Most Common Heresies: #2

Jason Micheli —  August 31, 2016 — 2 Comments

heresy_GMSI’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 #2: Protestantism* 

What Is It?

Protestantism is the 16th century heresy espoused by a wide variety of ever-splintering Christian denominations which emphasizes that ‘scripture alone’ (not tradition, reason or scientific investigation) is sufficient for Christian belief and reflection and that God justifies sinners on the basis of ‘faith alone’ (not works of mercy).

At it’s root, Protestantism heretically prioritizes the individual believer over and against the authority of the historic Christian community, reducing Christianity from a corporate, public, faith committed to mirroring the City of God on Earth to a private, subjective experience which eschews this fallen world in anticipation of a Gnostic escape to the afterlife.

Protestantism’s vaunting of individualism leads to the heretical- and distinctly modern- presumption that each individual believer can interpret scripture for themselves in the privacy of their own home or interior reflection. Such interpretation occurs independent of the historic consensus of the Christian community.

By violating 2 Peter 1:20 in this manner (“First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.”) Protestants make scripture vulnerable to abuse, fitting scripture to their constantly changing cultural, political, and economic norms rather than repentantly conforming their latter to God’s former.

In addition, by emphasizing scripture as the sole source of Christian belief and reflection, Protestants make of scripture an idol, transmitting to it the fidelity and reverence owed to Christ alone while erroneously limiting the mediation of grace to scripture rather than the sacraments of the community.

By (mis)reading Paul and emphasizing ‘faith’ alone as the grounds of justification, Protestants severed the historic connection between one’s confession (as in belief) with one’s character (how one embodied that belief in life). Without any external indicators, ‘faith’ then became purely subjective, either in the form of intellectual assent (as with modern Methodists) or emotional experience (as with the original Methodists).

By rejecting the authority of a ‘teacher among teachers’ Protestant Christians instead de facto defer to the authority of their nation while simultaneously enthroning their own individualistic prerogative.

By rejecting the mystery of God’s actions in the sacraments, Protestants de-sacralize all of material creation, failing to see in even the smallest, most ordinary of things conveyors of God’s love and presence. This in turn leads to a loss of ‘beauty’ as a Christian value, and renders the faith prey to the reductions of Enlightenment-bound rationalism.

Most tragically, by severing from the Church rather than reconciling disputed issues, the first Protestant heretics guaranteed that the churches they birthed would forever solve their own disputes by breaking away to form a more ‘pure’ church.

Who Screwed Up First

Martin Luther, a German Augustinian monk, whose own guilt-ridden conscience repeatedly kept him from hearing the simple declaration of the Gospel spoken to him in the confessional: ‘Martin, your sins are forgiven.’

Martin’s inner turmoil was exacerbated and eventually alleviated by the co-incidence of much ecclesial abuse at the time. This led Martin Luther to project onto the letters of Paul his own critique of the church and led him to assume, wrongly, that Paul’s critique of Pharsaic Judaism was analogous to Luther’s own critique of the abuses of Medieval Church. In Martin’s day this led to anti-semitism. In our own, this leads to anti-Catholocism.

Luther announced his critiques of the Church 1517 in his 95 Theses, a publication which happened to co-incide with the fomenting of a German middle class and the modern nation state both of which were happy to find in Luther theological justification for breaking from the Church.

Thanks to Luther, there are today approximately 30,000 Christian denominations with 270 new ones being formed every year and with only a few being at all comprehensible to the average non-Christian.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you see the Eucharist as a memorial rather than a great mystery reminding us that God can inhabit and transform anything in this world and in our lives, then you are a Protestant.

If you think of Christianity as the spiritual arm of your particular nation rather than as a global, transnational Body that transcends all other loyalties, then you exemplify the heresy Martin Luther probably couldn’t see coming.

If in times of war you’re more concerned with promoting the national interest than in protecting the lives of your fellow Christians in another part of the world (say Syria) then you’re probably a Protestant.

If you would use the words ‘private’ or ‘personal’ to describe the Christian faith, then you’re most definitely not a Catholic. Actually if you assume anything is private or personal and none of the Church’s business then you’re definitely a Protestant, and probably an American one.

If you think baptism- like voting- is a matter of you choosing God rather than an ineffable sign of how God chooses us eternally in Christ then you are a Protestant.

If you believe you can interpret the Bible for yourself, if you think you don’t need to be held accountable by another in order to confess your sins truthfully, if you imagine that serving the poor is an optional but not necessary for discipleship then you’re a Protestant.

If you insist the Church should make major cultural shifts quickly rather than over time (to insure that change is truly of the Spirt) and in consultation with your fellow global brother and sisters in Christ, then you’re most certainly a Protestant.

If you value your particular and, relatively-speaking, not very old brand of Christianity more than you lament that Christ’s Church is not united and whole- indeed if it doesn’t even occur to you that such division should be a cause for lament and reconciliation- then you are a Protestant.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Bill Maher

Everyone else besides Catholics

Home Remedies

Celebrate Reformation Sunday in October as though it were Ash Wednesday or Good Friday.

Read a passage of scripture, assume there’s something you don’t understand, and then go read what one of the Church Fathers said about it.

Befriend a Christian in another part of the world. Learn to what extent your ‘Christian’ beliefs are actually ‘American’ ones.

Serve the poor as though your (eternal) life depended on it.

Hold the bread of the Eucharist as though it contained God’s very presence- then treat the whole world that way.

  • I had to throw my Catholic friends a bone. I can’t do a whole series on heresies (literally ‘choices) and not refer to what they take to be our very big, bad one. 

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Jason Micheli

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2 responses to Most Common Heresies: #2

  1. I’ve been puzzled about this history for quite some time. I know we protestants think we developed this individualistic primacy of the conscience, in modernity, but my Catholic friends remind me there’s more to the story. I’ll cut and paste quickly from the web:

    John Henry Cardinal Newman at the end of Section 5 of his Letter to the Duke writes ‘I shall drink – to the Pope, if you please – still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.’ Thomas Aquinas said that even an erring conscience binds and under no circumstance is one to violate one’s own conscience, not if the Pope demands it, not if anyone demands it. In his commentary on the sentence of Peter Lombard he said, “If your conscience tells you that this is wrong,” (—and Lombard says, “Your conscience can never go against the Church.”) Aquinas replied, “If your conscience – and you’ve diligently applied yourself to it – tells you that this is wrong, you should be willing to die excommunicated rather than violate your conscience,”
    Maybe its this sort of thing that gave Luther permission to be Luther?

  2. Thanks, Jason. I get that the tongue is firmly in cheek, so this isn’t a grumpy reaction, but I feel like I need to stick up for Luther a bit. He often gets a bad wrap nowadays as the supposed genesis of “modernity.” There’s more than one way to tell the story of the development of modern individualism and the displacement of different forms of authority. Which Luther, for instance? The early Luther, who, following Tauler and other German mystics, proposed the only way to be a Christian was to empty oneself entirely into service for the other so as to bear Christ forth (maybe the Luther we see more of in Kierkegaard)? Or, the Luther who was so upset with the abuse of the largely uneducated populace by Church authority that he attempted to bring those abuses to light using the Fathers, Medieval authorities and scriptures together? The Luther who democratised the scriptures as an act of political defiance? Or, ok, yes, there is the Luther who managed to somehow depoliticise Christian action and (somewhat unwittingly) give rise to forms of modern nationalism? Sure, we could make an argument (that would require a fair bit of historical bulldozing) that the perpetual displacement of authority leads ultimately to the radically individuated subjectivity of postmodernity (whatever the hell that is, if anything). But, is that necessarily uniquely Protestant? What, for instance, of the French revolution(s)? Maybe, rather than implicating Protestantism as such, and thereby tacitly identifying Protestantism with modernity, it would be better to implicate the accomodation of theological claims to a certain form of modernity (at least the kind that seems to insist upon the absolute authority of the self-determining subject), which is in many ways well under way before Luther.

    In any case, we can agree that most modern Protestants are unwitting heretics!

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