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.

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