Friday, June 6, 2008

Do We Take Heresy Seriously?

This is not going to be a grand argument, but a musing. I read a blog article recently, here, on Calvin and Calvinists. The author commented that she could not understand executing someone over heresy. I can. . .

Heresy is defined as the denial of substantiated doctrines of the church, even after attempted correction. The penalty is excommunication from the body of believers and the loss of communion with Christ (either reckoned through the church or reckoned through direct relationship with Christ). While this may seem "unloving", it is actually the most loving thing to do for several reasons: 1) It protects the honor of Christ which must be our first priority; 2) it protects the church from error and heresy; 3) Matthew18:15-17 and 1 Cor. 5:5 describe the process and purpose of "handing this man over to Satan" with trust that he will become sick of his sin and the Lord will faithfully save him.

So there is nothing in the New Testament about the destruction of a heretic. True. But we must also make distinctions between heretics. There are those who are merely believers in false doctrines and doubters of the truth who should be excommunicated (according to the mentioned verses), and then there are those who spread heresies like wildfire. These people corrupt others and mar the image of Christ. Further, not only are they lost to hell, they are recruiters. Thousands, if not millions may follow after them as in the cases of Arianism, Sabellianism, Gnosticism and Open-Theism. If we believe that hell is real, then we must see these proponents of heresy as mass-murderers, far more deadly than Hitler or Stalin ever were. To have executed them might have staunched the flow of their ideas.

Was the leadership of Geneva (including Calvin) wrong for executing the heretic Servetus, or have we so accepted the "value of the individual" that we uphold it before the glory of Christ? I would suggest that we Christians in America are so enculturated with the "American ideal" that we have become detached from spiritual realities or even the realities that exist outside our nation. Ideas matter and may cost you everything. Here, ideas are cheap and marketable. We have no worry about laying our lives on the line for what we believe, and those beliefs are merely suggested guidelines to follow when it suits us.

The reality is that God and much of the world take ideas seriously. Heresy is serious and deserves serious consequences. This may include, in some cases, execution. Execution is never glorious in itself, but I would say that it may sometimes be necessary to protect glory.


Ben said...

Can glory not defend itself? I am sure I do not understand what you really mean by this post. Here is my pacifist nature coming out, but it seems to me that Jesus asked his disciples to preach the good news to the point of death. Never to kill to defend the cause. ~Sasha

Steven Douglas said...

Yours may be the right viewpoint, Sasha. I, too, struggle between pacifism at all costs and the far other extreme. In fact Jesus does say, "...And the gates of Hell shall not overcome it." We may be able to take from that statement that the Lord will always preserve a remnant of faithful followers. The question then becomes who are those faithful.

Heresy, as I mentioned, is like a plague, it sweeps through congregations and people drop away from the truth like flies. It can even spread exponentially. Another spreading disease is apostasy. I suppose, however, that it is only those apostates who follow after heresy? What if they had never learned the heresy? Are they still safe? What constitutes right standing with God? Right membership in the church or something more spiritual and mystical - "a relationship with Jesus." Maybe something in between?

These are all things to consider and weigh in wrestling with the topic. I certainly am not set in my thinking on this topic and am merely "musing". I also must stress that if one were to execute a heretic, that all means of swaying that person should be exhausted first, it should be done "unemotionally", and it should be carried out as humanely as possible (we should notice that both medieval and biblical execution of heretics, etc. was highly symbolic - stoning by the community was done outside the gates where everyone could see and left a pile of stones under which the body of the offender lay. The stone pile is also an "ebenezer" and testifies to the rest of the community and to foreigners truth about God and his people. Burning is symbolic in that it represents Jesus' teaching on hell. The consuming fire relates the fires of hell to everyone who sees it.).

Generally, I agree that we are called to be suffering servants, emulating the Suffering Servant, being killed rather than killing, but I might make an exception concerning heresy. Just some thoughts. I would be glad to wrestle some more over this with you. Great comment! Blessings.

Ben said...

With my limited understanding of Scripture I have understood that Jesus came to abolish the Law. While God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, He set new commands in place (i.e. love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you). I do not see even Paul commanding stoning, but I do see strong evidence for correction to the point of excommunication--not execution.

As to your viewpoints on right standing with God, well, I guess I need to do more theological reading on that. My upbringing taught me that once you accepted Christ as your Saviour, with any ounce of faith, you were sealed for heaven. Exception to that rule was blasphemy, whatever that meant for the modern man!

Whew, this stuff makes my head spin--I don't know how you could wrestle with it in an academic environment! I appreciate you throwing your points of view out there! Cheers, Sasha