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Heresy and the New Ecumenism

by James Gibson

“We are susceptible to heretical teachings,” writes retired Episcopal Bishop C. FitzSimmons Allison, “because, in one form or another, they nurture and reflect the way we should have it be rather than the way God has provided, which is infinitely better for us. As they lead us into the blind alleys of self-indulgence and escape from life, heresies pander to the most unworthy tendencies of the human heart. It is astonishing how little attention has been given to these two aspects of heresy: its cruelty and its pandering to sin” (The Cruelty of Heresy, Morehouse Publishing, 1994, p. 17, emphasis original).

From their root, heretical teachings that confront the Church, from within or without, spring forth as the fruit of the poison tree which Satan has been dangling in front of us ever since the day he slithered his way into the Garden of Eden. They all offer the same empty promise: “Eat from the tree and you will be like God.” Heresy entices us with the prospect of “knowing good and evil” on our terms, not God’s.

But, as Bishop Allison so aptly puts it, heresy is, in the end, both cruel (because its promise is the hoax of the ages) and pandering to sin (because it draws out and exposes the very worst of our fallen nature). If there is any positive element to the seemingly perpetual presence of heresy, it is that it forces the Church to be constantly vigilant in keeping its life and doctrine pure. But there is a very real danger in becoming so concerned over one particular, and outwardly visible, manifestation of heresy that another, more subtle, manifestation is allowed to fester, grow and ultimately wreak untold havoc upon the Church.

The Early Church struggled over the central question, “Who is Jesus Christ?” The Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) sought to address four specific Christological controversies: Arianism, the denial of Christ’s divine nature; Apollonarianism, the denial of Christ’s human nature; Nestorianism, the denial of the union of the two natures; and Eutycheanism, the denial of the distinction of the two natures.

The resulting “Symbol of Chalcedon” defined the orthodox teaching on Christology which remains authoritative for the Church to this day:

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of the natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only-begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning have declared concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

The highly developed Christology of Chalcedon is echoed today in “A Confessional Statement of the Confessing Movement within The United Methodist Church,” adopted in 1995. The drafters of that document were careful to follow the orthodox consensus on the critical question of the Person of Jesus Christ. It is not immediately apparent, however, that the signers and supporters of the Confessing Movement and similar mainline renewal groups are as holistic in their understanding of Christology.

In his response to the dismissal of the charges filed against United Methodist Bishop C. Joseph Sprague, Bradley C. Knepp defines heresy as “denying Jesus Christ his divine attributes” and “the making of another Jesus, a different Jesus than the Holy One described in Scripture.” This definition addresses the issue specific to the Sprague case. Sprague denies the divinity of Christ, and such a view is properly termed heretical. But, in the larger historical and theological context, Knepp’s definition is inadequate. Heresy involves far more than merely “denying Jesus Christ his divine attributes.” The Early Church, as witnessed by Chalcedon, struggled not only with questions about Christ’s divinity, but also about his humanity.

If Bishop Sprague is heavy on Christ’s humanity and light on his divinity, evangelicals are often guilty of the reverse: heavy on divinity, light on humanity. This is not altogether the fault of present-day evangelicals. They are, after all, heirs to only one of a myriad of sectarian traditions, spanning the theological spectrum, which have sprung up in the West since the Reformation. Sprague, likewise, cannot be assigned total blame for his theological shortcomings. His predecessors are legion. However, evangelicals have generally proceeded under the sincere assumption that they are defending the orthodox faith. Sprague, adversely, appears to relish in a somewhat sadistic manner his role as a dissenter from and deconstructionist of that faith.

Depending on who is doing the counting, Bishop Sprague has been officially charged with heresy either four or five times, with the charges being summarily dismissed each time. Evangelicals have long since ceased to be surprised or shocked by the ineffectual episcopal leadership which refuses to exercise responsible discipline of its own members. Instead, they simply express “disappointment” whenever the complaint process produces the same pathetic and predictable result.

Whereas Sprague and his evangelical detractors both exhibit, on opposite poles, an inadequate Christology, the Council of Bishops exhibits an inadequate ecclesiology. The bishops see as their primary responsibility not the promotion of unity in the Body of Christ, but the preservation of an institutional conformity designed to perpetuate a denominational expression of the Church which has long been exposed as farcical. This conformity they seek to maintain at all costs, even if it means cutting off United Methodism from the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. In such an environment, a formal charge of “heresy” is most unwelcome and must be dismissed as quickly as it is filed. Since conformity to the institution, and not unity in the Body, is paramount, the real threat is posed not by the heresy which is alleged, but by those who allege the heresy. Therefore the accusers, not the accused, are tried, convicted, and chastised through a very public display of self-serving episcopal hubris.

So corrupt is the culture which has grown up around the complaint process that even an actual verdict against Bishop Sprague in a “heresy trial” would have been suspect with regard to its ecumenical validity. It would only serve to repudiate one narrow view of Christology while effectively vindicating another equally narrow view. The question of whether or not The United Methodist Church’s official view of Christology is in keeping with the orthodox Chalcedonian definition would neither be asked nor answered.

If evangelicals are serious about pressing the matter of heresy in a way which promotes unity in the Body of Christ, they would do well to brush up on Church history, particularly the early Christological controversies which led up to Chalcedon. A more careful and holistic understanding of the Person of Jesus Christ, truly human and truly divine, is essential when seeking to counter the heretical views of dissenters and deconstructionists. A very practical step in the right direction would be to seek meaningful fellowship with members of other communions. Evangelicals have much to learn from and, yes, much to teach to their brothers and sisters across the Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox divide.

As  Thomas Oden has chronicled in The Rebirth of Orthodoxy (HarperCollins, 2003), a growing “new ecumenism” is already beginning to take shape under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. While we ought to resist the temptation to so quickly formalize this still developing phenomenon, some preliminary steps can and should be taken in the not too distant future. For instance, appropriating the ancient consensual Tradition as a common point of agreement, local churches across ecumenical lines should begin entering into covenant federations, articulating the Tradition and demonstrating, outwardly and visibly, the genuine unity which it promotes.

The end result of the ascension of the new ecumenism, in whatever form it eventually manifests itself, will be the long sought after death knell for the unchecked heresies currently rampant within mainline Protestantism. The final verdict on the Christology of C. Joseph Sprague must, and will, come not from a contrived denominational tribunal, but from a genuinely ecumenical council for whom the paramount issue will be not the preservation of institutional conformity, but the promotion of unity in the Body of Christ.

James Gibson is pastor of Marshallville United Methodist Church, Marshallville, Georgia.

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