Heresy hunting

One of the big differences between the theological training that I received from the university and the theological training I received from the church was that the former was interested in heresy and the latter wasn’t interested at all.

It may be that things are different now, I don’t know. But quite a lot of the church history that we did when I first did my BD was about defining the limits of orthodoxy. In other words, looking at the controversies of the early church and learning about the key players who determined what was and what was not legitimate for Christians to believe in. And it was useful stuff too – far too easily dismissed by those who think the church should simply have fuzzy boundaries and for whom any theology goes. Useful too for helping one to think through the modern church’s controversies to see whether or not things have changed much.

It also led to the entertaining theological dinner party game of ‘I can’t believe that’s not orthodoxy’. The participants have to come up with a new heresy and the others have to prove that it is in fact an old one.

One way of understanding the trials and tribulations of modern Anglicanism is to see it as a global version of this game. And not just Anglicanism of course, though we are particularly good at it.

Current possible heresies include the following:

Optional Doctrinalism – the idea that a church can have a doctrine which it authorises some people to disbelieve. (This one seems very attractive at the moment – see the latest from New Zealand).

Clerical Morality – The idea that clergy have different moral standards put upon them than the laity. (Yes, this one can be found very clearly in lots of documents, not least the recent pastoral statement and guidance from the House of Bishops in England). The interesting question here is whether clerical celibacy, practised, for example, in some parts of the Roman Catholic Church at some times and in some places is a moral injunction or a pastoral one.

Canonical Antiadiaphoralism – Putting a contested doctrinal statement into the canons of a church by majority vote and then claiming it has creedal authority for all Christians for all time and in all places or claiming that statements which were made in canon law for one purpose actually apply in different circumstances but for for all people. (See for example, this statement by a group claiming to represent the Faith and Order Board of the Scottish Episcopal Church).

How are we to determine whether these are indeed modern heresies or whether they fall legitimately within orthodoxy?