important question of whether their content and form threaten the particular faithfulness of those traditions that worship Jesus Christ. Such texts, like the ancient creeds, should draw their force from the text of Scripture even as their vocabularies create new content with new ideas, and I imagine that, in order to do any work, they’d have to take on some sort of Magisterial authority for the sake of good Christian teaching. Again, to grant Michial’s objection, to open up such possibilities is terribly dangerous. To add to his objection, I’ll grant that such a move will mean that identification of heresy, for any given generation, necessarily continues to be the historically contingent (and thus even more dangerous) process that it was for those fourth-century Bishops. That said, the alternatives seem to be refusal to pronounce on doctrine at all and trying to make another generation’s response to another generation’s problems fit our own problems in our own moment. Since neither of those seems adequate to the genuinely human and historical and contingent life of the faithful in the saeculum, I’m inclined to lean towards the dangerous but potentially powerful authority of Christians in this or that generation to bind and loose with authority.
Such is not to say that the historical creeds have no place in Christian worship; if anything, I wish that my evangelical brethren and sostren did more things to declare our solidarity with those generations that came before us. My call is not for an abolition of creeds (my apologies to my Stone-Campbell friends on this one) but to assign those historical creeds communal rather than judicial functions. I would call on Christians both to honor and adhere to the historic creeds and to engage particular contemporary teachers, not abandon one to do the other.
I have to laugh as I realize that my journey with Michial through some of the big texts of existentialism in the last couple of years has led me to articulate what I take to be an existentialist argument against our resident existentialist. That said, as someone who adheres to believers’ baptism and a conception of Church that does holds faithfulness to Christ as revealed in the Scriptures to be every generation’s burden, I am inclined to conclude that a definition of heresy that sets the boundaries in the fourth century simply does not grant enough importance to the continuous and crucial task of discernment. I look forward to seeing Michial’s and anyone else’s responses.