Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Is There Such a Thing as Heresy? (Thoughts on the Rob Bell Controversy)

Some words ignite fires.

Because they are so powerful, we often use them as weapons to discredit an adversary, especially when we lack a real rebuttal against his ideas. We often do this quite intentionally in politics, labeling our opponent with a word that evokes fear and loathing. If we are successful, it then becomes nearly impossible for the labeled person to explain himself because the label has closed the ears of the people; whether or not our label is justified.

Unfortunately, Christian leaders can use the same tactic. Through history, one of the most effective words to use this way has been the dreaded word “heresy.” Once attached to a teacher, it often leads to at least his loss of influence and sometimes even to his persecution and death. It is understandable then why many Christians dislike the word “heresy;” or why some unbelievers even tend to wear the label as a badge of honor.

However, heresy is an important concept because it describes the sort of ideas and systems of thought that erode the core of our faith. For example, to undermine confidence in the resurrection is to sever one of the central cords that hold Christian faith together. In fact, St. Paul claims that to discard one’s belief in the physical resurrection of the dead is to ultimately destroy his entire edifice of biblical faith. Therefore, for a professing Christian to disbelieve the Lord’s resurrection is to commit a heresy.

To define what constitutes heresy though, we first define what constitutes “orthodoxy.”  Orthodoxy is the common core of Christian beliefs that C. S. Lewis called “Mere Christianity” and which he and other great teachers taught that sum up the sort of things believers in all times and places -- despite their other historical differences --  have believed. Thus, the Churches of Christ believe that we should not use instrumental music in public worship. This is a difference surely, from other Christians, who use various kinds of musical instruments in worship. However, this difference does not constitute a heresy since it does not affect the core ideas of our faith. The Churches of Christ have a difference from other Christians but are not heretical. Most Christian differences are like that. A few are not.

So, who or what defines “orthodoxy?”

Most believers through the ages would say that the core ideas of our faith are the doctrines contained in the Apostles Creed. The creed is essentially a little poem that has been around since about 98 A.D. It was first used in the church of Antioch by Irenaeus, the bishop, to define the faith. Because of his close ties to the Apostle John, the poem came to be called The Apostle’s Creed (although we do not know if the Apostle John personally had anything to do with its composition.) At any rate, although we explain some of the points differently, the majority of Christians in the world today, as well as those of the past, have viewed the doctrines contained in this creed as defining the center of what we believe.

Now, as I understand him, Rob Bell has stepped over the line of what constitutes the center of our faith. He has embraced a form of theological liberalism (another one of those loaded words) that undermines – or at least weakens -- Christianity. His teaching leaves us wondering what Christ meant when he said that he was “the life, the truth and the way and that no one comes to the Father except through him.” Bell’s ideas (again as I understand them) lead us toward a relativism in which all belief systems held by sincere people lead to the same place –eternal life in God.

This, our faith denies.

Orthodox Christianity teaches that the life of Jesus alone is the medicine of immortality; without it the lethal effects of sin will keep working their poison until the disease concludes in our eternal separation from God.  As Evangelical believers within the orthodox stream of faith, we believe that the life of Jesus is transmitted through our faith in the risen Christ and through our open confession before human beings that God has raised Him from the dead.  We know of no other way that the life of Jesus flows into a person to produce eternal life.

So, it appears, Rob Bell is at least flirting with heresy, which can lead to apostasy: the complete denial of faith in Christ.

Still, our first response to heresy is never anger. It is rather an informed and loving pastoral appeal to those who we believe have crossed the boundaries of “that which has at all times and in all places been believed by the whole people of God.” After all, our desire is for their salvation and spiritual heath.

So why am I writing in such a gentle way about something that is so upsetting to so many?

Because, quite simply, we live in a time in which the fundamentals of our faith have not been taught nor valued as much as we should have. Therefore, these eruptions of heresy are the fruit of our preoccupation with lesser things. For a generation, we nearly abandoned our pastoral duty to teach the scripture and biblical doctrine, at least at any sort of depth. This left a generation without answers for some of the most pressing questions of our time. Therefore, people have been crossing the boundaries of orthodoxy because they had no idea that those boundaries even existed. Heresy had become a big joke. Orthodoxy had become thought of as a form of unimaginable intellectual oppression left over from the dark ages. So how can we react harshly if heresy is the unavoidable product of the theological vacuum American Evangelicals created (or at least tolerated)?

I am also careful about how I write about Rob Bell and his writings because once our heresy bomb is launched against a person, a type of Christian hysteria can easily erupt in which all sorts of beliefs not pertaining to the core of faith also become the object of people’s wrath. This can result in the needless wounding of faithful believers.

For example, take eschatology (the study of last things). The Apostle’s Creed requires us to confess that “from thence He shall return to judge the living and the dead.” Thus, all orthodox Christians believe in the literal, physical second coming of Christ. However, how this second coming will occur, or in what type of world conditions He will return, has been viewed in different ways since the time of the Apostles.  For well over a century, the most popular form of Evangelical eschatology in our country has been expressed in the various schools of “dispensationalism.” Before then, American Evangelicals held to another view, called “covenantal theology.” (The two viewpoints differ in how they define the relationship of the Old and New Covenants to one another, the relationship between Christianity and modern day Judaism, and a number of speculative ideas about how the end times will unfold --  or what the phrase ‘end times’ even means.)

Most of us will readily recognize that St. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, Billy Graham and Jack Hayford are all men who have faithfully preached the gospel. That is why we quote from them and read their writings. And yet, they differed from one another about eschatology and other areas of the faith. Nonetheless, they have stood shoulder to shoulder to protect our common deposit of faith –that is to say, Christian orthodoxy.

In churches like Christ Church, where I am responsible to teach and maintain that “faith once and for all delivered to the saints,” people from all sorts of Christian backgrounds gather to worship and to form community together. We have learned to tolerate a variety of beliefs and practices, some of which may not be to the liking of all. This tolerance (yet another loaded word) is healthy. It makes us stronger because it makes us dig into scripture and examine it carefully.

Nonetheless, our tolerance has boundaries. Those boundaries are best expressed through the ancient creed we confess each time we receive communion. Inside those boundaries we can discuss and learn from one another the various ways in which our faith deals with the great issues of life. We must not tolerate a departure from those boundaries.

So yes, heresy does exist. It must be identified and it is a pastor’s duty to correct it. However, let us beware; lest in our haste to purify the flock, we ignite a fire that destroys our ability to demonstrate the love of God. Without love, doctrinal fidelity is vain and cold. With it, an appeal to fidelity and sound doctrine becomes a healing word that strengthens our journey thorough this word and into the next.


3CoachV said...

Wonderful post, Dan. We must maintain our conviction of orthodoxy, yet those with teachings that "flirt" with heresy must be corrected gently, lest we fall too.

Victor Encinas

Anonymous said...

Beautifully expressed. Intellectually honest. Convicted, yet compassionate. Well written, good and faithful servant.

Punchinello said...

A good, timely and very pastoral word, Dan. I hope you are well and that we can catch up sometime soon. Resurrection blessings to you and yours! - Freddy