Thursday, August 5, 2010
1:30 PM | Posted by Jnorm | | Edit Post
"Heresy" is one of the most ominous terms in the vocabulary of Christendom. The Christian usage of the word can be traced back to the New Testament itself, where it is used to designate a sect, faction, or grouping (see, for example, Acts 24:5; 28:22). Similarly, the great Jewish historian Josephus applies the term (airesis) to the three religious sects prevalent in Judea in his day: the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes. At this stage, the term did not have the strongly negative associations that later developed; these, however, were not long in emerging.
By the second century, "orthodoxy" and "heresy" were emerging as significant ideas. The term "heresy" was used to designate deficient, and potentially vulnerable, understandings of the Christian faith that were to be rejected. The identification of heresy was seen as a corporate judgment by the church that rested on a consensus that such views were unsatisfactory, fallacious, and misleading. Yet it is essential to appreciate that heresies were ultimately unacceptable interpretations of the Bible.
This can be seen by considering the fourth-century movement known as Arianism, widely seen as the most important early Christian heresy. Arius and his followers held that Jesus of Nazareth could not be regarded as divine in any meaningful sense of the word. He was "supreme among God's creatures, "but a creature nonetheless. This doctrine was severely criticized by writers such as Athanasius of Alexandria for undermining the internal coherence of the Christian faith. Yet both Arius and Athanasius based their ideas on substantially the same biblical texts, which they interpreted in different ways.
The essence of heresy can therefore be located in flawed biblical interpretation. But who decided which biblical interpretations are flawed and which are orthodox? If all Christians have the right to interpret the Bible as they see fit, how can heresy be identified, let alone combated? If the Bible alone is the supreme rule of faith, how can any authority beyond that text be recognized as its authoritative interpreter? It is at this point that the distinctive approach of Protestantism encounters a seemingly formidable obstacle, in that it seems to undermine the very idea of an authoritative interpretation of the Bible-in other words, the notion of orthodoxy.
This already significant problem was made acute by the unusual social and intellectual conditions of the sixteenth century, catalyzed by the spirit of inquiry of the Renaissance. This era of science and intellectual restlessness was marked by a determination to explore new options and reevaluate old ones. Some of these were local heterodoxies, whose ideas had little impact at the time, even though they may have caused frissons of intellectual anxiety. Among those, we may include the Italian village miller Domenico Scandella from the mountain village of Montereale, who took the view that the world arose from chaos, just as "cheese is made out of milk, and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels." A surge of alternative viewpoints emerged, posing a powerful challenge to the religious and political stability of late Renaissance Europe. The authorities, political and religious, did what they could to limit their impact by branding such ideas as magic or heresy. Among these new movement, of course, was Protestantism itself-or perhaps we should say, many of the various tributaries that flowed into its vortex.
From its outset, Protestantism was branded as a heresy by the Catholic church. Protestants responded with indignation, retorting that they had recovered orthodoxy from its medieval distortions. What was Protestantism if not the recovery of the orthodox faith of the early church? Yet Catholics had little difficulty in arguing that, while Protestantism might be perfectly capable of recovering earlier biblical interpretations, it lacked the means to determine whether it had retrieved was orthodox or heterodox. And lacking any such capacity to discriminate between such interpretations, Protestants were obligated to repeat the judgments of the Catholic church on these matters.
In their turn, Protestants argued that, since they were committed to restoring the authentic teaching of the early church, this naturally extended to its views on orthodoxy and heresy. In the end, the arguments were not decisive. However, the debate highlighted the potential danger for Protestantism arising from competing biblical interpretations. Who had the right to decide which were orthodox and which heretical?
This led to a further difficulty as divisions emerged within Protestant constituencies. Itself partly a consequence of the intellectual ferment of the Renaissance, Protestantism found that it could not check this innovative and critical tendency within its own ranks. It had merely been relocated, not neutralized. One particular difficulty was the rise of anti-trinitarianism in Italian Protestant circles, a movement that rapidly gained a following in northern Europe. For Juan de Valdes and others, the doctrine of the Trinity was simply not to be found in the Bible, nor could it be defended on biblical grounds. Protestants who were faithful to the Bible not only were therefore under no obligation to accept this doctrine but had a responsibility to challenge it as a distortion of biblical truth. Forced out of Italy by the Inquisition, many anti-trinitarians settled in the independent republic of the Grisons in southeast Switzerland, where their influence upon Reformed Protestantism began to grow.
In this case, Protestantism was able to deal with such heterodox trends by appealing to the consensus of faith of the church, as set out in the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. Christianity as a whole had declared such teachings to be heretical; Protestantism thus endorsed this pattern of traditional teaching and, in doing so, rejected anti-trinitarianism as heretical. But what of other dissident voices within Protestantism that urged teachings that had never been declared heretical in the past by the church as a whole but were nevertheless regarded with intense animosity within certain sections of the movement?
Dr. Alister McGrath, Christianity's Dangerous Idea,
pages 227-229, published by HarperOne, 2007.
pages 227-229, published by HarperOne, 2007.
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