The Problem Of Heresy For Protestantism

"Heresy" is one of the most ominous terms in the vocabulary of Christendom. The Christian usage of the word can be traced back to the New Testament itself, where it is used to designate a sect, faction, or grouping (see, for example, Acts 24:5; 28:22). Similarly, the great Jewish historian Josephus applies the term (airesis) to the three religious sects prevalent in Judea in his day: the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Es-senes. At this stage, the term did not have the strongly negative associations that later developed; these, however, were not long in emerging.43

By the second century, "orthodoxy" and "heresy" were emerging as significant ideas.44 The term "heresy" was used to designate deficient, and potentially vulnerable, understandings of the Christian faith that were to be rejected.45 The identification of heresy was seen as a corporate judgment by the church that rested on a consensus that such views were unsatisfactory, fallacious, and misleading. Yet it is essential to appreciate that heresies were ultimately unacceptable interpretations of the Bible.

This can be seen by considering the fourth-century movement known as Arianism, widely seen as the most important early Christian heresy.46 Arius and his followers held that Jesus of Nazareth could not be regarded as divine in any meaningful sense of the word. He was "supreme among God's creatures," but a creature nonetheless. This doc trine was severely criticized by writers such as Athanasius of Alexandria for undermining the internal coherence of the Christian faith. Yet both Arius and Athanasius based their ideas on substantially the same biblical texts, which they interpreted in different ways.47

The essence of heresy can therefore be located in flawed biblical interpretation. But who decides which biblical interpretations are flawed and which are orthodox? If all Christians have the right to interpret the Bible as they see fit, how can heresy be identified, let alone combated? If the Bible alone is the supreme rule of faith, how can any authority beyond that text be recognized as its authoritative interpreter? It is at this point that the distinctive approach of Protestantism encounters a seemingly formidable obstacle, in that it seems to undermine the very idea of an authoritative interpretation of the Bible—in other words, the notion of orthodoxy.

This already significant problem was made acute by the unusual social and intellectual conditions of the sixteenth century, catalyzed by the spirit of inquiry of the Renaissance. This era of scientific and intellectual restlessness was marked by a determination to explore new options and reevaluate old ones. Some of these were local heterodoxies, whose ideas had little impact at the time, even though they may have caused frissons of intellectual anxiety.48 Among those, we may include the Italian village miller Domenico Scandella from the mountain village of Montereale, who took the view that the world arose from chaos, just as "cheese is made out of milk, and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels."49 A surge of alternative viewpoints emerged, posing a powerful challenge to the religious and political stability of late Renaissance Europe. The authorities, political and religious, did what they could to limit their impact by branding such ideas as magic or heresy. Among these new movements, of course, was Protestantism itself—or perhaps we should say, many of the various tributaries that flowed into its vortex.

From its outset, Protestantism was branded as a heresy by the Catholic church. Protestants responded with indignation, retorting that they had recovered orthodoxy from its medieval distortions. What was Protestantism if not the recovery of the orthodox faith of the early church?50 Yet Catholics had little difficulty in arguing that, while Protestantism might be perfectly capable of recovering earlier biblical interpretations, it lacked the means to determine whether what it had retrieved was orthodox or heterodox. And lacking any such capacity to discriminate between such interpretations, Protestants were obligated to repeat the judgments of the Catholic church on these matters. In their turn, Protestants argued that, since they were committed to restoring the authentic teaching of the early church, this naturally extended to its views on orthodoxy and heresy. In the end, the arguments were not decisive. However, the debate highlighted the potential danger for Protestantism arising from competing biblical interpretations. Who had the right to decide which were orthodox and which heretical?

This led to a further difficulty as divisions emerged within Protestant constituencies. Itself partly a consequence of the intellectual ferment of the Renaissance, Protestantism found that it could not check this innovative and critical tendency within its own ranks. It had merely been relocated, not neutralized. One particular difficulty was the rise of anti-trinitarianism in Italian Protestant circles, a movement that rapidly gained a following in northern Europe.51 For Juan de Valdés and others, the doctrine of the Trinity was simply not to be found in the Bible, nor could it be defended on biblical grounds. Protestants who were faithful to the Bible not only were therefore under no obligation to accept this doctrine but had a responsibility to challenge it as a distortion of biblical truth. Forced out of Italy by the Inquisition, many anti-trinitarians settled in the independent republic of the Grisons in southeast Switzerland, where their influence upon Reformed Protestantism began to grow.

In this case, Protestantism was able to deal with such heterodox trends by appealing to the consensus of faith of the church, as set out in the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. Christianity as a whole had declared such teachings to be heretical; Protestantism thus endorsed this pattern of traditional teaching and, in doing so, rejected anti-trinitarianism as heretical. But what of other dissident voices within Protestantism that urged teachings that had never been declared heretical in the past by the church as a whole but were nevertheless regarded with intense animosity within certain sections of the movement?

For instance, the major controversy that arose over the doctrine of predestination led to a fundamental bifurcation between Calvinism and Arminianism.52 Each accused the other of being heretical. Yet in reality, each was a coherent interpretation of the Bible that happened to differ substantially from the other, both in terms of basic ideas and implications for the Christian life. There was—and is—no higher Protestant authority that can declare one or the other to be in the right. In the end, the only means of deciding the question was a vote within the constituency in question—as, for example, at the Synod of Dort, which established the boundaries of Calvinist orthodoxy. Orthodoxy thus ran the risk of being defined as the theology with the most votes within a given constituency, and heterodoxy as the minority voice.

The problem here is that "heresy" is ultimately a teaching judged unacceptable by the entire church; the term is not properly applicable to either Calvinism or Arminianism, which are each subdivisions of one constituency of Protestantism. One can certainly speak of heresy arising within Protestantism—for example, the revival of Arianism in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Anglicanism.53 In this case, ideas that the entire church regarded as heretical made a reappearance. Yet the nature of Protestantism makes it very difficult to use the term "heresy" to refer to divergent schools of thought within that movement, unless they reproduce ideas that the church as a whole has agreed are unorthodox. The problem is that of competing orthodoxies, each with its own grounding in the Bible, its own understanding of the internal dynamics of faith, and its own parameters of adjudication as to what is acceptable and what is not.

The problems that Protestantism faced here were famously set out by John Dryden in his satirical poem Religio Laici (1682). In this poem, whose title is best translated as "A Layperson's Religion," Dryden argues that the great Protestant emphasis on the Bible has merely led to the proliferation of heresy, owing to the absence of any universally acknowledged authoritative interpreter. The dangerous idea that underlies Protestantism, for Dryden, not merely leaves it powerless to resist heresy but actually encourages its emergence, through its naive idea that ordinary Christians will be led, inerrantly and inevitably, to the gentle uplands of orthodoxy as they browse its pages. In a swipe at more radical Protestant approaches, he comments that the spirit gives the "doctoral degree" that qualifies believers as biblical authorities.

The Book thus put in every vulgar hand,

Which each presumed he best could understand,

The common rule was made the common prey, And at the mercy of the rabble lay. (400-403, 406)

Dryden points out that orthodoxy and heterodoxy are both merely interpretations of the same text, which each regards as its own orthodoxy.54 The text of scripture was open to all, but what of the rule by which it was to be interpreted? Protestants agreed on and respected a common authority, but they had no shared notion of meta-authority.

Dryden invites us to imagine an orthodox Protestant, convinced that the Bible clearly teaches the divinity of Christ, yet disturbingly confronted with another Protestant who interprets those same passages purely in terms of Christ's humanity—the Socinian heresy, a subtle reworking of Arianism.

We hold, and say we prove from Scripture plain, That Christ is God; the bold Socinian From the same Scripture urges he's but man. Now what appeal can end th' important suit; Both parts talk loudly, but the Rule is mute? (311-15)

Scripture did not disclose, clearly and unambiguously, the rule by which it was to be interpreted. And as there was no authority higher than scripture, how could Protestantism discriminate between orthodoxy and heresy? It was a dangerous vulnerability, and many believe that it remains at best incompletely resolved.

This naturally raises a question that merits further exploration. What place is there within Protestantism for "authority" figures who claim to offer definitive, orthodox, or reliable interpretations of the Bible when many feel overwhelmed by "option overload"? We consider this question in what follows.

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