How Old Heresies Can Help Us Communicate Today
Recently I was walking my dog around our new neighborhood. I am still one wrong turn from being lost, but I’m slowly figuring out the maze of streets around us. Coming around one corner we approached a neighbor who was working in his yard. His back was turned to us, but I noticed he was wearing a red hat. In a matter of moments, I caught myself making a lot of assumptions about him. It was the color red that we saw a lot in 2016 and 2020 if you know what I mean.
And so, without even consciously thinking about it, I created this whole narrative in my head about this stranger. Not only did I assume who he voted for, but what he stood for, the kind of church he likely went to, his vaccination status, and a whole host of other things…all within a few seconds. I snapped out of it when he finally turned around to greet me. He smiled and said hello while wearing an Oklahoma Sooners hat. I walked away disappointed in myself. I thought I was better than that and was shocked at how easy it was to put this stranger into a whole host of categories of my making.
A similar thing happened when I saw a person wearing a rainbow-colored shirt the other day, only to realize that it has nothing to do with the LGBTQ+ movement. In a matter of seconds, I yet again created a narrative, only to be put in my place for the second time in a matter of days.
If you are thinking to yourself, “Wesley is a lot more judgmental than I thought,” then you’d be right. It honestly surprised me how hypocritical I’ve been recently, but it has been a good opportunity to honestly look in the mirror and challenge my assumptions. I have a lot of work to do on myself as you can tell.
Psychologists have taught us that we quickly categorize situations, and even individuals, so that we can function in a fast-paced world. So many of our decisions are formed at a subconscious level. If we had to meticulously think through every situation then we wouldn't get much done. Simply driving a car to work requires numerous decisions, many of which we do without even consciously thinking. Add on top of that, complex relationships and the numerous tasks that we must perform daily, and you can see why humans rely on assumptions to simplify their decision-making process. Categorizing the world we live in actually streamlines much of what we do. It is a good thing until it's not.
It’s good until it begins affecting our relationships.
Or makes us judge someone before even saying hello.
Or forces us to become more insulated and less willing to talk with people who have different opinions than our own.
Soon enough we group people into easy categories and leave little to no room for individual differentiation. Honestly, it would take too long to ask everyone we walk by what they believe, but our current culture may have led us too far in the wrong direction. Division has the first and last word in many of our relationships. An "Us vs. Them" mentality has not brought about a purer country, or a more righteous expression of a particular cause, but instead, it has broken families and fractured friendships.
I recently read a book entitled, Heresies and How to Avoid Them. I wanted to learn more about the heresies that plagued the Early Church. Instead of being a purely academic book, it was a collection of sermons from different preachers that focused on one particular heresy per sermon. The chapters ranged from the more familiar heresies of Arianism and Pelagianism to the more obscure Eutychianism and Theopaschitism (definitions at the end of the article).
Throughout the book, I was impressed at the graciousness that each preacher gave to the heretic involved. They did not automatically dismiss their ideas or call the person evil, but rather they took their arguments seriously. Many of the preachers saw the heresies as attempting to address an important theological question, but they were ultimately found to be in error. In fact, the heretics themselves, by challenging the status quo, actually helped the Church express its faith more articulately.
In the quest for truth, some mistakes had to be made so that we could articulate what Scripture actually said. Speaking of Nestorius, who denied that Jesus was at the same time God and man, one of the preachers said, "He did not set out to be novel or original, far from it: he saw himself as preserving the integrity of the Christian faith” (36).
Undoubtedly, his ideas were opposed, but after the fact, he was simply sent back to his monastery in Antioch. Nestorius' theology was condemned but he himself stayed intact.
Michael Ward, one of the editors, makes clear that the book is not, "Heretics and How to Avoid Them.” It’s the heresies, the ideas, that we must stay clear of, while still seeing the person behind the ideas. In fact, none of the early heretics lost their life because of their wayward beliefs; many actually continued to serve in the church. Ward says, “Arius was banished, but recalled, and Athanasius was ordered to receive him back into communion. Apollinarius lived to a ripe old age and himself seceded from the Church” (137). A few continued to serve in prominent roles, some left the church, others were exiled or excommunicated, but none of them lost their life.
And it's here where a little context can help us. Marcus Plested notes that the word heresy comes from the Greek word that means "opinion" or "school of thought" (42). This is the word used in 1 Corinthians 11:19 when Paul says, "No doubt there have to be differences [heresies] among you to show which of you have God’s approval” (NIV). Paul talks about heresies within the Church from the very beginning, but his recommendation is not to cancel that person or burn them at the stake. Rather the call is to keep discerning what is of God and what is of man. As Paul says in Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (NIV).
In a time of living amid differences, how do we move towards that which is pure and lovely and admirable together? I don't have a complete answer to this question, but a starting point may be to see "the other" as valuable in and of themselves. We may consider their ideas strange or even dangerous, but how might their ideas help shape us? What might we learn from them? And lastly, how can we create a dialogue that is respectful while continuing to hold our convictions?
As A.N. Williams puts it, "There is…a positive side to heresies if we allow our knowledge of them to steer us, not just away from error, but into the arms of the One who is the way, the truth, and the life" (34).
None of us have it all right, but God willing, we can all move in the direction of the One who not only knows all truth but is all truth.
Arianism: “The Christological (concerning the doctrine of Christ) position that Jesus, as the Son of God, was created by God. It was proposed early in the 4th century by the Alexandrian presbyter Arius and was popular throughout much of the Eastern and Western Roman empires, even after it was denounced as a heresy by the Council of Nicaea (325).”
Pelagianism: “A 5th-century Christian heresy taught by Pelagius and his followers that stressed the essential goodness of human nature and the freedom of the human will…Rejecting the arguments of those who claimed that they sinned because of human weakness, he insisted that God made human beings free to choose between good and evil and that sin is a voluntary act committed by a person against God’s law.”
Eutychianism: a form of monophysitism pertaining to “one who believed that Jesus Christ’s nature remains altogether divine and not human even though he has taken on an earthly and human body with its cycle of birth, life, and death. Monophysitism asserted that the person of Jesus Christ has only one, divine nature rather than the two natures, divine and human, which were established at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.”
Theopaschitism: Because Jesus is both human and divine this belief asserts that the divine nature can suffer. It arose in the fifth century and was condemned by a number of bishops in the same century.
All quoted heresy definitions can be found on https://www.britannica.com/.
Heresies and How to Avoid Them (2007)