Boasting Heresy: The New Ignorance

By: Wolfgang Vondey
Saturday, May 25th, 2013

heresyIf you have spent any time lately in theological discussion you surely have come across the label “heretic.” No, I don’t mean the derogatory use of the term to denounce someone else’s beliefs as unorthodox or unacceptable. Surprisingly, I mean the use of the term to label one’s own position. “I am probably a heretic but …” or “This is probably heretical …” and similar phrases now introduce theological positions and beliefs in which the speaker is not quite clear or certain about what is to be believed. I see these phrases regularly in my classes, on discussion boards, Facebook posts, and in any conversation that goes beyond a mere superficial chat to probe the deeper theological questions. Not surprisingly, “I am called a heretic but …” and similar phrases start a position that is rarely heretical but more often ignorant, incoherent, and amateurish. Often I find in these phrases also a sense of discomfort with existing positions or a sense of pride, a boasting in heresy as if to say: “I do not conform to the tradition” and “I have found a better way no one has thought of before.” I find this trend alarming. Boasting heresy is a threat to the renewal of Christian theology!

Imagine a management student introducing his opinion by saying “I am probably ignorant of the laws of management but …” or a psychology student boasting that she has been called crazy by her guild. Imagine a student of philosophy rejecting the philosophical traditions and exclaiming to have found a “better” way. Or a political science major rejecting all forms of current government. None of these positions would be taken seriously. But it appears that theological positions are now mere matters of opinion. We can hold any position we like, whether or not they conform to the Christian tradition, since, let’s face it, no one really holds us accountable. Worse, our theological positions do not matter. They have no impact on anything. They are only propositions that identify neither our Christian identity nor our convictions in any substantial way to others. This is the new ignorance: to refuse granting theology a position of authority!

And yet, these students who are not afraid to label themselves as heretics are the ones who pursue the ministry of the gospel. We find them in churches and hospitals, behind the pulpit, in youth and children’s ministries, in parachurch activities and on the mission field, teaching in academia and taking positions of leadership. All the while, these self-labelled heretics perpetuate their ignorance–a fate worse than heresy. While heresy can be identified and repudiated, often within the realm of a single doctrine, ignorance attacks theology as a whole. 

Those who label themselves “heretics” should begin with a thorough read of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, followed by the edicts of the ecumenical councils and their histories, a history of heresy and its consequences. What we find in these accounts is that heresy is no laughing matter:

  1. No heretic ever labeled himself or herself as heretical.
  2. Those labeled heretics were generally passionately and deliberately pursuing the knowledge of God to the same degree as the defenders of Christian orthodoxy.
  3. Heresy was never used as an excuse for lack of knowledge or interest in theological pursuits.
  4. Heretical teachings were typically doctrines of central importance to the church and centered around the doctrine of God.
  5. Heresy was never used in the contexts of everyday conversations or lighthearted discussion among believers.
  6. Accusation of heresy meant serious opposition, exclusion, persecution, excommunication, and even death.

The ignorant use of the notion of heresy as a self-description threatens the renewal of Christian theology, particularly among Evangelicals and Pentecostals. The history of Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Lutherans, and Reformed Churches teaches a certain reverence and respect (it’s hard to avoid canon law, papal decrees, and ecumenical councils) that seems to be missing among the newer traditions, communities, and streams of Renewal Christianity. What these streams lack, in my opinion, is the pursuit of a solid, sincere, informed, and educated knowledge of the Christian faith and a passion among its members for a fuller understanding of theology as the pursuit of God by the mind, heart, and soul. The renewal of Christianity does not need “heretics”! It needs theologians!

So tell me, how should we respond the next time someone starts his or her position with “I am probably a heretic …”? What should we teach students in seminaries about heresy? What can the churches do to educate their members? How can we raise a generation of Christians who will renew theology without recourse to heresy? How do we end the new ignorance?

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Wolfgang Vondey
This entry was posted by on Saturday, May 25th, 2013 at 4:31 pm and is filed under Church History, Faith & Culture, Theology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

2 Responses to “Boasting Heresy: The New Ignorance”

  1. Daniel Irving says:

    I think this is where modesty and presumption collide. If I was presuming to speak on the issue of Relativity, it would seem presumptuous to go on without acknowledging my substantial ignorance of a matter very few people have insight on. I guess the issue becomes one of ‘Why am I presuming to speak on the subject then at all?’ How much more true as pertains to spiritual things, of which the apostle writes of the natural mind: “He cannot know them.” (I Cor. 2:14) There is however, a “but” that allows Paul to go ahead and to speak (without being in presumption) as to spiritually things, as he also writes: “But we have the mind of Christ.” (I Cor. 2:16) To the extent we are aloof from faith in the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the basis of our understanding, is to the extent we are in presumption on the subject of religion. Thus it is disturbing when self-professed atheists or secularists presume to engage the subject of religion.

    By the way, Wolfgang, I had commented on one of your previous articles calling for development of a Pentecostal theology. I have made a recent video which (I believe) lays down the rudiments. I hope you have time to view this. Click on the link. Then click on the first photo.

    • Thanks for this response, Daniel. I will have to ponder this a bit and see if ignorance exists at the intersection of modesty and presumption. :)
      As for the development of a Pentecostal theology … stay posted … 2014.