Why being a heretic is to be theologically engaged… and why theology is like sculpting.

09 May

Reflecting on the post I wrote a few weeks back about the historic creeds, I wanted to throw an additional thought out into the blogosphere, just for kicks.

The tendency today, and in recent history, is for people to equate heresy with saying the “wrong” things about God… in other words, getting our theological facts wrong. We say that what the old school heretics (Arius, Apollinarius, Marcion, Abelard, etc.) all had in common was that they “got it wrong;” they taught something about God that didn’t fit with the rest of the story, somehow.

That is partially true… but anyone who’s studied the heretics, as well as those in the modern era (post 1500) that have been accused of heresy, knows that oftentimes, the goal of the so-called “heretic” was not to dissuade people from orthodoxy— it was to explain an existing problem of theology that had not yet been adequately explained. 

That’s why every major theological development in church history always had a heretic or two attached to it. In an important sense, the so-called heretic, demonized for their insolence, was actually necessary for theology to develop properly.

(catch the rest, along with some gratuitous basketball references, post-jump.)

To be a heretic, is to be theologically engaged, in a sense. To push one’s theology in order to see if it matters in the real world, if it “works,” if it sticks to the wall.

The fact is that, even out of those that avoided the dubious title of “heretic,”  there are very few theologians, if any, that we would today say got everything perfectly “right”– either ethically (Augustine’s views of sexuality, Luther’s view of Jews, etc.)  or theologically (Who got “free will” and/or “grace” right, Wesley or the Council of Dort? Who got sacraments right, Zwingli, Calvin, Luther, or Council of Trent? Etc. etc. etc. etc.). 

    We all have our own theological “teams” that we play for…..

Kevin Durant Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder watches a free throw against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Ford Center on October 29, 2008 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The Bucks defeated the Thunder 98-87.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2008 NBAE

That doesn’t make one team inherently good, or better than another.           

    Well, unless you pulled for this guy last night.  Then you’re just wrong.

What a PEE-Unk.

Of course, nowadays especially, with so many people who are considered heretics by some are actually revered by others, at various points in history (e.g., Origen and Tertullian— or, and ALL Protestants at one point), and if we realize that so much of what is considered untouchable in our beliefs is culturally conditioned (e.g., The Bible was used in the past to defend slavery, and now nearly all Christians condemn slavery as evil.)….

…taking all of that together, we’d be hard-pressed to not consider EVERY SINGLE PERSON a heretic, including ourselves, if our definition is about “getting our doctrines right.”

Or, if being a heretic is about pushing and challenging theology— then maybe we’re NOT all heretics…. but perhaps we should be, at least in part.

Actually, I think this comes back to my overarching discussion-topic lately— the need to reclaim the mysterious, relational and dynamic aspects of faith and to free it from the flattening definitions of "making a faith statement” or “believing the right things about God/Jesus.” 

Googling "heresy” for images yields a bunch of scary pictures.  You never see the word “heresy” written with bubble letters, for instance.  So weird. I wonder why not…

If the word “heresy” is troubling to people (it certainly communicates a lack of unity) then perhaps we should redefine “heresy.”  We shouldn’t use the term at all, probably…certainly not to summarily dismiss someone who thinks differently (or even innovatively) about theology, because we need to continuously “do” theology, and attempt to work through theological problems—-otherwise we are constantly confirming our own beliefs, never challenging ourselves to look deeper or to see where we have manipulated theology to our own benefit.

When we get into trouble, I think, is whenever we HOLD ONTO certain doctrinal positions, and CLAIM them as THE way to interpret the scriptures and/or our faith-experiences. 

When we go too far trying to contemplate an aspect of God… and then hold onto it too hard, for too long, out of fear.

When we as pastors/teachers teach theology from ONE perspective. 

And perhaps saddest of all… when that ONE perspective… must be defended against all others… but our actions, our compassion, our service… are not challenged to grow with that same fervor.

Maybe THAT is what we should call “heresy.”

And again, if we’re honest, I think, this still makes us all heretics, in some ways, because we all favor one viewpoint or another. So we need to have some grace with each other. [E.g., Calvin, I think, went too far in trying to explain predestination…. but that doesn’t invalidate everything else he says. Similarly, TULIP Calvinists pushed Calvin’s theology itself to the brink of understanding, and thus (I think) oversteps its bounds of speaking of God, but that doesn’t mean I cannot learn anything from the Canons of Dort.]

Doing theology is not “painting by the numbers.” It’s not coloring in the right colors, in the right places, perfectly within the lines, so that everyone ends up with the same picture. 

Theology is like sculpting a statue using a model. The model is Christ…and the story of God as reflected in Scripture. Theology chips away at our block bit by bit, eliminating some possibilities but creating others. Chipping away too much can ruin the statue; leave too little and you’re unlikely to be able to tell what or who the block of marble is attempting to represent at all. But instead, bit by bit, as it is said, the sculptor frees the image from the rock. 

For all our bitter doctrinal disputes…. and our all-too-easy accusations of others saying “wrong” things about God….

If your theology doesn’t help you to look more like Christ—

–then what good is it?

"Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  –Matthew 7:3

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; or they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.” —James 1:22-25

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…” –Romans 8:29


Posted by on May 9, 2011 in theology



8 responses to “Why being a heretic is to be theologically engaged… and why theology is like sculpting.

  1. jeffselan / Selaniest

    May 10, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    This talks quite a bit about what I am trying to figure out. What is it that I believe. And how does it differ from others. And is any of it wrong or is it all correct? Or none of the above!

    Praise God for the journey!

  2. rey

    May 11, 2011 at 9:29 pm

    Quite literally the word heresy comes from a Greek word meaning choice. What “Bible believing Christians” want you to do is believe whatever the Bible says, even when it contradicts. If you are reading Romans 2:6-7 where Paul says “God will render to everyone according to their works; to those who seek glory and honor and immorality by constant continuance in doing good, he will give eternal life” then you have to believe that justification is by works. But if you are reading Romans 4 where Paul argues that Abraham was justified by faith apart from works and so are we, then you have to believe in justification by faith totally apart from works. This works for your average moron. But the smart person says, “Wait a minute. What if I’m not reading Romans 2:6-7 nor Romans 4? What if I’m out fishing? What do I believe then?” Then, the Christian fundamentalist says “simple; you believe both.” But obviously this is impossible since they contradict. So, the smart person CHOOSES one. Now he’s a heretic. He made a choice between two contradictory views on the same subject rather than try to be a schitzo and believe in both. Orthodoxy is schitzophrenia imposed on you by priests and pastors. Heresy is you making a choice to be consistent and keep your sanity, or what little of it you can salvage after religion has had its way with you.

    • jlundewhitler

      May 12, 2011 at 4:19 pm

      Rey: That’s also an interesting way to look at it. I agree in part with what you’re saying, if you’re saying that we can create problems by trying to make everything in scripture fit perfectly together, because it all has to be equally “true.” Of course, despite what a fundamentalist might say, they don’t believe that every part of scripture is equal, either. Besides the obvious (the commands re: slavery and family relations, kosher laws, sacrifices, proper clothing in worship, etc….),just about everyone also has their “favorite” passages, whether they admit it or not.

      But I’m also not willing to say that all parts of the Bible are “equally untrue,” or that it doesn’t matter what we read or how we interpret. I think there has to be discussion, and a commitment to getting the “big picture,” to reading the scripture in a responsible way that keeps our priorities straight. So, churches, and “religious types,” that might have burned you in the past, have a responsibility to ask for forgiveness, to try and heal in relationship with those they have hurt, and recommit to being willing to let people wrestle and question, while opening themselves up to say “Maybe the ‘big picture’ is quite a bit larger than I/we have assumed it to be.” In response, all of us (and I include myself with you) that have been hurt by so-called “institutional religion,” must make space in ourselves as well to receive these gifts, and to return them. If you instead harden yourself and your opinions about church, religion, and scripture… then you run the risk of becoming an ideologue, as much as a fundamentalist is an ideologue.

      (In other words,absolute certainty in EITHER direction, about our ideas about God, or our interpretations of scripture, is the opposite of freedom!)

      • rey

        May 12, 2011 at 6:43 pm

        I certainly don’t mean that everything in scripture is “equally untrue.” And I agree that we need a “commitment to getting the big picture.” That big picture, to me, is clearly that God wants us to live moral lives. This is the theme that we find everywhere in Scripture. Justification by faith alone is merely an aberration that we find in a few places in Paul. The thrust of the whole OT and the NT aside from those places is against it and in favor of justification by continual repentance and moral living. Where people go wrong is when they begin to buy into that faith alone garbage or to become overly nitpicky on ceremony. Isaiah 1 is clear that God is not very concerned with ceremony but rather with morality, as is Amos 5. What else can Jesus’ light treatment of the Sabbath be considered as being? Yes all of these (Jesus, Isaiah, Amos) would obviously agree with James’ formulation that “pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to help the fatherless and widows in their time of need and keep oneself unspotted from the world.” James, after all, is borrowing this terminology from Isaiah 1’s “plead for the widow; judge the case of the fatherless; cleanse your hands you sinners, purify your hearts you doubleminded; cease doing evil, learn to do good.” This is the consistent theme, and anyone who lets Paul’s sophistry get them off track is not wise.

      • jlundewhitler

        May 13, 2011 at 7:20 am

        Ah, yes… so your issue with Paul is the justification-stuff. That’s fair to a point; note my response to your other post— although I don’t really get into it there, I agree with you that the way in which we tend to read Paul in the Christian West is incredibly problematic.

        Would it be fair to say, that the difference in our readings is: You read scriptures and see little room for how Paul fits with the rest of it…. whereas I would like us to read Paul properly, in the context of the rest of the scriptures? If that’s not fair, please say so. I don’t want to misrepresent you.

        There are a whole host of things that the scriptures are concerned with, much of which has to do with morality…but I think in light of Abraham, the covenantal promises made to Moses, etc., that morality is not a “mere morality”…. the bigger picture is, the world has lost touch with God, that we are disconnected and fragmented, and there is immense brokenness as a result… and so God wished to restore the world to its original purpose. So He began to work within a particular family and nation (Israel), beginning with Abraham, that was later dramatically rescued from slavery by God, to whom God makes his covenantal promises, for the PURPOSE so that they would be a “holy nation,” a light to the world, so to speak. That the world would see a nation restored in relationship with God and with each other– and as a result, their brokenness and disconnectedness would begin to heal– and the world would see this, and flock to Zion in worship themselves. (The idea is from Genesis, Exodus, and Isaiah). But when Israel failed to live up to their end of the covenant, a more complete, inclusive, and less easy-to-manipulate way was needed— to fulfill God’s promises, and to open up the possibility of covenant-relationship for the entire world. That was Jesus’ role…He claimed the role of Messiah (Israel’s “annointed”) and did for Israel what it could not do for themselves–i.e., remain faithful to the covenant. But then He showed God’s intentions from the beginning, by then freely sharing those promises which He had inherited with all people, and thus all those who follow Him can draw close to God once again, learn HOW to love, how love can heal the brokenness— and to share that love with others. Those that follow are not doing mere “morality;” they are (if they are living up to their calling) contributing to the healing of the world.

        Why do I throw all that out there?…. Because I think that’s Paul’s point…. and it’s consistent with the themes of scripture (the Torah, the prophets, the psalms, the other epistle writers, etc.), and the desires demonstrated throughout scripture that all people might follow and know God, that we might be restored in relationships with each other, that justice is upheld for the poor, and that creation’s beauty is restored to its full luster.

        I do think that what we do is of utmost importance (thus my general impulse to plead with the Christian community to get its act together!) –and that what we do is often far more important than what we think or believe…but insofar as it comes out of something deeper than merely “living a good life.” If we are true to our call to love God first, then we’re never content with our love; we seek to love more fully, more urgently…because God is involving us in the healing of His creation. But rather than be anxious about this, we are content with God, and in nothing else.

      • jlundewhitler

        May 13, 2011 at 7:49 am

        Might I suggest, since you seem to be very well-read and an astute observer of scripture– that you read some of N.T. Wright? He wrote a book on Paul called Paul: A Fresh Perspective that is short, that I’d think you’d find interesting, even if you didn’t agree. And Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope are great reads as well that might help you to see a congruence in the scripture that you haven’t seen before….. and might I add, you are right to challenge the forced-congruence that we often make in the church to read Paul. Simply put, “justification by faith” doesn’t mean what we think it means. It means (overly-simplified) “we become a part of the covenant-community of God by following Jesus.”

  3. rey

    May 13, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    “but I think in light of Abraham, the covenantal promises made to Moses, etc., that morality is not a ‘mere morality’…. the bigger picture is, the world has lost touch with God, that we are disconnected and fragmented, and there is immense brokenness as a result”

    The world lost touch with God by trying to bandaid over immorality with ceremony. This is one of the major points of Isaiah (1) and Amos (5) that the sacrifices are not accomplishing anything and a return to morality is what God wants. The “immense brokenness” in the world, “that we are disconnected and fragmented,” this is all a result of various different religions trying to monopolize the way to God with their ceremonies and their abstract metaphysical dogmas rather than accepting the one thing that nobody can deny about God, that he wants us to be moral. Indeed religion seems in most instances to be just men seeking for a way to excuse immorality and to allege that God wants something else, anything but morality. “God makes his covenantal promises, for the PURPOSE so that they would be a ‘holy nation,’ a light to the world” and yet it never happens because men make the covenants all about anything but morality. Men begin in each covenant to create loopholes. In the OT, it was “you don’t have live morally, just offer these sacrifices and pay your tithe.” Now its “you don’t have to be moral, just believe.”

    “Why do I throw all that out there?…. Because I think that’s Paul’s point…. and it’s consistent with the themes of scripture (the Torah, the prophets, the psalms, the other epistle writers, etc.), and the desires demonstrated throughout scripture that all people might follow and know God, that we might be restored in relationships with each other, that justice is upheld for the poor, and that creation’s beauty is restored to its full luster.”

    Paul has some of these themes, yes. But all of these themes require morality. And he undermined that when he replaced it with justification by faith alone. And as a result, he undermined all these themes and pays mere lipservice to them.

    I am aware of N.T. Wright’s interpretation that “justification by faith” in Paul just means you are Ok to join the church not that you are ultimately saved. However, my complaint would be that Paul ought to say what he means. If I wanted to say that Gentiles are acceptable for church membership on the basis of faith and don’t need to be circumcised, I could say it quickly and simply, just like I did there. I wouldn’t use the term ‘justification’ in the weirdest sense ever. I don’t think Wright’s view solves the problem therefore. Romans 2 teaches justification by works and Romans 3-4 teaches justification apart from works. Paul contradicts himself and its obviously on purpose. Perhaps the Gnostics were correct in counting Paul as one of their own, and perhaps Elaine Paigels’ book the Gnostic Paul explains what Paul really meant, namely that the psychics must be justified by works but the pneumatics are justified by faith apart from works. The more I read or study Paul, the more I am convinced he was a Gnostic. He does afterall say he speaks hidden wisdom to the spiritual (pneumatic) that he can’t give the Corinthians because they are too carnal (psychic). Paul as Gnostic heretic is the best explanation that I think can be given for why he does not fit with the rest of the Bible.

    • jlundewhitler

      May 16, 2011 at 7:30 am

      I’d argue that morality is an important part of the covenant– but insofar as it’s part of a bigger picture of how God wants to restore the world. The way that faith/belief has become divided from action, to which you allude, is indeed a HUGE problem for the church. Yes, we for the most part have gotten “justification by faith” wrong, because we don’t understand faith as “faithfulness” to Jesus. The metaphor at work is discipleship. We follow a rabbi and imitate his life and message the best we can in our own bodies. But this is not for our own sake. You see, in my view, there is a danger of trying to reduce things to the simplest (I’m not saying necessarily simplistic) form, to try to make everything fit into one box…. scripture has got a LOT of different stories, poems, lessons, etc… there’s a lot of stuff there. To make it all about “living morally” kinda cheapens it, and in my view that has the danger of becoming just as reductionistic as those who make Christianity all about “getting to heaven when I die” or “having a personal relationship with Jesus.” God IS relational and wants us to follow him faithfully; God also DOES want us to live morally…but you have to take both of those and not disregard the other… AND we see both of these things in the full context of scripture, along with a number of other major themes. We like to make things easy and simple; true faith simply isn’t easy, or simple.

      I don’t think NT Wright would say that justification by faith is about joining the church equating with salvation…so you’re right, twisting the word “justification” to mean that would indeed be weird. He doesn’t do that, though. In fact, he’s trying to see the word more naturally, as a 1st-century reader would. The problem is, when we read “justification” (as a side note, the term “justification by faith” is not in scripture; “justified by faith” is, but only once to my memory), we read Western, pseudo-Gnostic, modernist, fundamentalist understandings into it without even questioning it. I wonder if most of us cannot help but read Gnosticism into Paul because we Western Christians are pretty Gnostic ourselves!

      But “justification” is a word relating very naturally to “covenant,” as the word also means “righteousness.” AND “justice.” It’s all the same word in the Greek. And that term is ABUNDANT in the Old Testament… and in many if not most cases, tied to the terms “mercy” (hesed), which is a term used to describe love rooted within the promises of the Mosaic covenant, and “obedience” OR “faithfulness” (which again is the EXACT same word as “faith”) If you’re reading an English Bible, you can’t see any of this commonality. But an original reader/listener to one of Paul’s letters, written primarily to encourage and strengthen fledgling Christ-following communities (a goal consistent with the other epistle writers), these connections would leap out at you.

      (I think that might be a place for you to consider… the fact that “faith” / “faithfulness” and “obedience” were never ever ever EVER expected to be separated ideas. They are referring to the same attitude and way of living… they both relate to the promises God made to His people through covenant and how his people are thus expected to respond. The difference is that “faithfulness” emphasizes our connection to the divine, our spirituality and how IT connects to our physical/moral behavior. It refuses to separate the two. And that was ALWAYS expected to be a part of “obedience” in the Hebrew Scriptures: The Psalms are rife with messages of thankfulness and love directed to God. Moses, David, Daniel, many of the major characters in scripture, attempted to follow him. The Book of Hebrews, Chapter 11, makes the connection between faith, faithfulness, and obedience blatant.)

      Of course, if you do not believe that there is a spiritual component to our existence, or that God longs for justice and renewal to be restored in the world, then I imagine it would be very difficult to make an argument for non-reductionism. For me, however, Paul didn’t make sense for a LONG time either… until I began to read him in the Greek, understanding his Jewish context. Then he make FAR more sense, and suddenly seemed to fit with the major themes of the scriptures.


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