It’s time for a church history lesson.
In the first few hundred years of the church, the leaders were constantly figuring out what it believed. All of these doctrines and teachings that we take for granted had to be hammered out in the context of real disagreements between real people. (BTW, some of these arguments are hilarious: people who have been canonized as saints writing back and forth with arguments that are the ancient equivalent of “You’re ugly and your mother dresses you funny,” and “I know you are but what am I.”)
There were a few different strands that diverged off of the “normal” beliefs of the church: gnosticism, docetism, monarchianism, etc.
Fascinating, I know …
One interesting heresy (?) is “arianism”, founded by Arius in the 4th century. Arius essentially denied the true divinity of Jesus, instead holding that Jesus was a “created being” (Orthodox belief would hold that Jesus existed eternally with God before entering our world, as per John 1:1-10). Arianism was declared a heresy, and Arius was excommunicated in the late 300s.
All that is fine and dandy, but what is truly interesting about this story is the actual substance of the debates. You see, when the Arians were defending their position, they submitted to the church authorities a very long list of scriptures (that is, from the Bible) that more than adequately (at least in their eyes) defended their position.
However, they’d missed the forest for the trees. They did a great job at using the Bible—at face value—to defend their position. Interestingly, the Orthodox priests and scholars couldn’t supply nearly as long a list of scriptures supporting their position (this exercise is still repeated in seminaries today, by the way).
But what the Orthodox did have on their side was common sense. To the list of scriptures, they basically replied, “Sure, you have all these scripture references, but you’ve neglected to use your brain to think through the nature of Jesus from an intellectual and theological point of view.”
The heretics had all their Bible verses in line, but they were still missing the point. Badly.
They had landed on the “truth” (as they perceived it), but they had missed the essence.
My personal takeaway from this is twofold:
(a) It’s not enough to simply line up proof-texts and say, “See, X is right/Godly/holy/etc.” Often (maybe not always), we need to take a step back and go, “Okay, I know that these scriptures indicate X, but maybe God is asking us also to examine whether or not these square with what we know about His character (especially as revealed by the Gospels).” If you neglect to think theologically (and intellectually), you can easily be a fundamentalist, and still be heretic.
(b) I think it’s a wonderful thing that God asks us to use our brain. Read the Bible. No, seriously, read it. It’s a complicated book (but a very simple story, ironically). There are awkward (and even very uncomfortable) texts (slavery, prostitution, incest, genocide anybody?), and even some apparent contradictions and “tensions” that we need to manage. Origen, one of the church Fathers who was alive during many of these heresies, maintained that God allowed the tensions that we find in the Bible to remain there so that… get ready for it… we could exercise our intellect.
The solution to a complex world is to not adopt a simplified, fundamentalist reading of our Bible. A solution (for there has to be many) is to balance our sacred text(s) with an understanding of the traditions of the family of faith, our God-given intellect, and our experience of God in this world.
If only there was a name for this… #wesleyan_quadrilaterial #can’tbelieveIjustdidthat