Why and How I Teach Heresy

Article by   August 2007

 Why and How I Teach Heresy
Wages of Spin
Carl Trueman

Teaching heresy is surely one of the most important things that I have to do in my classes at Seminary. Friends will at this point throw up their hands in horror; enemies will smile smugly to themselves and mutter `I told you so!'; but it is true. Teaching heresy is, for me, a crucial part of my responsibility as a professor. The reason, of course, is simple: in order to know what orthodoxy is, one needs to know what heresy is. Indeed, a study of the creedal development of orthodoxy, particularly in the early church, demonstrates time and again that the defining of orthodoxy and the defining of heresy is something which the church does simultaneously. This is hardly surprising: creeds establish boundaries, and so the establishment of creedal orthodoxy is one and the same act as the establishment of heresy.

So far, so obvious. That is the `why' question answered. The `how' question is a little more complicated. One obvious way to do it, and a way that certainly appealed to me as a younger Christian, was the `name it and shame it' approach. You identify the heresy; then you proceed to tear it to shreds, using whatever apocalyptic language is available to you. Such an approach is certainly valid in many ways; after all, there are a number of examples of such an approach within the Bible itself. Heresy has the potential for damning souls; its consequences are eternal; and it should therefore be taken with the utmost seriousness. The doctrinal indifference of many in the church, combined with the aesthetic distaste of postmoderns for hard-and-fast doctrinal boundaries and value judgements (at least, those value judgements which are not primarily aesthetic in their content) indicates the existence of a potentially lethal theological trajectory which could well bear strange fruit in the coming years.

On the whole, however, this is not the approach I use in my classes. In fact, over the years I have noticed a slow confluence of my approach to heresy within my academic historical studies and that of my more ecclesiastical writings and lectures. Early on in my PhD studies, my supervisor told me that I did not have to keep telling him who the bad guys in the Reformation were; he knew I was a Reformed Protestant; and so I did not need to keep affirming that by telling him about how awful I considered the Catholics and the Anabaptists to be. More important, he suggested, was a solid exposition of what such groups believed, and how this shaped the development of the thinking of the Magisterial Reformers (or `the good guys' as I generally thought of them).

My supervisor was himself a highly sacramental, Wesleyan Methodist who had spent his life studying the life and thought of Martin Bucer and Huldrych Zwingli. I asked him one day why he had chosen two theologians who shared neither his sacramental nor soteriological convictions. `Because I consider it a challenge to get inside the minds of men with whom I disagree, and to present their thought in a way that is accurate and fair.' In retrospect, this was good advice: the temptation for a historian to twist the evidence to favour a character with whom one has a natural sympathy can sometimes be a powerful force; and, in my experience, one can be more easily aware of instinctive biases when trying to deal with a character with whose thought one has little or no agreement.

Such is my approach to academic history. I am not concerned to critique so much as to understand. When I write these days on the seventeenth century, I know that the Socinians (early Unitarians) are the heretics; I do not need to harp on about that; I need rather to understand them and how they impacted the orthodox through their writings and their social and political activities. I can only come to understand the nuance with which, say, a man like John Owen uses words like essence and substance with reference to the doctrine of God if I understand what those terms were originally used for and under what pressure they had come in the seventeenth century. Both aspects of this task require me to understand the heretical impulses throughout church history down to Owen's day, and the various orthodox responses and doctrinal refinements.

This approach is also most helpful when it comes to learning from heresies in the context of Christian education for the church. And we learn from heresies not simply by refuting them but also by first of all asking the critical question, `Is there a legitimate concern which underlies or drives this particular heresy?' In almost every case, the answer is yes, and the orthodox can learn from the question as a means of critiquing, refining, and strengthening their own doctrinal understanding and commitment.

Take, for example, the archetypal heresy of Arianism. Most people who have read any history of theology will know that Arianism is the name given to a family of theological positions which basically reject the co-equality of the Son with the Father. The Son is, if you like, a creature, albeit highly exalted above all other creatures, and certainly not equally ultimate with the Father. When teaching on the early church, one could therefore pitch straight in by dismissing this as hopeless blasphemy and move straight on to the next big thing. In doing so, however, one would commit at least two mistakes which would impoverish what is taught. First, one would fail to demonstrate how and why classic Trinitarian language of three hypostases and one ousia (in Western/English parlance, three persons, one substance - although the application of the contemporary meaning of `person' does not bring over all the nuances of the Greek) began. It was far from obvious to the church in 319 that what Arius was saying was lethal to a biblical understanding of God and to salvation; the process by which the church came to realize these vital truths is central to understanding the necessity of Trinitarianism. Thus, by failing to spend time expounding heresy, one has restricted through incompetent teaching the knowledge of what orthodoxy means, and why it expresses itself in the way it does.

Second, however, one would have failed to appreciate the legitimate difficulties with which Arianism was wrestling - and with which orthodoxy had to wrestle too, if its own answer was to be more satisfactory. Central to Arianism were two basic questions: what is the exact nature of the ontological relationship between the Father and the Son? And how are the biblical passages which speak of Christ suffering to be understood? No-one, no matter how orthodox, can deny that these are legitimate questions; and no-one should underestimate the difficulty, and the importance, of providing satisfactory answers to them.

As to the first, the relationship of the Father to Son has immediate implications for understanding not simply God's internal relations but also his relationship to creation. Is love essential to deity, or is God ultimately and essentially one and only one, and thus not essentially a being in relation, not a being who loves in his very essence. Then, it speaks directly to the identity of Christ: is Christ God or is he not? As Athanasius pointed out, a Christ who is not God cannot save, and so theological questions do not come any more important than that; and the best way to understand why that is the case is to see how the church wrestled with the questions which Arianism posed on precisely this issue in the fourth century.

Further, the issue of Christ's suffering is again a hardy perennial for the church. Under the impact of the philosophy of Hegel, and the mediating theology of I A Dorner, suffering has become a significant leitmotif in modern theology, as in the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and, above all, Jurgen Moltmann, for whom divine suffering is a central part of Christian response to the Holocaust. Yet the attraction of this notion in the modern era needs to be set against the background of Arianism for there is a sense in which the triumph of Nicene orthodoxy at the Council of Constantinople was a triumph over those who saw the biblical references to Christ's suffering as penetrating to the whole of his nature and as precluding him from being god in the way that the Father was God. A study of this issue at least raises questions about the modern received wisdom on this issue, even if it is not, by itself, a decisive argument against divine passibility. Yet it is only as the heresy of Arianism is unpacked, if not sympathetically then at least accurately and without the intrusion of anachronistic knowledge or categories, that the questions it raised, the answers it offered, and the responses it elicited can be addressed, and only then that our understanding of, and appreciation for, orthodoxy is enriched and enhanced.

If this works for Arianism, it also works for other heresies too. Monophysitism and Nestorianism asked what it really means for humanity and divinity to unite in one person. Pelagianism asked what the grace of God really means. Socinianism demanded that the church really justify on the basis of scripture its Trinitarianism and its use of extra biblical terminology. Kenoticism demanded that the church address those passages of scripture which speak of the incarnate limitations of the Son. Each of them raised legitimate questions, and we cheapshot them, deride them, or ignore them at our peril.

When I first became a Christian, I found myself in a tradition which held that one should only read orthodox books; indeed, one should only read books with which one already agreed. I understand the logic of this position; and I appreciate the concern which it embodies to protect believers from being misled. Some of the most brilliant and persuasive people in church history have been heretics, and people can be led astray by reading them. Yet those called to be teachers in the church need a solid grasp of orthodoxy; and that demands by its very nature a solid grasp of heresy. That is why I teach heresy in my classes, and why I make sure I do justice to the legitimacy of the questions which underlie virtually every heresy of which I can think; for it is only then that I can truly explain orthodoxy to my students. And I also get a perverse pleasure from using heresy to do that which heretics most despise: promote sound, biblical, historic orthodoxy.



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