Discernment (Matt Gray)

Matt Gray is a professor at Tabor Adelaide.

Discernment by Matt Gray: Good looking Heretics

In the 1987 movie, Broadcast News, Jane falls for the handsome but sloppy Tom. When she admits this to her best friend, Aaron, he tells her: ‘I know you care about him… but I believe that Tom, while a very nice guy, is the devil…Nobody is going to be taken in if the devil has a long, red, pointy tail. No… He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful…’

Theological discernment of heresy is always difficult and demanding, and always necessary. What have you learned about discerning heresy and, at the same time, learning to hear what others are teaching? Have you ever been wrong in your discernment?

This is a key lesson in discernment. Church history teaches us that wrong choices often look attractive at the time.

We have demonised Arius, the 4th century heretic. We emphasise his penchant for cute jingles (‘there was a time when He wasn’t') to suggest he manipulated the populace with flash without substance. We claim he held a cold mathematical logic (‘three cannot equal one’) instead of accepting Biblical authority. He seems to just denigrate Jesus, and ruin our salvation. Recalled this way, his heresy is obvious and thus simple to dismiss.
But we probably do Arius a disservice here. Actually, he was responding to Biblical passages like John 14:28, ‘The Father is greater than I’. He thought he wasn’t denigrating the Son, but elevating the Father. We also do a disservice to his followers. The 4th Century Christian ‘plebs’ had a sophisticated theology, and were not easily fooled. Besides, Arius had supporters that were bishops as well.

But most of all, we do ourselves a disservice. Obviously I’m not suggesting Arius was right – he was terrifying. But he was terrifying because he didn’t look scary at all. He looked sincere, biblical, faithful. Athanasius didn’t win because he’d never read Arius. He won because he knew Arius’ theology like his own. Arius shows us that the practice of discernment is rarely easy: heretics’ intentions are usually misguided, not malicious, and lies hide convincingly within truths.

Discernment is the practice of hearing both truth and falsehood, on their own terms. Only then will we reveal the difference.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://jesus.scilla.org.uk/ Chris Jefferies

    Where do we draw the line between heresy and mere differences of opinion? To an evolutionary biologist like me, creationism is not heretical although I do believe it to be erroneous. But to a creationist my opinion might seem heretical, taking away from the Most High a large part of his power, authority and glory as Creator.

    Like most lines drawn in our minds, the line between harmless difference of opinion and dangerous heresy is quite fuzzy and broad. It might be going too far to claim that the differences between evangelical and Catholic theologians should be seen as heretical – or it might not.

    When two people are on opposite sides of a theological debate, hearing both arguments will clearly identify the difference. But whether that difference amounts to heresy remains (to some degree) a matter of personal opinion and judgement. There will be views over which almost everyone agrees, ‘That’s clearly heresy’. There will be views over which opinion is evenly split.

    It seems to me that there is huge difficulty here. Jesus said that we should be one as he and the Father are one. Yet I cannot accept every opinion as truth.

    You were right, Matt, when you wrote, ‘Theological discernment of heresy is always difficult and demanding, and always necessary’!

    What have I learned about discerning heresy? To remain humble and gentle and self-controlled. Angry ranting adds nothing useful to the debate or to clarity of thinking. I’ve also learned that hearing the other side is the easy part; understanding is a whole lot more challenging.

    Have I ever been wrong in my discernment? For sure, many times. Sometimes I have changed my opinion as the light has slowly dawned in my mind and heart.

  • Tom F.

    The funny thing is, Athanasius looked kinda frantic about the whole thing too. Arius was definitely the more self-assured one.

    Hmm, I wonder though…

    I guess I feel a couple things: one, the truth is worth pursuing, and yes, we need to be on guard against heresy. But there doesn’t seem to be any failproof method for identifying and rooting out heresy though. Sure, on Trinitarian issues, its a bit easier to identify since we have councils that have spoken. But on the contentious issues of today, there are “councils” and “counter-councils” on the Protestant side (e.g., on something like inerrancy). And in the absence of a failproof method, what do we do with our anxiety about possibly failing to identify and root out heresy? It usually seems to be directed at the people who we have deemed heretical. And this is straight out of Athansius’s story (he was banished by several emperors, but also managed to get Arius on the outs with large portions of the church.)

    I guess I read about the story of Athanasius and how both he and Arius used exclusion and excommunication against each other and I wonder: why is God’s truth so vulnerable? Why would God, knowing that human beings have small brains and easily swayed hearts, entrust the truth to us in a way where we could so badly mess it up? And once we mess it up, the only way to fix it is by cutting off engagement with those in error? I mean, that’s what it seems to take, at least once its clear that talking about it isn’t going to solve the problem. It just seems…predictable. Like even if we were just some other religion or culture, this is how we would maintain doctrinal purity, through institutional exclusion. But truthfully, I have no alternative to offer, and the OP is right, you can’t just give up discernment. Sigh.

    The second thing I feel is just sadness. I have basically felt pretty close to identified as a heretic. I remember as a young student in youth group believing in a general scientific account of the dinosaurs and a fellow student basically saying that if I believed that I couldn’t really be a Christian. My youth pastor softened what the other student was saying, but still, it really stung. Later on, in talking about the roles of women, or inerrancy of scripture, I ended up with views that were divergent from most of those in the church where I grew up, and various persons identified those views as not acceptable. As in, maybe not quite heretical, but certainly not acceptable (though the inerrancy thing was pretty close to heretical). I definitely started to feel unacceptable. (But really now, isn’t that how an identified heretic is supposed to feel as long as they maintain their heresy?) So, having been on that side of it, I’m pretty much a softie when it comes to this sort of thing, for better and for worse.

    I definitely argue with people when I feel they are saying something that is untrue, but if I had to pronounce their ideas as “heretical” and worthy of excommunication if they held on to them, I don’t know what I would do.

  • http://jesus.scilla.org.uk/ Chris Jefferies

    WWJD – Yes, I know, that is easy to say and perhaps exceedingly boring. But stick with me for a moment. What *would* Jesus do in this situation?

    He was always prepared to meet people where they were, he didn’t make a big deal of differences in doctrine. In his view the scribes and Pharisees were wrong, not because of their doctrine but because of their judgemental attitudes and unwillingness to help others. When he spoke about the judgement the sheep and goats were not separated on the basis of knowing him as Lord but on whether they had given a thirsty person a cup of water.

    We are not saved by our deeds, but Jesus sees our hearts and our hearts determine our actions and attitudes. I wonder if the Kingdom may be full of people with right attitudes rather than right doctrine.

    Just saying.

    Tom says he’s a softie on these matters. Good for you, Tom. May I come and stand with you on that?

  • cw

    Tom @ #2
    “and I wonder: why is God’s truth so vulnerable? Why would God, knowing that human beings have small brains and easily swayed hearts, entrust the truth to us in a way where we could so badly mess it up? And once we mess it up, the only way to fix it is by cutting off engagement with those in error? I mean, that’s what it seems to take, at least once its clear that talking about it isn’t going to solve the problem. ”

    I’ve asked that question in different wording but the very same query. N.T. Wright stresses in Simply Jesus that Jesus Christ IS Lord and on the throne and in control of His Church. For me, that takes as much faith as believing in Who He is. I do not question that God’s will and purposes and ways are beyond comprehension and they are Good. But it is apparent throughout the age of the Church that people reading the same Scriptures can come to vastly different conclusions and interpretations. It’s a mystery.

  • Jim

    @Chris: I would suggest that the actions of the Pharisees, like all of our actions, grew out of certain theological commitments…e.g. “no one can forgive sins but the one God”… (I do know there is a bit of a translation controversy around that text.

    I would add that WWJD sounds good on the surface but it tends to reduce the question of following Jesus to a decision strategy Under this or that quandary moment, WWJD? I think it would be better to see ourselves as following Jesus at all times and not only consulting him (or our bracelet) during quandaries.

    I only raise that last point because discernment, in my view, is only possible insofar as Jesus becomes our way of life , and that lived out in the context of a faithful and discerning community of followers, moment by moment, second by second.

  • http://jesus.scilla.org.uk/ Chris Jefferies

    I mostly agree with you, Jim. But I can’t help wondering if we should hold our theological commitments rather lightly.

    Being more committed to our theology than to the people around us would be a dangerous, perhaps pharisaical, place to go.

    But now I’m wandering far off the topic of discernment.

  • Tom

    I agree that we need to hold our theology lightly but where do we draw the line. Do we hold the line on the doctrine of the Trinity? How about Mormonism or others? What about all of the name it. /claim it.

  • Jim

    @Chris: I understand the sentiment but I’m not sure the two are that easily separated.

  • T

    These are interesting posts and discussions.

    Where and how we draw the lines over heresy can be tricky, mainly because the distinction b/n so-called essential and non-essential doctrines is itself a doctrine over which there is disagreement!

    As this post and some of the comments suggest, I think we should be very slow to apply the label of “heretic” to a person. We should be slow, I think, even to call a given teaching heretical, though not quite as slow as when labeling a person.

    Interestingly and I think relatedly, discernment is the gift I’m most concerned about being used in isolation from the larger Body of Christ. Someone can think themselves a prophet, but it’s when we think that we can properly *discern* God’s voice/intentions/word, etc. all by ourselves and with great certainty that we become the most dangerous to ourselves and others, whether we put it under the banner of prophecy, discernment, or even biblical exegesis and theology. Ironically, this is where I see not only charismatics make mistakes, but also their conservative, cessationist counterparts. An over-developed sense of certainty (protection?) about things that aren’t as certain or clear as we’d like is as much a problem in the Church as the post-modern tendency to be certain of nothing.

    I think this is one of the places that the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is helpful. It would be appropriate to name it as a way we discern: we use scripture, reason, tradition, and experience.

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    We are all heretics. Every thought we have about God falls infinitely short of “right.” If my salvation is based on my intellectual beliefs then I’m just plane damned. When I see Christ my beliefs will disappear, will be burnt away. If I have based my work on beliefs then I will have nothing to show before Him. Only so far as my life is characterized by the love manifested in Christ, made possible by faith that his love for me is sufficient to cover all the heretical beliefs I’ve held, will I be saved.

    What do we need to “discern”? Correct intellectual stances about a being who is infinitely more than any mind can contain? No, I believe that what we need to discern is the fruit tht flows from the beliefs. A bad tree cannot bear good fruit and a good tree cannot hear bad. The measuring stick isn’t a creed or certain confession of faith, it isn’t what we see on the outside. Each person serves his own master, who are we to judge? Our discernment lies in protecting those loved unconditionally by God from those who by their teaching tell others that this isn’t true–that they need to be more, have more faith, believe higher truths, work harder, or be “correct” intellectually in order to be loved by God.

    Isn’t that the sin of the Pharisees? Spreading the “word” that MORE. Is required to be accepted by God? Isn’t the Word of Christ that acceptance and live isn’t based on our “being more” or “knowing correctly” but on just being LOVED?

    So, yes, discernment is necessary all the time, but it is a discernment of whether a spirit of love and grace flows from the doctrine, not a discernment of whether the doctrine stands up intellectually to our own conception of an indescribable God. Does the doctrine produce the life of Christ (self-giving death for others) or does it produce shame and the guilt that comes from not being enough to be be loved?

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    Once again, please be gracious in pardoning all my inane typos. As usual, I blame the fact that I was typing feverishly on an iPhone and will choose to ignore the fact that I did not proof read my post. : )

  • Steve Robinson

    Tom (#7), That is the question of the ages and one I struggled with for decades. Because most of us are virtually ignorant of Church history and the 7 Ecumenical Councils of the first 8 centuries, we don’t have a grasp of how the Church defined what is “heresy” and what is “matters of opinion”. The early Church drew the lines at the Trinity and the Incarnation, however the implications of those two dogmas are many faceted. St. Irenaeus spoke of the “sola scriptura” folks of his day who had “scriptural support” for their false teachings and he said the scriptures are like a mosaic: one can take all the tiles and make an image of a fox or an image of the King. It is because the Church knows what the King looks like is why the Church trhough its conciliar “rule of faith” can guide one to interpret the scriptures correctly. St. Athanasius and St. Basil (among others), in their defenses of the faith appealed to the witness of the prayers, liturgies and sacramental formulas of the early Church as a defense of the truth of the Trinity and Incarnation because they embodied the mind of the Church as it interpreted the Scriptures. The Creeds give us the boundaries of dogma, a fence around the core of the kerygma beyond which one may not go, however within those boundaries one may go as high or as deep as one can or wishes to go.

  • http://restoringsoul.blogspot.com Ann F-R

    Discernment is the practice of hearing both truth and falsehood, on their own terms. Only then will we reveal the difference.
    The Q’s: What have you learned about discerning heresy and, at the same time, learning to hear what others are teaching? Have you ever been wrong in your discernment?

    The way I understand spiritual discernment in contemporary practice is very different than the microscopic dissection of scripture, original language, parsing, textual variants, historical, literary and linguistic tradition, etc., etc. which has taken over many discussions I’ve observed or participated in. Coming from the Wall St. world, to non-profit management before seminary lends a different view than had I come straight through the academy.

    Maybe someone else can refresh my foggy memory whether Paul’s strategy, as I understand it, would apply to the Arius/Athanasius debates. Jesus and Paul didn’t focus nearly as much, from my perspective, on the words and arguments people offered, but rather on what they did, how they lived. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock…” (Matt 7:24-27) Paul’s words to the Corinthians in 1 Cor. 4:14-21 indicated he really didn’t seem as interested in their divisive arguing as in their power to live righteously w/ one another (and argumentative divisiveness is a dead giveaway someone is missing the power of Christ).

    Soooo, to try to put discernment in a nutshell – I encourage people to listen to the words in the background while primarily “listening” to the life to the speaker in the foreground, with an ear to the Holy Spirit. We don’t expect the lives to be perfect – if they look too perfect, we might well be wary – but we do expect there to be the fragrance of the Holy Spirit permeating their attitudes, actions and interactions. There are lots of red flags – reading the signs, if you will – that can clue us into something askew. It is all too easy for us to become lost in words, and fail to heed signs which should have tweeted, if not blared, warnings.

    I recall consultations I gave while I was working in reconciliation ministry. A member was being incredibly divisive, trying to claim heresy w/in the church and among the leaders, writing long letters vs members or lay/prof’l leaders. The church leaders were trying to respond with thoughtful letters and reasoned arguments. They didn’t recognize a power encounter when they were face to face w/ it. My first advice was to respond as Paul did to the Corinthians, recall the gospel, recall the grace God has given us in Christ Jesus – preach it to one another. But, really, the root of the problem was revealed when I asked the pastor if he knew that the man doing this had 2 divorces and had financially defrauded our ministry that arbitrated one of his divorce settlement (when mediation failed). The pastor knew this history, and despite that knowledge had recommended the man for membership and married him a 3rd time. Trying to swallow too many words will choke the discerning of what is clearly in front of our noses.

    Our culture & educational institutions have taught us that discerning righteousness from unrighteousness in actions, words, and relationships is “judgment”. We’ve too often become an over-educated foolish people.

    Nevertheless, patient prayer is necessary even to discern the shape of what’s going on outwardly & visibly. We all have messy lives; we are all subject to being misinterpreted or misunderstood or misjudged. We pray with the humble awareness of the logs in our own eyes, even as we seek the spiritual discernment we need to protect one another & ourselves in Christ, truly. Moving in haste rarely seems God’s way.

  • Stephen S

    I don’t have a super long comment, but I do appreciate this post. It humanizes history, which I think tends to be a good thing. Analyzing history of heresy but also in general often seems so “obvious” in analysis today, but that is because we do not put ourselves in the time. Not that I necessarily know how to do that, or at all, but I think that realization is actually encouraging. It means that the world has basically always been the same, or at least in modern (not pre-historic) times. Makes one think that it was too bad Kip’s time machine didn’t work, eh? (Napoleon Dynamite)

  • scotmcknight

    I feel bad about this, but Matt Gray, who wrote the post, was not able to comment and was blocked… so here is his comment:

    Just wanted to pop in and say how much I appreciate seeing the conversation this has generated – not least because I think that this is precisely the way heresy is beaten: in safe friendly discussion (not safe as in guarded, but safe as in welcome). I particularly appreciate Jim’s mention of community, and those who see the value of engaging with our Christian community over time, via Church history. Discernment done outside of community almost inevitably becomes heretical.

    It seems to me that, heresies are defeated not so much by closing them down, as opening them up. Chatting about them together usually exposes the falsehood and (perhaps more importantly) the ugliness of heresy. And funnily enough, precisely because of their falsehood and ugliness, I’ve found that when we engage with heresies honestly and openly (and that means not assuming they ARE heretical, at least for a while), the truth and (again perhaps more importantly) the beauty of orthodoxy becomes all the brighter. John 3:19-21 comes to mind.

    Fear is our over-riding extinct towards both falsehood, but also sometimes the truth. It is a poor instinct to trust when discussing theology, or anything important. It is also the greatest destroyer of conversation, and thus discernment – even if it doesn’t stop us talking, it will always stop us listening.

    Thanks for the conversation.