Given my post about how its opponents perceive heresy, how can we find out what exactly is heresy? It seems to have been very important to the writers of the Patristic age, so I reckon that being able to identify it is a worthwhile task.
Being able to perceive heresy or orthodoxy is especially important today, I reckon, given that the world is aswirl with varieties of teachings about philosophical/religious/biblical teachings.
When faced with Osteen’s blend of Pelagianism and prosperity, with Archbp. Richard Holloway’s rejection of the bodily resurrection of Christ, with Bp. John S. Spong’s rejection of God as Creator, with the ongoing efforts of scholars to rehabilitate those whom the ancient and mediaeval Church rejected as heretics (from Nestorius to Pelagius to Arius to the Cathars), with Bart Ehrman’s insistence that the Orthodox ‘corruption’ of Scripture makes the whole text untrustworthy, with the well-meaning pluralism of close, dear, intelligent friends — and so forth — when faced with such things, how do we really know what to do when we sit down to think theologically, ethically, biblically, philosophically?
Sometimes Bible passages have multiple interpretations. Sometimes Jesus doesn’t seem to be God. Sometimes he does. Sometimes the Holy Spirit doesn’t seem to be God. Sometimes the Kingdom of God seems to be the biggest deal out there. Sometimes the crucifixion/resurrection event does. Sometimes the logic of atonement doesn’t hold together. Sometimes it’s crystal clear. Sometimes … sometimes …
Vincent of Lérins, famous for the dictum that orthodoxy/the catholic faith is what has been believed everywhere, always, by all, said this:
Often, therefore, when I have sought thoroughly with great zeal and the highest attentiveness from very many men outstanding in holiness and doctrine in what way and by what certain and, as it were, general and regular way I could distinguish the truth of the catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical perversion, I always receive a response of this sort from pretty much all of them, that whether I, or someone else, were wishing to discover the lies of rising heretics or to evade their snares, and to remain whole and healthy in healthy faith, one ought to fortify one’s own faith in a double manner, with the Lord’s help — first, with the authority of clearly divine law, then from there with the tradition of the catholic church. (Commonitorium 2, my trans.)
Given that “orthodoxy” is right belief, we all think we’re orthodox, so let’s not argue about the word right now.
The first step, according to St. Vincent, is to turn to Scripture, ‘the authority of clearly divine law.’ This means that, while we should consider soberly the arguments of people such as Ehrman (The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture) and Spong (The Sins of Scripture), we can still believe that God has inspired the words, however flawed the manuscript tradition is, however flawed some of the persons and events recorded therein are.
If a belief is riotously counter-scriptural — ‘God, while pretty cool, didn’t create the universe’, or ‘we should have sex with any consenting partner’ — we can safely reject it.
Nevertheless, this is probably still not good enough, for most Christians today, from Bp. Michael Ingham and Marcus J Borg to Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn to N T Wright and Miroslav Volf, claim to take Scripture very seriously.
This is where St. Vincent’s second criterion comes into play: the tradition of the catholic church.
Tradition is, literally, that which has been handed down (Latin trado, tradere). According to Lewis & Short, one of the definitions of trado is ‘entrust.’ Tradition is that which has been entrusted to us by those who have come before.
Augustine Casiday, in Tradition and Theology in St. John Cassian, says, ‘Tradition … is a process of creative fidelity to one’s origins.’ (122)
Our origins, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, are the apostolic writers and the holy men and women of the patristic age. They preserved the tradition of Jesus and his followers, spread it throughout the Mediterranean basin, and meditated deeply upon it in prayer, philosophy, verse, and holiness in action.
Of course, what do we do with the fact that after 451 the Nestorians (Church of the East) broke away into their own tradition, and soon thereafter the ‘Monophysites’ (Armenian Apostolic, Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian Orthodox Churches) broke away from the imperial church, and then in 1053 there was an official split between the Byzantine Church and the Roman Church, and then in 1517 a long process of disintegration took hold of the Roman Church in the West?
What is the tradition we are to turn to today? Traditional forms of Anglicanism, Puritanism, Presbyterianism, Methodism, Baptist-ism(?), Pentecostalism? Or are we to turn to Rome or Byzantium or Cairo for answers?
These are tough questions. However, if we prayerfully read Scripture and turn to the exegesis of the first five centuries as well as writers beyond that who agree with the conciliar formulae, perhaps that will be tradition enough?
And then perhaps we shall be safe from the poison of heresy …