Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed


Heresy and Our Collective Faith: Some Pragmatics

posted by Scot McKnight

Q.jpgI got this set of questions from a reader at the end of our series on “Our Collective Faith,” a series that discussed a book about heresies and how to avoid them. Here is the set of questions, and I’ve asked some theology friends to respond, but I’m game for anyone’s response:

To what extent has the application of the label of “heresy” been properly or improperly applied through church history?

How does the notion that “the winners write the rules” influence our take on doctrine today?
 
What (if any) of the classical heresies and their proponents may merit re-examination, even rehabilitation, in light of scripture and faith as we now understand them?
 

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Who gets to (ought to) be involved in determining answers to the previous question?  What groups or individuals are the appropriate arbiters of orthodoxy?


Here is a response from one theologian, my colleague Mary Veeneman:

These are great questions.  I choose to define heresy fairly narrowly and I am bothered by how easily the word can get tossed around.  I usually define heresy as a belief that is so fundamentally problematic it renders human salvation via Christ impossible (i.e. Christ was merely human or Christ was divine and only appeared to be human, or there are three gods, or Christ is the firstborn of creation, or human beings don’t really need the grace of Christ for salvation)…Usually, this involves crossing either Nicaea or Chalcedon.  

We can certainly identify other beliefs as heterodox/problematic/wrong, but I usually think of heresy as something so grave that it calls into question the salvation of the one who holds it.  For example, as a Thomist, I vehemently disagree with open theism and some strong forms of Calvinism, but I don’t think either is a heresy–I have no reason to question the redemption of some the major names connected to these ideas today.

Others want to view heresy as a break with the historic church, but if we went with that definition, we might have to call Luther a heretic (which I don’t want to do) and we might in some ways even have to call the fathers of Vatican II heretics, which I also do not want to do.  Seeing a break with the historic church also would be somewhat problematic for an understanding of the development of doctrine (which as an evangelical Anglo-Catholic I whole-heartedly want to affirm)…

Coincidentally, I love teaching major Christian doctrines via heresy–I do enjoy observing the ways in which various heresies pushed the church towards definitions of orthodoxy that may be implicit but were not previously formally defined…



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Bryan Cross

posted April 29, 2009 at 12:58 am


Scot,
I choose to define heresy fairly narrowly …
If Mary can choose to define heresy as she wants, then so can anyone, including any ‘heretic’. The word loses all objectivity when there is no definitive standard that distinguishes orthodoxy from heresy.
In the peace of Christ,
– Bryan



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Yogi da

posted April 29, 2009 at 3:00 am


If you want to understand heresy, let’s look at some, shall we?
I find this question interesting because my spiritual path has led me to re-examine my Christian roots from time to time. Orthodoxists would surely consider me a heretic, but I don’t mind. The very concept of heresy has always struck me as foul, superstitious and morally indefensible. I have a long list of complaints about orthodox theology, but primarily, I object to the dogmatism of establishment churches and their spokespersons for the myriad ways they attempt to control the narrative of the life and death of Yeshua bar Yusef, and to suppress variants that call into question any of their erroneous (historically untrue or downright fictional) beliefs. I challenge the vocabulary of orthodoxy: there is no such thing as “heresy,” there never has been. It’s just a weapon used in power struggles among ambitious factions in the church-state hierarchies of history, a handy accusation to eliminate competition. It surprises me that the very word is even still in use.
I’m interested in Christian orthodoxy as it compares to Gnosticism/ mysticism, and from a historical perspective. Is it heresy to claim (shout from the rooftops) that the true story of the real Jesus is quite different from what is taught in churches today? That the Bible is an unreliable document, the product of manipulation by very flawed human beings with various agendas, in the Second and Third Centuries A.D.? The editing, the removal of sections, the insertion of invented material re-written much later? That belief in scriptural inerrancy or authority to determine what is orthodox or heretical, is absurd?
Is it heresy to claim that Jesus spent the “missing” years, age 14 to 28 or so, in India and Tibet? The Legend of Saint Issa is clearly about Jesus, this great, mystical figure from Judea. He meditated in a Buddhist monastery for five years straight, and came out more God-realized and radiant than anyone before or since. He’s known and remembered and revered by millions in that part of the world, and those people understand him far better than Western Christendom. Is that heresy? Is it heresy to claim that Jesus is greater than orthodox Christianity gives him credit for, because he ATTAINED his divinity, and was much bigger in the world than your (purposely limited) narrative allows?
“A belief so fundamentally problematic that it renders human salvation via Christ impossible.” Again, I challenge the underlying assumptions: 1) Whether you can make that call, or discriminate through an orthodoxy test, whether that is the case or not for anyone; 2) Whether salvation is a thing that really happens after death ONLY if the decedent has passed the orthodoxy test regarding the “correctness” of a BELIEF. Do you actually speak for Christ on this question more than anyone else does, because you are so certain that your beliefs are correct and any variants are hell-bound heresies? You have the lineage, the heritage factor; your antecedents were always orthodox because they were the establishment and could define orthodoxy however they wanted to. But it doesn’t make them – or you — right. Beliefs are never more than conjecture at best. In essence, they are nothing at all, mere figments of thought, and as such, are without consequence. Actions, behavior, yes. But beliefs?
Forgive me if I sound rude. Perhaps I am so far outside the norms that I don’t even qualify as a Christian. So, is it heresy to feel a deep and abiding connection to the divine through the person called Jesus the Christ, but to have gnosis, mystical insight, and a belief system substantially at odds with your own? To deny that salvation is even necessary, because there is no Hell? The Old Testament is wrong about a lot of things; the vengeful, angry, jealous God was never real, and Jesus surpassed even the Buddha in compassion for all who suffer in the illusions of this world. If Jesus can save ANYONE, He will save EVERYONE. If that’s heresy to you, then you orthodoxists need not concern yourselves with our salvation. Tend to your own. We’re already in good hands.
PEACE & BLESSINGS,
da



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James Petticrew

posted April 29, 2009 at 6:10 am


da, No one on this forum would disagree with your right to believe whatever you wish. I think all of us would also hang our head in shame and repent because the church has treated those who disagree with the fundamental beliefs of Christianity in a less than Christian way.
I don’t think from what you say you do “qualify” as a Christian but that is completely up to you thankfully the Church and State no longer collude in an unholy alliance to enforce orthodoxy. You do however make some quite remarkable and sweeping statements,
“the true story of the real Jesus is quite different from what is taught in churches today? That the Bible is an unreliable document, the product of manipulation by very flawed human beings with various agendas, in the Second and Third Centuries A.D.? The editing, the removal of sections, the insertion of invented material re-written much later? That belief in scriptural inerrancy or authority to determine what is orthodox or heretical, is absurd?”
I think those of us who hold to Christian orthodoxy would want to see you back up those assertions with some solid, verifiable evidence and I am sure Scot as biblical scholar would be able to help us all evaluate that evidence should you wish to provide it.



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angusj

posted April 29, 2009 at 7:43 am


Surely the three major creeds (Nicene, Apostles & Athanasian) remain the bedrock of orthodoxy. They’ve stood the test of time and so beliefs that contradict these creeds could reasonably be considered heresy. However, I also believe that it’s possible to believe heresy and still be saved. What I do find particularly unhelpful is the practice of using ‘heresy’ as a pejorative, especially against second and third order doctrinal issues (gays in the church, women’s ordination etc).



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Rick

posted April 29, 2009 at 8:34 am


To deal with heresy, we must define orthodoxy, and those definitions can vary (albeit sometimes just slightly).
Michael Patton at Parchment and Pen had a blog post some time back in which he broke down the various forms/definitions of orthodoxy:
Scriptural Orthodoxy- “no creed but the Bible”. The Fundamentalist Protestants’ stance.
Paleo-Orthodoxy- early church beliefs; “that which was believed everywhere, always”. Position held by “Eastern Orthodoxy, some Evangelicals, and many Emerging Christians”.
Dynamic Orthodoxy- orthodoxy “is not in any sense static, but dynamically changing as new discoveries are being made.” Liberal Christianity’s stance.
Developmental Orthodoxy- “the fullness of Christian orthodoxy contained in the one deposit of faith given by Christ to the apostles”, Roman Catholic Church’s stance.
Progressive Orthodoxy- “the ultimate authority for the Christian faith is found only in the Scriptures (sola Scriptura) and that orthodoxy is a progressive development of the Church?s understanding of the Scriptures”. The stance of “most Evangelicals, Protestant Reformers, some emergers.”



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Scott M

posted April 29, 2009 at 8:57 am


angusj, without the interpretation of a particular tradition, the creeds can do no more to determine bounds of orthodox versus heterodox than scripture. The creeds are interpreted (if they are not simply ignored) however a particular group wishes to interpret them. It’s certainly fair to say that no Protestant group reads or interprets the Nicene creed in a manner even vaguely similar to the way the Orthodox read it. It’s also fair to say that Protestants simply do not read and interpret the Apostles Creed the way the Roman Catholic church does.
I’ll just pick on my own denomination, Southern Baptists, to provide a few illustrationsm, even if many of them don’t even know the Nicene Creed. Within my denomination, the overwhelmingly dominant teaching of the eschaton is pre-millenialism. A key component of that belief is the belief in a literal thousand year reign on earth by Christ which then ends with judgment and everything being destroyed. This line from the Nicene creed rejected the heresy of chiliasm, a belief in a thousand year reign that would end:
‘And He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, Whose kingdom shall have no end.’
Then we have this:
‘And we believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.’
Well, not really. My denomination believes that there is some invisible church out there that only God can see. And it’s perfectly ok (within the bounds of the Southern Baptist tradition) for individual believers to interpret and understand Holy Scriptures as they choose. The largest visible ‘one’ church is the local congregation of believers. And it believes that ‘apostolic’ means only that anything the apostles passed on to this invisible church was recorded in written form in the Bible. Nothing else was passed on. They don’t believe the current church is particularly ‘holy’. And they reject the idea of wholeness or fullness of a visible church that is actually the meaning of catholicity. (Hmmm. I have recently discovered there is a significant group of Baptists that do believe in some form of apostolic succession through a strange smattering of ancient heretical groups down to present-day Baptists. But I don’t grasp their logic at all, so won’t comment on it.)
Then we have this:
‘We acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins.’
Well. No. Baptists happily and frequently baptize people again. And again. Really as many times as it takes to ‘stick’, though I’ve never exactly grasped the logic. The person has to feel they’ve really been converted this time and the baptism must follow that decision and be by immersion to ‘count’. Earlier Baptisms don’t count. (Oh, and that subgroup I mentioned requires that it be done by an ordained minister who also held all the ‘right’ beliefs.) Further, Southern Baptists explicitly reject the idea that Baptism has anything at all to do with the remission of sins or that anything actually happens at all when you are baptized. It’s just a public declaration of your faith. Nothing more. (It’s strange that a group that insists that baptism doesn’t actually mean or do anything has so many rules surrounding it.)
The athanasian creed is also interpreted in its own way in my denomination. To save time, I’ll provide just one example. The creed says this:
‘And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another. But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal.’
Yet it’s pretty common in my denomination for the idea of hierarchy between men and women to be supported by injecting the idea of hierarchy onto the Trinity. There are various ways to dress it up, but that’s essentially what they do. Now, there are ways to support the idea of order and hierarchy between men and women without injecting it onto the Trinity. So I’m not really talking about the latter here. But it’s very common in my denomination to do this and it is not seen as heretical.
Now, the Orthodox Church has always believed that while it can identify groups and individuals (if they are outspoken about it) who have chosen to believe other than what the church believes or worship in a manner other than the way the church worships, they do not believe that they can definitively know, determine, or judge who God will or will not save. We don’t get to judge for God. For a time, the Roman Catholic Church did seem to believe that, but that seems to have been corrected (in Vatican 2?). At any rate, the RCC catechism today does not reflect that idea.
Anyway, since Protestants have no mechanism for determining or passing along ‘right’ worship, practice, and belief, that means they effectively have no mechanism for determining something ‘other’. You can personally believe that someone believes something other than the ‘truth’ and you can group together with others who share the same or similar beliefs. And that’s about as far as it goes. Without any entity or tradition to guide interpretation, the only statement you can really make is that something is not what you believe.
Or so it seems to me.



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Andy W.

posted April 29, 2009 at 10:36 am


Scott M…
I agree with what you’ve said here and particularly this:
“Anyway, since Protestants have no mechanism for determining or passing along ‘right’ worship, practice, and belief, that means they effectively have no mechanism for determining something ‘other’. You can personally believe that someone believes something other than the ‘truth’ and you can group together with others who share the same or similar beliefs. And that’s about as far as it goes. Without any entity or tradition to guide interpretation, the only statement you can really make is that something is not what you believe.”
This has been a real personal struggle for me and I am left with real concerns and questions around the issue of “authority” for determining ‘right’ worship, practice and belief. Basically we (protestants) are in a sense each our own ‘Pope’, determining for ourselves what to believe. I’m not sure how to resolve this other then saying “Jesus is Lord” and any who can honestly claim this are part of the family. But that’s not how this actually plays out, instead it’s division, broken fellowship and splitting into new groups each thinking they are ‘right’. There is no unity and very little charity and grace offered to those that may be different to us worship, practice and belief. I’m just a lay person who has an unhealthy interest in theology, but it’s no mystery to me why someone would look at it all and just walk away from organized religion, and sadly that is what we are actually seeing, especially here in New England.



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Luke

posted April 29, 2009 at 10:56 am


These are outstanding questions and causes me to have words for the thoughts I’ve had over the years regarding “heresy.” Thank you to whoever wrote them. Fantastic.



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Scott M

posted April 29, 2009 at 11:24 am


I’m not sure that diversity in belief within a religion inherently makes people turn away. After all, Hinduism is probably the most diverse and inclusive religion you can find, yet it’s also the third largest in the world. I think the problem is two-fold. Within Christianity, we claim a full revelation of a single God and the only God. What the disputes and councils have attempted to do is preserve the story of that particular God. When you deviate from that image, you tell the story and paint a picture of a different personal God. Frankly, the picture of God often painted today in Protestantism in America is simply repellent. If I felt I had to choose between one of those pictures of God and anything else (or nothing), I would choose other. I think those who are abandoning and rejecting many of the pictures of God presented are acting in an incredibly sane and insightful way.
The utter lack of grace and charity (love) that you mentioned is the other problem. Even when people can see through the picture of God they are given to something of the truth of God and find that attractive, the divisions, fighting, namecalling, and all the rest are so ugly any reasonable person would want to put some distance between themselves and all of that.
Through it all, as has usually been the case in Orthodoxy, I don’t want to limit the power of God to make himself known to people. Heck, given my background, experience, and formation, it’s a minor miracle I’m a Christian. It’s even stranger that I finished that journey of conversion within the context of an SBC church. (It’s my own fault, really. Even as this God kept intersecting my life and experience, I strongly did not want to have anything to do with Christianity. So to try to expunge it, I gave him a ‘chance’ in a church of the group of Christians that had hurt me the most and whom I expected to confirm my worst expectations and beliefs about Christians and let me move beyond this once and for all. Obviously, that’s not how things worked out.) Nevertheless, I think God is these days in the European and American Western cultures mostly working against and in spite of the myriad groups who claim to be the church. He’s certainly working through the various pictures and stories of God most portray.
Now, if we could all get back to talking about the unchanging God of unified and overflowing perichoretic love who dominated the first thousand years of Christian discussion and start living again in light of that love and seeking to join in it, all of that would change. But no. Too many people want to stick to their image of a pissed off God who puts up with some of us on account of his Son. Sigh.



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BenB

posted April 29, 2009 at 11:27 am


I’ve been reading a book called “The Lost History of Christianity” which details the long and powerful history of the Nestorians and Monophysites in the middle and far East. It was amazingly interesting to me. However, a friend of mine expressed disinterest by saying “Dude, it’s all a bunch of heretics.” The only problem is, the only thing that was heretical was how they viewed the nature of Jesus’ humanity/divinity. I’m not saying such an issue isn’t important, but it certainly didn’t undermine their salvation did it?
My big problem is the way that the church has seemed to act as though if they can label someone a heretic, that’s the end of it and that person is going to hell and we don’t have to worry about them again.
I just struggle with this. “Heresy” is nothing but a deviation from the norm or accepted belief. I really hate the way our history has acted that deviations, especially on minor issues, affect one’s salvation.



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Scott M

posted April 29, 2009 at 12:23 pm


BenB wrote: ‘My big problem is the way that the church has seemed to act as though if they can label someone a heretic, that’s the end of it and that person is going to hell and we don’t have to worry about them again.’
I alluded to this, but I think I need to say it more clearly. That is not the classical understanding of the church. Period. ‘Anathema’ as it was used in a Christian context meant to set someone outside the boundary of the church and it retained some of its pagan sense in that they were offered up to God to judge. It was basically a banishment. (The idea that you could, should, or would physically execute someone rather than banish them is also a later developing Western church idea – RCC and Protestant I might note).
The church did not hold that it had the authority or ability to damn anyone to hell. The most they could say was that someone was inside or outside the bounds of the church. For a time, probably flowing from its belief that the pope was the ‘vicar’ of Christ, the RCC did teach something to the effect that the church hierarchs could damn someone to hell. But that is not the current RCC belief. They’ve corrected it.
We cannot judge the eternal state of any human being. Period.
The ‘Oriental’ Orthodox are actually not monophysites. They also rejected that heresy. They are more properly called miaphysites(?). With time and some of the politics removed, the theological discussion has progressed and most agree that Chalcedonian formulation and the miaphysite formulation are compatible ways to reject monophysitism. The Armenian Orthodox in particular were not native Greek speakers and could not attend the ecumenical council because Persia was trying to reconquer them at the time. When they received the written proclamation, they thought it was a resurgence of Nestorianism and rejected it as a heretical council. History is complicated.
I will point out that people often seem to have a narrow view of the interaction between the church and power structures. When the church has wielded state power, it’s rarely turned out unblemished. People are who people are. But the actual history is messy and has a lot of angles to consider. In many cases, you have to ask what it was the church was to do? Walk away from states and institutions that desperately needed the order and stability they could provide? In what sense is that loving? And the details are incredibly complicated. You have bishops excommunicating emperors. You have the people (the ‘laity’ – first order of the priesthood) rejecting heretical bishops – even refusing to meet in the church. You have people and priests and bishops refuting even popes and other patriachs. It’s often beautiful and ugly and utterly human while at the same time somehow divine.
I love an example leading up to the sixth ecumenical council. Most Protestants don’t seem to know much about this council, but the heresy on which it focuses is one which is incredibly important to me. Long before I knew there was an ecumenical council on it, before I knew the heresy had a name, and before I even knew what the orthodox doctrine was, this issue was critical for my faith. You see, people often talk about Jesus as though he couldn’t have sinned. He was God and thus was only capable of doing what God willed to be done.
But if that’s the case, then in what way does Jesus relate to me at all? If that’s true, then it’s not true that he was tempted in every way I’m tempted. When I’m tempted I can succumb to the temptation. If Jesus couldn’t, then the ‘temptation’ was a sham. And if that’s true, then he has not experienced everything I’ve experienced. Part of my experience is that I must sometimes will from trust in the midst of a lack of knowledge.
The sixth ecumenical heresy rejected the heresy that Jesus had only one will, the divine will. It specified that Jesus had both a human and divine will. And when he was tempted, the temptations were real. He had to constantly submit his human will to the divine will. But he was human as much as I am, which requires a human will. It means something to me (and to all of us) that he did not sin.
But the run-up to the council is fascinating. We sometimes talk about ‘Athanasius against the world’ but Maximos the Confessor truly was against the world. He taught and wrote against a Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople (I think – one of the other great patriachs) who both accepted and taught the heresy that Jesus had one will. He was banished and eventually had his tongue cut out and hand cut off to make him stop speaking and writing against the heresy. But his works became widely known and as a result of them, the ecumenical council was called and ultimately rejected the heresy. (BTW, most ‘ecumenical’ councils became ‘ecumenical’ because they were universally accepted. They were just one of many councils at the time. The sixth seems to be the first to be explicitly aware that it wanted to become an ecumenical council.)
A false understanding of God does impair your ability to know God, your ability to commune with him. It does the same thing to your ability to relate to another human being. The more our lens or understanding of any person, including our personal God, correlates to the actual person, the better we will be able to know and commune with them. Or did you have some other definition in mind for what it means to be ‘saved’?



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Dan Martin

posted April 29, 2009 at 1:39 pm


Well, as the guy who sent Scot those questions (Scot, I do appreciate your posting them), I must say I’m gratified to see the discussion that has ensued. And by and large I appreciate Mary Veeneman’s statement. I certainly affirm her desire to reserve the “heresy” label for a tightly-circumscribed issue set. However, I would submit that she didn’t really address the content of the actual questions (i.e. were historical “heresy” labels valid, to what extent were they political as much as doctrinal, should they be reconsidered, who has the authority to do so).
Implicit in Mary’s first paragraph is the statement about “crossing either Nicaea or Chalcedon.” The (apparently) unquestioned assumption that Nicaea or Chalcedon are arbiters or boundaries of orthodoxy is actually part of what I was questioning to begin with. Recognizing the context in which the words were framed (and how we may be reading them differently today) is important, as ScottM #6 pointed out.
But while I remain troubled by unquestioned ecclesial authority, which is what I see in the “heresies” history now concluded, and also what I see in the nods to Nicaea and Chalcedon, I am not ready on the other hand to affirm that everybody should just do what is right in his own eyes. That model, too, has been tried with unsatisfactory results. . .
This is why in my own mind I come back to a (perhaps predictably) Anabaptist answer myself, founded on the idea of the priesthood of all believers. . .and that is that the community of believers, in fellowship and dialog and (we devoutly hope) under the sway of the Holy Spirit, must humbly seek to characterize faithfulness to Christ as they see it in the scriptural record–certainly with reference to the historical evolution of dogma, but never on one hand, rejecting the historical position outright, nor on the other accepting it without critical reexamination. I freely grant that in this model there is very little room for ecclesiastical (supra-congregational) structure and authority (I am not saying no dialog, just no–or quite limited–authority). Given the history of what those structures have done, I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing.
So to propose answers to my own four questions:
1) Some, but not all, of the determiniations of “heresy” that we have just studied, were certainly valid. They addressed teachings that were in clear contravention to the scriptural witness, and to the extent (but only to the extent) that the findings were themselves not just biblically-supported but unambiguously biblically-derived, the finding should stand.
2) I am suspicious that some of the heresy findings had as much to do with factions in the church struggling for influence, as they did the doctrine in question. I question this even for Arianism. . .not because I affirm Arius, but because in the utter destruction of his works, we only know what he said as characterized–and maybe caricatured–by his adversaries. We do know, as I have harped before, that the second Constantinople council made it clear anybody who didn’t toe their line, and specifically reject the guys they rejected, could go to hell. That looks like a political play to me, and in my mind it calls into question the doctrinal soundness of the players. As I suggested a couple weeks ago (comments on #12 of this series), I doubt the authority of anybody who’s willing to burn his adversary alive.
3) Not only findings of heresy, but all teachings, should be subjected to constant re-examination in the light of scripture. If this was a “noble” pursuit for the Bereans when the Apostle Paul himself was teaching (Acts 17:11), how much more so for us?
4) I answered this one at the beginning of my post. I advocate that the answer must be the local fellowship of committed believers, searching the scripture together under the guidance of the Spirit. There is room (of course) for larger forums and they are important. But I guess I’m saying that the ecumenical council model, though tried and true, has resulted in much error, to say nothing of death and suffering. I’m not buying it.
And my apologies for the long post. . .but this issue is awfully close to my heart!
Peace to you all,
Dan



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ChrisB

posted April 29, 2009 at 1:45 pm


How does the notion that “the winners write the rules” influence our take on doctrine today?
From one perspective, it’s a snowball effect. The winners of each round get to determine what’s “orthodox,” and at each future round that judgement is the standard for deciding the next argument. So Nicea had a huge influence on how Chalcedon would come out. And if Nicea should fall, everything that has been built upon it will topple as well.
From the other side, though, do we believe that the Spirit of God is active in His church or not? Will He not continue to work to keep His people on the right track?
Of course, we now have many tracks. Are these areas about which God doesn’t care? Or are these areas where (at least) one party has refused to listen to God and caused a schism?
@Yogi Da
I challenge the vocabulary of orthodoxy: there is no such thing as “heresy,” there never has been.
From the beginning there have been people who have taught theological errors of sufficient danger to receive the sharpest of rebukes: e.g., Gal 1:9, 1 John 4:1-3. What we believe is important because what we believe determines how we will live.



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Scott M

posted April 29, 2009 at 2:55 pm


Dan Martin,
Some interesting thoughts, but I’m going to push back a little.
1. The bounds of orthodoxy and heresy have never rested on a distinction between biblically supported and biblically derived. I’m not even sure what you mean by that distinction. Both categories simply look like a slightly different way of casting a particular interpretation of scripture. From the way you cast them, it’s clear you view the former more favorably, but all that really tells us is a little bit about how you choose to read and interpret scripture as an individual. It does nothing to clarify what it orthodox and what is not. For the record, few heretics have ever said they were contradicting or ignoring scripture. Most argued that they were teaching or recovering the true faith. We’re told that Arius had an answer for every question of scripture with which he was posed. The first and second councils did not refute Arianism based on scripture. Ultimately they rejected it because that was not what they church had believed. And as I also pointed out, ecumenical councils largely became ‘ecumenical’ because they were universally accepted afterwards.
2. I hear variations of that one a lot. Yes, politics are always a fact of life. But the fight against Arius was an attempt to gain influence with whom, exactly? What we know indicates that Constantine favored the Arian perspective. We certainly know that just a few years later his son succeeded him, embraced Arianism, recalled the banished bishops, and banished many of those who rejected arianism. (As I recall, the grandson attempted to revive the imperial cult.) Maximos the Confessor struggled against all the powers — ecclesial and imperial. It’s complicated, but very often the ‘orthodox’ perspective had to struggle against some pretty significant odds. I also went back and read the text of the 5th council you reference again and nowhere is anyone told they are consigned to hell. So I’m not clear what you meant there.
3. Of course, Paul was referring to the septuagint and the Berean Jews in the synagogue were searching it to see if the never before heard (by them) and novel interpretations and applications of that text which Jesus had given the apostles and opened their minds to receive after the Resurrection were actually present. I’m not exactly certain what the parallel to that is today except that it seems to imply that to understand Holy Scriptures we need not just the random illumination of spirits (I hesitate when people are so certain it is the Holy Spirit providing their illumination) but the specific understanding given the apostles – at least as a guide. It seems to me that’s where 1 Timothy 3:15 does come into play.
4. I live within this model. I’m also familiar with its very mixed history. I haven’t seen any way it does any better than any other human institution and often a lot worse. It certainly doesn’t produce anything vaguely consistent or free from error. In fact, I see people gladly recovering and adopting views about God that lie clearly outside the bounds of historical Christian faith and practice. They also adopt many beliefs that shift and change with culture. I’ve begun to make it a practice to trace the earliest occurrences of different beliefs in my community as I encounter them. Some are from the last century. Some from the 19th. Some originate in the 18th century. Some in the 17th century. A few in the 16th century. Relatively few have a provenance any older than that. So I’m not particularly impressed with the model.
The model I look for in examining beliefs about Jesus or about God is that I look for beliefs that come as close to ‘everywhere and at all times believed’ as I can find. I’m struggling to get to better know the God who was made known through the incarnation, death, and resurrection, not some later innovation. Most of the heresies involve saying, teaching, and believing something that distorts or paints a false picture of God, especially in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, but also in the persons of the Godhead. And when you distort your understanding, it becomes harder to know God. And he wants us to know him. I do believe he is ‘especially fond of us’.



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Dan Martin

posted April 29, 2009 at 4:13 pm


I appreciate your pushback, Scott. Let me see if I can do justice to your wholly-reasonable questions.
1) Biblically-supported vs. derived. What I’m getting at here is, that IF the scriptural texts (whatever your doctrine of inspiration) are the full and final authority, then I would say a doctrine that clearly comes from them (e.g. the fact of Jesus’ resurrection) is Biblically-derived, and to deny it is to deny the plain witness of scripture. That, I believe, would be a fair definition of heresy. On the other hand, a doctrine that is not explicitly stated in the scriptural text, but is on the whole consistent with a fair reading of scripture, would be one I’d call “Biblically-supported.” In other words, believing it is not INCONSISTENT with scripture, but it’s not an open-and-shut case on the basis of the scriptural text alone. I would say that the wide variety of ways believers practice communion/eucharist would probably fall in this second category. My argument is that the former is a justifiable basis for dogma; the latter, a perfectly-reasonable way for a group of believers to order their fellowship, but not a test of orthodoxy.
2) As to the specific politics of Arius vs. orthodoxy, I don’t honestly know the political ramifications. I just know that when I see the whole controversy enmeshed in imperial governance and succession, to me it taints the process. As to your question re: the council damning people, that’s the meaning of the phrase “let him be anathema” (see text of the 2nd Contantinople Anathemas here). While you might dispute that “anathema” means damnation, I refer to this definition. From the anathematizing ritual come these words:
“…we declare him excommunicated and anathematized and we judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and his angels and all the reprobate, so long as he will not burst the fetters of the demon, do penance and satisfy the Church; we deliver him to Satan to mortify his body, that his soul may be saved on the day of judgment.”
Though the possibility of repentance is acknowledged, that sounds pretty damning to me.
3) The parallel I see is that even Paul’s words were to be examined against the extant scriptures, to judge if what he was preaching was true or not. If Paul didn’t escape that sort of reality check (and Luke commends it), then certainly church authorities since him should fare no better. Nobody (singly or collectively) is above having their claims judged in the light of scripture.
4) I wholly grant that no model leads to freedom from error. I would only submit that the dynamic of re-examining long-held beliefs is healthy and ought not be suppressed…and IMHO authority structures (be they magisteria or seminaries or councils or denominations) tend to suppress it. This is not to say these entities have no value–of course they do. But “value” and “authority” ought not be conflated.
And I think a fair examination of history suggests that those doctrines “everywhere and at all times believed” are fewer than most allow, and categorically do NOT include all the tenets of Nicaea, as you so ably demonstrated in your post #6 re: SBC.
Thanks for the dialog!
Dan



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jhimm

posted April 29, 2009 at 4:25 pm


i very much like this call to define heresy much more narrowly than many do, these days. i believe that the willingness to define it too broadly has been the foundation of the justification for schism, which i can’t find anywhere in the pages of my Bible.



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Scot McKnight

posted April 29, 2009 at 4:30 pm


Let me now ask those who are reading this thread a simple question: For those of you who struggle with the church’s declarations of heresy, do you think there is heresy? And what constitutes heresy?



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Dan Martin

posted April 29, 2009 at 4:44 pm


I still do. Despite all my objections. I would define it as denying the truths of Jesus’ and the Father’s character, subject to my previous definition of “biblically-derived” not just “biblically-supported.”
In other words, denying Jesus’ humanity or divinity outright was correctly countered as heresy, though I believe that the orthodox judges erred in the other direction by creating an extrabiblical fence around their christology (in other words, I think there’s plenty of unpacking necessary in both “humanity” and “divinity” and I’m not convinced the fathers got it right, even though their hearts were in the right place). Denying Jesus’ resurrection is definitely heresy–Paul made that pretty bluntly clear in Romans.
Beyond that, I’m not so sure. There’s lots of room for doctrine and study and meditation that can help to build a vital faith, but I’m dubious of the orthodox-vs-heretic delineation for much if not most of it.



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Travis Greene

posted April 29, 2009 at 4:54 pm


I really like the definition of heresy given: “as a belief that is so fundamentally problematic it renders human salvation via Christ impossible”. If the idea isn’t just wrong, or problematic, etc, but in fact cuts off the very limb on which it claims to be standing, it’s heresy.
Although I’d further qualify that, as a matter of language, the heresy must in some sense claim to be orthodox. Thus, Pelagianism (or whatever) is a heresy, but Confucianism isn’t.
The question is, should there be any difference in the way we would treat a hypothetical heretic and a person of a different faith? It’s strange, but it’s probably easier for me to interact with, say, a devout Buddhist or Muslim than a devout Mormon. With the Buddhist I can talk about compassion and self-denial, and with the Muslim I can talk about the righteousness of God and our submission to him, but Mormonism is, frankly, more difficult, partly because I think of it as a Christian heresy rather than a religion in its own right.
And what do we do with supposed heretics? I think (desperately hope) we’re all agreed that the oft-resorted-to violence of yesteryear is out of the question. Is it banishment? Or do they just become equivalent to any other outsider (that is, radically welcomed and invited into the community but, of course, not given teaching/other authority)? How does it work when you suddenly discover, hey, old brother Smith, the longtime deacon, is a Docetist?



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angusj

posted April 29, 2009 at 5:39 pm


Scott M (#6) wrote:
“angusj, without the interpretation of a particular tradition, the creeds can do no more to determine bounds of orthodox versus heterodox than scripture.”
While not denying the diversity of interpretation (nor even disputes over content – eg Filioque controversy) I would suggest that the creeds still do helpfully provide limits to what’s necessary for orthodoxy. For example, some would like to add the doctrine of Biblical Infallibility, while others would like to add allegiance to the Bishop of Rome as prerequisites for orthodoxy.



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Scott M

posted April 29, 2009 at 6:27 pm


Hi Dan. How do then interpret what is or is not ‘clear’? It’s possible to support any number of things directly from the text of scripture. As I pointed out, even Arius did that.
Regarding anathema, Roman Catholics still want to afford authority to the Pope that rightly belongs only to Christ. The RC catechism second edition (somewhat more authoritative than New Advent), however, has only this to say about excommunication:
1463 Certain particularly grave sins incur excommunication, the most severe ecclesiastical penalty, which impedes the reception of the sacraments and the exercise of certain ecclesiastical acts, and for which absolution consequently cannot be granted, according to canon law, except by the Pope, the bishop of the place or priests authorized by them. In danger of death any priest, even if deprived of faculties for hearing confessions, can absolve from every sin and excommunication.
However, I don’t really buy into much of what the West (Roman or Protestant) has to say about God and man and sin. I find that they have so emphasized the juridical aspects that it has deeply distorted their perception of reality. I believed that before I encountered Orthdoxy. It’s one main reason I was so happy to finally stumble across them. The take sin and evil very seriously (as I always have) without reducing it all to a courtroom. It runs much deeper than that. To understand anathema, a greek word, used in councils with decrees written in Greek devised by bishops that were more greek speakers than not (since Greek remained the lingua franca in the East for centuries), I would suggest it’s better to turn not to the Latin church, but the Greek church (using both in their classic sense).
I did a quick search and though I don’t recall reading either of these specific works before, I’m happy with them as good short examples.
St. John Maximovitch
http://www.orthodox.net/articles/anathema-st-john.html
Bishop Theophan the Recluse
http://www.orthodox.net/articles/anathema-bp-theophan.html
I think those are much more accurate descriptions. They are banished from the Church and are thus unprotected from Satan and his angels. If they remain separated from the Church throughout their lives, they are delivered up to Christ for judgment. If your heart is truly hardened, that is unlikely to be a pleasant experience for you as the love of Christ, burning away all lies, darkness, and self-deceit, is a consuming fire. Nothing will be hidden.
Also, if I can trace a belief back to when it first surfaced, then I know that it has not always and everywhere been believed, but is a change or an innovation. On the other hand, if I find something that is still believed today by a significant group of Christians and which has consistently been believed at every point in history back to the earliest references we have and appears in those writings simply as an accepted belief, not as one that diverged from another, well it’s pretty easy to give it a great deal of weight. I think, Dan, you would be surprised by how many of those there are. And by how few of them are actually held in radical reformation groups.
Scot, heresy impedes and potentially blocks salvation because it impedes our ability to know God. It’s really as simple and as deep as that. If salvation is knowing God and growing in communion with him, then that which impedes us from knowing God as he is must be destruction. The label traditionally has been reserved not for those with ‘wrong beliefs’. Heck, by that standard St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Theologian, and many more would never have become saints. As a rule, the bits of even any Father in patristics that stood alone was rarely adopted as the belief of the Church, though some were allowed as a pious hope. But not dogma. The things that were most often seen as heretical were things that ultimately were seen to damage our understanding of God in some way. It also was generally reserved for those who strove to teach, convert, or were otherwise vocal in their beliefs. It was also a very early process. I believe one writing pretty early on warned not to merely ask for the church when you entered a town as you might be directed to another sect (I think gnostic at the time). Instead ask for something like the ‘orthodox’ church. Sorry, I don’t remember the reference and I’m sure I’m butchering it. It’s just one of the things that partially stuck in my mind.



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Dan Martin

posted April 29, 2009 at 8:00 pm


ScottM, I think I already defined “clear” in scripture in my post above–to amount to very little that is very central. Whatever it is, I would submit that the complex theories of Trinity with all their essences and hypostases and other such, probably don’t qualify as “clear.” Given the verbosity of the definition, I seriously doubt they were clear even to all the Greek-speakers at the Councils, or there wouldn’t have been the controversy there was surrounding them.
Regarding anathema, even if it means “he shall be cut off from his people” rather than “he can go to hell,” I would suggest the hammer was over-used in the day, and in nicer language is over-used today. You question Roman or Western authority to levy this sentence, but in quoting the Eastern authorities you linked, are you not assigning to them (“the Church” in Bishop Theophan’s treatise) the same authority? Just shifting the ecclesiastical authority from West to East is not progress, it’s just geography. Either way, it seems to me that it removes from the local body of believers, both the responsibility and the right to search the scriptures for themselves, as somebody else has already built the box for them.
I still feel that “something that is still believed today by a significant group of Christians and which has consistently been believed at every point in history back to the earliest references we have” is insufficient grounds for accepting it as dogma if it is not so presented in the canonical scriptures. I guess that’s a point at which I simply diverge from the majority opinion. Does that make me a heretic? Maybe. . .



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Scott M

posted April 29, 2009 at 8:30 pm


Of course, there is nothing in the canon that refers to it as the canon of scriptures (nor is there even one Christian canon of what we call the OT) nor is the concept of scripture as a final authority anywhere actually stated in scripture, much less clearly. So the basis for your interpretive lens does not meet its own requirement. Scripture is the most part of the tradition or the teaching of the church that recorded and produced it. It has a primacy of place and most Christian groups believe that. But it can hardly stand alone. It can’t even define itself.
I’m also not placing authority in any particular place. You misunderstood what I wrote. I did not say that I did rejected the authority of the strands of the Western church and went seeking a better authority. I said I encountered, tried on, and ultimately rejected the vision of God that dominates the West and their story of what in means to be a human being within that context. I understand at least part of the reason why the ‘Nones’ are the fastest growing in the US and why Christianity is teetering on the edge in Western Europe. If I came to believe that was actually God, I wouldn’t much care if he were real or not. I wouldn’t worship him. I certainly wouldn’t love him.
I was surprised when I discovered some years later that my ‘strange’ ideas about God were surprisingly like the Orthodox. I probably shouldn’t have been since my long-time interest in history had led me to study and read about the history of Christianity and its writers fairly shortly after my conversion. So I never sought authority from Orthodoxy and have no plans to run out and convert. But they talk about the God I’ve encountered. At length and through the ages.
You also misunderstood my point about anathema. I picked two articles at random, but by noted Orthodox. Orthodoxy doesn’t have a summa theologica or a doctrine statement or a statement of faith. The mindset doesn’t work that way. You see the same thing in the patristics. Read a bunch or listen a bunch and it begins to unfold and tie together. However, my basic point was a simple one from the way we do modern history. Given the cultural makeup and context of the councils and the bishops in them and the language used, turn to sources similar in culture and language to understand what they meant by it. I hadn’t read those particular two before my quick search. But I have read many places and sources spanning time where anathema was discussed and those articles where consistent. It’s just a better way to do history than to rip something out of its milieu and impose a meaning on it.
BTW, N.T. Wright (and many others proposing ‘novel’ ideas in the West) actually often sound very like the Orthodox to my outsider ears. Not always the same language, but describing a very similar God and Jesus. I don’t think there’s much way for that vision of God to ever be ‘reconciled’ with the view of people like Piper. I understand why he feels he must respond to some of the criticism at least in order so that people can read him again articulating what he actually believes. But I’m not sure it will ultimately accomplish much. What they have to say about God is so vastly different, it’s almost like they are talking about two different gods.



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Mark Z.

posted April 29, 2009 at 8:32 pm


Since I’m one of those who struggles with the Church’s declarations of heresy, I suppose I’ll try to answer.
And what constitutes heresy?
Actions. Matthew 7:15: How do you identify a false teacher? You will recognize them by their fruit.
To run with Dan Martin’s previous example, Calvin burned people alive for disagreeing with him. This, by the test Jesus lays out, makes his teaching false. Note that it’s not the sources he relies on, or the tradition it fits into, or the method of interpretation. It’s the result.
The purpose of doctrine is to produce change, not to just sit there being Correct. I propose that doctrine that changes people for the worse is heresy, and doctrine that changes people for the better is orthodoxy.



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Scott M

posted April 29, 2009 at 8:46 pm


Curiously, if anyone is interested, it was actually Scot who, through his writing and his blog, introduced me to Orthodoxy as anything more than a ‘Greek sort of Catholic’ (which I shamefacedly admit was the extent of my understanding for most of my life). I was stunned when I read his section in ‘Praying with the Church’ on Orthodoxy. You see, because my mother has been associated with the Carmelites since she converted to Roman Catholicism, The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence was a book she sent me perhaps a decade ago? I was captivated with much in the book, but especially the idea of ‘breath prayers’. By the time I read Scot’s book, I had developed a number and had been gradually incorporating them in my life. What shocked me when I read his book was that the breath prayer I had developed and used most often was a variation of the Jesus Prayer, among the oldest prayer traditions of the church.
And I had no clue.
From there, I paid attention when he introduced his friend and colleague, Brad Nassif. I read and listened to him, stumbled across a few more resources and at some point discovered the Orthodox perspective on the Ancestral Sin, on the atonement, and on ‘hell’. How you view those things say a lot about how you view both God and man. I felt right at home. They are the first group of Christians where I really and truly felt like we were looking at the same holy text and the same God.
I share that because it seemed like a good place to share it and I don’t think I ever let Scot know he was to blame. ;)



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Scott M

posted April 29, 2009 at 8:58 pm


Mark, as someone with some experience with other religions and with friends who adhere to a variety of things, the thought that came to my mind when I read your comment is that a lot of different things can change people for the better. Buddhism has certainly changed many people for the better. Hinduism can change people for the better. There are many paths which can change people for the better. Alone that seems an inadequate standard. I’m reminded of how Jesus opens the section that begins in Matthew 23. I’ve noticed that people tend to skip over that to the ‘Woe to you’ bits. But notice it starts with Jesus telling the people to do the things they teach because the Pharisees sit in the seat of Moses and teach the things of God. But they don’t practice what they teach. So the people are to do as they say and not as they do. And it seems to respect the seat they fill as teachers in ‘the seat of Moses’.
So I don’t think it can be reduced to that. Certainly Calvin (and others) burning, hanging, or torturing people was wrong. I would say the things the Puritans did were often pretty horrible. (And the Puritans seem to be one strain that fed the Baptist strain.) Orthodox sanctioned pogroms in Tsarist Russia were awful. The list is endless. I doubt you could find a ‘clean’ Christian group of any size with any historical depth. But even though there are evil men and bad priests, bad bishops, bad pastors, and even bad communities, nevertheless some have been changed for the better. I would say some by the miracle of the work of the Spirit and the ability of God to bring good out of evil. Nevertheless, it’s complicated.



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Dan Martin

posted April 29, 2009 at 9:33 pm


ScottM @ #23:
“Of course, there is nothing in the canon that refers to it as the canon of scriptures (nor is there even one Christian canon of what we call the OT) nor is the concept of scripture as a final authority anywhere actually stated in scripture, much less clearly. So the basis for your interpretive lens does not meet its own requirement.”
I agree with your premise, but not your conclusion. I have written extensively elsewhere for a much narrower definition of “God’s word” than the entirety of our canon, and I absolutely agree that it is not self-defined. But that doesn’t hurt my argument, which was one of exclusion, not inclusion.
I said that a doctrine that doesn’t come clearly from the biblical canon may not be accepted as dogma. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of things people can (and do) extract from scripture that ALSO don’t deserve to be classified as orthodox dogma; in fact I have advocated exactly the opposite. But my claim here has been that, at the very least, if a doctrine isn’t even in the canon we have, it misses a basic test for acceptance as dogma. Put differently, whatever you think of the authority of scripture, the other sources (councils, patristic writings, tradition, whatever) certainly don’t merit a higher level of authority.
Unless you are advocating a more-expansive canon, I don’t see how I’m failing my own test here.



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bluepez

posted April 30, 2009 at 2:29 am


I appreciate the questions raised in these posts but I’d like to raise a different question than the those already covered. I think it is related to the original question however. It has to do with the idea that “the winners get to write the history.” I don’t agree with this statement and there are plenty of examples that I’d be happy to share but not in this post.
It seems that there is a fairly popular historiography (way of writing/telling history) that looks something like this: Jesus and the primitive church —> Paul (of whom it is said our churches over-emphasizes now and doesn’t focus on the kingdom of God enough)—> A bunch of guys that decided to make a hierarchical system for the purpose of labeling heretics and compromised with greek philosophy (to God’s surprise and chagrin) —> Constantine (who is blamed for the single-handed downfall of the entire church, mixing state and church) coupled with more guys who decided to write creeds—> Church Splits—> Reformation when some stuff got fixed —> Renaissance/Modernism (which the western church uncritically adopted which resulted in a neutered Gospel)—> Nowadays (where we are left with the pieces and there are more guys located somewhere who are interested in keeping the status quo solely for their own benefit). For most this fits enough of reality to be believable. My point in expressing this is that I don’t often see this historiography challenged but if we took any amount of time to investigate what actually happened we may find it doesn’t hold much water. Why does this matter? If our diagnosis is wrong so will our perscription for change. I think part of the problem with discussing things like heresy and orthodoxy is that the aforementioned historiography is at play which, ironically, paints the orthodoxy (who ever that is) as the anal bad guys and the heretics (who ever that is) as the unfortunate and misunderstood minority who might be your friend next door. I’ve appreciated Scot’s push back on the historical side of things in this discussion because it has shown that things aren’t as simple as they’re often portrayed but I think it might be beneficial to bring the issue of “whose version of history are we relying on and is it any good (accurate)” to the surface.
What do you think? I understand if this is too far off topic to be discussed. Thanks.



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Mark Z.

posted April 30, 2009 at 5:44 am


Scott M: Buddhism has certainly changed many people for the better. Hinduism can change people for the better. There are many paths which can change people for the better. Alone that seems an inadequate standard.
I don’t think anyone is going to argue that Buddhism is heresy by Christian standards. It’s its own thing entirely, and doesn’t claim to be part of the Christian tradition.
But if we’re talking about a group of Christians incorporating some (say) Buddhist ideas but remaining recognizably Christian, some people might call that heresy. What I’m saying is that nitpicking their doctrinal sources or content–“You can’t teach that, it’s Buddhism!/it’s Pelagianism!/it denies the Trinity!”–is the wrong way to make that determination. The right way is to look at their actions.



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