Escape from Heresy (III)

fish-jumping-from-boulOn that fateful day, 27 October 1553, on the plain of Champel at the gate of Geneva, whilst the flames were engulfing Michael Servetus, he used his last breath to cry out in a loud voice, “O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!” The words were ignored by the bystanders, and Servetus died soon afterwards.

Commenting on the affair, in his Calvin: A Biography, Bernard Cottret wryly remarks: “He passed away after committing a terrible error of syntax; he cried out, ‘Oh Jesus, son of eternal God, have pity on me!’ in place of the proper, ‘Oh Jesus, eternal son of God.’” Cottret concludes: “His punishment was due to the misplacing of a single adjective. Heresy is never anything but a question of grammar.”

Servetus did not agree with John Calvin’s doctrine of the Trinity, and so rejected the notion of Christ’s eternal sonship. The solution to his heresy was a simple alteration of words, a “confession” that would set the matter straight. And so William Farel, like a good grammar teacher, tried to persuade Servetus in his final hours to fix his sentence construction and earn his freedom. But of course Servetus didn’t.

The Chronicles of Geneva

The obsession with a correct articulation of words and sentences as a sure antidote to heresy governed the religious thinking of 16thcentury Geneva. The Registers of the Consistory of the city confirm as much. The single theme that recurs throughout these records, in some or other form, has to do with the citizens’ ability to recite the “Pater” and the “confession” faultlessly. And yes, these people were summoned to appear in front of the consistory if there were any doubts about their religious commitments.

Here are some typical extracts, dating from the years 1542 and 1543. In each case, John Calvin was present:

Jacques Emyn: Summoned to render an account of his faith. He responded that he had made little progress and said the Pater, “Our Father, etc,” and a few words of the creed. The Consistory advise, having given him proper admonitions…

Charriere: She said her Pater fairly well, the creed very little. Remanded to Thursday.

The sheath-maker’s wife: …in the French language she could not say her creed; in Latin in a general way.

Clauda, daughter of Tyvent Joctz: …said the prayer poorly, and does not know the confession. She was admonished…

 And so it goes on, page after page, month after month, year after year. The only other spiritual activity that enjoyed the same scrutiny was the attendance of Monsieur Calvin’s sermons. The question, “Are you born again?” does not appear in the records.

The error behind the contemporary definition of heresy hinges on the very misunderstanding that governed the thoughts of the religious elite in Calvin’s Geneva, namely that it is possible to capture and preserve the essence of the sacred in a formulation that consists of mere human words and nothing more.

It should be noted that this understanding obscures the true nature of evil by subtly suggesting that one can banish it through the powers of a credal construct. Words arranged in the correct order becomes a type of magic charm that can dispel the darkness of the human heart. If only I can extract the good confession from the heretic, I will have destroyed the heresy. If not, I will have to destroy the heretic. (If not by fire, then by rumour).

The Real Problem

Where on earth did this idea come from?

We could approach the question like good historians, citing a pendulum-like overreaction on the Reformers’ part to the mysticism of the late Middle Ages.

Or we could point to the fact that the Reformation coincided with the dawn of the Renaissance – that golden era of enlightenment rationality, the scientific method and the birth of the industrial process and left-brained utilitarianism.

Or we could remind ourselves that the power of words experienced a revival during Luther’s time due to Gutenberg’s invention that immortalised the speech-bubble by turning it into print, hence the centuries-old association between the Protestant message and the gospel tract. And so on.

We can do so, but we will be scratching the surface.

The idolisation of words as containers of spirituality stretches much further back than the time of the Reformation. It even precedes the word-obsessed religious subculture of first-century Palestine – one that prompted Jesus to rebuff prayers that relied on a vain repetition of words to increase their efficacy, and rebuke those who confessed him with their lips whilst their hearts were far from him.

In fact, it predates the Isaiah passage that Jesus quoted from, “…this people draw near with their words” and “their reverence for me consists of tradition learned by rote” (Isaiah 29:13, NASB), and it does so by millennia.

The Sacralisation of Language

Study the history of religion and you will soon run into the fascinating phenomenon of sacred language.

Like the architectural design of religious edifices symbolising the coveted penetration of the heavens, or the idea that some select locations on the globe are more suitable than others for doing so (this mountain, Jerusalem, Lourdes, Mecca, the “church” around the corner…), or the notion that spirituality is an impossibility without the mediation of a guru or holy man or priesthood of sorts, or the conviction that God is in the habit of assigning strange titles and dress codes to individuals who have learnt about him in settings inaccessible to the general public; the belief persists that there is an indissoluble bond between God’s revelation of himself and the words by which that revelation were conveyed.

The idea might not have been a bad one, were it not for the fact that it suffers from the same malady as our conceptions of what makes a heretic: Everyone seems to have their own version of what God has revealed to us.

And so there are tens of thousands of well-meaning folks, especially in the southern states of the USA, who remain convinced that God’s chosen language of communication is the type of English that King James and his cohorts spoke at the turn of the sixteenth century.

Travel north to Pennsylvania and you will run into Amish believers who are convinced that God would have them read the Bible in Luther’s Gothic Script High German, even though many of them struggle to understand the antiquated language.

Visit a couple of traditional Catholic churches on the way and you will meet people who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the Second Vatican Council’s reforms in the sixties, that allowed the use of vernacular languages in the Mass in the place of Latin.

There are many other examples.

The phenomenon is not restricted to Christendom. Muslims believe that the Qur’an is a revelation specifically in Arabic and should only be recited in Quranic Arabic. Translations into other languages are mere “interpretations.” Shinto practitioners chant in a form of Japanese that was spoken in the ninth to twelfth century. Hindus worship in Sanskrit, a language considered “dead” by many. Buddhists memorise their texts in Classical Tibetan. And so on.

The pattern repeats itself throughout religious history and can be traced back to the dawn of civilisation as we know it. Sumerian, one of the oldest languages known to humanity (spoken in ancient Mesopotamia of the Bible), was replaced by Akkadian in the second millennium BC, but lived on as a sacred and ceremonial language until the first century.

You cannot really go much further back than that, can you?

You can, in fact: To a time before language existed as we know it today; to a time when the notion of “knowledge” was understood and intended to be conveyed in a manner that transcended the limitations of mere spoken syllables and written symbols.

More about that in the posts to come.

4 thoughts on “Escape from Heresy (III)

  1. Marinus Swanepoel February 17, 2020 / 11:52 am

    So I think what the fundamentalist would say is that the universal manifestation of the sacredness of language is evidence of it’s veracity. But then he would just add that his is the right interpretation and all the others are wrong, which to some extent is a valid response. I often cite the ‘universalness of religiosity’ as evidence of its veracity but that Christianity is the true religion.

    So I have revised my response to simply say that “they are all @#$@# crazy!” – which of course is just my way of saying they are all heretics and only skeptics, like me, are not.

    I have recently been convicted of the idea that there is such a thing as being ‘bigoted against the bigots’. Work that one out if you will.

    My walk with Arminius and Wesley has really been strengthened by realizing two things from reading your work:

    1. There are emotional reasons for Calvinists to believe what they do and it does not simply fall to Armenians.
    2. There is strong historical evidence that Calvinism and other views like Eugenics are distant cousins and in the wrong hands – bed fellows.

    Thanks for the post, have really been enjoying this since I stumbled upon you Quora answers to Geneva’s history.



  2. Tobie February 17, 2020 / 6:21 pm

    Thanks Marinus. Bless you and the fam.

  3. Marinus Swanepoel February 23, 2020 / 10:34 am

    Hi Tobie – at the risk of cluttering your comment section I desire to bounce some more ideas.

    As usual your writing is intensely stimulating to me and I find myself continuously coming back to it. I do not know to what degree your musings are consumed by the general public but I wish to sincerely say that I am gaining a lot from it and I thank you for taking the time and effort out of a busy schedule. I don’t think it is an understatement to say that your defense of the gospel together with my inquiry into natural theology and apologetic has save my life. I was on an extremely dark path and I do not know how many things will have been pruned away when I finally emerge on the other side but I am deeply thankful for the sustenance that I have gleaned from you. You have addressed the majority of my theologically existential fears and as I am writing here I am truly at peace despite all hell being loose around me.

    I have been wrestling with this heresy thing a lot because I am slowly making my way back to church and the church that I chose because of their emphasis on small home cell groups (which is the closest I am going to come to “naturalchurch” at this point in my life) is frequently making my eyes roll at the veiled prosperity gospel which they propose as “the coming of the kingdom”.

    I am of the opinion that the most dangerous (please note dangerous and not heretical 🙂 ) form of false doctrine is that which shuns “the big picture” and focuses on a true but limited part of scripture.

    That said I am persevering partly because of my own self awareness that is growing and also because of the affirmation that I am getting from your writings. Intended by you or not.

    So I am currently wrestling with the idea whether or not we should simply do away with the word heretic completely and just use “anti-Christ” where applicable.

    Jn 4:2  By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 
    1Jn 4:3  and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. 

    2Jn 1:7  For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. 

    In my charismatic days we would use the above verse as a means of “testing the demon that manifested” – to be fair, I look back at those days fondly, but suffice to say it has been “more than ten years – give or take” since I saw what I thought was a demon manifesting.

    Nowadays I suspect strongly the verse is rather meant as a way to “discern heretics” for lack of a better term. It’s just that the term heretic is better described as ‘anti-Christ’. The “off-label” use in deliverance ministry is at best an after thought and at worst a misunderstanding of its interpretation and original intent.

    I actually have nothing against deliverance ministries that do not seek to elevate sound spiritual exercises like “confessing your sins openly and honestly so that you may be healed” over the idea that Christ was “sacrificed once for all” but nowadays I cringe at the scriptural justification for these practices that ultimately undermine the fact that the original intent was far loftier than the proponent of Charismatic applications seems to realize in his fervent efforts to “bring about the kingdom”.

    But for now I will persist with my home cell and simply speak my mind. If I am accepted I will stay. If I am rejected I will find someplace else. So far so good.

    Sincere regards


    P.s. if I’m spoiling the ending please warn me so I can shut up 🙂

  4. Tobie February 27, 2020 / 7:09 pm

    Hi Marinus – thanks for the encouraging comment. I’m thinking through some of the issues you’ve addressed. Will respond soon. Blessings and regards, Tobie

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