So what on earth is a heretic?
According to conventional ecclesiastical wisdom and most dictionaries, it is “a doctrine or opinion at variance with the accepted or orthodox doctrine.”
If you have read the previous post, you will see that there is a problem here. Accepted or orthodox according to who? Keep this in mind and it quickly becomes clear that the textbook definition of heresy is little more than code for “a doctrine or opinion at variance with my doctrine.”
Two Approaches to Heresy
This little insight is not a new discovery. Sebastian Castellio, the man famous for daring to accuse John Calvin of having “hands dripping with the blood of Servetus” after Servetus’ public execution in Geneva in October 1553 for heresy (Servetus rejected infant baptism, predestination and the doctrine of the Trinity) put it as follows:
“After a careful investigation into the meaning of the term heretic, I can discover no more than this, that we regard those as heretics with whom we disagree. This is evident from the fact that today there is scarcely one of our innumerable sects which does not look upon the rest, as heretics, so that if you are orthodox in one city or region, you are held for a heretic in the next.”
Castellio wrote this in 1554, in a pamphlet entitled Concerning Heretics: Whether they are to be persecuted and how they are to be treated, one month after Calvin published his now infamous Defense of Orthodox Faith against the Prodigious Errors of the Spaniard Michael Servetus. Calvin wrote the latter in response to the outcry against him and the Geneva City Council for the murder of Servetus. In it he made the following statements:
“Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt. This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for his Church. It is not in vain that he banishes all those human affections which soften our hearts; that he commands paternal love and all the benevolent feelings between brothers, relations, and friends to cease; in a word, that he almost deprives men of their nature in order that nothing may hinder their holy zeal. Why is so implacable a severity exacted but that we may know that God is defrauded of his honour, unless the piety that is due to him be preferred to all human duties, and that when his glory is to be asserted, humanity must be almost obliterated from our memories? Many people have accused me of such ferocious cruelty that I would like to kill again the man I have destroyed. Not only am I indifferent to their comments, but I rejoice in the fact that they spit in my face.”
It is not difficult to see how these words inspired Castellio to write Concerning Heretics. Calvin was not impressed that he dared to do so and called Castellio “a monster full of poison and madness.”
Castellio responded yet again, and this time he confronted his readers with the logical conclusion of Calvin’s propositions:
“He makes himself (by what right I do not know) the judge and sovereign arbiter. He claims that he has on his side the sure evidence of the Word of God. Then why does he write so many books to prove what is evident? In view of all this uncertainty we must define the heretic simply as one with whom we disagree. And if then we are going to kill heretics, the logical outcome will be a war of extermination, for each is sure of himself. Calvin would have to invade France and other nations, wipe out cities, put all the men to the sword, sparing neither sex nor age, not even the babes and beasts. All who bear the Christian name would be burned except the Calvinists. There would be left on earth only Calvinists, Turks, and Jews, whom he accepts.”
Castellio’s point is relevant, even though the threat of being exterminated for heresy is not quite as real as it was in his day. We may not burn our theological foes at the stake, but we have a myriad of other uncharitable ways to deal with them, all fueled by our sincere convictions that we are the custodians of God’s truth and those who disagree with us are the heretics.
Is there any yardstick or benchmark by which to judge this?
So Who Came First?
I mentioned that the first Pentecostals I came across were quite happy to refer to themselves as the oldest denomination on earth. Didn’t it all start on the Day of Pentecost? Weren’t the first Christians Holy Ghost baptised tongue talkers? Of course they were. So we are orthodox and everyone else is… well, a heretic. Case closed.
However, not everyone agrees. According to a gentleman from the Western Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church of North America, who carries the honourable title of “Reverend Father,” Pentecostalism “is a modern American Christian movement that emerged out of the Holiness Movement at the turn of the 20th Century along with other heretical movements during that period of time in American history.”
Note: The Reverend Father does not see Pentecostalism as orthodox but as “modern” and thus heretical. He then highlights one of their aberrations: Pentecostal Church services are “very informal, avoiding the Divine Liturgy of the original churches.”
Ok, so here is an element of orthodoxy that distinguishes the “original churches” from the modern, heretical ones: The Divine Liturgy. (Note the capitalisation).
So, which element best captures the ethos of the non-heretical original churches? The charismatic gifts or the Divine Liturgy?
Here is an answer from a “Reformed” believer who proposes a third way: “Calvinism is so-called because John Calvin was the foremost man in history who articulated it in a way that many have not forgotten. He is not the only one who did so. There are many others, and the Apostle Paul was the first.”
That’s quite a statement. In tracing their beliefs back to their origins these guys zoom right past the “original churches” to Paul himself, the first Calvinist.
Shouldn’t one then call it Paulism?
Amazingly, the author anticipates the question and provides the answer in his next sentence: “Why then do we call it Calvinism and not Paulinism or just plain Christianity? The answer is that EVERYONE thinks their interpretation of Christianity is the correct one. The only way we can differentiate our interpretation from other interpretations is to give it a unique label. The fact that it is called, “Calvinism” does not make it extra-biblical, this is simply a designation that separates it from all other interpretations of the Scriptures, all other “isms.” The point of this all is that Calvinism is simply Biblical Christianity.” (Emphasis in original)
Hmm. That’s quite something – giving your version of Christianity a “unique label” that ends with an “ism”, with the express purpose of distinguishing it from all the other “isms,” and also from the designation “plain Christianity” which doesn’t quite convey the allegiance to the theology of John Calvin that Paul adhered to.
Think about that: This gentleman thinks that CALVINism is a better label than CHRISTianity.
Interestingly, while I was writing the above I found myself wondering what a Catholic would have to say about all of these people claiming the original churches and even the apostle Paul for themselves and their movements.
I kid you not: Whilst doing so an email containing a Quora notification flew into my Inbox. I opened it and read the following question:
“What was Christianity like before Catholicism?”
I then read the answer:
“Non-existent! Catholicism is the ONLY Christianity established by CHRIST HIMSELF, and the only Christianity which has been there for two thousand years.” (Emphasis in original)
No, it’s not a parody. The author identifies as a “Catholic who teaches Catechism, RCIA, and Prayer classes.” (I looked for mind-reading abilities, but there was none.)
I must hand it to these guys. They trace their origins further back than the earliest Christians and even the apostle Paul. Jesus himself founded them. Jesus was a Catholic!
At this point, I was tempted to wonder why Paul the Calvinist never addressed Jesus’ Catholicism. Imagine, we could have had the Reformation recorded in the book of Acts!
I will spare you the nuttiness that runs throughout the rest of church history. Trust me when I say that the sad pattern above has replicated itself with each ecclesiastical schism and split over the past two thousand years.
I think we are on safe ground to dismiss the definition of heresy at the beginning of this post. Which leaves us with a question: If heresy is not “a doctrine or opinion at variance with the accepted or orthodox doctrine,” then what is it?
More about this in the next post.