On the Possibility of Heresy: A Reply to Roger Olson

A few days ago Roger Oslon posed the question on his blog: How serious a heresy is Universalism?  It was a pretty good post, suggesting that we can distinguish levels of insidiousness in theological error.  I think this is right.  If you go around calling everyone who disagrees with you an obstinate heretic guilty of apostasy, then there’s no charge left to level against people who actually deviate from the gospel in dangerous ways. But I must not have been the only one to ask Dr. Olson why he chose to use the word heresy at all, especially for a doctrine that is not “officially” heretical (i.e. has not been deposed by an ecumenical council), because he wrote a subsequent post defending his use of what he calls “that awful but necessary word.” I appreciate Dr. Olson’s willingness to follow up on his comments as much as I appreciate his entire blog, which is often thought provoking and always enjoyable. The thing I like most about the blog is the clarity with which Olson writes and the precision with which generally he distinguishes concepts and defines terms, which is why, I must admit, I was surprised at sliding scale of meaning he applied to the term heresy in the post. 

To begin with Olson defines heresy as “any theological error as determined by some authoritative religious group.” Just like the traditional Catholic definition but with a broader sense of the magisterium—that’s fair enough. The problem is that the broader the authoritative body the more room there is for disunity and disagreement within it. That’s the problem of heresy not just for Protestants; even the Roman Catholic church has to perform some sleight-of-hand to get you not to notice disparity within the magisterium, or so goes Gary Wills’ argument in Papal Sin. At any rate, this definition doesn’t work. By it, both Calvinism and Arminianism are heresy—both are considered theological error by some authoritative religious group, unless what we mean by ‘authoritative religious group’ is either quite narrow (e.g. the Roman Catholic Magisterium) or quite relative (e.g. ‘my Presybertian church is authoritative, but your Methodist church isn’t). The same goes for paedobaptism and believer’s baptism, and a whole host of other doctrines which different authoritative religious groups determine to be theological error.

Dr. Olson is keen to detect this problem, of course, and so quickly changes his definition so that any doctrine determined to be theological error by an authoritative religious group is heresy for that group.  As he puts it, “what counts as heresy…in one form of Christian life may not count as that in another one.” Already this is quite a bit softer, but even this definition gives way to contradiction.  It’s easy to see why if we look at the examples Olson gives from his own tradition to support this definition: “A person who denies the importance of believer baptism may be a Christian but is certainly not a Baptist!” That seems axiomatically true, and it’s enlightening for at least two reasons. First, it tells us why Olson insists on hanging on to the concept of heresy even in a post-Reformation context in which such a concept becomes rather slippery: Heresy is a boundary marker. It tells us who is in a community like Baptist (or Arminian or evangelical or whatever), and who is out. I should say that I think Dr. Olson is right to want this. Without some boundary makers a group would lose all sense of identity. Hasn’t that always been the point of heresy after all? Bishops and theologians have the responsibility of ensuring that the gospel is handed down undefiled. Surely we want to say of some doctrines that they are not Christian. But at issue here is not what we are right to want to say, but what we rightly can say. I’ll come back to this point later. But first let’s notice a second thing about this example of infant baptism.

Even though he is giving an example of his definition of the word heresy, Olson does not use the word heresy in this particular formulation. I suspect this is because he has the intuition (conscious or unconscious) that heresy must mean something more serious (or perhaps just more concretely wrong) than what can be determined theological error by this individual community. I think he’s right to recoil a bit from the notion of heresy in this example. Sure a denial of the validity of infant baptism is an important boundary marker for Baptists, but is it heresy? Do Baptists really want to say that Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin were all heretics? (Okay maybe some Baptists would want to say this, but I doubt that Olson is among them). You see the problem: To give the power of the heresy card to individual authoritative religious groups, which intrinsically are in disagreement with one another as a good many of them grew up out of those disagreements, is either to give those groups a level of power that many of us would be uncomfortable with some groups having. (Imagine this power in the hands of neo-fundamentalists, Dr. Olson!) Or it is to dilute the concept of heresy to the point that it means nothing more than “not Baptist” (or Arminian or evangelical or whatever). Many of us would then regard the charge of heresy a compliment! This brings us to a third point which is not apparent in Olson’s example, but we can reconstruct it by looking at an example from my life.

I too was reared in the Baptist tradition, but I left the Baptist church in part because I became convinced of the arguments in support of infant baptism. (You can read my post summarizing the case for infant baptism here). So I espoused a belief that that, by Olson’s definition, could have been deemed heresy, but instead of becoming a heretic I became a Lutheran. Once heresy becomes a boundary marker for individual authoritative religious communities, then one can avoid the charge by aligning herself with a different authoritative religious community rather than changing her beliefs. And thus heresy has lost the whole purpose which gave it meaning. Heresy was once was punishable by excommunication (and later by worse) because the goal was for heretic to recant the false teaching and return to the orthodox faith, and thus to purify the church and protect the transmission of the gospel. But if the new way to deal with what we call heresy (call it “the post-Reformation telos of heresy”) is for the heretic to get out of my group and join another authoritative religious group, then heresy is nothing more than an individualistic statement of belief that, rather than being made in the affirmative, is directed against my neighbor.

Once again, Olson perceives that this is the inevasible next step so by the end of the essay he is willing to admit “when I say something is heresy, at the very least I mean I would not affiliate with a church or denomination that tolerated it among its leaders.” In other words, heresy is ‘something I disagree with quite strongly.’ So notice the sliding scale of meaning applied to the term heresy in Olson’s essay: He moves from heresy as “any theological error as determined by some authoritative religious group” (not unlike the Roman Catholic magisterium), through the idea that theological error as determined by an authoritative religious group is heresy for that group, to the admission that heresy is simply a theological opinion that I disagree with quite strongly. It’s almost as if he was discovering what he meant by the term as he wrote (a practice that is typical in blogging but uncharacteristic of Olson’s manicured style). I don’t fault Dr. Olson for this line of reasoning; I think this is where you will inevitably end up if you think through the possibility of heresy in a post-Reformation context. I just wish that he had taken the difficult final step down the ladder and granted that heresy is now an empty concept, (with perhaps the exception of those decisions made by the whole Church in the first few centuries after Christ).

I suspect I know why Dr. Olson doesn’t want to take that step. The end to which heresy once served as a means—to ensure that there is something like a core of the gospel which is handed down in it’s pure form and to give shape to the identity of the Christian community—these things are very important! Those of us Protestants who are serious about theology and the identity of the Church, I think we feel a deep yearning for something like the Roman Catholic magisterium, someone who can tell us what the true faith is. But many Catholics I imagine feel a similar yearning for a sense of the Church as semper reformanda—the idea that probably more than any other laid to rest the possibility of heresy. We need each other, Catholics and Protestants. And I think we are only beginning to discover the depths of this need in the ecumenical theology movement that has emerged in the wake of Vatican II. Perhaps what we need is a much deeper ecumenical movement, one where Roman Catholics and Protestants and Eastern Orthodox set down together and define what it is that we all believe. But, of course, that would take a movement of the Holy Spirit. Yes, perhaps it would take miracle to make a heresy.

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3 responses to “On the Possibility of Heresy: A Reply to Roger Olson

  1. I rarely have the time to respond to responses to my blog posts except on my blog. But, since Joe e-mailed me pointing me to this critique and I find it incisive (not decisive) I’ll say a few words about it here.

    Yes, by all means, “heresy” is a problematic concept, but I find it necessary for some of the reasons Joe gives. But I’m not sure Joe fully understood some of my points. First, one must distinguish between descriptive and prescriptive uses of the term. When I (or anyone) says “such-and-such a belief is heresy” I might mean the belief is so pronounced historically by some authoritative magisterium OR I might mean I consider it unbiblical and pernicious to sound faith or incompatible with my denomination’s official beliefs (and I agree with that). It’s complicated, I admit.

    When I say denial of the importance of believer baptism is a heresy among Baptists I am NOT saying belief in infant baptism is heresy. Far from it! I’m simply saying that, descriptively (and in this case prescriptively because I agree), for a Baptist to reject believer baptism in favor of infant baptism (or no baptism!) is heresy–within the Baptist tradition community.

    Also, I have not stated what I think should be done about heresy (other than hint at what I don’t think should be done). To pronounce something heresy even prescriptively is not necessarily to call for excommunication. It is certainly to call for conversation. And it is to say that I, at least, would have trouble belonging to a church or denomination where the leaders held that heresy.

    I hope these comments help clear up some of the confusion–which is inevitable given the limited space and the complexity of the concept.

  2. Watson

    Joe’s concerns and criticisms are quite warranted here. To use the term heresy to describe one’s own denominational demarcations is precisely a misuse of the term. There is a history attached to heresy, and to know that history is to know that heresy is not something that Baptists may wield against Emergents, or Catholics, or even other Baptists! Heresy has to do with the teaching of the Church, the catholic Church, not the interpretation of an individual, or even of a community of believers. It is not an interdenominational concept; it hails from the days of a unified Church.

    I could go around saying that Universalists are ‘orthodox,’ and explain that their teachings were in harmony with what I or my community have consistently said about salvation, but that doesn’t make universalism ‘orthodox’ Christianity, nor does it make my use of the term orthodox in this way at all proper or helpful or accurate. It is as much of a misstep to conflate what one denomination or person finds uncompelling or intolerable with heresy as it is to conflate what one denomination or person finds compelling or tolerable with orthodoxy. Accusations of heresy have to come from a taller and older and wider authority grounded in a definite revelation or charism.

    Put plainly: heresy is a word that belongs to the Church, and Christians can only repeat it, not pronounce it. Heresy by definition necessarily refers to something more definitive and universal than what I believe or what the Baptists hold forth or even what the Bible says (because nearly every heretic cites the Bible). If Protestants (or others) find that they cannot effectively employ the term to that effect–and I think Joe rightly recognizes that his Protestantism cannot do so coherently–then they should be reticent to employ it at all.

    For apostolicity, and thus episcopacy, and thus catholicity, is what the term heresy (as well as orthodoxy) has historically entailed; nothing less, and nothing else. Mr. Olson may explain the way in which he uses the term, but that doesn’t change the fact that his use of it is incoherent within this framework and thus incompatible with the origins and history of heresy.

    Heresy as opposed to what orthodoxy, grounded in what authority, guarded by whom? Heresy doesn’t make sense in Protestantism, because there is no authoritative Church, only a priesthood of all believers, some preaching Universalism, and some preaching against it, and all citing the authority of the Scriptures as well as a handful of alleged supporters ancient and contemporary.

    Heresy according to who? That’s the real question: not a question of doctrine but a question of authority, since the latter ever precedes the former. And the answer has always been heresy (1) according to the Church by the living voice of the bishops in ecumenical council, and for some, (2) on rare occasion by the special proclamation of the bishop of Rome, who has primacy among the bishops.

    There is, finally, no such thing as the Great Tradition, or the Consensus of the Patristics, or any such thing. For all manner of conflicting arguments are compellingly made by careful appeal to these same sources. It is therefore inevitable that these so-called Church Fathers are made to speak for many different (even competiting) truths insisted by so many different (divided) Churches: for their voices are manifestly not living voices. And that is the whole trouble. That is the precise reason why the only guarantee of orthodoxy is a living voice of apostolic authority within the Church by the special charism of the Spirit who guides her into all truth. Outside of this conception of the Church, the word orthodoxy (as well as its antithesis: heresy) has lost its fundamental meaning, and is, at best, of limited and subjective value. It can be made to get the point across from one Baptist to another, but only by being rendered meaningless to everyone else.

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