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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?

I do think there are certain claims we, working within the theological tradition which can broadly be called "Western Trinitarianism" (and which includes Roman Catholicism and most of Protestantism), can call out as heretical, such as all of the following:
  1. The Heavenly Parent, Resurrected Child, and Holy Spirit are different modes or aspects of one God, as perceived by the believer, rather than three distinct persons in God Godself. (Modalism)
  2. Jesus' physical body was an illusion, as was the crucifixion; that is, Jesus only seemed to have a physical body and to physically die, but in reality Jesus was incorporeal, a pure spirit, and hence could not physically die. (Docetism)
  3. Jesus was fully human without being divine, simply a highly revered prophet of God who was not equal to God. (Ebionitism/Unitarianism)
  4. The Heavenly Parent and the Begotten One of God did not exist together eternally; the pre-incarnate Jesus was a divine being created by (and therefore inferior to) the Heavenly Parent at some point, before which the Begotten One did not exist. (Arianism)
  5. Christ was of two natures but not in two natures: separate divine and human natures had united and blended in such a manner that although Jesus was of one being with the Parent, Jesus was not of one being with humanity. Either the human nature of Christ was overcome by the divine, or Christ had a human nature but it was unlike the rest of humanity. (Eutychianism)
(All of the above heretical claims are taken from the Wikipedia articles for the respective heresies, and modfifed as I saw fit.) We know--I would argue--that these claims are heretical because the Early Church explicitly said so, through the earliest Ecumenical Councils. In so doing, they articulated an orthodoxy, a space of limited intellectual elbow-room in which one could operate and still be identifiably within the tradition of Western Trinitarianism.

I believe, as of this moment, that I am not a heretic--while at the same time not being sure it would be all that horrible if I were. This means I necessarily have a much narrower understanding of what heresy is than Olsen:
I have never met a Christian who was one hundred percent theologically correct. Scratch hard enough and you’ll always find some heresy beneath the surface (if not on the surface). That’s true for me as much as for anyone else. If I thought I held no heresies, I’d think I had already arrived at the fullness of truth–something even the apostle Paul did not claim.
I do not believe that I have arrived at the fullness of truth, only that I have managed to avoid those positions which the weight of the tradition of Western Trinitarianism has understood as anathema. In addition to heresies and orthodoxies, I think it is clear there are many claims which are neither orthodox nor heretical. For some of these, this is because they have nothing to do with theology: the number of miles between Paris and Tokyo is not a theological claim. Yet what constitutes a theological claim is itself a disputed matter of theology; what looked liked a theological matter at the trial of Galileo might not seem so to many Christians, including Roman Catholics, today. And it seems clear to me there are a large number of theological issues upon which one might take either side and still remain orthodox, at least in regards to the fullness of Western Trinitarianism. (Someone who claims that grace is irresistable is not an orthodox Roman Catholic; someone who claims that it is resistable is not an orthodox Calvinist; they are both perfectly orthodox Christians.)

Now in addition to the earliest Ecumenical Councils, there are many other traditions within the Church which I look to as authoritative, from the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral to many of the canons of the Council of Trent. Now I admit freely that there is a very real sense in which I can be said to "pick and choose" these sources of authority, but the fact remains that I do look to them as authoritative, and together they constitute my particular orthodoxy, one I tried to articulate in Twenty Features of My Orthodoxy. In a comment to that post, I tried to draw out the way each of those twenty "features" drew upon certain strands of (Western Trinitarian) Christian tradition and were in accord with them. Some of these represent clear "orthodoxies" in themselves, beliefs which are central to Western Trinitarianism as a whole. Others are merely "orthodox beliefs" (that is, are not heretical) without themselves being orthodoxies, taking sides with some strand of the tradition against another side within the same tradition, e.g. Catholic versus Protestant.

Which leaves the question: why bother being orthodox? Is there any intrinsic value in orthodoxy as such? This is a question which has been more and more on my mind as I find myself, to my great surprise, becoming more and more orthodox as I define it, and is further complicated by my aspirancy to the Epicopal priesthood; I would (of course?) not seek ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church if I did not feel I could in honesty affirm an orthodoxy representative of that church, e.g. that the Bible contains all things necessary to salvation. Reitan concedes there can be "value in the project of subjecting beliefs to such a standard of orthodoxy" in service of the "Hegelian project" mentioned above--but what do I think?

If we look at past blog posts or forum comments of mine, I almost always invoke notions of orthodoxy or heresy almost apologetically, with a "not that there's anything wrong with that."

 


For example, in History and Christ, I write, "No articulation of ideology, be it social or theological (however one might understand the distinction) should be exempt from the dialectical processes of which truth is a function. All ideological processes should hold truth, not orthodoxy for the sake of orthodoxy, as their ultimate objective." In Why the Quest for the Historical Jesus Is a Spiritual Dead End: "I'd argue that the fact that 'made flesh' is in the title automatically negates any possibility of a fall into the docetist heresy (not that I'm any advocate for orthodoxy for orthodoxy's sake, exactly) [. . .]."

I would affirm this understanding; orthodoxy cannot be a lodestone. While I believe that we as Christians are required to be in dialectical conversation with our tradition and our Scriptures, the option of principled dissent must always be an option (although as an ordained minister, it might become incumbent upon myself to resign my position if I could not in good conscience teach orthodox teaching). And yet neither should be surprised when we find--as I have found--that that tradition and those Scriptures speak a wisdom which is enduring through the ages.

I reserve the right to be a heretic, but I am glad that I am not.

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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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