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 #4: Biblicism
What Is It?
Okay, so it’s really my own pet peeve and not an official ancient heresy- only because it’s so far removed from how the first Christians thought, believed and read their scripture that it never became an issue.
Biblicism attributes a supernatural origin to scripture.
The Bible is the direct, unfiltered Word of God.
Ironically, it’s an approach to Christian scripture that has a correlative in how Muslims understand the Qu’ran as containing the very words God dictated to the Prophet.
Scripture then is as free of error, as though it fallen from heaven printed and bound rather than the fruit of prayerful reflection, testimony, oral tradition and a long process of canonization.
Because scripture is the direct, eternal unfiltered Word of God, scripture’s meaning- according to biblicism- is both clear and obvious to the average, individual believer and, more heretically, it’s available to individuals apart from an encounter with the Risen Christ and submission to a community of interpretation and practice.
In other words, if the Bible alone is the Word of God on paper you don’t need the Word made flesh, and if the Bible is the clear Word of God you don’t need a community to tell you how the saints before you heard and embodied that Word.
Who Screwed Up First
While Christian fundamentalists often present this approach as the traditional way of understanding scripture, they do so with a remarkable lack of historical awareness.
Like the other ‘fundamentals’ the literal, inerrancy and infallibility of scripture only arose in late 19th century as the Church combated what it took to be the corrosive effects of the modernist movement.
Interestingly, at the same time some Protestants were making the infallibility of scripture one of the five ‘Fundamentals’ Roman Catholics were taking the similar step of developing the doctrine of papal infallibility.
A longer historical view bears out that biblicism is the outlier within the Christian tradition.
The practice of Midrash in Judaism reveals the great deal of openness, creativity and flexibility with how believers approached Torah, which to Jews’ minds never has but one meaning.
Jesus’ own Midrash (the Sermon on the Mount) and Paul’s (Romans et al) show how the rabbi from Nazareth and the former Pharisee knew that the freedom to reinterpret texts was a cultural norm.
In addition, the Church Fathers’ voluminous writings illustrate how the first Christians read scripture not literally but allegorically even while ‘literally’ accepting certain faith propositions.
How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?
If you believe that every word of scripture is the literal, inerrant Word of God and thus you flatten the whole of scripture, making every word just as important and authoritative as any other, you’re Exhibit A in the case against biblicism.
Your heresy now makes the purity of codes of Leviticus logically equivalent in importance to the Sermon on the Mount. Your heresy makes God’s instructions to the take the holy land by bloodshed as critical and as revealing of God’s eternal character as Christ’s non-violent love unto the Cross.
If you flatten the the narrative arc of scripture and makes it all of equal import, losing the plot by turning narrative into a collection of equally authoritative precepts and principles, teachings and codes, instead of diverse, polyvalent testimony to the saving love of God made flesh in Jesus Christ, then you might self-identify as a bible-believing Christian but the Church Fathers would finger you as a heretical Christian.
Intentionally or not, you’re holding onto the bible to keep Jesus at arm’s length.
If you demand that your nation or culture or church hold on to antiquated prejudices, faulty scientific assumptions or an untenable worldview simply because every word of scripture is infallible, then you are a good example of how biblicism is hardly a harmless heresy.
Because you force your fellow Christians in to a kind of cognitive dissonance where we must ignore or disavow what we learn in the natural world should our learning seem at odds with scripture, as though God lies to us because God’s truth is only to be found in scripture.
Your literalistic rendering of the creation story forces fellow Christians either to dismiss evolutionary theory or prehistoric life.
Your literalistic interpretation of Revelation and the eschaton allows fellow Christians to dismiss stewardship of the environment or the danger of climate change.
Your heretical grip on scripture’s infallibility can also lock your fellow Christians into defending or perpetuating the social mores of the cultural context in which scripture was first recorded, holding on so tight to the past we forget to look for what the Spirit is doing today. You’re so determined to repeat what God said that you forget to use what God said in order to recognize what God is saying. Now.
If you say that ‘the Bible said it and that’s good enough for me’ then you’re a heretic who believes that scripture is an unmediated revelation, requiring not the testimony of faithful witnesses, before you and around you.
And while you might think you’re protecting scripture from the acids of the modern world, you do so at the expense of any role for God’s People. Rather than the Word of God being mediated through the testimony of God’s People, and hence being inherently relational, you make it authoritarian text. You make scripture something to which we must conform more so than something which invites us into a transformative relationship.
You’re a biblicist who’s forgotten that our scripture, like our Lord, is incarnational- both divine and human.
If you treat scripture purely as an historical document, if you ignore the confessional intent of scripture in order to get at ‘what really happened’ or ‘who was the real Jesus of history’ then you’ve swallowed the biblicists’ bait, bought into their game, and are making the very same mistakes as them.
You think you can unpack the written word apart from the Risen Word and his Body, the Church.
Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today
John Shelby Spong
The Religious Right
Tear up a Bible or throw one down on the ground, stand on it, wait for lightening to strike and when it doesn’t remind yourself: ‘I worship Jesus Christ, the Word of God, not the Bible.’
Read just 2 Gospels straight through. Notice the discrepancies. Feel your doctrine slip away. Notice how the presence of Christ abides.
Celebrate Easter early without the New Testament, just like the first Christians managed to do.
Make friends with a Catholic, Orthodox Christian or Jew.
Read Karl Barth’s treatment of the 3 Fold Word of God and give thanks.