I’ve been reading Roger Olson’s new book Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, a book about Christian heresies that is vastly superior to my own writing on them. Nonetheless, I thought this would be the perfect time to pull my ‘Top Ten Heresies‘ posts from 4 years ago out of the vault.
Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church
If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’
*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal
If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.
Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.
By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.
Heresy #5: Patripassianism
What Is It?
I’ve given it the hump #5 position on this list, but Patripassianism definitely should be ranked #1 on the Silly Assonance Heresies list.
Here’s your clue.
from the Latin = patri– “Father” and passio “suffering”
Any guesses now as to it’s meaning?
That’s right, Patripassianism is a 3rd century heresy which asserts that the divine nature (either in the First Person of the Trinity or in the divine nature of the Second Person) can suffer.
Patripassianism = God Suffers(ed)
Patripassianism = If God Suffers(ed), then God Changes(ed)
I suspect the heretical nature of that claim is far from self-evident for some of you so perhaps an additional, foundational definition is in order.
Impassibility: from Latin
in = “not”
passibilis= “able to suffer, experience emotion”
Impassibility = God is eternally perfect and complete in God’s essence
Impassibility = God is transcendent
Impassibility = God is independent of all things unto God’s self and is not causally dependent on any other being and therefore cannot be affected (caused to have an emotion) by another being.
Impassibility = a first order, ground-level, Reading Rainbow, phonics-like theological maxim of the Church (and the philosophers before them).
Patripassianism, however, was perhaps the logical, if erroneous, fruit of the Church simultaneously contending with the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. After all, if Jesus is the eternal God incarnate and Jesus suffers and dies on the Cross, then does the statement ‘God suffers’ become a theological possibility?
Do the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation render it feasible to claim that on Golgotha God suffers?
Indeed can we now say, as Hans Urs Von Balthasar puts it in a creative, poetic flourish that remains nonetheless stale, slipshod heresy that from Good Friday Eve to the dark night of Holy Saturday God is dead?
Or to give it a postmodern spin (that for its use of ‘I’ as a starting point remains hopelessly ‘modern’ and Enlightenment-bound) can we claim that on Christ’s Cross we see God suffering in solidarity with us?
Who Screwed Up First?
While the lineup of heretics is long in this instance, credit goes to Sabellius, a priest who insisted that the Trinity was ‘economic’ alone; that is, rather than the Trinity being comprised of 3 distinct ‘persons,’ the Trinity named 1 God who acted in time in 3 distinct ways (as Father, Son and Spirit).
Sabellius’ (mis)understanding of the Trinity is a heresy for a different day, but suffice it to show how Trinitarian doctrine is often the keystone for every other Christian belief.
Get the Trinity wrong and it’s easy to wind up with a Son who can’t save you and an angry Father from whom you’d rather be saved.
Because Sabellius misconstrued the Trinity, he was victim to further misconstruing the divine nature, seeing in the Cross the suffering of God.
Following Sabellius, well-intentioned 5th century doofs like Peter the Fuller and John Maxentius held that in the Passion both Christ’s human and divine natures suffered.
Into the late 19th and early 20th century, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, the father of ‘Process Theology,’ postulated that God- likes his creatures (if you’re not an assbackwards creationist)- evolves over time as God interacts and relates to his creatures. God changes- ancient heresy wrapped in flattering ‘modern’ garb.
Another Patripassian is Jurgen Moltmann, a post WWII German theologian. In the wake of the holocaust, Moltmann felt convicted that the only plausible Christian confession was that on the Cross we see the eternal God shedding himself of eternity to suffer in solidarity with his oppressed creatures.
An understandable, humane, empathetic but ultimately ill-conceived conjecture about the Cross.
How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?
If you read the Bible’s descriptions of God’s anger, wrath and changing dispositions towards his People as literal rather than as part of Israel’s and the Church’s testimony to their relationship with and experience of God and thus figurative descriptions, then you’re a Patripassian in the hands of an Angry God.
If you think of the Trinity in terms of Nouns and Attributes (Father who is Sovereign, Son who Redeems, Spirit who Anoints) and you do not think of the Trinity in terms of Verbs (God who is eternally ‘fathering’ the Son in the friendship of the Spirit) and thus you forget that there was NEVER a time when God was NOT like God-in-Christ, then you’re a Patripassian who needs to memorize the Nicene Creed.
If you assume that for God to be ‘loving’ God cannot be ‘unchanging,’ then you’re either a Patripassian or poor philosophy student who’s confused dispassion (as in transcendence of) with unpassion (as in lack of).
The former is the only news good enough to pin our hopes, the latter is nothing. Literally nothing.
What’s more, if you assume a loving God must change then you’ve not taken the next logical step to realize that God must also then be affected by sin, suffering and evil, which opens another morally revolting can of worms (more below).
If you, like Calvin before you, posit that God planned the ‘Fall’ in order to reveal God’s glory, then you’ve introduced deficiency or ‘need’ in to God’s essential nature and you’re a Patripassian who needs to reread Colossians 1.
Likewise, if you think, like the other JC before you (Jean Calvin) that God requires suffering and death in order to manifest certain of his attributes then you’re a heretic who has forgotten the most basic of Trinitarian beliefs: that God is eternally, perfect and complete unto himself and doesn’t ‘need’ to do anything to reveal anything ‘more’ about himself. He is now, forever will be and always has been already ‘more.’
If you believe that God changes as a result of his everyday interactions with us, then you’re not far from asserting that God is the direct, efficient cause of every moment and event in time- that ‘everything happens for a reason.’
While this might seem romantic on the set of Lost, it can develop a nasty aftertaste when you realize you’re on the same logical ground as Pat Robertson holding forth in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
Like Pat, you’re suggesting that every innocent’s suffering, every misery, every cruelty in our world in some way furthers God’s good, redemptive ends in history, which may give you a morally intelligible universe but it comes at the expense of a morally loathsome God.
You apparently believe in a God whose nature is established not eternally but in time through commerce with evil, and that doesn’t sound like Jesus.
Better just to admit you’re a heretic and repent.
If you need an anthropomorphized God rendered on your own terms and insist that, like any good boyfriend or girlfriend, any God worth loving would change as a result of his relationship with you, then you’re a heretic who would make God more determined by possibility than by actuality.
That is, you’ve not quite comprehended 1 John 4’s proclamation that just IS LOVE.
Fully, completely, essentially, perfectly.
God doesn’t change because, unlike your boyfriend or girlfriend, God doesn’t need to change. Doesn’t need to become more perfect or more loving.
If you think that Jesus had to die in order for God’s wrath towards sinners to be ‘satisfied’ then you’re really suggesting that Jesus’ death on the Cross effects a change in disposition in God towards humanity.
You’re suggesting that the Cross changes, the otherwise eternal, God’s feelings.
God’s affected by something we do, kill Jesus.
So even though you’d likely think yourself more orthodox and definitely more biblical than the lot of us you are nevertheless a heretic, tripping over the most elementary of ancient principles: God’s apatheia.
For, as David Bentley Hart likes to argue and the entire Orthodox tradition with him:
A God who suffers or otherwise changes can never be a God who is love, even if at the end of the day, God proves to be loving.
Only One who is already eternally and fully within himself ‘love’s pure light, who is in and with all things but remains above and free from all things, only that One can be considered a God of Love.
With a capital, uneraseable L.
Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today
Mainline Pastors Preaching Funerals
Everyone After Any Death, Accident or Tragedy
Most Contemporary Christian Songwriters
Memorize the Nicene Creed, especially the ‘true light from light’ part.
Look at a picture of Jesus and say out loud: ‘God has always been like Jesus.’
Vow. Promise never to say again:
“God did this…”
“___________ died, got cancer….”
“….For a reason.”
Instead remember: God would never do that because God has always been Love.