Stop with the Nicene Creed? A (Brief) Further Reflection on Heresy

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.

5 thoughts on “Stop with the Nicene Creed? A (Brief) Further Reflection on Heresy

  1. That’s roughly the definition of heresy I was presented in Orthodox catechism, i.e. that a heretic is one who teaches or otherwise propagates a false opinion that divides the church or perverts the tradition of the Apostles within the church. It was made explicit that heresy applies only when there is communal effect; privately held wrong opinion is not heresy (even disagreement with the Creed).

    I’d agree with Michial as to the centrality of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan 😉 Creed. I was also taught that heresy is nearly always a denial of Mystery, a (false) choice made to make the ungraspable graspable (e.g. rejecting the Mystery of the Trinity in favor of some kind of oneness or polytheistic or Father-only formulation, or rejecting the Mystery of Christ’s union of deity and humanity in favor of teachings denying one or the other). Since the Mysteries of the faith do not change we can expect the same basic heresies that the Creed addresses to arise again and again in different forms so it will remain both central and relevant.

    I’d disagree with Michial, though, that it can be the only litmus test for heresy. It’s central, but far from exhaustive. It’s approach is what is to guide us as much as its conclusions. Because heresy is, of course, still with us and some heresies saw their genesis post-Creed. From the Orthodox perspective, for example (and with apologies), Calvinism and the reactionary Arminianism in regard to election and providence and Protestants’ assertion of Communion as symbol and the Catholic reactionary assertion of the literal Body and Blood are each heretical choices made against Mystery (when raised to the level of dogma). And in the period we’re now emerging from heresy seems to have centered largely around the Kingdom of God (with the heretical choices being State, Market, and [bane of the Orthodox] People). That still lingers and requires strong anathemas, but I suspect the heresies challenging the faith today are of a different nature and not fully identified and challenged yet.

    Our greatest heresy, of course, is our fragmentation and lack of communion. As long as that is the case the ability of the faith to speak against (let alone protect itself against) other heresies is severely weakened.

  2. Robert’s third paragraph demonstrates quite nicely why I hold to the early creeds as the boundary markers, as he just excommunicated both me AND Nathan. I used the example of Calvinists calling Open Theists heretics in an effort to be inclusive; obviously, I’m just as concerned with the opposite.

    I pick the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds because they are accepted by nearly every recognizably Christian group; even denominations that don’t explicitly adopt the creeds (the Southern Baptists are a good example) do so implicitly.

    Picking these ancient documents as the boundary markers allows us a good deal of leeway in the present day; Robert is justified in being concerned about my Calvinism, as I am justified in being concerned with his devotion (I assume) to the Orthodox Church, but neither of us need call the other a heretic, merely wrong. And there’s a world of difference between wrong and heretical.

  3. That is an interesting take, Robert. Michial, this is why I said that people would probably be better off listening to you than to me! 😉

    Michial, I would entirely agree that there’s a strong difference between being wrong and being heretical, but I’d articulate the difference as public vs. silent rather than fourth-century vs. twentieth-century. As I said before, although I can’t see any really good Nicene-Creed reasons to oppose the Blood and Soil teachings of the German Christian movement of the twentieth century, I do see the Barmen Declaration not only as saying they’re wrong but as saying that the Confessing Church opposes their teachings as heretical.

    Robert, I don’t see the heretical character of Calvinism and Open Theism. (I still haven’t read any Jacob Arminius, so I have no idea whether I’m an Arminian or not.) I would understand if your claim were that those theological movements arose out of (what Orthodox bishops call) schismatic movements and that therefore they’re suspect, or even that there are intellectual problems with them, but to put them on a par with Arianism or even Blood and Soil seems a categorical error.

    But that demonstrates my claim about the dangerous necessity of heresy as a historically living category: although it means that I might have to assert an argument for my own orthodoxy or my neighbor’s, it does return the authority to bind and to loose to the congregations of those who gather here and now in the name of Christ, which I see, again as a believer’s-baptism-type, as the continuing responsibility of those who wait to join the Cloud of Witnesses.

  4. I don’t disagree that it’s extremely dangerous and, as they say, well above my own pay grade. I have to protest, though, and note that I didn’t excommunicate anyone. The key phrase in that third paragraph is “when raised to the level of dogma.”

    We’re all full of opinions regarding the Mysteries of our faith. Divergent opinion, though, isn’t necessarily a hindrance to communion. It’s only when a contingent attempt at explanation is made into a hard boundary marker that communion is exploded. I apologize that I chose a controversial example. I had felt safe doing so assuming you are not the least bit guilty of what I was talking about (you’re PC-USA, man, they don’t believe anything 😉 ). If a Calvinist understanding of the predestination of the elect (for example, since it’s already out there) is made into hard dogma by a group of Christians, if the claim is made that those who disagree do not know or are outside of the Christian faith, then it is that group that has exploded communion, not some know-nothing on the internet lamenting the fact of the explosion. Calvin’s teaching is not heresy, but the dogmatizing of it can be.

    Nate, I hinted at two categories, roughly narrowing (making attempts at explanation into the explanation) and diverging (not remaining true to the faith). My Nicene examples straddle both and the Reformation examples fall into the former category. Your examples and my Modern examples seem mostly to fall into the latter.

    And it’s time for my usual caveat: but what do I know?

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