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Another Look at Heresy

Posted on: June 09, 2019

Category: Theology

Another Look at Heresy

Quest Thoughts: Another Look at Heresy

If there was a standard list of ancient Christian heresies, it would probably boil down to a top three: Adoptionism, Gnosticism, and Modalism. These three are not real names involving real people. They are "types" of theology characteristic of various ancient theologians and communities. That's the problem with naming heresies. The heresies do not really exist during the time of their appearance. It is only later when theologians or church authorities look back at history that these names start to come into use. In the case of "Gnosticism," this name is a very late creation, arising in the eighteenth century.

A quick definition of these three types is in order. The reader will not be surprised to know that I don't think any one of these types is heresy at all (no more than "orthodoxy" itself). Each type is a way of thinking about theology and the significance of Jesus as a focal point of theology.

Heresy, it is often pointed out, means choice. The English word is from Greek, hairesis. But "choice" does not convey the sense of the word. A better translation is school or party. If we think of politics today, you may make a choice and join a party. The word "heresy" would label the party rather than describe the choice. In Christianity, heresy is used to label a movement or school as fractious and wrongheaded.

Adoptionism is a type of theology in which Jesus is understood as fully human and only human, but he was adopted as God's son because of his righteousness. This is the New Testament idea found in the Gospel of Mark and in the letters of Paul. The idea of an adopted son mimics and maybe parodies how Octavian Caesar was the adopted son of Julius Caesar. Nevertheless, the church labelled this idea a heresy.

Gnosticism is a type of theology that understands Jesus as a conveyor of wisdom (knowledge or gnosis). Every school that in retrospect is called gnostic was, in its time, unique. So, the word "gnostic" today is not used as freely as it used to be out of respect for the variation of schools, identities, and philosophies involved. The label gnostic is somewhat like the label heretic. It does not really name anything in particular. The label is used, though, to underline the understanding that the appearance of Jesus is about conveying knowledge, not dying for sins.

Modalism is a type of theology that does not distinguish between God and Jesus Christ. The appearance of Jesus as Christ was God appearing in a different form or mode. Sabellius, of whom little is known, is the prototype figure related to modalism. No one really knows who Sabellius was, where he came from, or when he lived. It is believed he flourished in the early second century, but this is typical of heresy. Since all our knowledge comes from later orthodox writers, we actually know very little at all about heresy. Yet, like our orthodox forbearers, we often like to think we know.

Scholars today have started to understand that in the contemporary world of first and second century rising Christianity, there was no "heresy" per se. Rather, there was plurality. The earliest thinkers represented several different experiments in theology. Theologies arose from communities, and what concerned the community was largely how to practice in life the identity they had in Jesus. This is why there was so much variation. If a community knew best the philosophy of Plato or was familiar with platonic schools of thought, this background would be the interpretive background for understanding Jesus. With this background, Jesus would be like a wisdom teacher who came from the world of the Forms (the world of the Forms is the world of perfect ideas). For many New Testament writers, the main concern was the critique of Roman imperial theology. Jesus as the adopted son of God contrasts with Augustus Caesar and poses a theology distinctively critical of imperial powers. Meanwhile, Sabellianism (or modalism) attempts to defend the idea that God is one. Accordingly, Jesus must be the true God appearing among us undivided. None of these so-called heresies were called heresy at the time of appearance. They were simply part of a growing, complex, and highly pluralistic movement or school.

We can learn a lot today from admitting that heresy is a Christian fiction. It does not really exist, and it never really did. Instead, Christianity could go against its historic grain and embrace pluralism. Imagine a Christianity that did so, and by extension, a world that did so as well. Without the claim that one party or heresy must have the real truth (orthodox means "correct opinion") while all others fail, Christian history could have been the story of inter-faith cooperation, equal inclusion of males and females, different sexual orientations, and could have been about how a community can best practise its identity in Jesus. That, unfortunately, was never the Christian past, but it could be the Christian future.

©By David Galston

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