Where Have All the Heretics Gone?

Back in the saddle, and I see that there have been some developments at Patheos. They’re trying out a new “subscription blog” format, perhaps inspired by Andrew Sullivan. The first such blog is going to be produced is Christian Piatt’s A Heretic’s Guide to the Bible, where $4.99 a month buys you a progressive Christian’s reflections on the Bible.

I hope this works out for Piatt, both for his own sake and because success would make Patheos more stable. I’m also politely skeptical, but then I’m hardly the target audience, am I?

One thing annoys me. Piatt joins a host of progressive Christians in embracing the “heretic” label. There’s something irritating about a white American Christian whose faith is likely just a few degrees off of the Evangelical straight-and-true calling himself a heretic. It’s a smack in the face to the people who died in the Arian-vs-Athanasius trenches, or kept alive the flame of the Manicheans in the face of anti-Cathar persecution.

Here’s the problem: what is a heretic?

Some Christians believe that their dogma can be traced directly back through the bishops to the disciples to Jesus. Heresy means diverging from the true faith passed down through that channel.

Setting aside the lack of historical basis for this claim, the idea that the apostles were able to control and pass on the proper message is called into question by the texts of the Bible. Paul’s letters show a diversity of beliefs already taking shape in the 40s CE. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he forcefully separates his own authority from the apostles. This makes Paul himself one of the divergent factions.

A more modern definition incorporates democracy: the majority represents the orthodoxy and minority factions are heretics. There’s an intuitive sense to this that makes it popular today. I suspect that this is what Piatt means when he calls himself a heretic: he’s willing to diverge from what the majority of Evangelicals believe.

This makes it impossible to talk about heresy in the early period, when we have no reliable numbers to tell us who was in the majority. It’s problematic today, when competing sects make for a complicated field: if Catholicism is the largest denomination, are all the thousands of other sects heretics? Finally, is religious truth really something we want to determine by consensus?

In reality, the difference between heresy and orthodoxy is a difference of power. An orthodoxy exists when one faction has enough power to force other factions out of the community. Power explains why the Waldensians were declared a heresy while the Franciscans were not.

While their central message was basically the same(*) – poverty and evangelism – the Waldensians inadvertently undermined the authority of the hierarchy by acting without official approval and translating the Bible into Provençal. In contrast, Saint Francis famously sought the pope’s permission before launching his order. The Waldensians ignored the powers-that-be and were heretics, while the Franciscans submitted to the powers and were accepted into the orthodoxy.

The bottom line is: if you can call yourself a heretic and get away with it, then you’re not a heretic. If there’s no one who can or will enforce the boundaries then heresy doesn’t exist.

That’s the situation in the modern era, where a range of Christianities have to coexist peacefully and the idea of religious tolerance is widespread, the idea of heresy and orthodoxy is obsolete.


(*) Initially. After being branded as heretics by the hierarchy, the Waldensians suddenly developed a strong anti-clerical message. Can’t imagine why.

Where the Fire Comes From
Bob Cargill on the Holy Grail
You Can’t Keep a Bad Man Down
Atheists in the Evangelical Mind
  • Erp

    Heresy is always in relation to another strand of the religion they both claim to belong to. So Mormons are heretics in the eyes of most other Christians (as are Quakers and Christian Unitarians). Most other Christians are heretics in the eyes of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. You can’t call yourself a heretic unless some other group is calling you that. Admittedly for progressives the Southern Baptist Convention is probably more than willing to provide the label.

  • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com M

    I know I had fun in high school with all the Southern Baptists who were on my case about converting (openly Jewish at that time). They’d get on my case for being a heretic. I’d tell them I was a heathen or an infidel, thank you! Then I’d try to get the Catholics and Baptists riled at each other by pointing out that each considered the other heretics.

  • Stony

    I used the label on myself as just a joke: heretic Methodist. It’s hard to imagine what a person could believe that even the Methodists would brand you a heretic.

  • http://OneFamilyManyFaiths.blogspot.com Y

    You may choose to believe that claims of heresy are obsolete, but our modern wars, based on religious differences, would suggest otherwise.

    • Mark Temporis

      You don’t get heresy wars, though! When was the last time anyone got riled up over ‘same substance’ vs. ‘similar substance’, or denying the miracle of transubstantiation, or even works vs. faith-only?

      • Yoav

        Sunni and Shiite Muslims are killing each other on a grand scale over differences that, for an outsider, look even more minute.

  • Revyloution

    On the idea of charging for subscriptions, I have an idea I would like to see someone try. This might work even better on the forums.

    If you want to reply, you have to pay 10 cents. What’s ten cents? Nothing, even if you count up all my posts in a month, its still less than I pay for coffee. It makes a few bucks for the writer of the post, and best of all, it will completely eliminate spammers and make trolls think twice.