Of the orthodox and heretics

29 Mar

Recently read Heresies and How to Avoid Them, edited by Ben Quash and Michael Ward (see my comments and review at In the prologue by Ben Quash, Quash in introducing the book (which is based on a sermon series with contributors from Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox and even Quaker backgrounds) shares several insights about orthodoxy and heresy that would seem rather timely:

In many cases the heretics-to-be were positively anxious to be true to Scripture; they were scrupulous in their use of it…One thing this should probably teach us is that ‘proof-texting’ (citation of fragments of the Bible out of context) is never enough in the application of Scripture to Christian doctrinal issues. But there is a further lesson to be learned from the history of heresy – not unrelated – which is that individual doctrinal issues themselves cannot be considered in a stand-alone way. Exclusive and narrow focus on one issue can take one’s eye off another, and begin to have distorting effects on it….

The key task for orthodoxy, it seems, is to keep a sense of what the larger shape of Christian belief is – a shape which, if contemplated patiently and sensitively and with a concern to find its maximum integrity, will unlock its inner persuasive power and display its glory…

Contemplation of the true shape of Christian belief – which can never be traced apart from constant reference to the person of Jesus Christ – can be a training in knowing what ‘fits’ and what seems somehow inapposite when proposed as a claim to Christian truth. Those undertaking this training must always remind themselves to look large as well as to peer close – to develop a sensitivity to the integrity of the whole and not just of individual pieces of the picture. And of course, the training never ends, and no individual has unerring judgment about it. It needs a community of people who pray, serve and study together: who are disciples of Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit…

Even if we grant that too often heretics allowed a good point they wanted to make to get out of proportion, and to have a deforming effect on the larger picture painted by Christian teaching as a whole, nevertheless it may already have begun to become clear that many heresies were sincerely proffered as attempts to clarify the belief of the Church and inform the lives of believers. Many of those who have proffered them regarded themselves as orthodox and catholic believers. We can afford to listen to them generously in many cases….

The language of orthodoxy, as of piety, can be used thoughtlessly when faced with difficult questions, as a stock way to answer, neutralize or suppress them. Perhaps this is evidence of a sort of laziness. Or perhaps the instinct at work is to offset a perceived danger (the danger of being unsettled in one’s faith, or lured from the right path). But the killing of lively thought is a much greater danger. In the end a thoughtless recycling of ‘what the Church says’ will make the narratives and doctrines of orthodoxy stale. As Rowan Williams suggests, ‘perhaps theology…needs excursions into the mirror-world of what it is not saying in order to find out what it is about.’ Things that are vaguely taken for granted need to be made strange – to be made ‘something of a question’ – in order that full-blooded orthodoxy may retrieve itself again. ‘Mere incorporation in the orthodox Christian fold’ will not neutralize all the dangers, or make the questions go away.

This book aims to contribute to such liveliness of thought, to assist the ‘avoidance’ of heresy not just through strategies of denial and censure, but through adventurous detours through the ‘what-ifs’ proposed by orthodoxy’s ancient debating partners, so that the pitfalls and limitations of heresies can be better appreciated, and orthodoxy more wholeheartedly celebrated.

Or as Saint Paul said in much fewer words: “Don’t quench the Spirit; despise not prophesyings; prove all things: hold on to what is good, keep away from every kind of evil.” 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22.

Good book. Much needed history lessons.

Timely words.

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Posted by on March 29, 2011 in Doctrine & Heresies


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