Accounting for the Whole

If it is not your habit to read the combox, you are missing the delightful remarks of Joseph Moore, who blogs over at Yard Sale of the Mind (best blog title ever!). His ideas are so entertaining, I am tempted at times to turn this blog over to him and to consign my material to the comments section. He has some really interesting theories on the connection between UC Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union and the Gates of Hell (something about coupons), the advisability of naming one’s offspring after St. Mesrop and/or St. Chrodegang(!), and Joseph Smith’s selfless act of public service. His musings on the subject of albino assassin monks had me waking up in the middle of the night giggling a few months back….

Anyhoo, recently Joseph, a cradle Catholic, was commenting on a Protestant acquaintance of his who has authored a book on historical criticism. Joseph opined:

that somebody can be brilliant enough to achieve what Dr. X has achieved and yet NOT pick up on – getting technical here – the radical decontextualization that is at the root of Protestantism, even to the point of writing a book about historical context while admitting such context has proved ‘challenging’ to Evangelicals over the years – well, THAT is, if not willful ignorance, at least culpable blindness.

Ya know?

Honey, I don’t just know – I lived it. Not to say that I was a couple of fries short of a Happy Meal – the prevailing Protestant outlook seems very plausible when you play by their rules. Strangely though, or perhaps not so strangely, Protestant heresies don’t have a corner on the plausibility market. Escapees from the Jehovah’s Witness belief system will tell you the same thing, that their doctrine seemed 100% biblical. After all, Witnesses will come to your door (usually at the dinner hour) with their materials in one hand and a Bible in the other, begging you to verify whether or not their ideas all come straight from Scripture. If you bother to oblige them, you’ll find out that they are right about that (if about nothing else) – they have drawn every one of their heretical doctrines from the pages of the Holy Bible. Because, hey, if you want to invent a viable heresy, it has to be rooted in Sacred Scripture. And when it comes to the Bible, it seems as if every other verse lends itself to more than one interpretation, leading St. Jerome to quip, “If we follow the letter, we too can concoct a new dogma and assert that such persons as wear shoes and have two coats must not be received into the Church!”

St. Augustine argues with the Donatists

Take some of the better known heresies down through the years. Gnosticism is as old as Christianity – St. Paul (Col. 2:8-23; 1 Tim. 1:4; 2 Tim. 2:16-19; Titus 1:10-16) and St. John (1 Jn 2:22, 1 Jn 4:1-3) issued warnings aplenty against Gnostic beliefs. The Novatianist heresy, on the other hand, was unknown to the first Christians, as it developed in the third century. Gnosticism was a real threat; it boasted St. Augustine as a convert (to Manichaeism, a variation on Gnostic themes, before he later reverted to Catholicism). Novatianism, not to be outdone, threatened to split the Church, with its founder becoming one of the first antipopes. Yet the two heresies were very different – Gnosticism was the grand-daddy of all the “matter is evil, spirit is good” Christian heresies like Docetism, Manichaeism and Catharism, while the Novatianists were rigorists – they objected strenuously to the mercy shown to those who apostatized during persecution, insisting that anyone who turned traitor had committed the unpardonable sin. Their rigorism influenced the Donatists, who postulated that the working of the sacraments must be “ex opere operantis” – so if your priest isn’t holy, your sacraments won’t “work.” St. Augustine wrote apologies for the Catholic faith directed against his former co-religionists the Manichaeians, as well as against the Donatists, yet variations continued on both themes. The Cathars of the Middle Ages exhibited both Gnostic and Novatianist traits, and today you find a distinctive Gnostic tang to certain Evangelical doctrines – the refusal to believe that grace can be conferred through matter, for example, and therefore the necessarily symbolic nature of baptism, anointing with oil, and Holy Communion – as well as a penchant for rigorism which hearkens back to Novatian.

As you can see, there have been various “flavors” of Gnosticism and Novatianism morphing their way down through the centuries. This fact should not be lost on us, because this is a distinctive mark of heresy: the inability of heretics to agree amongst themselves. Their doctrine changes, and competing denominations develop. St. Irenaeus, who composed his “Against Heresies” with the Gnostics in mind, pointed out:

Let us now look at the inconsistent opinions of those heretics (for there are some two or three of them), how they do not agree in treating the same points, but alike, in things and names, set forth opinions mutually discordant.

St. Epiphanius of Salamis used the passage from Song of Solomon 6:8-9 to describe the difference between the many heresies he decried in his Panarion (Medicine Chest) and the teaching of the Church:

There are sixty queens and eighty concubines, And maidens without number! But my dove, my perfect one, is unique: She is her mother’s only daughter. 

Irenaeus again contrasted the various and sundry doctrinal stances of the heretics with the one faith of the true Church which

…believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth.

Even as St. Paul admonished the Ephesians:

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.

In other words, Jesus established the Church to make possible the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God. Disregard the “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers” of the 2000-year-old Church, pick up a Bible (which isn’t even mentioned in this recipe for attaining to the “unity of the faith”) and start winging it, and you’ll sprout the “opinions mutually discordant” that set Irenaeus to fretting….

And once you’ve got a little nest of opinions mutually discordant, the critters can be devilishly difficult to exterminate. Gnosticism is a good example, but we can see this with one of the tamer heresies as well: Quartodecimanism. It refers to the insistence on the part of some early Christians that Easter must be celebrated on the same day that the Jews celebrate Passover. This meant of course that Easter might be celebrated any day of the week, just as Passover occurs on a different day each year. The rationale for this was the passage in Exodus 12:14 in which the Lord establishes the celebration of Passover as a “perpetual ordinance.” By the mid-second century, many churches of the East were Quartodeciman, while the churches of the West took to heart St. Paul’s statement that “Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast.” They declared that because it is Him Whom we eat and drink in Holy Communion at every Mass, thus fulfilling the “perpetual ordinance” command, Easter was a Christian observance which could be celebrated independently of the Jewish Passover, and which should be celebrated on “the Lord’s Day,” Sunday. The bishops meeting in council standardized this practice. A pretty wimpy heresy, pretty easily extinguished, right?

Jehovah’s Witnesses are Quartodecimans.

You see, the Bible still says what it said in the mid-second century, and folks still pick up a copy of the Bible and interpret it according to their own lights, and they keep stumbling into the same heresies over and over and over. Viewed individually, Gnosticism, Novatianism and Quartodecimanism seem to have little in common. Viewed collectively, however, the family resemblance gives them away: they are the offspring of the mother of all Christian heresies – the notion that any given person has the ability to pick up a copy of the Scriptures and, operating independently of the Church which Jesus established to be the “pillar and foundation of the truth,” decide for himself what a given verse means and what he should do about it.

Sola Scriptura is the Ur-Heresy. Once you’ve bought into sola Scriptura, every other heresy becomes plausible.

Francis Beckwith, erstwhile president of the Evangelical Theological Society and revert to the Catholicism in which he was raised, reminds us that people aren’t Protestant just because they are two tacos short of a combo plate. As he explains the Protestant devotion to the doctrine of sola fide:

…I do not think that the Reformed Protestant view of justification is obviously unreasonable or that one cannot make a biblical case for it that some will find persuasive. Some of the brightest people I know are Reformed theologians, and I have great respect for the work they do. But what I am suggesting is that for me, all things considered, the Catholic view has more explanatory power than the Protestant view. This is why it made sense to me that the Early Church Fathers… were so Catholic in their teachings. They held to the view that, I believe, does the best job of accounting for all the New Testament’s passages on justification and sanctification.

And that explains the situation nicely. Sola fide is biblically plausible – you can pick up a Bible, select certain verses, ignore others, and propose the doctrine of justification by faith alone. You don’t have to be crazy to believe it. The Catholic faith and works theology, however, does a better job of explaining St. Paul AND St. James, without making either man stand on his head, cross his eyes and recite the Creed backwards. This is, of course, because this Catholic doctrine is the correct understanding of what Paul and James meant to say. But since resilient heresies like “faith alone” are not totally off-the-wall, they have the sticking power necessary to survive more than a few generations. This is why I am convinced that there will always be Protestants, or something like Protestants. The longevity of the “justification by faith ALONE” heresy is guaranteed by the fact that the Bible can be interpreted to say that justification is solely by faith. But now Joseph Moore’s observation comes into play – in order to make the Protestant system work, you don’t have to be crazy, but you do have to make like an ostrich….

Fourth-century Arianism is alive and kicking in 2013. Jehovah’s Witnesses will tell you that they are God’s people, the church that Jesus established. Besides being Quartodecimans, Jehovah’s Witnesses are Arians, denying the doctrine of the Trinity and declaring that God (Jehovah) created Jesus, a superior being, a “god,” if you will, but certainly in no wise “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, one in being with the Father.” The longevity of the Arian heresy is attributable to its Scriptural plausibility – one can read Scripture through an Arian lens and feel justified in taking an Arian position, which strikes me now as quite funny considering that as a Protestant I used to shake my head and mutter, “If Jehovah’s Witnesses would just read the Bible!” thinking that picking up a copy of the Scriptures and reading them independently of the Church which Jesus established to be the “pillar and foundation of the truth” – exactly what I was doing – could somehow usher in a heresy-free world, rather than the opposite.

The downfall of Witness theology is that while Arianism may appear to do the best job of explaining isolated verses, it does a lousy job of accounting for The Whole – the witness of Scripture, the testimony of the early Christians (the Church Fathers), and history. Jehovah’s Witnesses are forced into the contorted position of claiming that Christianity fell away from the real teachings of the apostles very early on. They maintain that God, Who promised that His Church would NEVER fail (Mt 16:18) and that He would be with us ALWAYS (Mt. 28:20), reneged on His promise and wandered off, allowing her to fail for centuries until someone (in their case Charles Taze Russell, but it could just as easily be Joseph Smith or even Martin Luther) came along to help Jesus out of the embarrassing quandary His lame Church had gotten Him into. This leads otherwise normally developed adults to feel led of the Lord to start buying into those “albino assassin monk” theories that Joseph was babbling about, because otherwise how can you explain the total absence of distinctive Jehovah’s Witness/Baptist/Presbyterian beliefs in the early church??

Which brings us full circle to Joseph’s observation that “radical decontextualization” is the only environment in which plausible Biblical heresies can possibly survive. You can, if you insist, pick the Bible up and interpret it any way that strikes your fancy; as a charismatic Protestant I was not only allowed but encouraged to do that under the guise of “being led by the Spirit.” As a Baptist my mantra was “the Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it!” meaning that as long as I stayed within the boundaries of Baptist interpretation of doctrine (doctrine which is of necessity about 80% ahistorical) I was being faithful to “what the Bible teaches.” Had I become a Presbyterian, I might have been persuaded to include some of the decisions of certain ecumenical councils in my Bible-evaluation equation, but only those which affirmed rather than contradicted Presbyterianism’s determination of “Biblical truth.” Thus, when exploring the writings of the Church Fathers, evaluating archaeological evidence or investigating Biblical languages and cultures, my findings – intrabiblical or extrabiblical – would always be forced to conform to the constraints of the foregone conclusions. Calvin had to insist that none of the disputed writings of Ignatius of Antioch could possibly be genuine (proving as they do that the very early Church had a very set hierarchy), and J.I. Packer has been forced to make the case that the Church Fathers were nice guys but weirdly dim bulbs when it came to understanding core Biblical truths:

… apart from Augustine none of them seemed to be quite clear enough on the principle of salvation by grace and not even Augustine had fully grasped imputed righteousness.

Willful ignorance? Culpable blindness? Certainly more so in some cases than in others. The average believer who is counting on the pastors, theologians and historians of her denomination to determine the truth is certainly less guilty than someone who boasts an M.Div. or a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies. After all, these highly degreed folks have the diplomas to prove that they know what St. Paul meant when he wrote the words “the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth.” Right? As St. Augustine warned the Manichaean heretic Faustus, who placed great emphasis on the authority of the Scriptures from which he drew his heretical doctrines:

I close with a word of counsel to you who are implicated in those shocking and damnable errors, that, if you acknowledge the supreme authority of Scripture, you should recognize that authority which from the time of Christ Himself, through the ministry of His apostles, and through a regular succession of bishops in the seats of the apostles, has been preserved to our own day throughout the whole world, with a reputation known to all.

You don’t have to be crazy to subscribe to Bible-based heresies, but you do have to turn a blind eye to a whole lotta stuff – in other words, there’s hope for you, but your doctrinal system cannot be salvaged. Until you recognize that “authority,” also known as “the church of the living God,” your theology will always be a couple fleas short of a dog.


On the memorial of St. Anthony Maria Zaccharia

Deo omnis gloria!

  1. Very cool. I’ll have to make a more thoughtful comment when I have more time.

    One thing won’t wait: what’s with the picture of the sourpuss man and the babies?

  2. It’s Ontario Premier Mitchell Hepburn with the Dionne quintuplets, meant to illustrate the “family resemblance” point as well the “maidens without number” quote.

    Doesn’t he look like something out of a science fiction movie?

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