The Concept of Heresy Arises from the Fellowship of the Church and not From a Lack of Love (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

Dog-Thoughts as we enter into the Year of the Dog: Part 4

If ‘sex’ was the impolite word which should not be raised in Victorian cocktail conversations, ‘heresy’ is the unmentionable word among ‘progressive’ Christians today. [Re: Post on ‘Progressive’ Christianity Beware*] Perhaps this is a reaction to the spirit of dogmatism, authoritarian and legalism found among leaders who are defensive about their faith when they perceive the Christian community to be a besieged and embattled minority. Doctrinal defensiveness is the outcome of a “Christ Against Culture” manifestation of Christianity. It is easy for these leaders to become unnecessarily alarmist as there could be genuine doctrinal disagreements which should not be stigmatized as departures from orthodoxy. Not every doctrinal or theological error is a heresy.

On the other hand, theologians of ‘progressive’ Christianity who used to be called “theological liberals” feel that the church should go beyond doctrinal defensiveness in the name of diversity and inclusiveness. They decry any mention of heresy as judgmentalism, deny the possibility of heresy since for them doctrines are nothing more than historic relics, and proceed to embrace the latest finding and ‘fatwa’ from the largely secular academy.

So, is the concept of heresy unhelpful, if not judgmental? Obviously, the concept of heresy needs to be carefully defined. To qualify as a heresy, there must be a denial or distortion of a doctrine that is central or essential to Christianity. These central doctrines are often inscribed in the historic Confessions of the churches and must not be compromised as the church guards “the deposit of faith”,  such as the infallible authority of Scriptures, the triune nature of God and the full deity and humanity of Christ– “Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you–guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.” (2 Tim. 1:14).

We should heed the counsel of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the need for clarity and doctrinal integrity in the proclamation and defence of the gospel.

If critical Christology is concerned with the fixing of limits, that means it is concerned with the concept of heresy. The concept of heresy is lost today because there is no longer a teaching authority. This is a terrible decline. The present day ecumenical councils are everything but Councils, because the word ‘heresy’ is struck out from their vocabulary. There can be no creedal confession without the saying, ‘In the light of Christ, that is true and this is false!’ The concept of heresy belongs necessarily and irrevocably with the concept of a creedal confession. The teaching of a Confession Church must stand in opposition to a false teaching. The Augsburg Confession says quite clearly, “The Church condemns”.

It must be here noted that the concept of heresy emerges from the fellowship of the Church and not from an absence of love. Only when man does not withhold the truth from his brother, does he deal with him in a brotherly way. If I do not tell him the truth, I treat him like a heathen. When I speak the truth to one who is of a different opinion from mine, then I offer him the love I owe him. [From Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center (Harpers, 1978), pp. 75-76.]

Heresies remains as dangerous today as it was during the times of the Council of Nicea and the Council of Chalcedon. The true gospel would be lost if the church fails to challenge and correct heresies, and “to contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3) We should be passionate in defending the essential doctrines of Christianity when upholding orthodoxy is derided as dogmatism, but our defence should be informed by cool heads and clear thinking, and underlined by magnanimity.

Related Post: Sheep Dog Alert: Beware of ‘Progressive’ Christianity?