Heresy, Cont'd

Thursday, 25 August 2011 03:48 pm
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)

If there are different brands of Christian orthodoxy, then there are competing standards against which heresy can be judged. I think that's what is going on in a recent post of mine, when I spoke of "the Protestant heresy of the 'perspicuity of the Scriptures,' which implies that the Bible has one true meaning and that any seeming deviations from it (whatever it might be) are in fact distortions." Obviously, in speaking of a "Protestant heresy" I was quite clearly positioning myself as an Anglo-Catholic, and from a broadly Catholic perspective that claim of Protestantism is indeed heretical.

At the same time, I think there's a very real sense in which I gave into a temptation I probably should have resisted. Taken to the extreme, the charge of heresy becomes indistinguishable from simple disagreement with the accuser; as Robin Parry notes, "More often than not those making such claims simply mean that the doctrine is, in their opinion, both wrong and dangerous." Such is the case when Robert Sanders writes about "the ecstatic heresy" in Christianity Today.

Simply put, there is no such thing as the ecstatic heresy. He made it up. Indeed, the claim that Sanders is interested in positioning as heretical--"that God can only be known in feeling, in ways that transcend the language of God or about God"--is actually one that is well-attested throughout Christian tradition, in apophatic theology and Christian mysticism, and developed in both Protestant and Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) theology.

What then, about ++Katharine Jefferts Schori's controversial accusation of heresy made at the 2009 General Convention, which I quoted in my recent sermon preached before the Church of the Ascension in Gloucester City:
Katharine Jefferts Schori, our Presiding Bishop here in the Episcopal Church, has spoken of what she calls “the great Western heresy - that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God. It's caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus. That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of all being.”

Jefferts Schori later clarified her remarks by noting, “If salvation is understood only as ‘getting right with God’ without considering ‘getting right with all our neighbors,’ then we've got a heresy on our hands.”
As evidenced by her later need to clarify her meaning, Jefforts Schori clearly was not sufficiently clear or politic in her original statements opening the Convention. Now, I agree completely with her insistence that the understanding of salvation she calls out is a theological error, and perhaps would even go farther than her in my own critique of individual salvation. But--especially in the context of a church which, once upon a time, used to have "Protestant" in its title--"heresy" might be going too far. Indeed, I'm not even quite sure what it means for the U.S.-ian primate of a church founded in Philadelphia to speak of the "great Western heresy," as great rhetoric as it may be. Is she positioning herself with the perspective of Eastern Orthodoxy? The Early Church, pre-Westernization?

ETA: Then again, the Wikipedia articles on antinomianism does say "there is wide agreement within Christianity that 'antinomianism' is heresy," but it doesn't provide a citation, and since that term wasn't coined until Martin Luther, it's hard to view that sentiment as an expression of the universal Church. The 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia is more useful, although not exactly objective or unbiased:
Although the term designating this error came into use only in the sixteenth century, the doctrine itself can be traced in the teaching of the earlier heresies. Certain of the Gnostic sect — possibly, for example, Marcion and his followers, in their antithesis of the Old and New Testament, or the Carpoeratians, in their doctrine of the indifference of good works and their contempt for all human laws — held Antinomian or quasi-Antinomian views. In any case, it is generally understood that Antinomianism was professed by more than one of the Gnostic schools. Several passages of the New Testament writings are quoted in support of the contention that even as early as Apostolic times it was found necessary to single out and combat this heresy in its theoretical or dogmatic as well as in its grosser and practical form. The indignant words of St. Paul in his Epistles to the Romans and to the Ephesians (Romans 3:8, 31; 6:1; Ephesians 5:6), as well as those of St. Peter, the Second Epistle (2 Peter 2:18, 19), seem to lend direct evidence in favour of this view.
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"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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