Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Great Heresy(ies)

Some years ago I read The Four Great Heresies: Nestorian, Eutychian, Apollinarian, Arian by J.W.C. Wand, sometime Bishop of London. One of the things that struck me in reading it was the way in which heresies tend to come in pairs, each one emphasizing a part of the truth in such a way as to deny another part of the truth.

Thus, if I might be permitted to oversimplify, one heretic overemphasizes the divine nature of Christ while another overemphasizes Christ's humanity, yet both lose sight of the fact that Christ is both divine and human. One heretic overemphasizes the the distinction between the three persons of the Holy Trinity while another overemphasizes their unity, yet both lose sight of the fact that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are both Three Persons and at the same time One God. The Four Great Heresies all arise from the attempts of learned folk to define the who Jesus was and how Jesus related to the Father. Nestorius, Eutyches, Apollinaris and Arius managed to bracket the truth without ever apprehending it.

The flip side of this is the reality that all theology is written in response to the heresy of the age. After all, the whole muddle over homoousion and homoiousion only began when Arius got it wrong.

So the Church, in responding to one heresy, must always have a care that she not fall into its polar opposite.

I am moved to reflect on this because The Usual Suspects Trying to Destroy the Anglican Communion (TUSTDAC?) have launched into another vicious personal attack on the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, accusing her of heresy.

Not that I think they have a theological leg to stand on. The Presiding Bishop does attack what she describes as "the great Western heresy" (by which she clearly means the great Western heresy of the present age), but she does so without falling into the polar opposite heresy.

Dr. Jefferts Schori's words which have started this current rhetorical rhubarb? They come from her opening address to the General Convention of the Episcoapl Church currently meeting in Anaheim, California.

The overarching connection in all of these crises has to do with 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 being. That heresy is one reason for the theme of this Convention.
I think she's spot on in her identification of the Great Heresy of the present age - at least in the West. This is the root heresy that underlies far too much of political religion in both the United States and Canada. Personally, I'd name it Thatcherism, for it's great advocate, Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, who once proclaimed "there is no such thing as society." (Woman's Own magazine, October 31, 1987)

Historically, Catholic Christianity has always seen the collective expression of the Body of Christ - that is to say the Church - as important. While never denying the importance of individual faith, individual devotion and individual piety, a Christian is properly a Christian because they are part of Christ's Body, the Church. To treat Christian faith as being an entirely individual undertaking - as seems altogether too common in some circles - is manifestly heretical. The Ethiopian eunuch came to believe as an individual, but it was baptism by Philip which grafted him into the Church. The lot fell on Matthias as an individual, but his Apostolic authority came from being "added to the eleven Apostles."

Now, I agree that there is, as always, a polar opposite heresy - the heresy that would emphasize the collective to the exclusion, diminution and discarding of the individual. That heresy might take many forms, but it would certainly be a heresy.

However, I fail to see that Dr. Jefferts Schori has come anywhere near offering up an alternate extremism to the rampant individualism of the present age.

The irony, of course, is that the TUSTDACs with all their assorted acronyms (ACNA, ACN, ANiC, GAFCON, FOCA, FCAUK and cetera) are damning Dr. Jefferts Schori and defending the very heresy of individualism. What's ironic about that? The emphasis of the individual over the collective, philosophically, is called liberalism, while the TUSDACs wrongly think of themselves as conservatives.

Now, for those of you who want to contemplate a bit of heresy hunting:



Or for those of you of a more Anglican bent:

11 comments:

Steve Hayes said...

The Orthodox theologian Christops Yannaras notes: "In everyday speech we tend to distort the meaning of the word 'person'. What we call 'person' or 'personal' designates rather more the individual. We have grown accustomed to regarding the terms 'person' and 'individual' as virtually synonymous, and we use the two indifferently to express the same thing. From one point of view, however, 'person' and
'individual' are opposite in meaning. The individual is the
denial or neglect of the distinctiveness of the person, the
attempt to define human existence using the objective properties of man's common nature, and quantitative comparisons and analogies. Chiefly in the field of sociology and politics the human being is frequently identified with the idea of numerical individuality. Sometimes this rationalistic process of leveling out is considered progress, since it helps to make the organization of society more efficient."

One of the manifestations of the Western individualistic heresy is the failure to see anything wrong with expunging the inclusive use of the word "man" from English vocabulary, and insisting that it must refer to males only. People see nothing wrong with it because they see individuals and not persons. So they cannot understand phrases like "Reconciliation between God and man, and man and man", and would replace "man" with an undifferentiated collective nown like "humanity", or by somthing linked to numerical inficiduality, like "Reconciliation between God and men and women, and men and women and men and women".

If one is compelled to reserve "man" for its exclusive "male" use only, then I propose an alternative - "thpic", which is an acronym for "the human person in community".

Malcolm+ said...

Don't know how you happened by, Steve, but welcome.

I'd disagree about the connection between the Western individualistic heresy and the move away from the generic use of "man" in English.

I think it is more a function of clarity. When this first arose in the late '70s early '80s, it often seemed that establishments were very selective about when "man" was to be interpreted generically (ie, "all humanity") and when it was to be interpreted otherwise (ie, "all male humans").

That said, one of the ironies of the inclusive language debate is that the ordination of women in the Anglican Church of Canada originally rested on a resolution of the General Synod stating that the references to "man" and "men" in the ordination canon were to be interpreted generically.

The young fogey said...

I agree with the commenter above that the extremes of collectivism and individualism are arguably heresies and can agree with you that the new would-be Anglican churches (long story short, churchgoing 'middle American' Episcopalians got fed up with the liberals who took over their denomination) are after all just a conservative form of Protestantism and so differ from Dr Schori only in degree not kind. Without an infallible church they're only setting themselves up to fail again. They happen to believe the creeds, which is wonderful, but on whose authority?

Malcolm+ said...

The liberal takeover of the Episcopal Church is a convenient myth promulgated by the hard right. In fact, many of the dissenting congregations are themselves predominantly arrivists from conservative protestant denominations.

As an Anglican, of course, I have no interest in an "infallible church," which seems to me (with all due respect) simply to be a new idol. The Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth. We inevitably risk going astray due to our own prideful fall (both individually and collectively).

The young fogey said...

You're right, vicar. The liberal takeover dates back to the 1700s when the 'Enlightenment' routed English Calvinism. You stand in a centuries-old tradition.

As an Anglican, of course, I have no interest in an "infallible church."

Of course not.

Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are lots of things but of course I wouldn't say they're idols and next to no-one would describe them as new!

The Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth.

True. The question is which is the Holy Spirit and which are just winds of doctrine (hot air). For which I dare say, except possibly for the creeds, we have different answers.

Malcolm+ said...

There have been a number of currents in Anglicanism. The whole idea of a "liberal takeover" is a cartoon, whether attributed to the 1860s or the 1960s.

Orthodoxy has no interest in playing Rome's game of infallibility any more than Anglicanism. And even Rome's adaptation of this novel idea only dates to the late 1800s.

The idolatry inherent in infallibility is the assumption that finite human minds can comprehend - not merely grasp, but comprehend - with absolute certainty the divine purpose.

Determining the breath of the Holy Spirit from otheair currents is a matter of discernment.

And I suspect we'd agree on more than the creeds. However, the creeds are what is required. Beyond the creeds, there is ample room.

Ann Marie said...

This whole talk of a "liberal takeover" is ridiculous. Never has anyone sat down and decided that - hey we're a bunch of liberals and we are going to take over the church. On the other hand, the myth of the takeover works well to demonize people who are sincerely trying to follow Christ's way as they have been led by the Holy Spirit to understand it.

I am consider a so-called liberal. Believe me, I don't sit down with like minded people and plot a takeover. I don't have the time. I'm too busy trying to do the work to which God has called me among the people in the geographical boundaries of my parish.

Now if you want to talk about a plot of a "conservative takeover" given the plannings of GAFCON, FOCA, ANCA etc. then we might be talking actual plots.

Love and Prayers,
Ann Marie

Malcolm+ said...

Well said, Ann Marie. The "conservatives" and "orthodox" (who are neither conservative nor orthodox) need the myth of the "liberal takeover" to justify their rage, spite and paranoia. They are using the political methodologies of Karl Rove and applying them to ecclesiastical politics. And one of their favourite fabrications is to accuse "liberals" of using precisely the techniques they intend to use themselves.

Tim Chesterton said...

The "conservatives" and "orthodox" (who are neither conservative nor orthodox) need the myth of the "liberal takeover" to justify their rage, spite and paranoia.

I've noticed quite a bit of that 'rage, spite and paranoia' on this blog, Malcolm - usually when you're talking about the people you're vilifying here.

The young fogey said...

There have been a number of currents in Anglicanism.

Oh, yes, the built-in compromise of the Elizabethan settlement. My take: you had a Protestant and Erastian institution yet one haunted by Catholicism so the Calvinists (and today's Evangelicals in England and the Third World), high churchmen (and later, Anglo-Catholics, because of that 'haunting') and, after the late 1700s, liberals (lots of ex-Calvinists) were and are duking it out. Conscientious Anglicans have always felt bad about the compromise of principles to state obedience; Evangelicalism, Methodism and my late Anglo-Catholic movement all were trying to fix it.

The whole idea of a "liberal takeover" is a cartoon, whether attributed to the 1860s or the 1960s.

To the person in the pew in the provinces — at least 20 years behind the clergy’s theological trends — it looked like a recent takeover even though it really wasn't.

Orthodoxy has no interest in playing Rome's game of infallibility any more than Anglicanism.

Would you please explain? Of course Orthodoxy is even less centralised than Anglicanism — not only no Vatican but not even a Lambeth — but the theology is not Protestant. Which is why its conclusions theologically including on most modern hot-button issues are not the same as the Episcopal Church's or the Anglican Church of Canada's (or ACNA's for that matter) and more like Rome's. Kallistos (Ware) for example says his church like Rome claims infallibility.

The idolatry inherent in infallibility is the assumption that finite human minds can comprehend — not merely grasp, but comprehend — with absolute certainty the divine purpose.

The truth is not entirely knowable by us but is knowable enough.

Malcolm+ said...

Tim, I'll admit the rage and acknowledge the spite. Paranoia, of course, is a reaction to things that aren't really happening.

YF, the purported secessions of parishes and even dioceses in North America has virtually always been clergy-driven - in several cases by clergy frustrated by a lack of preferment.

I never suggested the Orthodox were the least bit protestant. What a bizarre reading.

That said, the difference between the Orthodox and the North American Anglicans on the hot button" issues is, I'd suggest, principally about cultural context.

The truth is not entirely knowable. While Romans may take comfort in the assertion of infallibility (a doctrine less than 200 years old, I note), I prefer the take of my old dogmatics professor. Indefectibility - or as I described it, the assurance that we can't mess it up so badly that God can't fix it.