Wednesday 3 October 2012

Heresy and Authority


Modern Christians, in our weakness and dispersion, need to be more careful than ever about heresy: and this means steering a path between the false negative of failing to reject 'liberal' and worldly heresies; and the false positive of falsely detecting heresy and rejecting real Christians of other denominations.

Consider some of the Christian authorities I have been reading with intensity over the past year or two, in no particular order. By 'authorities' I mean that I personally regard them as authorities:

Fr Seraphim Rose
C.S Lewis
JRR Tolkien
Blaise Pascal
St John Maximovitch
Archbishop Averky
Fr Herbert Kelly
Charles Williams
Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky
Thomas Traherne
Peter Kreeft
The author of The Way of a Pilgrim

Plus of course The Book of Common Prayer (Thomas Cranmer, Miles Coverdale) and The Bible specifically in the Authorized Version (William Tyndale, Miles Coverdale, Lancelot Andrewes etc).


The fact is that some of these Authorities would have regarded some of the others as heretics; and would have wanted nothing to do with them, demanded their conversion, or their suppression.

Fr Seraphim Rose - Russian Orthodox
C.S Lewis - Anglican, moving from Low to High Church
JRR Tolkien - Roman Catholic, very traditional
Blaise Pascal - Roman Catholic, but Jansenist = explicitly 'heretical'
St John Maximovitch - Russian Orthodox
Archbishop Averky - Russian Orthodox
Fr Herbert Kelly - Anglo-Catholic monk
Charles Williams - Anglican, mainly Anglo Catholic
Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky - Russian Orthodox
Thomas Traherne - Anglican mainstream of 17th century
Peter Kreeft - Roman Catholic, pre Vatican II tending
The author of The Way of a Pilgrim - Russian Orthodox


But I align with C.S Lewis in this matter.

There are real Christian heresies; but there have also been intense inter-denominational disagreements and conflicts within Christianity about matters that we now perceive not to be concerned with heresies.

Sometimes these differences may damage the probability of salvation (for an individual person, or for an average group), or the scope of theosis (sanctification) - but they are not heresies.


So, I would personally regard the Reformed churches rejection of monasticism as diminishing the scope of theosis, and I would regard the rejection of veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary as making Christianity harder for the average Christian - but neither of these would amount to heresies.

I would regard some recent Roman Catholic dogmas such as the Immaculate Conception and Papal Infallibility as excessively legalistic attempts at doctrinal precision and political control; but I would not regard them as heresies.


One of the very few places in his entire ouvre where Lewis displays principled anger is in a letter when he begs Lewis's friend the (then) Benedictine monk Dom Bede Griffiths to please stop trying convert him to Roman Catholicism - and outlaws that topic of conversation.

For Lewis, this behaviour from Griffiths was implicitly based on the assumption that Anglicans were outwith the legitimate bounds of Christianity; hence a denial of 'Mere Christianity' and an act of denominational exclusivism.


Although he began as mainly a Low Church Protestant Anglican, and ended-up much more of an Anglo Catholic, Lewis personally seems never to have considered converting to a different Christian denomination (of course he might well have changed his mind later, if he had lived another 25 years - e.g Walter Hooper has argued cogently that Lewis would probably have become a Roman Catholic).

I think Lewis regarded deliberate efforts in this direction of inter-denominational 'poaching' as not just misguided but likely to be dangerous and damaging to Christian unity and therefore to the mystical Church.

(Of course, behind this attitude of Lewis's lies his belief that there is indeed a real and specifically Christian unity across denominations; which is something atht not all of the above authorities would have agreed upon.)


On the other hand, Lewis seems not to have objected to people changing denominations, so long as this was:

1. Done for properly Christian reasons, and

2. Did not lead to denigration of the previous denomination.


Yet at the level of dogmas, doctrines, liturgies, beliefs, devotional practices, use of Scripture, structure of authority and innumerable other denominational definitions  - there is ample reason for mutual accusations of heresy among my authorities listed above; and for each of them ample reasons for exclusivism.

While, on the other hand, the definition of Mere Christianity which unites all these authorities is so simple and basic as to be insufficient as a basis for a Christian life.


It seems, therefore, from the Mere Christianity perspective I share with Lewis:

1. That we must have Christian denominations (because the Mere Christianity that is shared between all denominations is insufficient for a Christian life)

2. Yet none of the Christian denominations are exclusively correct.

3. So that each denomination has advantages and disadvantages for particular persons and on average, and in particular circumstances. For a specific person, group, time or place; the choice of denomination may be critical to their Christian life. So denomination does matter - but not in a fashion related to heresy.

4. Mere Christians should strive neither to encourage nor discourage, but instead to play-down the significance of inter-denominational conversions.

5. Once a denomination is Christian, comes within Mere Christianity, we should try to avoid discussions - and especially debates - about heresy. This line of argument should be reserved for those few core matters that must be shared by all Christians.

6. Denominations should be free to manage their internal affairs, and be strong in their distinctive perspectives and emphasis; but without recourse to building internal denominational unity through hatred of or differentiation from other Christian denominations. Denominational unity should be defined against 'the world', and against non-Christian religions; but not against other Christian denominations.

7. There should be no attempt to fuse denominations, since this leads to dilution and weakness and provokes resentment and schism; nor to make formal organizational agreements and declarations - these tend to be bureaucratic and to encourage careerist thinking about Christianity; remembering true Christian unity is mystical, not institutional.

8. Thus the relationship between denominations should therefore resemble the relationship between autonomous nations allied in a war; and the warfare metaphor clarifies why Christian denominations must be allies, and must not engage in mutual denunciation, since they are confronted by an enemy who would destroy them all.

Once it has been determined on which side a denomination is fighting in the great spiritual war - and in that war there are only two sides - then all other considerations should be subordinated to that crucial fact.



asdf said...

Agree with your whole post. There are however a much larger number of "Christian" churches/denominations that wouldn't meet the guidelines of "Mere Christianity" today then Lewis's time.

Bruce Charlton said...

@asdf - "There are however a much larger number of "Christian" churches/denominations that wouldn't meet the guidelines of "Mere Christianity" today then Lewis's time."

Yes, and that is one of the reasons why the concept is even more important now than before.

Indeed, the leadership of most Christian denominations would not 'meet the guidelines' - so, the matter becomes even more specific, since individual Mere Christians seem to be rather thinly scattered as minorities within several or many denominations.

It is highly desirable, probably necessary, that these scattered individuals or minorities can form a mutual alliance in a unity at the most profound and spiritual level.

Denominational differences will remain, and are both necessary and indeed desirable (compared with the alternatives), but should not block the path of this spiritual unity.

Bruce B. said...

I am glad to have found your writings. I find them very interesting.
I think you mentioned that you might enter the Roman Catholic Anglican Ordinariate. Isn’t Anglicanorum Coetibus a violation of #7?
We had a chance to enter the ordinariate through the ACA, a continuing Anglican jurisdiction but we declined.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - I'm afraid I have no idea what you mean; but it doesn't sound like a thing that would concern me.

I have no plans at present to change denomination because there are still a few valid Christian Churches in the C of E and within my geographical range; but the situation in the Anglican Church is deterioriating rapidly, and I have no confidence that this situation will be sustained for many years ahead.

For example, there might be an impossible change of personnel, or liturgy, or it is possible that one of the churches I attend might be 'constrctively dismissed' from the CoE.

Therefore, I must remain open to consider alternatives - the Ordinariate is one of these alternative; but at present the nearest is about 40 miles away. So it is not high on the 'reserve list'.

Bruce B, said...

Maybe I didn’t understand your perspective number seven. I was thinking that the Anglican Ordinariates would be an attempt to “fuse” denominations.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - Oh, that's what you meant! I thought your Hash 7 referred to some obscure document of Canon Law...

I don't see the Ordinariate as a violation of 7. It is one of three possible responses to the imminent extinction of the Anglo-Catholicism - all of which involve major changes.

1. Hang on and hope (against hope) for the best; but very probably become merely a different worship style within Liberal Anglicanism.

2. Leave and set-up independently ('Continuing' Anglicans).

3. Leave and join Rome, retaining the Anglican liturgy and married priests.

Wurmbrand said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
SonofMoses said...

Dear Bruce,
As you know, I don’t often comment, but you can be sure that I read every word you write. I find your mind refreshingly probing and incisive, and I thank you for the trouble you take to record your thoughts.
However, I feel that sometimes you go too far.
One issue on which we differ is your conviction, oft repeated, and probably taken from Fr. Rose among others, that, as you put it today, ‘there are only two sides’.
Since you obviously respect C.S.Lewis and claim to ‘align’ with him in your present heresy article, what about the followers of the Tao as he defines them in his marvellous booklet ‘The Abolition of Man’? Are not the virtuous followers of that Tao, which would include the Hebrews, the Athenians, the Stoics, etc., a third ‘side’, and thus surely not to be damned?
I take it you are seeking to be as inclusive as possible in your article, trying to see ways in which the traditional denominations of Christianity can be accepted into one overarching faith, and this out of respect, I would imagine, for the teachings of our Lord regarding the love of our neighbour. Can you not, then, find it in your heart to include within your theology those who, though they may not follow the Western practices of the recent church, have been and are faithful in other ways to the goodness put into their hearts by their Creator?
Perhaps when Jesus said ‘In my Father’s house are many mansions’ he was suggesting that our human divisions are not made in Heaven.
Perhaps, also, it would be a good thing if all those who truly seek Spirit, whatever the outward form of their devotions, were to draw together and unite in the face of the increasingly predominant materialism, ignorance and repudiation of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful which are characteristic of our times. I do not myself think that Christians are the only fighters in the war you speak of.
Yet I agree with you that each great tradition has its own integrity, which is, I assume, why you say that mere Christianity is not sufficient.
So I am by no means trying to sell any sort of admixture of faiths. Nonetheless, there is a decided unattractiveness about people who think they are the only ones who have got it right and that all others can be rejected with a wave of a righteous hand.
Indeed, it used to be the fashion for people with similar fixed ideas to crucify those who wouldn’t conform to their shopping lists.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SoM - I think there are only two sides in the war, and it seems you are arguing the same - but emphasizing that some non-Christians may be on the Christian side. I would agree with that , I think.

Certainly I agree with Pascal's point that the line of salvation is crossed by the sincere, and discontented (and wretched) Christian *seeker*, and not by the convert (the line is crossed before conversion).

Perhaps this point is reached when somebody begins to pray that they may become Christian or know Christ.

But can such seekers be a part of the 'church' in the sense of the community of those who pray to Christ? Perhaps they can, probably they can indeed unite their prayers.

You seem, also, to be talking about virtuous pagans - which is a large and diverse category. Speaking as an ex-neo-pagan - many or most of such people have a core anti-Christianity deep in their belief system; which puts them on the other side *unless* they remain discontented seekers after truth, beauty and virtue.

However, on the whole, this kind of focusing on grey areas is a snare to Christians, a delusive striving after non-existent precision in understanding the world and the plan of salvation.

My point here was to put forward a non-exclusivist vision of Christian unity which was *not* aiming at organizational unity - which in fact rejected organizational unity.

But since this unity (of Mere Christianity) is based on Christ, and of course any positive unity must be based on some principle/s, then it is hard to see how such a unity can be extended (except in the way I describe above) to those who reject Christ.