I have never been able to track down the origin of the phrase "heresies are the unpaid debts of the church." The phrase is of course used to account for the existence of theological aberrations and unconventional movements. And with that is the implication that if only the orthodox had done a better job then they would not be faced with such an undesirable situation. Perhaps a little hand wringing should accompany this admission in recognition of such failure. I have certainly been in situations where I have been encouraged, maybe even expected, to accept that the theological position of others, and the visible disunity accompanying it, lay at the feet of conservative evangelicals.
In fairness the phrase is a helpful explanation of what may in fact be the case. It is possible to discern in the developments of movements a reactionary spirit. Without a doubt the establishing of the NAE in 1942 was a self-conscious reaction against the hard-line separatism of fundamentalism. More than one commentator has seen in the Emerging Church Movement a reaction against the seeker sensitive mega church approach. Depending on your viewpoint (whether it is a good or bad thing) the re-installation of church furniture and the interest in the spirituality of the church (before the erecting of the evangelical big top in the late 20th century) is a reaction to the conversion of the church into a shopping mall or country club. It is an unpaid debt.
But as helpful as this phrase may be it does have two negative consequences. Because it lays the blame at the feet of one group it cannot but help give the impression that the reactionaries are the victims in all of this. Are they or are they not responsible for their own theology and practice? Can they pin the blame, like self-absorbed and badly behaved teenagers, on their theological parents. There is more than a whiff of this spirit among emergents. Just think of how many who gravitate toward the emergent approach are in fact dissatisfied ex-evangelicals in recovery. But it is the background influence of a victim culture that fixes the blame upon the home. Frankly it is embarrassing to hear grown men who left such churches long ago harping on about the damage that it has done to them. Yet one gets the impression that deep down they just want a different theology altogether.
The second negative consequence is far more insidious. If the "victim-in-recovery" posture is taken as the total, or dominant, explanation for theological approaches of dubious orthodoxy, then other explanations and factors are underplayed. Let me elaborate on them:
1. The New Testament links heresies with the influence of the devil. Ultimately the spread of destructive error is attributed to him. That at least is the apostolic interpretation of the matter. In the realm of theological confusion he is not on holiday. The devil persists in questioning God's Word and in offering alternative interpretations of it.
2. Since heresy is a matter of choice we ought to ask questions about what governs our choices. Do we sincerely desire to be in glad submission to God's Word or are we working with a basis of authority that would filter God's revelation through our own spiritual and moral criteria? Will I believe things because they are true, even when they are emotionally hard to take? Or will I let what is acceptable to me personally be the test that doctrines must pass? What we are dealing with here is the orientation of the heart and mind to God's revelation to us in Scripture.
What I am arguing is that even if there were no "unpaid debts" that would not eliminate theological aberrations. Even when the whole counsel of God has been proclaimed the choice to follow a different way will still be made.