Tag Archives: heresy

Tradition V. Scripture? A ludicrous idea to the medievals


Complete writings of church fathers before, during, and after the Council of Nicea (325)

Complete writings of church fathers before, during, and after the Council of Nicea (325)

Why did C S Lewis so strongly rely on the integrity of the Christian tradition? Why was he a “traditional” Christian–a reader of the church fathers, a student of the medieval mystics, an appreciator of scholastic theology? For one thing, he saw what many modern Christians do not: that the boundaries marked out by tradition and the interpretive frameworks provided by it strengthen our ability to understand and live the primary revelation of Scripture.

Tradition in the early church: Irenaeus and the Cappadocians address the heretics

One barrier that still stands in the way of broader acceptance of tradition among free-church Protestants is the misunderstanding of the Reformation that says that medieval Christians treated tradition as a source of authority separate from Scripture.[1] The notion would have been ludicrous to medievals. Scripture and tradition had never been separated in the early church. The church had met together in councils repeatedly to discern the meanings of Scripture. The resulting creeds (elaborated out of long-repeated local church creeds that developed out of the heart of worship) became part of tradition, as protections against wildfire teachings such as Arianism, docetism, and monophysitism.

The very New Testament canon itself, whose now-accepted list of books did not appear until 367 AD in an Easter letter of Athanasius, emerged out of a process of communal discernment led, as they believed, by the Holy Spirit. Which books and letters, when read in the congregations, evidenced spiritual power and truth by supporting and edifying the congregants and building up the church? No serious Christian thinker until the Wycliffes and Huses of the late medieval period—when tradition had become a crutch and a tool of power on the part of some of those at the top of the church—seriously doubted the seamlessness of Scripture and tradition and their necessity to one another. Continue reading

Reason: one use of it builds faith–the other creates heresy; the early and medieval church knew the difference


ecumenical-council

Having looked, in the “theology chapter” of the forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, first at our evangelical problem with Truth, then at the medieval scholastics’ way of understanding and teaching Truth, we now come to the central storyline of medieval theology: its unique attempt to hold faith and reason together.

I start my discussion of this heroic attempt with a brief account of where the early church thought heresy came from (surprisingly: an over-active use of reason) and how early theologians and councils acted to preserve the integrity of the apostolic faith.

The next post will show what medieval thinkers did with this early precedent when it came time to re-explain the mysteries of the faith for new socio-cultural realities.

When I say that medieval thinkers held reason and faith in a delicate balance, I am thinking of their ability to use reasoned understanding and argument not to erase mystery, but to carefully couch and protect it. This was a premodern trait. The modern tendency – let us say, post-Enlightenment – has been to put our trust in what Stanley Grenz called the “omnicompetence” of reason–its supposed ability to fix all humans problems and solve all conundrums. The postmodern tendency, on the other hand, is to point to the man behind the curtain, or the emperor who has no clothes–to assume that anybody who claims to have figured things out via reason is actually making a power grab, disguising baser motives.

I would argue that the postmoderns are now where the nominalists were at the end of the medieval period. They have looked cynically behind the claims that we may know truth, at least partially, via reason, and they have lost faith in our ability to see any truth beside the one each of us makes for ourselves. Conservatives today may even be tempted to identify postmoderns as those who, in the Dantean phrase, have “lost the good of the intellect”—they can no longer access moral truth. But that’s too easy: the fundamental insight of postmodernism is hard to argue with: people do in fact often claim to be following the direct dictates of reason when in fact their motives have little to do with reasoned understanding. (Nor is this even intentional much of the time!)[1]

But when we go back to a brilliant premodern Christian thinker such as the proto-scholastic Augustine of Hippo, we find a different process: Instead of claiming that “reason solves all,” he frequently looks up from an argument he’s just presented (say, on the nature of the Trinity), and he says:  “I didn’t say you had to like it.” Continue reading

Defining heresy and assessing creeds–a good conversation over at The Christian Humanist


Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea

Over at The Christian Humanist, a good, meaty conversation is developing about how we should define “heresy” and how we should assess the role of the ancient creeds today.

A week or so ago I worked through these questions on this blog in my series on early theological controversies (part I of that series is here).

Here’s a bit of the conversation on The Christian Humanist (but I recommend heading over to that blog to reading the rest of Nathan Gilmour’s post and the responses that ensued):

Michial’s working definition of heresy is that which stands against the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, while my own definition was that which, if taught to a generations of Christians, would result in something other than the Christian church. Continue reading

Controversies about Christ in the early church, part II: The hybrid Jesus and the Second Council


Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr, the Christian philosopher, about to say something profound about the Logos

This post follows from “Who do you say that I am: Controversies about Christ in the early church“:

[The following paragraph is adapted from an appendix to Philip Jenkins’s fascinating new book, Jesus Wars:How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 years. I do think this subtitle is significantly misleading–these decisions were in fact made “ex corde ecclesia”–out of the heart of the church. But Jenkins tells a rollicking tale, and with scholarly care–a rare combination]

The emperor Theodosius I called the second ecumenical council of the church, called the First Council of Constantinople, in 381. This council met mainly to settle continuing debates concerning the Trinity. Arianism remained powerful long after the Council of Nicea, while some groups denied the full divinity of the Holy Spirit. The Council of Constantinople tried to resolve these issues, and it defined the role of the Holy Spirit within the Trinity. Continue reading

Debunking the Protestant “T” word part II: How to spot a heresy


Statue de Constantin Ier, Musée du Capitole, Rome

Constantine, looking imperial

This article is continued from “Debunking the Protestant ‘T’ word: An edifying tale, part I” and continues in “Debunking the Protestant ‘T’ word part III: What was the beef at Nicea?

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. When the debate about Jesus’ divinity first hit the streets of Alexandria, the Emperor Constantine saw the handwriting on the wall (perhaps literally, if he came across some of that theological graffiti!). He said to himself, “This empire isn’t going to fall apart on my watch!” And so he called together a giant council of the church at his summer palace in Nicea (Nicea is now a town called Iznik, in Turkey—and sadly for us historians, there’s nothing left of that palace). Constantine was doing, on a larger scale, what the church had always done in its first three hundred years when a crucial matter like this came up. He called on the bishops—that is, the teaching pastors of key churches—to come together.

The point was not to have these top pastors get all creative and brilliant and make up some new doctrine that everyone would have to follow from then on. No, since the beginning, the bishops in the church had had only one main function, and everyone understood it. The job of each bishop—and especially of all the bishops together—was simple: they were expected to faithfully pass on the teachings of the Apostles. Continue reading

Jaroslav Pelikan: Glimpses into medieval theology


These are brief excerpts and quotations I marked while reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Growth of Medieval Theology (600-1300), Vol. 3. in his series The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978).

As with the David Bell “glimpses” posted yesterday, I thank my t.a., Shane Moe, who transcribed these and inserted  brief contextual tags where helpful. Page numbers are at the beginning of each excerpt. The designation “Q” means I wanted to save the text as a quotation, for use in teaching and writing. “D” means a definition of a term. “Use” means I want to use an idea or statement in my teaching:

Q, 3: “The Middle Ages may be seen as the period when the primary focus of Christian thought about Christ shifted from what he was to what he did, from the person of Christ to the work of Christ.” Continue reading

Tangling with wolves: why we still need heresy trials


I suspect this post will make some readers mad. Good! Respond to the post, and let’s talk about it! My own parents disagree with it too. But today’s world of gentle, neighborly, non-doctrinal churchmanship (sorry, churchpersonship), in which you can believe almost anything and still be considered a member in good standing of most churches, has missed a very important point:

In matters of belief, souls are at stake.

If we don’t believe that, then we may as well pack it in. Because as Paul said, if the resurrection (to take one important example) hasn’t happened, then we Christians are of all people most to be pitied. We’re just fooling ourselves. There’s no logical reason we shouldn’t stay home every Sunday, crack open a cold one (or a case of cold ones) and enjoy ourselves in front of the TV set:

Tangling with Wolves
Why we still need heresy trials
Chris Armstrong

Originally published in Christianity Today, summer 2003.

United methodist bishop Joseph Sprague publicly denies that Jesus rose bodily, that he is eternally divine, and that he is the only way to salvation. He has been charged four times with teaching heresies, and four times denominational representatives have acquitted him.

This is not a lone incident. Continue reading