The Impossibility of Heresy

Thomas Merton on heresy –

In the climate of the Second Vatican Council, of ecumenism, of openness, the word ‘heretic’ has become not only unpopular but unspeakable . . . But has the concept of heresy become completely irrelevant? . . . Or is error something we no longer consider dangerous?

The Catholic is one who stakes his life on certain truths revealed by God. If these truths cease to apply, his life ceases to have meaning.

So then: what is a heretic?

A heretic is first of all a believer. Today the ideas of ‘heretic’ and ‘unbeliever’ are generally confused. . . It [heresy] is, however a problem for the believer who is too eager to identify himself with their [the unbeliever] unbelief in order to ‘win them for Christ.’

Where the real danger of heresy exists for the Catholic today is precisely in that ‘believing’ zeal which, eager to open up new aspects and new dimensions of faith, thoughtlessly or carelessly sacrifices something essential to Christian truth, on the grounds that this is no longer comprehensible to modern man. Heresy is precisely a ‘choice’ which, for human motives (rationalized perhaps as ‘grace’), selects and prefers an opinion contrary to revealed truth as held and understood by the church. It then proceeds to teach this opinion contumaciously even against the sincere protest of the faithful (not merely the carping of a few bigots). [Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 338-339]

Why in the world am I quoting the words of a Roman Catholic Trappist monk, with whom I would have far more to disagree with than to agree? Because, oddly enough, I have much more respect for someone who is willing to defend their beliefs, than for anyone who is willing to sacrifice what they think they believe, or used to believe, in order to salvage any measure of popular admiration.

Once upon a time, it was actually possible to “commit”  heresy, to be a heretic, simply because the church zealously defended a robust, specific, and exclusive concept of truth. Now, because everyone is entitled to their own opinion and we have to be “tolerant,” “affirming,” and “inclusive” of every opinion no matter how bizarre or ridiculous, heresy is impossible.

But, follow me here. If the rhetorical concept of evil was totally and completely erased, everything would be “good.” Murder would be good. Rape would be good. Lying, cheating, stealing, all would be “good,” because there would be no concept of “evil” with which to label these activities. In that sense, the meaning of “good” would likewise be erased. There can be no concept of the ethical or the “good” without the opposing concepts of the unethical or “evil.”

If the rhetorical concept of “heresy” is erased, then, likewise so is the rhetorical concept of truth. “Truth” then becomes whatever one wants it to be. In the profound words of Merton above, truth then simply becomes a choice and an opinion with no reference to any external authority.

Today we have erased the concept of heresy at the horrifying expense of erasing the concept of truth.

If you doubt me, just follow any kind of religious publication and see what happens when someone utters or writes the “H” word. “You better be careful” say all the nervous nellies. “You can’t call someone a heretic just because they disagree with you.” Well, no. No one is saying that. But, you can identify someone as a heretic if they deny or reject a specific teaching of Scripture that the church universal has accepted and proclaimed for virtually all of its 2,000 year existence.

A few months ago, a young evangelical hero publicly proclaimed that the God of the Old Testament was not the same God of the New Testament. A long, long time ago a fellow by the name of Marcion said the same thing, and was purged from the church as being a heretic. A few people had the courage (and the insight) to recognize that what the young hero was saying was virtually identical to what Marcion taught, and called the hero a heretic. You would have thought they called him the antichrist. “You cannot label him a heretic just because he has a different interpretation than you.” Well, no. Once again, no one ever said that. But to specifically deny that the God of the New Testament is the same God as the Old Testament is a heretical teaching. Ergo and therefore, the young hero is a heretic.

Just recently a young female author passed away and she has been duly canonized and beatified into evangelical sainthood. Commentators have been tripping over themselves trying to be the most effuse in their praise of her opinions. I may be the only one to say this, but if the Thomas Merton’s definition of heresy above has any merit at all, this woman was a heretic. She may have been a believer (I cannot affirm or deny that judgment), but she clearly made choices that deviated from Scriptural norms, she actively promoted those choices and opinions and denigrated those who defended truths that have been sustained by the church since its inception.

Read the paragraph from Merton above again that begins with the words, “Where the real danger of heresy exists. . . ” Substitute the word “Christian”  for “Catholic” (or, if you are Catholic, leave it there, or if you are comfortable with understanding Merton’s ecumenism, leave it there as well) and think about it for a while. Both the evangelical hero who denies the eternal nature and unity of God and the one-time evangelical author (she actually left “evangelicalism” and moved to the Anglican church) who denied the inspiration of Scripture and the divine nature of God as revealed in human sexuality, sought to promote their heresies in order to “win people to Christ.” They both thought that the more traditional, read “biblical,” view was too confining, too exclusive, too demeaning. So, let’s just create a new and different God for the New Testament, a God of love, of kindness, of acceptance, a God who would never stoop to such behaviors as executing disobedient people (well, Acts chapter 5 excluded). Let’s just create a Christianity where there are no distinctions between male and female, let’s just do away with that repressive concept of “one man, one woman united in marriage for life.” Let’s just do away with that silly myth that the Holy Spirit could inspire an author (or authors) to teach and proclaim such clearly inhumane doctrines. Let us be able to pick and choose which teachings in the Bible we find acceptable, and let us be free to reject those we find unacceptable; and above all, let us be free to excoriate those who hold those traditional teachings we find so repugnant.

I find it somewhat embarrassing to have to go to a Roman Catholic, Trappist monk to find a cogent discussion of the possibility, even the necessity, of labeling certain teachings and teachers as heresy and heretical. I wonder what he would say of the Roman Catholic church of 2019.

I don’t think I have to wonder what he would think about someone who denied the doctrine of the unity of God throughout the Bible, or of someone who denied that all the Scriptures were inspired by the Holy Spirit of God.

I know this is politically incorrect (as this entire post has probably been) but I think the “H” word needs to made possible again.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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