"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

On Heretics and Heresies

Some people bandy about the label of "heretic" too easily and casually, and sometimes that process of condemning people ends up creating enormous problems down the road when we realize that the label, if it ever applied, no longer does. What then does one do with, e.g., centuries of hymnody demonizing people as heretics, deviants, destroyers of orthodox doctrine?
That is one of the problems currently bedeviling the search for unity between the Oriental Orthodox and the Byzantine Orthodox, as Kenneth Yossa's fine study, Common Heritage, Divided Communion: The Declines and Advances of Inter-Orthodox Relations from Chalcedon to Chambésy  (which I discussed earlier) makes painfully clear. 

Nevertheless, if we need to be very cautious in our use of these labels, we need also to avoid the pitfall of abandoning the category of "heresy" as such. It has become fashionable on the part of some academics to bewail the very creation of "heresy" and its cognates. How unjust, they moan, to condemn some people and their ideas; how repressive, they drearily claim, "orthodox" Christianity is. To that there is, of course, no greater nor more spirited rejoinder than that of G.K. Chesterton:
People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad......
The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians.... It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic....It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.
This year we will be seeing several books treating of heresies and heretics, and will take note of them on here. One, to be released at the end of April, is

Jonathan Wright, Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 352pp.

About this book, the publisher tells us:
In Heretics Jonathan Wright charts the history of dissent in the Christian Church through the stories of some of its most emblematic heretics—from Arius, a fourth-century Libyan cleric who doubted the very divinity of Christ, to more successful heretics like Martin Luther and John Calvin. As he traces the Church’s attempts at enforcing orthodoxy, from the days of Constantine to the modern Catholic Church’s lingering conflicts, Wright argues that heresy, by forcing the Church to continually refine and impose its beliefs, actually helped Christianity to blossom into one of the world’s most formidable and successful religions.

Today, all believers owe it to themselves to grapple with the questions raised by heresy. Can you be a Christian without denouncing heretics? Is it possible that new ideas challenging Church doctrine are destined to become as popular as have Luther’s once outrageous suggestions of clerical marriage and a priesthood of all believers? A delightfully readable and deeply learned new history, Heretics overturns our assumptions about the role of heresy in a faith that still shapes the world.
In perusing the table of contents, one sees that much of the focus is on the West, but there are Eastern heresies treated, not least iconoclasm, on which we've seen several recent and important studies.

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