Over-Simplicity is the Foundation of Heresy

The proper reading of text is often much more difficult to accomplish than the average person assumes. There is a belief that if one just reads a text, unless it is purposefully created to be a riddle, one just can pick up a text, read it and understand it. The questions which are required for proper exegesis do not cross the mind of the average reader, and so they do not understand what they read with any depth. They can come out of their reading misunderstanding the point of the text itself. This is especially true with religious texts. The fact that how one reads the text, with the assumptions one brings to the text, might lead to what one gets out of the text does not cross their mind. This can be seen in how people will overlook criticism they give to scriptures of religious traditions which are not their own while they find a way to overlook such criticism from their own text. Can they not at least consider that the way they overlook the problem from their own tradition might also apply to other traditions as well?[1]

Christians should be very concerned when someone says that the Bible is a simple text and one just picks it up, reads it, and follows it as if its meaning is obvious when one reads it. The fact that many pick up the Bible and come out with differing interpretations should suggest that this is not the case. But people don’t consider that. They have been raised to believe that it is written just for them and they will simply understand it once they read it. It’s a cultural phenomenon in the United States, leading person after person telling others that they don’t really follow the Bible all because the other person understands it differently. Now, the Bible is not a free-for-all book, but the way it is treated in society makes it such, so that the Bible is often the foundation for theological relativism and not its counter. Everyone reads it, everyone believes their reading is valid, and there really is no one to tell them to the contrary because, of course, if someone did it just means they were the ones not following the Bible. Politicians who like to call out other politicians for not following the Bible, acting as if the Bible is a simple text and its meaning is obvious to all readers, are a danger to Christianity because they want to use the Bible for their own pretext instead of dealing with the contextual questions one might raise in order to proper employ the Bible for one’s life. Historically, this is how many great heresies formed. Someone took their own ideology, read it into the Bible, and believed that what they got out of the Bible based upon their ideological reading is honest, simple reading of the text which must be followed. And because they could find passages which, on a simple, unexamined level seem to support their ideology, they proclaimed themselves the teachers of the truth when they were anything but it.[2]

We can look, for example, at how one is to understand God according to the Christian Scripture. A simple approach makes God very human. For a simple reading of God in Scripture will come out with a vision of God quite different from the Christian tradition: he repents, he has to ask questions to gather information, he lets his passions get the best of him, he had bodily parts, et. al. A simple by the letter reading of the text will not get to the meaning of the text. To ask if a text contains metaphor requires one to move beyond a simple reading of the text.  But once one understands the Bible uses metaphor, that it discusses God with words coming from human experience but which do not really represent the divine reality, one begins to understand the difficulty in interpreting the Bible. How does one understand these metaphors, what exactly are they telling us about God? They say something rightfully fits and yet – it can’t be the way they fit for a human person. St. Augustine makes this point clear when analyzing the words of a critic of the way God is presented in the Old Testament:

God does not repent as a human being does, but as God. So too, he is not angry as a human being is or merciful as a human being is or jealous as a human being is, but does all things as God. God’s repentance does not follow upon a mistake, and the wrath of God does not include the agitation of a mind in turmoil. The mercy of God does not involve the unhappiness of heart of one who is compassionate, as the Latin etymology would have it, and the jealousy of God does not imply a mind full of spite. Rather, God’s repentance is what we call the humanly unexpected change of those things that lie in his power. The wrath of God is the punishment of sin; the mercy of God is his goodness in providing help. The jealousy of God is his providence in accord with which he does not allow his subjects to love without penalty what he forbids. […] And human beings judge these things by human standards; scarcely a few spiritual persons understand them, as they should be understood of God. For this reason, when the holy scripture speaks of the Ineffable, it most providentially descends to certain words that seem absurd and unworthy, even to human beings and carnal ones at that, for speaking of God.[3]

Scripture often presents history as it appears to the people involved with it; thus, if God seems to change his way, it seems as if he repents. His eternal decision has not changed: his eternal act is one and the same. What changed is the human condition. This is exactly how we are to understand the book of Jonah. It tells us that God’s universal act will condemn us for our sins, but will save us if we repent and follow him. What God does to and with us changes according to what we do, but God does not change. We can understand God with metaphors, but we must appreciate that such metaphor must not be pushed too far, because if we do, a monster is made out of God and heresy is the result.

 


[1] To determine this one should see how people from other religious traditions comment on their own scriptural texts.

[2] All one has to do is read the text of the early heretics, and this is a common feature of their writings. Those who opposed them had to go into more depth in explaining Scriptural passages than the heretic, showing the true depth required in interpreting a text. However, because of the simplicity of the heretic, it is also obvious why they attracted followers. People want such simplicity, they seek it, though the truth is rarely so simple, no matter what Occam says.

[3] St. Augustine, “Answer to an Enemy of the Law and the Prophets” in Arianism and Other Heresies. Trans. Roland J. Teske, S.J. (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1995), 384-5.

  • http://americanlibertarian.wordpress.com Terrance H.

    Henry,

    I can’t tell you how much this post – particularly this sentence: We can understand God with metaphors, but we must appreciate that such metaphor must not be pushed too far, because if we do, a monster is made out of God and heresy is the result. – meant to me.

    As a Catholic that has struggled with the concept of there even being a god, let alone a “mean bully” like the god of the Old Testament, you’ve given me a new way to evaluate my concerns, and for that I thank you.

    Excellent post.

    • http://roadgoeseveron.wordpress.com Henry Karlson

      You’re more than welcome! I’m glad it helped.

  • Chris Sullivan

    Thanks for a helpful post Henry.

    A good example would be this Sunday’s reading from Genesis:

    Then God said:
    “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love,
    and go to the land of Moriah.
    There you shall offer him up as a holocaust
    on a height that I will point out to you.”

    Just how does God speak to man ? How does man know that what he hears is God ? And how does man know that what he interprets from what he hears really is the divine will ?

    One remembers St Francis of Assisi thinking that “rebuild my church” meant repair a dilapidated Church building rather then help repair the Church universal.

    In rabbinic tradition, some sages have interpreted Gen22 not as a test of Abraham, but of his misunderstanding: “What, do you think I meant for you to slay him? No! I said only to take him up . . . and now I say take him down” (Gen. Rab. 56:8).

    God Bless

    • http://roadgoeseveron.wordpress.com Henry Karlson

      I think the point with St Francis, one I like to point out from time to time, is a good example of how God speaks and we misunderstand based upon our limited understanding. This works well with the “sacrifice” of Isaac. Abraham lived in a time and a place where human sacrifice seems to have been performed, so he seems to have misunderstood something — requiring God to act so to prevent Abraham from doing such a sacrifice, and in the end, leading to a story which points to the error of human sacrifice.

  • Chris Sullivan

    Understanding “Then God said” in Gen22 as metaphor is a very helpful approach.

    The reality is that, excepting the Christ event, God does not speak to humans exactly the same way as humans speak to other humans.

    One could apply this usefully to other times in the OT when God is said to have said all sorts of things, including commanding genocide.

    God Bless

    • Rodak

      The problem with all of this is that it then leaves one guessing as to what God did say, if He really said anything at all. And, at that point, your guess is as good as mine–but no better. Who helps you interpret what God really meant and assures you that God really spoke at all? God does. That is, God does, if he really did and if He was correctly understood in supplying any given interpretation. So, along comes the priest and says “Who you gonna believe? Me, or your own lying ears?” [insert here the short list of those things told to priests by God that turned out to have been dead wrong]

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    There is an old saw from Mark Twain that seems appropriate here: “It is not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me, its the parts I do understand.”

    More to the point, I think that you have hit upon something peculiarly American or at least that is strongly present in American thinking, particularly American evangelical thinking. Because it really is in the American evangelical tradition that you see this notion of the “plain meaning of the text” or “a sure guide for all believers” brought to the fore with a limited sense of the nuance or subtlety of the text. For a good discussion of this, I strongly recommend Mark Noll’s “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.” His argument is that American evangelical thought is in thrall to strands of the Enlightenment (particularly the Scottish Enlightenment).

  • Rob

    I find that this happens as well in regards to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It’s more of an issue I take with those whose understanding of Catholicism is informed by American conservatism than with liberalism (liberals rarely make an appeal to the Catechism, save the paragraph that addresses the duty to follow one’s conscience). I wouldn’t go so far as to claim heresy on the part of anyone with whom I’ve come in contact who does this, but the general application of the Catechism to primarily social issues does make a purely orthodox reading of those parts of the Catechism seem relaxed or liberal.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    Ah, for the days of the early Christian Roman Empire when every man in the street was arguing over the divinity or humanity of Christ! That must have been fun. Or at least better than the man in the street discussing Lady Gaga.

  • Rodak

    @ PPF —

    Lady Gaga has always had nice things to say about you.

  • Charles

    Rodak +1, you have won the internet today.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    Rodak,

    I know she likes gay guys. So?? I’m supposed to kiss her ass because of that? A lot more important people than Lady Gaga culturally have liked me and gay guys like me. I am not in the world to catch the crumbs from the table. Now back to the beatitudes, after that little hiatus. :)

    • http://www.rrrrodak.blogspot.com Rodak

      @ PPF —

      Who’s asking you to kiss her ass? I’m not calling her a fag hag, I’m saying that she’s been an advocate for gays rights, anti-bullying, etc.
      Catching crumbs from the table, btw, was a thing cerning which Jesus was schooled by a smart, tough Samaritan woman. Table scraps are not to be sniffed at.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs

        Not to put too fine a point on it, but wasn’t it also for the leper? Gay people are the avante-garde of society, not lepers. That’s my position. So what what if they have very bad taste in music and poor choice in cologne!

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    Rodak,

    It took me a while to find the original quote from Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, which gives context to my snarkiness about Miss Gaga. Here it is:

    “Constantinople was the principal seat and fortress of Arianism; and, in a long interval of forty years,24 the faith of the princes and prelates who reigned in the capital of the East was rejected in the purer schools of Rome and Alexandria. The archiepiscopal throne of Macedonius, which had been polluted with so much Christian blood, was successively filled by Eudoxus and Damophilus. Their diocese enjoyed a free importation of vice and error from every province of the empire; the eager pursuit of religious controversy afforded a new occupation to the busy idleness of the metropolis; and we may credit the assertion of an intelligent observer, who describes, with some pleasantry, the effects of their loquacious zeal. “This city,” says he, “is full of mechanics and slaves, who are all of them profound theologians, and preach in the shops and in the streets. If you desire a man to change a piece of silver, he informs you wherein the Son differs from the Father; if you ask the price of a loaf, you are told by way of reply that the Son is inferior to the Father; and, if you enquire whether the bath is ready, the answer is that the Son was made out of nothing.”25 ”

    Soooo…..on second thought, I don’t want to have to discuss the Nicene Creed at Mcdonald’s, so maybe I should learn something about Lady Gaga. I know Kurt on Glee danced to Better Put a Ring on It.

    • http://www.rrrrodak.blogspot.com Rodak

      Although I am no fan of bubblegum pop, Lady Gaga I can recognize as a talent. She is annoying with her gimmicky outfits and deliberately bizarre behavior. But she is a legitimate musician, with a good singing voice and has written some very catchy pop hooks. She has also served as a strong advocate for some causes that I generally support, such as gay rights. She’s okay by me.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs

        Rodak,

        Don’t take this as passive-aggression against you, ’cause it’s not. I like you; you’re a mensch in my book. But I must point out that Bill Donahue of the Catholic League also praised her talent. (!)

  • http://www.rrrrodak.blogspot.com Rodak

    @ PPF —

    Surprising. Then I must cautiously suggest that this may not be the only thing that Mr. Donahue is right about.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    An interesting addendum to this post comes in the form of the comment by “A Sinner”, a regular contributor to this site. As he says, commenting on another post: “I think it would be absurd to speak of specific “Heretic’s Rights.” This comment alone shows that the attempt, as in Henry’s thoughtful post here, to take historical issues of “heresy” and make them more existential issues of contemporary relevance, hits a big roadblock. In fact, most of those participating in more orthodox corners of Catholicism are not on board at all with this spiritualized existential approach. As “A Sinner’s” comment shows a huge segment of the Catholic populace is suffering from what can only be called insane anachronism. They participate and enjoy the freedoms society allows them. But they have an utterly anachronistic sense of their own faith community in the modern world.

    Given this, no one can blame those outside the RC Church for applying great skepticism even to the more spiritualized or existentialized forms of belief that Henry represents. Lamentably so, for people like Henry are exactly the ones hurt by such fatuous anachronism. They DO have the ability to distinguish between their own faith journey and the demands of decent society. It is clear that many others do not. Such anachronism on a blog is ultimately harmless. But history shows that allowed to fester in society it is deadly, and it is a great and sacred duty of free people to eliminate it.