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.