Wednesday, 24 August 2011

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Over at The Piety That Lies Between, Eric Reitan responds in two posts (On Heresy and Universalism and On Heresy and Universalism, Part 2) to Roger Olson's question How serious a heresy is universalism? by deconstructing the question through examining Olson's understandingh of heresy and orthodoxy. In the first post, Reitan writes:
Olson does offer a brief definition of heresy in a parenthetical remark, saying that heresies are "theologically incorrect beliefs," but he doesn't consider the adequacy of this definition in the face of alternatives. A "theologically incorrect belief" is presumably a belief about God that doesn't correspond with the way God really is.
Now, it's not actually obvious that this is right. It might seem like an unnecessarily pedantic quibble about grammar, but a "theologically incorrect belief" does not mean the same thing as an "incorrect theological belief." The latter noun phrase simply calls out a belief which is both incorrect (under some epistemological understanding of "incorrect") and theological. As Reitan points out, if this is what heresy consists of, there are some rather strange conclusions to be drawn:
But the reason why this definition of heresy (and the contrary notion of orthodoxy) has these implications is because it makes the objective nature of reality the standard by which beliefs are judged heretical (or orthodox)--and it seems inevitable that each of us will, in our beliefs about ultimate reality, get some things wrong. But I think this way of understanding heresy has deeper implications that Olson (and other evangelical Christians) would be unhappy to accept. Consider: on this definition, if atheists are right about the nature of reality then all Christians of every stripe are heretical in all their theological beliefs, since all their theological beliefs would then be wrong.
But in the actual phrase Olson uses, "theologically incorrect belief," theologically isn't an adjective modifying belief, but rather an adverb modifying incorrect. Which is to say, there could be a special of type of (in)correctness distinct from "objective (in)correctness," called "theological (in)correctness," and it would be by this standard (not our regular epistemological criteria, whatever they may be) which theological claims would (and/or should) be judged. I think this is actually the much more intuitive reading for many of us, precisely for the reason that, as Reitan shows, the alternate reading leads to an absurdity.

However, there is actually some support for Reitan's reading, because Olson goes on to say:
Strictly historically speaking, any universalism is heresy--according to all major branches of Christianity. The Catholic church allows hope for universal salvation but not confident affirmation of it. But, of course, as Luther demonstrated, all branches of Christianity can be wrong. That is why I reject paleo-orthodoxy and any appeal to absolute authority of tradition. Tradition gets a vote but never a veto. The Bible trumps tradition.
By allowing (through an overconfidence in Luther) that "all branches of Christianity can be wrong," Reitan seems to be assuming a standard by which the theological correctness of a belief can be judged which is extrinsic to the discipline of theology itself. He's even quite clear what that standard should be: the Bible--and of course, if the Bible is perfectly perspicuous and inerrant in all things, or at least all things pertaining to faith and/or morals (and I don't know if Olson thinks it is these things or not, but obviously many Christians do), then the distinction between "biblically correct" and "objectively correct" actually collapses in upon itself.

Yet as Reitan notes in his second post:
Scripture, by virtue of its tensions and complexities and ambiguities, is a much more slippery standard that may require an interpretive hermeneutic in order to be applied effectively (which may mean that what is really operating as the standard isn't Scripture as such, but Scripture as read through a particular interpretive lens).
"A similar problem arises," Reitan notes, "when attempting to test a belief against a theological tradition."

Now, for the theologicall liberal, be they Emergent ex-Evangelical or Mainline Protestant, this apparent problem really isn't. Whether using the Anglican formulation of scripture/tradition/reason (the "three-legged stool") or the Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture/tradition/reason/experience (and I think the distinction between the two is ultimately one without a difference), we understand scripture, tradition, and reason (and experience) to be in dialectical conversation with each other (as modeled by the perichoretic dialectic of conversation which is the the Triune God) and the fact that this cannot provide us with any hard and fast, final and ultimate answers to our questions is seen as a feature rather than a bug. There is always room for the Spirit to move us further in our understanding. Or as Reitan says using even bigger words (impressive, isn't it?):
this serves as part of a broader Hegelian project of preserving the internal integrity of a system of beliefs so as to make it possible for it to evolve in the face of the lived encounter with ultimate reality.
But that's dealing in abstraction. What does it mean in practice to evaluate the orthodoxy or hereticalness of some particular claim, such as universalism?

what IS heretical )

what is orthodox )

the value of orthodoxy )
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My Prayer

"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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