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Heresy And The Connection

by Riley Case

Dr. Riley Case

The dictionary defines heresy as "opinions held in opposition to commonly received doctrine, and tending to promote division or dissension." Mention of heresy is offensive to many United Methodists who are now defining the word exactly opposite of its original meaning. In the minds of some United Methodists (letís start with bishops) it is not heresy that promotes division and dissension, but rather the suggestion that there is such a thing as heresy which promotes dissension.

So we have the dismissal of the complaint against Bishop Joseph Sprague that Spragueís published positions are contrary to the standards of doctrine established by the United Methodist Church. One gets the sense from the Supervisory Response Team that it is the complaint itself that should be on trial and not the stated positions of Bishop Sprague.

Note that it is not that Bishop Sprague was tried for heresy and acquitted. This is a more serious problem: the official church will not even consider heresy. If the evidence against Bishop Sprague is not sufficient enough to lead to a trial (apart from the question of whether Sprague is guilty), then it must be concluded that in the present climate in the church heresy is an impossibility. Then the accusations against United Methodism are true: one can believe anything and be United Methodist. Standards are not standards. Truth is not truth. There is no center. Paragraph 130 of the Discipline which speaks of connectionalism and makes reference our common tradition of faith including our Doctrinal Standards and our General Rules, carries no meaning. There is no common tradition. Likewise, there is no unity.

And so those of us who wanted to believe there was a new mood in the church, a new consideration of doctrinal integrity, are disappointed. And the church is impoverished.

The Supervisory Response Team spoke of a need for "dialogue." Let us suggest that one of the first items that might be on the agenda is whether the church can speak meaningfully in our present idea of the concept of heresy. And in preparation for that let us consider heresy as an idea.

If we believe there is no such thing as heresy are we not assuming either that: 1) we have no commonly received doctrine; 2) doctrine does not matter, or even if it does matter, the new opinions being expressed are not really in opposition to it, or 3) the real division or dissension is in bringing the matter up in the first place.

1) We have no commonly received doctrine.

In a time of pluralism and multiculturalism, perhaps it is restrictive and presumptuous--if not downright intolerant--to assign significance to a core of doctrine. This is an age of "inclusivity," multiculturalism, and post-modernism. We have many traditions. And--so the argument goes--there is an evangelical tradition, a feminist tradition, and an Asian tradition. Indeed, there are many traditions in the Bible itself and they are in opposition to each other. Thus, there is not one truth but many truths. And what we have "in common" should be our respect for each otherís traditions.

In this kind of climate doctrinal boundaries, standards, or restrictions, or even the idea that such things exist, must yield to creativity, modern experience, new formulations, and freedom to express whatever and whoever and however one wishes. Values and beliefs become little more than preference. Nothing that we claim together is so vital to us that it cannot be compromised, traded away, renamed, redefined, reinterpreted or denied for the sake of expediency, creativity, ideology, or convention. Somewhere in the maze there may be a least common denominator that binds United Methodists together, but we cannot agree what it is, or who should tell us what it is.

If our seminaries or our Council of Bishops are to be believed, the idea of "commonly received doctrine" is better left unclarified. For sure, it cannot be the grounds for anything as disruptive as "heresy trials."

2) Doctrine does not matter, or even if it does matter, the opinions being expressed are not really in opposition to it. Rather the opinions being expressed are merely new ways of saying the same thing.

In this view of things since truth is beyond all our expressions of it and language is metaphorical, doctrinal formations are only suggestive. And so we can assent to all things, such as the doctrinal standards, but we define words and phrases the way we want to. Christ rose from the dead (but not physically); God was in Christ (and in us too); Sophia (just another way of speaking of the God we all love).

And so it is possible to offer the ancient Confession of Faith:

"I believe (not to imply that othersí beliefs are not also valid) in God (as imagined in my mind) the Father (or some other inclusive substitute) Almighty (but not in any absolutist sense), maker (as in creative energy or life force or whatever) of heaven (poetically speaking) and earth (though not to suggest any form of dualism or separateness from the Divine).

"And in Jesus (as interpreted through the eyes of modern scholarship--specifically the modern scholarship I agree with) Christ (a divine principle) his (or a more inclusive substitute) only (if not understood in any exclusivist sense) son (in the same way we are all sons or daughters) our (not intending to be demeaning to anyone who might not feel included) Lord (if it does not suggest a hierarchical relationship). . ."

In an inclusivist monistic climate, beliefs held in seeming opposition are not really in opposition after all. We are all just speaking of the same realities in different ways. And if we donít care for what a word suggests (such as atonement) we just redefine the word so that it is acceptable. And so we protect one of the cardinal virtues of modernity: absolute tolerance, meaning that anything--no matter how bizarre--should be considered as acceptable, indeed, should be celebrated in the ongoing search for truth.

In this climate "heresy" is in violation of the spirit of the age. It is to be judged as judgmental and not tolerated because it is intolerance.

3. Since the very idea of "heresy" is to be disallowed, dissension in the church is caused not by heresy but by heresy-hunters.

At some time in our history bishops, seminary professors, and church leaders would defend our commonly held doctrine against contrary opinion which would divide and cause dissension. No more. If there is a problem in the church it is with those who argue that seminary professors, bishops and church leaders ought to defend the doctrine. The problem is not heresy but heresy hunters. It is not with blasphemy but with those so narrow-minded as to believe that blasphemy exists.

The argument might be made that to disallow heresy would lead to some sense of unity. However, the opposite is true. In this climate there is no center and there is no glue. It is hard to find common ground even for conversation. Without a common score the voices cannot produce harmony, but merely a babel of sounds. "Unity" would imply there is some kind of covenant, shared beliefs, or values to which we have pledged ourselves. The dismissal of the complaint against Bishop Sprague (apart from whether he is innocent or guilty) suggests that "heresy" is to be considered an impossibility. Standards are not standards. Boundaries are not boundaries, confessions are not confessions, the "covenant" is not a covenant at all, and unity is not unity.

And so United Methodism (or at least some of it) continues its slide toward irrelevance.

Colossians 1:15-23 ó He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers ó all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of god was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him ó provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.

See also Whatever happened to heresy? by Riley B. Case on the Good News Website


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