Who are the Heretics?

I’m lucky that there’s a library about ten minutes walk from where I live in south west London. It’s not a huge library; I would guess there are about 30-40 books in the Christianity section which is where I was looking when I visited earlier this week.

So I was lucky, then, to find a book that really caught my attention, ‘Reformation: A World in Turmoil’ by Andrew Atherstone. The book is an excellent guide to the Reformation and has already provided me with much food for thought even though I’m currently only about half way through.

One of the things that is standing out for me as I read this book is the diversity of opinions that different Christians held about the key doctrinal issues of the faith. During the Reformation there were many believers who were tortured, burned at the stake, beheaded, drowned, or otherwise executed, for holding opinions that differed from those who were in power in a particular region at a particular time.

I want to quote a short section from page 147 of the book on the subject of heresy and then will make a few comments below. I would love to get your thoughts in the comments at the bottom of this post.

In his treatise, On Heretics, [Sebastian] Castellio argued that Christians spent far too much time arguing about unprofitable doctrines like the Trinity, the work of Christ, predestination, free will, angels, and the immortality of the soul. He maintained that such debates were irrelevant since salvation was achieved not by doctrinal precision but through faith in Christ, as tax-collectors and prostitutes realized in New Testament times. Castellio went further and asserted that it was futile to punish “heresy”, because Christians could not agree among themselves which views were heretical. Surveying the bewildering multitude of Christian opinions in evidence across sixteenth-century Europe, he wrote:

There is hardly one of all the sects, which today are without number, which does not hold the others to be heretics. So that if in one city or region you are esteemed to be a true believer, in the next you will be esteemed a heretic. So that if anyone today wants to live he must have as many faiths and religions as there are cities or sects, just as a man who travels through the lands has to change his money from day to day…

Castellio looked for an emphasis upon Christian morality rather than doctrinal correctness, and maintained: “It would be better to let a hundred, even a thousand heretics live than to put a decent man to death under pretence of heresy.”

In our current age of YouTube videos and the blogosphere there are still debates raging around all the same issues that were being discussed vehemently in Castellio’s day. The plurality of beliefs amongst Christians has not decreased. There are thousands of different denominations in the church today. We may not be burning people at the stake for their beliefs, but we are still arguing about the same doctrinal issues.

I wonder how God views all these different beliefs? Is it really true that just a small number of Christians will be able to “enter through the narrow gate” and be saved? Or is it arrogance to assume that one person’s views about, say, the Trinity, are going to leave them damned to hell while another’s views will carry them to heaven?

If it is true that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, as many Christians believe, does it really follow that there is one correct interpretation of Scripture, or should we be more liberal in allowing for different beliefs and interpretations within the church?

Castellio’s view was that we should put morality first. This suggests to me that he believed we should be more concerned about our conduct as Christians than the minutiae of doctrinal differences. Perhaps a good Christian is able to empathise with the views of others, putting himself in their shoes and understanding that despite being different, their opinion may not be heresy in God’s eyes.

7 comments

  1. Let us not forget that the context of Castellio’s argument is based during the Reformation, a time when the masses were illiterate and any scripture that was printed via the newly created printing press would have still been in Latin. Your everyday person would have relied heavily on the educated or specifically on the clergy that they lived near to. We know that corruption of the Church was a big issue during this time and there was no way your everyday person could check or verify that their doctrine was heresy. Doctrine and heresy are 2 different things and we should not use them interchangeably.

    For example, the three main Christian heresies are: Gnostism (the belief that you can attain salvation through knowledge and wisdom), Marcionism (believing that the God of the Old Testament is evil and the God of the New Testament is good thus we have 2 separate Gods) and Arianism (believing that Jesus is not God but merely a man or a lower creation from the supreme being and that the Holy Spirit is a force, a created being or an angel thus not part of the Trinity). These are examples of past and current heresies which take on different forms in today’s modern world.

    Examples of doctrine: here we debate issues such as child baptisms vs adult baptism, or do the gifts of the spirit such as speaking in tongues lead to salvation, can you achieve salvation through works alone, do you need to be part of a community to be a Christian, etc. etc.

    Today there is a consensus about what heresy is and we know that denominations are based on doctrinal interpretations; however, your Christian community will stand together in the belief that you can attain salvation through the belief in Jesus Christ.

    It sounds like an interesting historical book to be reading but the context of the world we are in today is no longer the same as the world that Castellio was writing about. It’s easy for readers to forget that or for writers to overlook the difference in environments. Just my 2 cents.

    1. Hi Jose! How’s it going? I hope all is well with you and Linaka. Thanks for your comment. I understand heresy to mean any belief which is not considered orthodox by a particular authority. There are of course many different authorities within Christendom (e.g. the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, Baptist churches, Methodist churches, Anglican churches, etc) and each of these churches brings doctrinal differences.

      If you agree with my definition of heresy, then perhaps you would agree that different denominations regard different things as heretical (and I am talking about the present day, not during the Reformation). For instance, many Baptists would say that the doctrine of transubstantiation is a false doctrine, and the Catholic church would subsequently describe the Baptist view of Communion as heretical. Baptists might argue in return that worshiping Mary is heretical.

      I think I am using the term ‘heresy’ in the same way as Castellio.

      I wasn’t sure what you meant when you said “your Christian community will stand together in the belief that you can attain salvation through belief in Jesus Christ” – did you mean my personal community, or the Christian community worldwide? If you meant the latter, then I would just point out that Catholics don’t belief in salvation through mere belief in Christ, but instead emphasise the importance of works, confession, attending mass, etc (as I’m sure you are aware).

      I would question whether there is a consensus about what constitutes heresy, because different churches have different beliefs concerning what is orthodox. I think it’s important to point out that there isn’t one clear interpretation of the Bible, but that different people reading different passages in different contexts hold different beliefs – that’s as true today as it was in the sixteenth century.

      I’m happy to concede I may not be correct about everything I’ve said here!

      1. Hi Steven, I’m doing fine and Linaka and I are well.

        I suppose a very general definition of heresy would be as you stated above, “any belief which is not considered orthodox by a particular authority”. However, we have to look at this concept a little deeper in order to find the root Orthodox beliefs versus the heretical beliefs. Secondly, doctrinal differences between denominations would most likely be considered minor heresies versus major heresies which result in the divisions of entire Church communities such as the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church schism.

        Let us take a step back for a moment and look at the early Church from it’s origin. We could say that orthodox teachings as believed by most Christians come from what I will call Pauline Christianity (the traditions and teachings as passed down from the Apostles, the founders of the early Church). Of course, even the Apostles themselves had clashes at times about their beliefs, but they came together in ecumenical councils to create consensus about their beliefs and thus creating the Orthodox Pauline Christianity.

        We also know that variations of Christianity arose during these early times which resulted in the ones I mentioned above (versions of Gnosticism, Maricionism and Arianism). These major heretical breaks from Orthodox Christianity have led today to such denominations as the Jehovah’s witnesses and the Mormons each of these who would fall into the classification of Arianism.

        Let me not deviate too much from the message I’m trying to make. We know that through several ecumenical councils held by the early Church many of the Orthodox beliefs we have today were set. And although we have many denominations today, they result from minor heretical views, but I would not say all doctrinal differences are heretical. The Protestant break from the Catholic Church I would state resulted from major heretical views which became doctrines of the Catholic Church (such as the worship of the Virgin Mary). And I would state that the major heretical views are what determine whether you can attain salvation or not.

        I suppose this refined thinking has helped me get a deeper understanding of this debate. I believe most churches, irrelevant of their denomination, believe that orthodox Christianity at it’s root is Pauline Christianity. A consensus of that belief would be the starting point, the doctrines as defined centuries later through the councils are what have caused today’s problems and divisions. But whenever you see a young church being established somewhere, non-denominational, I’m willing to bet, they are relying on and starting from Pauline Christianity.

        Just on a final note about scripture that you mentioned above. I’ve heard many people say that scripture can be interpreted differently by people but I have to disagree. I would say that the original scriptures in the original languages are straight forward in meaning and interpretation, I would argue that it’s the translation into other languages and any agendas the translators have that lead to this idea the scripture can be interpreted differently (depending on the version of the Bible you have). For example the most recent version of the NIV (very liberal translation) vs the NKJV (a more strict translation). But debating scripture interpretation is a separate debate in of itself.

        Lastly, I mistyped on the paragraph in my earlier comment about “your Christian community”. It should have been “the Christian community (specifically Protestant branches, descendants)”. I don’t think I made that argument well. Thanks for the stimulating discussion.

  2. Thanks, Steven. The early Reformers carried over the Catholic belief in a state church. It took succeeding Reformers to challenge the tightly held dogma. But we still see vestiges of the belief in “Christian” America.

  3. Hi Steven!

    Thank you for an interesting and thoughtful post.

    You probably know from my past posts that I’m not a protagonist of using bibles as part of the process of Christian development and knowledge of God. Perhaps the only way to know God is through participation with the Trinity? Even doing good works can be formulaic rather than through love of the Trinity and the people created by it.

    Heresy is a negative concept and I think you were right to raise it as an issue. Some Christians are quite dogmatic about the doctrines of their denomination and intolerant of the doctrines of others. Also, it is all too easy to criticize other denominations through misunderstanding, rather than real doctrinal differences.

    I think that Jose Guerra was right to explain the general heresies of Gnosticism, Marcionism and Arianism, but wrong to suggest that Catholics worship Virgin Mary. They pray to her as a saint and ask that she intercedes on their behalf. A link below explains more:

    http://www.americancatholic.org/Features/customs/rosary/mary_worship.asp

    You may be interested in the Eastern Orthodox doctrines that I have attempted to summarize below:

    1) Belief in ONE God who includes Three Persons within One Divine Nature. This is the Mystery of the Holy Trinity which cannot be explained nor understood by human logic.

    2) Belief in the Incarnation of One of the Three Persons (the Son or Christ) in such a way that His Existence contains two natures (Divine and Human), thus becoming perfect God and perfect man at once.

    3) Belief that the Union of Christ’s two Natures constitutes a bridge whereby all human beings will eventually be united with Him and thereby obtain Divine status by grace without losing their humanity – the Orthodox Christian meaning of mankind’s Salvation.

    4) Belief that all goodness inserted by God into mankind remains inalienable even though most of us disobey His commandments.

    5) Belief in eternal preservation of all God’s creatures so that no creature may be punished with annihilation because of any sins.

    6) Belief in practising all virtues towards all people no matter how bad and non- deserving some may be.

    I’m wondering how many of the above doctrines will find disagreement from Christians of other mainstream denominations. Christ’s two commandments are more important than these doctrinal beliefs.

    Peace and love to all,

    Dinos Constantinou

    1. Hello Dinos! Great to get an Eastern Orthodox perspective – thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      I was interested to read point 3 of your summary of Eastern Orthodox doctrine, and in particular the idea that all human beings will eventually be united with Christ. I think this is a central issue, and one where there is a lot of disagreement between different denominations. For instance, Calvinists would argue that only the ‘elect’ will be with Jesus and everyone else will be damned. The Arminians believe that everyone has the opportunity to be saved, that salvation is ‘offered’ to all mankind, but that we have a free will decision regarding whether or not to ‘accept’ the gospel and therefore be saved.

      It’s also interesting to me that the Bible isn’t central to your faith, in contrast with the views of Reformed Baptists, for instance.

      I suppose I am trying to demonstrate the plurality of opinions that exist within Christendom, which is something that has been impressed upon me recently as I have studied the doctrines of different denominations. At this stage in my own spiritual journey I am keeping an open mind, because I find it possible to understand many different perspectives without any clear sense of what is ‘heresy’.

      Peace and blessings,

      Steven

  4. Hi Steven!

    Thanks for your response and for your open mind on the differences between Christian denominations.

    I have no desire to criticize the doctrinal views of any Christian denomination. I suppose that I have declared a preference for those of the Eastern Orthodox. Without the threat of not being saved for lack of belief or application of Christian virtues, belief and living a virtuous life is more likely to come from love of God and humanity. I suspect that this applies to many Christians of most denominations, despite their doctrinal declarations!

    If I’m right, why do we need doctrines that limit the numbers of those who may be saved? Most of the scriptures about Christ show Him as inclusive, not exclusive. Also, I believe He has the power to save all, irrespective of so-called free will decisions, which are often based on whims rather than rational thought. I do not believe that we have the choice to save ourselves. I believe that we have the choice to love God and humanity and that this tends to lead us into a rewarding life here on earth.

    Peace and love to all,

    Dinos

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