What is a Heretic?
While prima facie we might think of heresy as simply false or wrong teaching, but a heretic is not merely someone who espouses false theological views. Otherwise, postmillenials would consider amillenials to be “heretics” as well as those who practice paedobaptism would consider those who deny it to be heretics. It seems therefore that the term “heretics” has a narrower meaning than simply someone who espouses false or wrong theological views. To be an Arminian maybe a foolish error to a Calvinist, but it is nothing so “heretical” as denying the Trinity.
It seems therefore that the concept of heresy essentially contains an ecclesiological dimension. A heretic isn’t merely someone who espouses just any theological falsehood, it is someone who has denied some sort of theological truth as to make a practical difference to Church fellowship and life, and therefore should be cut off from the same. In addition to this, it also carries soteriological implications, someone who is a heretic isn’t merely someone who’s wrong or who has been cut off from the life of the Church, he’s also someone who is damned and not a Christian.
But as Andrew Fulford has pointed out in an old blog post of his, there seems to be something strange about saying that “there is a category of doctrines (“non-essentials”) revealed by God which people are nonetheless free, in any sense, to disbelieve.” Or, which has no impact upon Church fellowship or our salvation or life as Christians, as if God had nothing better to do than to reveal mere propositions which has no relevance whatsoever to the Christian life.
In high church denominations where the “Church” is collapsed to a set of institutional norms and structures, “Church fellowship” has an entirely intelligible meaning; it just means whatever is consistent or coherent with the institutional norm or structures of an ecclesiastical organisation. Espousing teachings contrary to it would thereby constitute “heresy”. High church denominations also identify these institutional norms as efficaciously, and sometimes monopolistically, salvic. To be cut off from these organisations, excommunication, is effectively to be damned.
The Protestant, especially the low church one, does not have access to this privilege. All good Protestants insist upon Luther’s formula that the Word is prior to the Church and that the Word of Truth or the Gospel is the foundation of the Church, not the other way round. How can any truth not have ecclesiological implications when the Church is precisely so gathered around the proclamation of the same? Besides, even in the practical life of Protestant churches, no matter how “confessional” or strictly they adhere to their denomination’s confessional standard, are still hesitant to label anyone who does not subscribe to their confessions as simply “heretics”. Furthermore, low church ecclesiology which insists upon justification by faith alone do not turn the Church into mediators of salvation. Anyone who grasps the Word preached rightly and believes in it is directly united with Christ. Protestant ministers, unlike high church clerics, are not gatekeepers of the Kingdom. They have no power to restrict salvation or define who’s saved and who’s damned, they only have the authority of preaching the Word rightly and condemning errors.
It seems evident to me therefore that the concept of heresy really has no functional meaning in Protestantism, especially those with lower ecclesiologies. By what process, law or standard do we determine which truths matter enough for Church fellowship and which truths do not? By what means do we have to distinguish between salvically irrelevant theological truths and salvically relevant theological truths? Who owns the label of being “Christian”? We are not Roman Catholics, we do not possess any centralised ecclesiastical machinery to determine such a thing.
A Practical Rule for Separating the Sheep from the Goats
While therefore the concept of heresy, as well as the attempt to control the label of “Christian” seems to be an exercise in futility for the Protestant, but the life of the Church, as well as the task of the preaching ministry remains. We still need to fellowship, to pray together, to eat the Lord’s Supper and to preach the truth and condemn errors. We need to be able to determine with whom we can pray together and eat communion together. Thus, what we need is something more pragmatic than the exalted task of defining who’s in the Kingdom and who’s out, something which simply help us to determine with whom we can worship together with and pray together with, etc.
Therefore, taking a leaf out of Jeremy Taylor’s “The Rule of Conscience”, the rule which I would appeal to is whether or not a doctrine has any empirical impact upon the practice of the Church. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples:
The Perpetual Virginity of Mary
Whatever our beliefs about the perpetual virginity of Mary, and many Protestant Reformers certainly believed in it, it is a doctrine which makes very little impact upon the church’s practice. I certainly don’t believe that the Virgin Mary is a perpetual virgin and am not impressed with the grammatical gymnastics formulated to explain away the biblical text of Mary’s other children or the rather abstract “speculative theology” used to explain why it is “more fitting” for the Mary to be a perpetual virgin, (normally based on weird views about sexuality held by the Fathers), etc. But, as long as your belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary is not used to justify invocation of Mary or worship or devotion to her, it doesn’t really serve as a barrier to church fellowship or practice, etc.
Or in another example, take the Eastern Orthodox common belief in the experience of Uncreated Light. Now, as an utterly unrepentant Western Christian, I don’t believe in Uncreated Light or any pretended experience thereof. However, as far as pragmatics are concerned, this belief in Uncreated Light has very little impact upon the actual lives of millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians. Only a few select ascetics after all have the privilege of experiencing it, while the rest of Eastern Christendom continues its merry way. Therefore, believing or disbelieving in Uncreated Light has really no practical impact upon the lives of the Orthodox Christian’s life. As long as people don’t think that such experience of Uncreated Light is essential to salvation or the key to sanctification or as the basis to tell other Christians what to do, I don’t really care one way or another whether or not you believe it or even if you claim to experience it. Just keep it to yourself. Belief in Uncreated Light has no impact whatsoever upon the public moral life of the Church or its liturgical life.
Invocation of Saints and Angels
How about invocation of saints or angels? Now when the practical issue of false trust and faith in the merits of the saints and that they are more “approachable” than Christ has been dealt with, and looking at the very narrow question of whether you can ask them to pray for you, Melanchthon interestingly enough suggests that there may be something to the idea of angels praying for us, even invoking Scripture to justify it. He also discourages appeals to the saints based on the metaphysical uncertainties, and of course lack of Scriptural warrant for such a thing. E.g. Can the saints hear and process thousands of prayers all over the world at the same time? Are they aware of what is going on in the minds of the faithful? Therefore ultimately Melanchthon’s argument simply boils down to uncertainty, and that prayer must be made in faith and faith must be certain. While we can pray to Christ on the sure word of Scripture and on the basis of his divinity and omniscience, etc, we have no such sure word with regards to the saints, and therefore they are not to be invoked for that which is not of faith is sin. But if someone, privately, wants to ask their saints to pray for them, I guess I could be tolerant, as long as they do not turn them into articles of faith or place their trust or hope in them and thereby displace God and Christ. This would be my approach to those high church denomination cultures at least where there is a strong cultural habit or practice of praying to the saints. But the problem will honestly solve itself when Christ is proclaimed truthfully and clearly, his benefits presented, his love preached, and him as the source of all that is good is made known, people will then naturally not see the need to seek their help from saints but instead from Christ.
To invoke an even more hair-raising example, I would contend that Arius is not actually the demon heretic anathematised by all of contemporary Christendom. To give a brief defence of Arius, first, he never denied the divinity of the Son, that he is divine, and that he is to be invoked, etc. Neither did he claim him to be a creature among creatures, etc. Arius merely claimed two “problematic” propositions, (1) he claimed that the Son did not always exists, since the Son was begotten into existence by the Father, and (2) He denied the homoousian language as being suspect of Manichean materialism.
Despite these denies, it is difficult to see what practical difference it makes to us. Arius still affirmed that Christ was begotten “before all ages” before all time itself, he merely insisted upon the extremely narrow metaphysical point that before the Son was begotten, he was not. Secondly, the homoousian language cannot be found anywhere in the Scriptures, and it would be strange to elevate to the level of a dogma a term which the Scriptures does not speak of as subsequent councils after the initial Nicene Council has again and again pointed out and affirmed. Finally, very few people, not even the first Nicene Creed itself! actually understood the distinction between persons and substance. The first Nicene Creed even condemned those who say that the Son was of a different person of the Father!
Thus, it is difficult, if not impossible, to see what difference does a mere iota make to the practical life of the Church. As long as Christ is to be believed, hoped, worshipped, invoked, as our maker and saviour and as possessing all power in heaven and on earth, etc, it is very hard to see what does affirming or denying an unbiblical Greek term or abstract metaphysical proposition mean to the life of the Church. In this, I am not so much for Athanasius or Arius, but instead for the Emperor Constantine who was annoyed by both parties.
A final example I would use is the “Pelagian” dispute about grace, nature and freewill. Now, after the clarifications which I’ve argued for insisting that Pelagius did not deny grace but most vehemently affirmed it, it seems to me that therefore the issue here is one simply of handling the Law and Gospel rightly. Whatever we believe about the mechanisms of freewill and grace or whether grace is some empirical thing like good household, teachings and preaching of the Gospel versus some mysterious spiritual quality or gift to the soul, etc, the point is simply to uphold the integrity of the preaching of the Law and Gospel. When people believe that by their own strength they are able to please and honour God by their own freewill, or believe that before they can approach God for help they must appease them with their freewill wrought works, then we must condemn this error as denying the necessity of faith in the gracious will of God in the Gospel which receives, loves us and commands us to believe in him, invoke him, etc, anterior to our good works and without regard for our lack of merit. But when the preaching of the Law is eviscerated by denying any ability whatsoever to obey the law, even with grace and God’s assistance, and therefore that we should simply ignore the Law completely, then the promise of grace and the healing of the damaged will by sin must be affirmed against the fatalists.
These are merely some examples which I trust would serve as a good guide for how we ought to be determining standards of “orthodoxy” or “heresy” in dealing with the practical life of the Church. In the end, I give no hard and fast rule or uniform standard for separating the goats from the sheep, but merely a set of general principles to be applied with wisdom and charity to each case in accordance to the particular details of the facts. For the Protestant, in discoursing on the propriety of certain teachings and practices, our appeal ultimately should immediately be the Scriptures and its teachings, not to nebulous and constantly gerrymandered labels of being a “Christian” or “heresy”, etc.