Archives For Heresy

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 #1: Nominalism

What Is It?

In a nutshell:

Nominalism-

God is free to do whatever God wants

As with anything in philosophy that assertion comes with a corollary:

I am free to do whatever I want, including lying to myself that that’s ‘freedom.’

Chances are, you’ve never heard of Nominalism.

But odds are even better that once you understand what is nominalism, you’ll discover it everywhere. On your lips, on the other end of your prayers. In your mind’s depiction of the ‘man upstairs.’ You’ll hear nominalism preached from pulpits and you’ll see politicos toting its logical baggage.

If money is the root of all evil, then trailing right behind it and just hitting stride is nominalism, the heresy at the root of all theological evil.

Like a parasite that feeds unnoticed until its host is left wasted, nominalist thinking preys unseen on believers and unbelievers alike, leaving the eviscera of Christian orthodoxy in its wake.

While it’s true nominalism is not a heresy in the sense of having been declared anathema by any of the ancient ecumenical councils, nominalism escaped such indictment only because its way of construing God and God’s works was thoroughly foreign to the ancient Christian mind.

Though it didn’t fall under Nicea’s ire, nominalism remains a ‘heresy’ in the strictest sense of the word: ‘choice.’ Nominalism is bad choice made in Christian belief, which begets many more bad choices and beliefs.

In ancient philosophy, nominalism refers generally to the metaphysical view that denies the existence of universals and abstract objects, that is, objects that exist outside of space and time.

For the layman, here’s a for instance:

According to nominalism, words such as ‘truth’ or ‘goodness’ are finite concepts that are determined by culture and language and history. They are words we apply to things in this world of space and time, but they do not correlate to any universal, eternal reality or ground of being.

In the Christian theological tradition, nominalism has been applied to construals of God’s Being and God’s Will. Actually, nominalism has confused God’s Being and God’s Will. Or rather, nominalism pits God’s Being and God’s Will in contradiction to each other.

If ‘truth’ and ‘goodness’ and ‘beauty’ are purely time-bound concepts and have no ontological status (no being-ness in and of themselves outside space and time), then truth, goodness and beauty do not correlate to any universal, eternal character or nature within God.

Truth, Beauty and Goodness are relative terms, to use the parlance of today.

Here’s where the matter gets, if not less theological at least more urgent.

If Truth, Beauty and Goodness do not correlate to any universal, eternal nature within God, then God is neither guided by nor controlled by (in a non-pejorative sense) his eternal nature.

Indeed it’s no longer clear, according to nominalism’s logic, that God even has an eternal, unchanging nature and character.

Instead God is a Being of absolute power and freedom.

Nominalism is the rival to the ancient Christian view known as ‘Realism.’

Realism holds that the categories we call Truth, Beauty or Goodness ‘really’ do exist outside of our minds, cultures and languages. They are not merely relative concepts or words we attach to things in this world with no reality beyond this world.

According to Realism Truth, Beauty and Goodness derive from the universal, eternal nature of God.

What we call ‘Goodness’ then derives from the eternal, unchanging nature of God, whose Being is Absolute Goodness.

And what we call ‘Love’ is but the finite manifestation of Absolute Love that is God’s eternal nature.

Now- pay attention- if God’s nature is so understood and God is Absolute, Perfect Goodness then God is immutable.

Unchanging.

For, if God were to change this would imply a deficiency within God.

God, the church fathers believed, was immutable precisely because in God Perfect Love is actual not potential.

As 1 John 4 puts it with such a deceptive simplicity that it eludes most who read it: ‘God is love.’

With a capital, eternal-sized L.

This is where the s#$% hits the fan, in a good way:

If God is Perfect, Immutable Love then God cannot do something that is unloving.

If God is Perfect, Immutable Goodness then God cannot do something that is not good.

Not even God, the ancient Christians believed, can violate his eternal, unchanging nature. God cannot, say, use his omnipotence to will evil, for to do so would contradict God’s very nature.

For God to be free, then, is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature. As creatures made in this God’s image, therefore, our freedom is necessarily freedom ‘for.’ We are free when we are unhindered and unconstrained from acting towards the ‘Goodness’ in which we all move and live and have our being.

In contradiction to the ancient tradition of realism, nominalism argues that God has no eternal nature which limits, controls or guides God’s actions.

God is free to do whatever God wants, and those wants are not determined by anything prior in God’s character.

If God wants to will the collapse of a bridge, God has the freedom to will the bridge’s demise, no matter how many cars may be passing over it.

If God wants to break his promise to a People, by all means. What’s to stop God?

If God wants to give someone cancer or, on a different day and in a different mood, something better then God can.

Thus enters the atheist’s familiar conundrum:

Is something good because God says or does it?

Or does God say/do that which is good?

A realist answers that it has to be the latter.

God is absolute goodness and God does only that which is good (all the time), and if it ever seems to us like God is not all the time good then the problem is with our perception of God not with God’s character and action.

According to nominalism, however, God can do whatever God wants and, by extension, whatever God does is ‘good’ simply because God does it.

It’s God’s actions in time and space that determine the ‘good’ not God’s eternal being.

Whereas ‘freedom’ in the realist mind refers to God acting in harmony with God’s eternal nature, ‘freedom’ for the nominalist refers to God’s ability to be pure, arbitrary will.

God’s will is supreme over God’s nature.

Freedom, for God, is the freedom to will.

And as creatures made in this God’s image, freedom, for us, is the freedom to will.

To want. To choose.

Independent of and disconnected from the Good we call God.

Freedom is for freedom’s sake alone.

Who Screwed Up First

Nominalism is a crime whose first commission has many possible suspects.

There’s William of Ockham, the English Franciscan whose nominalist renderings of God should make you less sure of the simple logic behind his Razor.

Then there’s Duns Scotus, a Christian philosopher from the High Middle Ages, whose arguments for the existence of God were every bit as brilliant as his defense of the Immaculate Conception was not. Ditto his nominalism.

Peter Abelard meanwhile was a 12th century French Medieval theologian, who infamously shared God’s incarnate love by getting carnal with the flesh of Héloïse d’Argenteuil.

Heloise’s family predictably got her to a nunnery and, for good measure, broke into Peter’s home in the middle of the night and cut off his peter.

His dating career thus ended, Abelard took up a monastic one and traded romanticizing for theologizing.

Unfortunately, his nominalist thought leaves Abelard with a God every bit as neutered and impotent as him.

While the lineup of suspects is long and who first committed the crime in the name of Christ unknown, the true damage was done by Martin Luther.

If you finger Martin Luther as the trigger man, then Ulrich Zwingli  is an accessory after the fact.

In his debates with Erasmus, who, as a realist, believed God could not will that which is evil) Martin Luther countered that its verboten to ever say ‘God can’t…’

God, Luther fervently maintained, can do whatever God wants.

That’s what it means, Luther dumped into the previously clear stream of Christian belief, to call God ‘Sovereign.’

Of course, you can’t blame Luther too harshly.

Martin, after all, was a teacher of the Old Testament; he wasn’t a philosopher or a theologian. And so Luther probably could not deduce the logical consequences of his stress on Sovereignty as Will.

I’m sure Luther would’ve changed his tune had he foreseen how the God so conceived is not a God worth believing in.

No longer is God Being and Existence itself, the ground of Absolute Goodness and Love, who is beyond space and time but saturates every cranny of space and time at the same time.

Who always acts in accord with his eternal nature and whose creation, if mysteriously so, is a perfect expression of his eternal nature.

God- as Luther’s crude assertion ‘God can do whatever he wants’ makes clear- is instead just another being.

A god, a demiurge the Greeks called them, sitting upstairs throwing down lightening bolts or serving up magic genie blessings.

Not Being itself but a being believed to be the direct and efficient cause of everything under the sun.

A god so conceived is not even a god worth disbelieving, for the god it rejects is not the immutable God named by 1 John: ‘God is Love.’

But be easy on Luther.

I’m sure if you told him that his emphasis on God’s Sovereignty would lead 21st century Christians A) excuse, justify and rationalize morally repugnant prejuices in the name of Divine Sovereignty and B) to define their own freedom merely in terms of freedom for its own sake (choice, personal liberty), irrespective of the needs of the common good or the moral constraints of the Absolute Good…I’m sure Luther would’ve recanted.

After all, if our wants and wills are not directed to and participating in God, who is Goodness and Being, then they are literally nothing.

And I’m sure the last thing Luther would’ve wanted was for nominalism to lead, as it inevitably has, to nihilism.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you believe that God can break God’s word, his promise, and that the Church has now replaced Israel as God’s Chosen People, then you are a nominalist who should keep his fingers crossed God doesn’t up and decide to change his disposition towards you.

FYI: You’re probably a Marcionite too. Or an anti-semite.

If you leave the doctor’s office wondering ‘Why has God done this me?’ then you’re slipping into understandable but nonetheless nominalist thinking.

If you think God, who is Absolute Immutable Goodness and Love, requires the torture and death of an innocent person as a catharsis for his own Wrath then you are a nominalist.

Ditto to the Nth Degree if you explain how God’s Wrath is really the outworking of Love; you’re defining ‘good’ according to what you think God does rather than trusting that our concepts of ‘good’ correlate to the Absolute Goodness of God.

If you believe all moral categories are relative and thus its up to each person to define what’s moral for themselves, then most likely you think that makes logical sense (it doesn’t) and most definitely you’re a nominalist (it also doesn’t make logical sense).

If you think God is the direct cause behind every event, good, bad or tragic, in the world, then someone should lock you away wherever they stowed Heloise. Because your Christianity is too bad an advertisement to the rest of the world.

Likewise, if you’re an atheist because modern science tells you there’s no such thing as ‘God’ who is the direct, efficient cause behind everything in the world then you’re a particularly pathetic version of a nominalist, one who doesn’t realize the god you don’t believe in isn’t God.

If your politics absolutizes personal freedom (whether its demarcated with ‘freedom of choice’ or ‘personal liberty’) regardless of how the exercise of that freedom impacts another neighbor, born or not, or society at large or how it contributes to the Absolute Good, then your politics hangs on a nominalist understanding of the Almighty.

*Christians be warned, in this way most of the Bill of Rights depends upon a nominalist neutering of the concept of God.

If you consume and shop and purchase and earn, thinking that will make you happy, you’re the victim not only of Mammon and Madison Ave but nominalism’s lie that freedom is found in willing and wanting and choosing in and of itself.

If you mistakenly think it’s morally just to ___________ ‘in the name of freedom’ you, my friend, are a nominalist. Freedom, freedom worth having, is acting in harmony with the Absolute Goodness of God. For Christians, the End (God) alone determines whether means are good.

If you do not believe that God is like Jesus, has always been like Jesus and will always be so- and if you don’t see how this is logically necessary- then you’re a nominalist through and through.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Marcus Borg

John Piper

John Piper

John Piper

John Piper

Stephen Hawking

Daniel Dennett

Richard Dawkins

The New Atheists

Secularists

Evangelicals

Christians

Joel Osteen

Wiccans et al

Muslims

Millennials

Most Contemporary Christian Songwriters

Home Remedies 

Read John 1.4, over and over.

Watch the news and practice repeating: ‘God didn’t do that.’

Watch Joel Osteen and practice repeating: ‘God won’t do that.’

Watch John Piper and practice repeating: ‘God isn’t like that.’

Read Richard Dawkins’ and rejoice: the god he doesn’t believe in doesn’t exist.

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. 

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 #3: Pelagianism

What Is It?

You tell me.

See if you can comb the cobwebs of your memory and regurgitate the little bit ‘bout Pelagius you probably learned in European History.

Seriously, no?

Well, did you not see the kick-@#$ Clive Owen King Arthur movie a few years back? Wherein Arthur gets re-imagined as a virtuous knight precisely because his adoptive guardian was Pelagius? No?

The movie also stars Keira Knightley, an actress who induces if not heretical thoughts then definitely sinful ones.

Okay, for those forgetful and unaesthetic among you, Pelagianism is the heresy which denies the existence of – and therefore power over us- original sin.

Consequently, Pelagianism asserts that people possess the capacity to choose the good through their own unaided, created natures.

Put in more Pauline terms, we can be saved- actually the passive there is incorrect in this case- we can achieve salvation through our efforts apart from God’s grace.

Pelagians can dismiss original sin one of two ways. Either by contradicting Augustinian readings of Paul and dismissing the notion that the sin of Adam is transmitted to us biologically. AKA: Through the S word. Or, by emphasizing certain passages of Paul and declaring that the power of Sin has been defeated on the Cross by Christ.

Already perhaps you can sense why Augustine saw Pelagianism as both an especially pernicious but also an exceptionally thoughtful heresy.

Who Screwed Up First

You don’t get a heresy named after you if you’re not the first or at least most articulate spokesmen for your anathema.

As Clive Owen reminds us, Pelagius was a British theologian who taught in Rome in the 4th and 5th centuries.

Pelagius had the ill fortune to have lived the same time as St. Augustine of Hippo who was even more astute a thinker than he. Zosimus, the Bishop of Rome (which eventually become the Pope’s office) condemned Pelagius in 418.

Nevertheless, Pelagius’ legacy lives on in more than just celluloid, abiding throughout the centuries just as Pelagius insisted Sin did not.

Much like a vaccine, Pelagianism lurks latent throughout the Body of Christ and one could make a solid case that Mormonism is really just Pelagianism dressed up in a short-sleeve, white-button down.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you believe that God does not care what religion a person practices so long as that person tries to live a good life, then your mind- or your squishy little heart- has got Pelagius’ fingerprints all over it.

If at a funeral, or in the planning of one, you summarize: ‘__________ wasn’t religious at all but he was a good person, then as compassionate as you no doubt are your logic is that of Pelagius and not the Gospel.

If you teach your kids that the meaning of Christmas is that they better be good- not naughty- or Santa won’t give them any gifts, then you’re not only setting them up to inherit some pretty effed up understandings of God you’ve also, like Pelagius himself, got the definition of grace exactly wrong.

If you presume that Christianity is essentially about ethics (about serving the poor, clothing the naked, waging peace) then you’re definitely showing symptoms of a bad case of Pelagianism.

Not to mention, you’ve confused the Gospel (Jesus’ overcoming Sin and Death and being Raised to the right hand of the Father) and the Gospel’s effects (being set free to live a life like Jesus).

If you issue altar calls, require Jesus prayers or accept only adult baptisms because to be a Christian a person must ‘make a decision for Christ’ then, like Pelagius before you, you’ve over simplified the mystery that is Sin and Grace and you’ve turned conversion into yet another ‘work.’

If you act as though all non-Christians or non-churchgoers are bad, decadent or morally corrupt and self-righteously think that your participation in church makes you a better person, then you’ve once again over simplified the mystery that is Sin and Grace in all our lives, believer and unbeliever.

And you’ve forgotten that God’s grace is active everywhere and in every life preveniently; that is, before any of us ever ‘choose’ God.

If you think that ‘real’ Christians or ‘bible-believing’ Christians or ‘faithful’ Christians must believe/vote/think/act this way on that issue, then you’ve been seduced by Pelagius’ reduction of the complexity of the world into right/wrong, black/white issues.

If you see the Eucharist as nothing more than a memorial to a soon-to-be prisoner’s last supper and, for that matter, if you see all of creation in a non-sacramental way then you’ve got some Pelagian germs in you.

After all, God’s grace has more than just a negative connotation. It isn’t only active in our overcoming of our individual sins.

Grace illumines and animates and charges everything last thing around us.

If you say ‘I do’ foolishly thinking you can have a fruitful marriage apart from God then you’re what practical theologians call ‘a Pelagian.’ Pelagius had to have been celibate. Seriously, marriage is hard enough with God.

If you’re not raising your children in a particular faith tradition because ‘you want them to make up their own minds when their older’ then not only are you instead raising them in the faith called ‘American Individualistic Consumerism’ you’re also assuming a Pelagian capacity in your children to grow up ‘good’ and ‘wise’ apart from grace.

If you insist your nation, its leaders or its founders (cherry tree, _____ was really kind to his slaves) always have good and pure motives then you are a Pelagian, refusing to see how the murky reality of Sin and Grace exist in every person, every tribe and every issue.

Likewise, if you ignore that the lifestyles of Western culture are made possible on the backs of the poor in the developing world then…Pelagian.

If your red politics depends on a Horatio Alger myth of every individual pulling themselves up by their bootstraps then you’re politics have a bit of Pelagianism in them, ignoring that Sin is more than what individuals do but also what is done, systemically to others.

Of course, if your blue politics depends on depicting the poor and downtrodden as uniformly noble, well-intentioned and ‘good’ your politics are likewise infected with a heresy that is, if nothing else, simply unrealistic.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Parents (especially of the helicopter, dragon, playdate variety)

Americans

United Methodists

The Nones

Celebrities

Mormons

Funeral Planners

Republicans

Democrats

Home Remedies

Watch Kiera Knightly in King Arthur and be reminded that, despite our good virtue, some sins (lust for example) abide.

To apply this same principle on a more systemic level, watch Django Unchained.

Spy on your kids when they don’t think you’re looking. And notice that Augustine was right, the little bastards have the devil in them.

Sing ‘Amazing Grace’ and then remember that it took what’s-his-name several many years after he was ‘found’ to actually stop buying and selling people.

Affirm the caveat postscript that every Methodist ordinand must: ‘….with God’s help.’

Most Common Heresies: #4

Jason Micheli —  August 25, 2016 — 1 Comment

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 #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.

So then:

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.

That said,

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

Marcus Borg

Reza Aslan

Protestants

Muslims

John Shelby Spong

Evangelicals

James Dobson

The Religious Right

Fundamentalists

The Media

Home Remedies

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.

Most Common Heresies: #7

Jason Micheli —  August 19, 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 #7: Antinomianism

What Is It?

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul famously asks his interlocutor, ‘if we’re saved by God’s grace and not by our deeds then should we keep on sinning so that God’s grace may abound even more?’

Antinomians are those who, not realizing Paul’s question is a rhetorical one and not bothering to read Paul further, answer: ‘Sure, why not?’

Displaying that logic does not always steer you true, antinomians hold that since the advent of Christ and the Gospel of grace, the Law, that is the moral conduct prescribed by God to his People in the Old Testament, is neither of use for Christians nor an obligation.

In other words:

If faith alone is necessary for salvation then the Law is unnecessary. 

Who Screwed Up First

While its roots go back to the ancient Church and its regrettable attitude towards Jews and their scripture, antinomianism is the crappy, white-elephant gift Protestantism has given the larger Church.

Antinomianism was the Jacob to the Protestant Reformation’s Esau, the inevitable and subsequent counter-charge to the Reformation’s critique of the Catholic Church’s ‘legalism’ and ‘works righteousness.’

You could blame Martin Luther who first projected onto the New Testament Pharisees, including Paul, the abuses of Luther’s own Medieval Catholicism. You could blame Martin Luther, for antinomianism is the predictable outcome to redefining the Gospel primarily in terms of justification by faith alone.

But the antinomianism reached its high point in the 17th century Puritan Colony of Massachusetts when Anne Hutchison, daughter of an Anglican priest, subscribed to the ‘free grace’ theology of John Cotton, a renegade Puritan preacher.

Hutchison found Cotton’s critique of Puritanism’s works righteousness persuading.

Hutchison then proved persuasive herself, recruiting others to the free grace movement.

Soon the Puritan leaders of Massachusetts (ie, Men) were persuaded to excommunicate and dispatch Hutchison. The regrettable theology of Hutchison was matched by the regrettable gender politics of the Church.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you divide- and thereby render schizophrenic- God’s revelation of himself in the Old and New Testaments by saying that ‘Jews try to earn salvation by doing the works of the Law while Christians receive salvation by grace through faith,’ then you might be an antinomian.

You might be antisemitic too.

So was Luther.

But at least Luther, on paper, understood that desiring to live out the ethic of the Law was the fruit of any true encounter with the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

If you think Jesus does away the obligations of the Law rather than A) amping up the expectations of the Law and B) revealing in himself the Law’s all-along-aim then your ancestors might’ve hailed from the Bay State.

If you think you got right with God because you once came down during the altar call, invited Jesus into your heart and got born again during a moment of orchestrated, liturgized peer pressure and now it doesn’t matter if you cheat on your wife, give the poor only pennies and don’t bat an eye at the injustices of the world then you, my friend, are exactly why the Catholic Church got so bent out of shape about Luther nailing his Theses into the church door.

If you imagine that Christianity is really about love and that we should love others without the expectation or invitation for them to conform their lives to the Cross, then you’re an antinomian.

If you believe the Church should welcome everyone as they are and never critique their character or habits (thus leaving them as they are) then you’re a free grace- Bonhoeffer would say, cheap grace- heretic.

If inclusivity is a more urgent exhortation for you than calling others to conversion, repentance and a cross-bearing life then the one thing you’re NOT inclusive of is orthodoxy.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Marcus Borg

The Nones

Americans

United Methodists

United Methodist Pastors

All other Mainline Protestants

Evangelicals

Most Contemporary Christian songwriters

The Religious Right

Progressive Christians

Baby Boomers

Celebrities who opine about religion and ethics

Home Remedies

Read Paul’s Letter to the Romans, all of it- especially those chapters at the end no one ever quotes.

Read the Gospels and ask: Where does Jesus imply we just have to have faith?

Look at yourself in the mirror and consider: Do I want grace to be so amazing because the content of my character isn’t?

Become Mennonite.

Or get to know Jew. Start with Jesus if you haven’t met him yet.

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 #8: Fundamentalism

What Is It?

A) The strict adherence to and elevation of particular religious principles and values over and against all others- even the person and character of Jesus Christ- thereby making such principles the absolute test of fidelity.

B) Believing the complexity of scripture and the peripatetic nature of Christ can be distilled into abstract, general principles which one can assent to without submitting oneself to a community that is committed to the embodiment and practice of the faith.

Who Screwed Up First

Admittedly, fundamentalism is not actually an ancient anathema; nonetheless it’s one that I imagine would cause Constantine, were he still around, to convene another ecumenical council.

Even though fundamentalists purport to represent authentic (‘4 Square,’ ‘Bible-Believing’) Christianity, fundamentalism is really quite a new phenomenon, starting in late 19th century America as a reaction to the corrosive effects of both Darwinism and modernism.

If we’re going to assign blame for the blight we know as Christian fundamentalism, then let’s lay it at the feet of A.C. Dixon, the original editor from 1910-1915 of ‘The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth.’

‘The Fundamentals’ identified 1) Biblical Inerrancy, 2) the Virgin Birth of Jesus, 3) Penal Substitutionary Atonement 4) Physical Resurrection of Christ and 5) the Second Coming of Christ as the essential doctrines for an orthodox Christianity.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you insist on defining the ‘Gospel’ exclusively in terms of ‘Penal Substitution’ (the belief that Jesus suffered, as a substitute, God’s wrath toward you) and if you find Penal Substitution foreshadowed and alluded to in every nook and cranny and every last syllable of scripture then you just might be a fundamentalist.

If you spend more time arguing for the literal, physical resurrection of Jesus than you do actually living a risen life that’s been set free from Sin and Death, then I’m sorry but you’re a fundamentalist.

If you think you’re ‘saved’ because you believe Jesus died for you and it matters not that in your life you resemble Jesus not at all, then you’re a fundamentalist in the most fundamental definition of the word. You’ve taken an idea and made it more important than following and worshipping Christ.

If you think Christianity is about beliefs instead of discipleship, that ideas are more important than character, that the right doctrines in your head (or on your church website) are more important than the cruciform shape of your heart then, yes, you’re a fundamentalist.

If certain ‘faith-based’ values or principles (Inclusivity, Compassion for the Poor, Diversity, Justice, Care for the Environment) are more precious to you than a brother or sister in Christ who disagrees with you, then you might call yourself ‘Progressive’ but you’re really a blue-hued fundamentalist by a different name.

If you think the letter of scripture- or your reading of it- deputizes you for ugly, un-Jesusy, Pharsaic behavior towards another (‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’) then you’re the worst kind of fundamentalist.

If you spend more time bemoaning the decay of American culture than you do pursuing the 21st century equivalent of ‘eating and drinking with sinners’ then you’re a heretic and, what’s worse, you probably don’t realize it.

If you’re preoccupied with labeling other Christians as heretics (but not in a cheeky way like this) then: pot meet kettle.

If you spend more time on your opinions than you do in prayer, then you’re like me and, regrettably, I’m obviously something of a fundamentalist.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Marcus Borg (rest his soul)

Emergent Christians

People who want the Ten Commandments posted in public spaces.

Americans

Delegates, Clergy and Lay, to Denominational Conferences

Most Contemporary Christian songwriters

Southern Baptists

Any Christian Leader who appears on Cable News

Home Remedies

Read Matthew 19.16-30 and take Jesus at his Word.

Abstain from Christian blogs.

Fast from Cable News.

Become politically neutral for an electoral season.

Really get to the know someone, in all the complexity of their life, who is completely different from you.

Be honest about the complexity of your own life and relationships.

Pray. Alone. In a closet if you have to.

Most Common Heresies: #9

Jason Micheli —  August 17, 2016 — 1 Comment

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 #9: Arianism

What Is It

The belief that the God the Son is subordinate to God the Father, effectively dismantling any coherent doctrine of the Trinity.

Arianism was the provocation for and is the context behind all that ‘begotten not made…one being with the Father’ jargon in the otherwise beautiful Nicene Creed.

Arianism was also the provocation for the real St Nick to pimp-slap another delegate at the Council of Nicea.

Who Screwed Up First

Attributed to Arius, a Christian leader from Alexander, Egypt (250-360). Arius taught that the Son of God was neither pre-existent nor eternal despite what John 1 and Colossians 1 testify.

Rather, Arius held, the Son was created by the Father for God’s redemptive purposes; therefore, the God Christians worship is not an eternal community of coequal persons exchanging self-emptying love, otherwise known as the Trinity. The God Christians worship is just God.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you woodenly think ‘the Trinity is not in the Bible’ and instead insist, conspiratorially, that it’s a doctrine invented by ancient Church bureaucrats then you’re most definitely an Arian.

If you believe Jesus was a good teacher of God’s love and compassion but balk at the notion that Jesus always was, is and forever will be God (Col 1) then instead of leaving milk and cookies this Christmas just leave an apology note because Santa just might kick your #%@.

If you (mis)understand the atonement in such a way that you treat Jesus as someone who protects us from God the Father; that is, the Son and the Father’s wills are not one and the same, then even though you probably consider yourself a bible-believing Christian you’re actually a heretic.

If, rather than submitting yourself to a community of fellow sinners and ancient texts, you insist that you ‘can worship God better in nature’ (ie, play golf) then you may not be that theologically deft but you’re still an Arian. You’d never discover something like the Trinity in nature nor a God as counter-intuitive as Jesus.

If you dismiss Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (love thy enemy, turn the other cheek) as naive or hopeless ideals rather than to-do’s straight from the lips of the eternal God, then the Nicene Creed was written just for you.

If you think religious people are all basically the same because ‘we all believe in God after all’ you’re the spawn of Arianism.

If you think Christmas, when we celebrate the infinite becoming finite and taking flesh in Mary’s womb, is for children…heretic.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Marcus Borg

Readers of Dan Brown

Mark Driscoll and John Piper

Most Contemporary Christian songwriters

Evangelicals who exclusively pray ‘Father God’ prayers

Liberal Democrats

Tea Party Republicans

Unitarians

Mormons

The unimaginative

Home Remedies

Read Colossians 1 and marvel at the mystery

Memorize the Nicene Creed (this will prove hard for Protestants)

Burn any and all Dan Brown books on your grill

Read the Sermon on the Mount the Gospels and say to yourself: ‘God said this.’

Use ‘Jesus’ in any sentence where ‘God’ would do.

Most Common Heresies: #10

Jason Micheli —  August 11, 2016 — 1 Comment

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 #10: Gnosticism

What Is It?

From the Greek word, ‘gnosis,’ meaning ‘knowledge.

Gnosticism believes that the material world in which we live was created not by God but by a demiurge. The material world then, ‘the world of the flesh,’ is inherently imperfect and was never an occasion for God to declare ‘it is very good.’ This led Gnostics to disavow the human nature of Jesus.

The material world is to be shunned and overcome in favor of the ‘spiritual world’ where God resides, ie, ‘heaven.’

One achieves salvation, escape from the world of the body to the world of the soul, by means of wisdom available only to a few.

Who Screwed Up First

Though not the first, the prophet Mani (216-274 AD) was a gnostic whose teachings exerted the most influence on ancient Christianity.

Mani’s gnostic dualism between the spiritual world of light and the material world of darkness led him to distinguish between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New and to a rigid dichotomy between good and evil people.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you think Christianity is about ‘spiritual’ things- or timeless ‘truths,’ then you’re probably a Gnostic.

If you think Christians believe that our souls goes off to heaven when we die, then you’re most likely a Gnostic. And if you think the goal of Christianity is to go to heaven when we die, then you definitely are a Gnostic.

If you’ve forgotten that Christianity teaches the redemption of all creation (New Creation) and not evacuation from creation (‘the rapture’) then you’ve slipped into Gnosticism.

If you think God does not care about the Earth or that the physical, material things in your life are not good gifts from God (thus means of grace) then you’re a Gnostic whom St Augustine would declare ‘anathema.‘

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Marcus Borg (rest his soul)

The authors and many readers of the Left Behind novels

Funeral Directors

Most Contemporary Christian songwriters

Fundamentalist Evangelicals

Mormons

Baby-Boomers who excuse their lack of discipleship by describing themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’

Home Remedies

Read Genesis 1 and take God at his Word.

Prepare and eat good food.

Pour and drink a glass of good wine.

Have sex.

Or just hold a baby.

This rant brought to you by the unholy and asinine commentary from the Gospel Coalition video above wherein three hyper-Calvinists exult in the way God ‘ordains tragedy in our lives in order to display his sovereign glory over our lives.’

It’s hard for me to exaggerate how morally loathsome I find this strain in Calvin’s theology and the manner in which it gets amplified by those who claim his tradition. No doubt it can feel a kind of “comfort” to think that the peculiar suffering or tragedy that’s been visited upon you is in some mysterious way the outworking of God’s plan. As someone with incurable cancer I can sympathize better than most with the temptation to take comfort that my particular suffering is not without a divine reason.

Such “comfort” is understandable but consider at what cost my personal comfort is purchased: all the innocent children suffering and dying down through the ages in order to manifest God’s ordained script.

A strict view of divine sovereignty as this may render us a morally intelligible  universe in which we can conceive our part yet it also gives us a morally reprehensible god.

If suffering, tragedy, death, and evil were constitutive of God’s ordained plan then they would be constitute God’s very nature, his essence. I can concede that such a god might exist, but I cannot lie and hold that such a god would be in any way worthy of worship, for he may prove loving on occasion or even ultimately but he would not be Love itself.

With the ancient Church Fathers, I believe God, by definition, is the only necessary Being. God alone is sufficient unto himself. As Trinity, God is already the fullness of love, joy, beauty, and- most important in this case, peace-with-difference. Peace not violence is the most fundamental reality to God and to God’s creation. Thus the violence of suffering wreaked upon creation has no part in or origin from God.

The self-sufficiency of Father, Son, and Spirit is such that creation is completely gratuitous. We add nothing to God. Our faithful adoration does not add any joy to God because God is already and always the fullness of joy. Our sins and wickedness do not add any anger to God because God is already and always the fullness of love. There is no incapacity within him by which we can change God. This may not flatter us, as David Hart quips, but it does glorify God.

Because God is sufficient unto himself and unaffected by anything outside himself, God has no need to employ means contrary to his nature (the violence of suffering visited upon his creation) in order to fulfill the project of his self-realization in history, such as the dunderheaded Calvinist belief that God ordained the Fall in order to display his glory in our Redemption. God is, simply, incapable employing means contrary to his nature.

Instead sin, suffering, evil, and death, as the Church Fathers held, are manifestations of creation’s alienation and rebellion from God. They are privations in God’s creation; they are not products of God’s will. Indeed it’s more accurate to say that we see God willing suffering in our lives and so interpret scripture that way because sin, suffering, evil, and death have blinded us to the true God.

As DBH writes:

“If it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.”

Perhaps it appears that this view, which is not at all novel but entirely consistent with the received tradition, gives me nothing to say someone suffering, for example, incurable cancer. “This is happening to you for no reason” can admittedly sound like a cold comfort. But the fact is, the truth is, there is NO reason. To ask ‘What kind of God sanctions _______?’ is to make a foundational error in supposing God is the primary causal agent behind ________.

To believe that God is the primary causal agent behind, say, my incurable cancer is to confuse the Christian belief in Providence with Determinism.

Determinism: God has eternally willed the history of sin and death, and all that comes to pass in the world, as the proper and necessary means to achieving his ends.

Providence: God has willed his good in creatures from eternity and will bring to pass, despite their rebellion, by so ordering all things towards his goodness that even evil (which he does not cause) becomes an occasion of the operation of grace.

In other words, God does not will suffering and evil but may permit it rather than violate the autonomy of the created world he’s made to love him in freedom just as Father, Son, and Spirit love one another in freedom.

Providence works at the level of primary causality. Providence maintains the belief that God is totally transcendent of creation, within which secondary causes, like cancer, work within the freedom God has bestowed upon the world. Yet, Providence assures that no consequence of our freedom will undermine the accomplishment of the good God intends. Providence is not to believe that every event in this world is the outworking of God’s will or even an occasion for God’s grace.

How odd it is that atheists and strict Calvinists alike should both think that Christians are to draw an absolute one-to-one connection between the will of God and the every moment conditions of life on earth.

The effect of seeing a single divine will working on all created things in every moment and contingency of their created lives (with no room for the operation of the freedom in which God has created them) is to see the world in unChristian terms. That is, the world is nothing other than it appears- the world is, in all its parts and in its sum, the expression of God’s will.

To define ‘sovereignty’ as one-to-one connection between the will of God and every contingency of life collapses the will of God into the world such that there is now no distinction between the two.

In fact, such a collapse of the divine will into the created world makes the world not only unfree and completely arbitrary it makes the world necessary to God. If the world is necessary then God did not make it ex nihilo out of sheer gratuity and thus life is not gift and God, by all reasoning, would not be the Good.

When you confuse Providence and Determinism, the transcendent gets collapsed into the creation. “God” is no longer the name we give to the question “Why is there something instead of nothing?” God is just the totality of all that is. God is, as DBH asserts, a brute event, sheer will (the point of my post on nominalism).

There is no longer any creation apart from which God stands as transcendentally other.  Indeed because it’s no longer gratuitous, the world is no longer ‘creation’ it’s just the world.

Sovereignty, so construed, becomes indistinguishable from pantheism because God, who is only Will, is inextricable from and constitutive of the natural world.

heresy_GMSI’ve had funerals and death on the brain this past week. It comes with the job. I’m just happy that for the first time in over a year it’s not my own death and funeral that’s lingering on the brain. It’s most often in the context of death that I hear some hackneyed version (‘God has a plan for everything’ or ‘There’s a reason for everything’ or ‘I know it was a horrific life-altering loss for you but God must’ve needed one more angel in heaven.’) of what I’ve concluded is the most common heresy among Americans, Christian and Non- the fraught, turns-God-into-a-prick-that-his-Son-should-depose bullshit belief that God can do whatever God wants.

No.

No, God cannot do whatever God wants.

The notion that God can do whatever God wants is called ‘Sovereignty’ by Calvinists.

The notion that God is free to do whatever God wants is called heresy by the ancient Christians.

 

As I’ve said again and again on this blog, God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change. God’s unchanging nature, God’s immunity to change we could say, is called ‘immutability.’

Understanding God’s nature as immutable has been the consensus belief of most of Christianity since the time of Christ and continues to be so in most of the Church catholic. Behind the doctrine of immutability is the more foundational doctrine of Divine Simplicity; that is, God is not composed of parts whether spatial, temporal, or abstract. To be composed of parts, the ancient Christians held, implies that God is not the Composer.

Another way of putting it is that God is Simple in that there is no distinction between God’s Nature and God’s Will.

Or, to channel Forrest Gump, God IS as God DOES.

And God cannot DO in contradiction with who God IS.

The ancient Christians held that the categories we call Truth, Beauty or Goodness exist outside of our minds, cultures and languages. They are not merely relative concepts or words we attach to things in this world with no reality beyond this world.

They derive from the universal, eternal nature of God.

What we call ‘Goodness’ derives from the eternal, unchanging nature of God, whose Being is Absolute Goodness. In addition, God does not change.

So:

If God is Perfect, Immutable Love then God cannot do something that is unloving.

If God is Perfect, Immutable Goodness then God cannot do something that is not good.

Not even God, the ancient Christians believed, can violate his eternal, unchanging nature. God cannot, say, use his omnipotence to will evil, for to do so would contradict God’s very nature. Unknown

For God to be free, then, is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature.

As creatures made in this God’s image, therefore, our freedom is necessarily freedom ‘for.’ We are free when we are unhindered and unconstrained from acting towards the ‘Goodness’ in which we all move and live and have our being.

The heresy that says God can do whatever God wants is called ‘nominalism.’

In contradiction to the ancient tradition, nominalism argues that God has no eternal nature which limits, controls or guides God’s actions.

God is free to do whatever God wants, and those wants are not determined by anything prior in God’s character.

If God wants to will the collapse of a bridge, God has the freedom to will the bridge’s demise, no matter how many cars may be passing over it.

If God wants to break his promise to a People, by all means. What’s to stop God?

If God wants to give someone cancer or, on a different day and in a different mood, something better then God can.

According to nominalism, God can do whatever God wants and, by extension, whatever God does is ‘good’ simply because God does it.

It’s God’s actions in time and space that determine the ‘good’ not God’s eternal being.

Whereas ‘freedom’ in the realist mind refers to God acting in harmony with God’s eternal nature, ‘freedom’ for the nominalist refers to God’s ability to be pure, arbitrary will.

God’s will is supreme over God’s nature. Freedom, for God, is the freedom to will.

And as creatures made in this God’s image, freedom, for us, is the freedom to will. To want. To choose. Independent of and disconnected from the Good we call God. Freedom is for freedom’s sake alone.

Thus enters the atheist’s familiar conundrum:

Is something good because God says or does it?

Or does God say/do that which is good?

A Christian answers that it has to be the latter.

God is absolute goodness and God does only that which is good (all the time), and if it ever seems to us like God is not all the time good then the problem is with our perception of God not with God’s character and action.

 

Portrait Karl Barth§23.1

If nothing else, Karl Barth provides a needful salve for the Christian blogosphere.

The sheer breadth and length of Barth’s Dogmatics could fool you. Despite how much hot air Barth devotes to theology, Barth believes theology’s primary task is to listen.

Listening, for Barth, entails the Church standing as subject under the word which testifies to the Word of God, Jesus Christ. But for Barth, this ‘listening’ is not like listening to the Nixon tapes or to a Taylor Swift mp3. Because the word witnesses to the Living Word, ‘listening’ to what God speaks through scripture is always a listening afresh. Ironically, Barth argues that treating scripture as the words God said (versus the words God uses to say) inescapably risks wandering from God’s word.

Those most beholden to a wooden doctrine of scripture as the (once-for-all) Word of God are those most vulnerable to straying from the word God speaks through scripture today.

§23.1 of the CD in a nutshell:

God speaks in Christ the Logos and the word of scripture which testifies to the Logos,  but God speaks still in the word that is the proclamation of the Logos in Church.

That’s Barth’s 3-Fold Form of the Word of God, still a cure for whatever form of conservative or liberal fundamentalism may afflict your faith.

Nevertheless, a part of me (the Thomistic, Wesleyan part) recoils at the way Barth so thoroughly equates obedience to the Word with right speech and right doctrine about God. What’s been a persistent note throughout volume 1 of the CD here becomes a more obvious and dominant theme in §23.1 as Barth turns to the mode of ‘listening.’

Barth goes all in with dogma here:

“the existence of an orderly Church dogmatics is the unfailingly effective and only possible instrument of peace in the church.”

I suspect the equivalency Barth draws between obedience to the Word and right dogmatics about God is why my commitment to re-reading the CD has foundered of late. As opposed to the witness of his life, there’s no sense in this volume of the CD that obedience to the Word entails doing as much as it does dogma.

So maybe Barth’s riff on ‘listening’ here isn’t what the Christian blogosphere- or the Western Church in general- needs to hear at all. Because…

Christians in the West- blue or red, liberal or conservative- are in absolutely zero danger of being regarded as sufficiently zealous for their dogma.

Too many Christians today equate discipleship with possessing the ‘faithful’ position on a given issue. For the most part Christians are known for what or who they’re against- or what or who they’re for- either of which are largely declarations of doctrine and not reflections upon Christian doing.

So maybe Barth’s riff on ‘listening’ here isn’t what the Christian blogosphere- or the Western Church in general- needs to hear because, the truth is, we’re so bad at listening to others.

And each other.

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As much as I flinch at the way Barth likens listening to God with right dogma about God, §23.1 has gotten me thinking.

The first centuries of the Church were given to establishing the bounds of correct Christian belief, and for understandable reasons. The ancient Church’s discernment has bequeathed us the creeds, which provide us the contours of ‘orthodoxy.’ The ancient Church’s resultant debates have identified for us heresies, those beliefs which fall beyond our right praise of God.

But the creeds reflect the time and place and uncertainties of the Church which gave them to us.

Is Christ God or man?

Is God One or three?

From whom does the Spirit come?

Reading §23.1 I can’t help but think-

We who are so good at dogma about Jesus but so bad at doing like Jesus could use a creed for our time and place.

One that defines ortho-praxy with the same degree of precision as the Nicene creed unpacks the immanent Trinity.

We could use a new creed that could help us, who are so preoccupied with policing beliefs, name heresies of Christian action with the same sort of specificity the Donatist heresy spelled out wrong belief.

What would an ortho-praxis creed for our place and time and uncertainty look like?

‘….we believe an ungenerous person is not really a Christ-follower…’

What about someone who never actually prays? Or refuses to forgive their ex? Or give up their racism? Can one support state-sponsored execution and still be said to worship the state-executed Jesus? What of sex? Drones? The unborn? War?

Is everything sans ‘belief’ in Christ just up for grabs, left to be shaded according to one’s personal political hue?

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What would it look like if the same sort of consensus on praxis was demanded across Christ’s Body that was once demanded on dogma?

Yes, it would take long to hammer out such consensus- it did then.

Yes, it would be painful and costly- it was then.

After all, if Barth’s right, if those beholden to a God spoke in the past perspective risk straying from God’s Living Word, then those of us who don’t think our new place and time and uncertainty might require a new kind of creed risk the very same thing.

Defiance_Logo_Tv_ShowMy friend Morgan Guyton points out: ‘when Paul uses the term haeretikos in Titus 3:10 that gets translated into our term “heretic,” the problem with the person he’s describing is not the incorrectness of his views, but his divisiveness.

Ironically, the greatest heretic-hunters are usually themselves the greatest heretics if we are using the word the way that the apostle Paul used it.’

The same point Morgan makes from Paul can be made by way of St Thomas Aquinas.

St Thomas AquinasAs I’ve been hammering here on the blog lately, Aquinas’ central thesis in his Summa Theologica is that the God who reveals himself in the Burning Bush (‘I Am He Who Is’) is not a god among the gods of the world. God is not an object within the material universe. God is not a kind (Thomas uses the word ‘genus’) of being alongside other beings like you or me.

God is the Source of Being. It’s because of God that anything from quarks to quacking ducks is at all. It’s because of God that there are somethings instead Nothing.

Everything that is is because of God, and that includes everything that happens, all our thoughts and deeds and decisions exist because of God.

A song relies upon the singer to keep it in being; likewise, God is the cause of all things in every moment.

As Hebert McCabe elaborates on Thomas:

“It is quite a thought that if you choose to break the law of God by cruelty or indifference to suffering, it is the Lord who is keeping you in existence while you are doing this, from second to second.

To think you are defying the Lord is the ultimate absurdity and contradiction, for you only exist, you only are because of God.

This self-delusion, the delusion that you can stand over against God, that you are not a creature- this is what sin is.”

It’s worth repeating in case you skipped past the quote: to think you can defy God, who is at every moment the cause of your being at all, is the definition of sin. images

It’s to deny a creature-hood which entails God’s constant sustaining. It’s to imagine we’re something more than creatures- to imagine we’re gods, free and independent of God except when we call upon the great cosmic butler.

And when see ourselves as already more than creatures, we forget the meaning of salvation: that God aims to take us beyond our creature-hood in the Son and through the Spirit into the life of the Trinity.

If imagining that we can defy God is the most basic and thus the most absurd of all sins, then ironically…

it’s those of us who obsessively point out other people’s sins- those people we perceive to be defying God- who are the worst sinners of all.

We look at people and refuse to see them for what they are: creatures held in being by God at every moment- every moment- of their lives.

In other words, Thomas simply points out what we learn from the Elder Brother’s refusal to join the Father’s Feast (Luke 15).

Sin = Refusal of Grace.