Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The duty and danger of dealing with heresy

A great piece of advice given to young ministers is that they should make a particular subject, or theologian, a deliberate focus for long term indepth study. By accident, rather than design, I have for the last ten years returned again and again to the subject of heresy. I say by accident because it was a footnote referencing a book on heresy, and a chance spotting of that book in a place that I would not have expected to see it, that initiated my interest in the subject.

One of my aims has been to think about heresy in its broadest dimensions and not only in the particularities of heresies from A-Z. Surprisingly what at first might appear to be a very narrow subject turns out to be remarkably comprehensive. Heresy is the dark side of orthodoxy, by which I mean that heresy is what happens when people depart from orthodoxy but still seek to hold to a form of Christian doctrine and practice.

Heresy has massive implications for exegesis, hermeneutics, the question of authority, all areas of systematic theology, confessionalism, historical theology, morality, psychology, pastoral ministry, ecclesiology, and eschatology.

In my thinking and writing on the subject I have tried to take a step back in order to survey the landscape and inscape of heresy as well as entering in, on occasion, to particular skirmishes on points of contemporary controversy. These are not my only interests, and they do not dominate my life as a working pastor privileged to serve Christ Church Deeside in North Wales [that said a colleague in the ministry cheekily referred to me the other day as the Witchfinder General].

Nevertheless, there is a particular danger in polemics that is faced by those who seek to discharge the duty of prosecuting error and proclaiming the truth. False teaching can become a preoccupation for ministers, and for discerning Christians.

Because of the dynamics of controversy, Christians with a concern about the danger of error are quickly labelled as negative, judgmental, arrogant, unloving, pharasaic, narrow etc. Those terms go with the territory even if they are inaccurate. They are powerful rhetorical weapons that can prejudice minds and derail good arguments. That said, they are not so wide of the mark that they never apply to those seeking to confront error. Don Carson has some very helpful words on this subject:
...persistent negativism is spiritually perilous. The person who makes it his life's ambition to discover all the things that are wrong--whether wrong with life or wrong with some part of it, such as exegesis--is exposing himself to spiritual destruction.

Thankfulness to God both for good things and for his sovereign protection and purpose in bad things will be the first virtue to go. It will be quickly followed by humility, as the critic, deeply knowledgeable about faults and fallacies (especially those of others!), comes to feel superior to those whom he criticizes.

Spiritual one-upmanship is not a Christian virtue. Sustained negativism is highly calorific nourishment for pride. I have not observed that seminary students, not to say seminary lecturers, are particularly exempt from this danger.
D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, p. 19

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