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Orthodoxy and Heresy: Theology’s Odd Couple

A recent study series at church on John’s letters in the New Testament brought the reminder that they were most likely written in response to an interpretation of the gospel that came to be identified with Gnostic thought.
This dualistic perspective reflected significant Greek influence and offered an understanding of Jesus that denied his humanity, leading the dominant Christian voice to declare it a heresy.

This early expression of orthodoxy and heresy is also a reminder that the process of theology, indeed of history, is a pattern of established thinking being challenged by an alternative perspective, leading to a result that usually contains elements of both.

In the history of theology’s evolving understanding of faith, it is relatively easy to see where features of yesterday’s heresy become part of the next period’s orthodoxy. And on the process goes.

There is a significant difference between heresy and outright attack of an established pattern of thought.

Heresy is more a subtle variation of some aspect of interpretation, which, if carried to its logical conclusion, is seen as a damaging distortion of faith’s understanding.

The Gnostic heresy and its later counterpart of Docetism, for example, pointed to the divinity of Christ at the expense of affirming his humanity.

This prompted clarifying affirmations of the incarnation, which led to the Christological formulations that sought to balance the divinity and the humanity of God’s self-disclosure in Christ.

The 19th century philosopher, G.F. Hegel, posited a framework for the process of history, suggesting that a “thesis” of conventional thinking is met by an “antithesis,” resulting in a “synthesis,” that becomes a new “thesis” waiting for the next “antithesis.”

This dialectical view of history describes well the interplay of an established understanding of faith, the challenges that arise from a changing world, and the new insights that come from responding in faith to them.

Even in the biblical record, the dialogue between the priestly maintenance of the developing tradition and the prophetic challenge to some of its distortions reminds us that orthodoxy is part of a process more than a finished product.

Orthodoxy (literally, “right belief”) is about the accumulated wisdom of a community’s reflection on the meaning of the faith journey.

It offers the kind of guidance that keeps us from having to reinvent the theological wheel in every new generation.

These reins of doctrinal guidance are extremely important in navigating the path of faith’s journey, but those reins need to be held tentatively, as the path tends to include unexpected turns, hazards and responsibilities.

Orthodoxy always is, or should be, a work in progress.

But orthodoxy can also be about power, and the delicate partnership of the guidance of “right belief” and the experience and discoveries of the journey can be tilted toward the authority of official thinking with attempts to shut down implicit or explicit challenges to that authority.

Unfortunately, as we see in our current, polarized public life, passion can be focused on defending the rightness of one or the other side of a partisan divide.

Rather than a commitment to continued refinement of understanding, dialogue becomes a debate whose goal is advantage instead of growth of understanding.

I wonder if a needed lesson for our time from this feature of our heritage might be a loosening of our grip on our various orthodoxies and an embrace of a freedom to observe and study the landscape along the journey.

In a long view of history’s classical contest between orthodoxy and heresy, truth is less likely to be found in the entrenched position of either side, but in and beyond the conversation and deliberation inherent in their encounter.

Communities of faith share a theological and intellectual heritage that encourages us not to embrace as final any vantage point along the way, but to use the view from each place to see better the needed direction of the pilgrimage.

We honor a tradition best by standing on its shoulders to view new horizons rather than “absolutizing” its structures.

There may be more faith in the ferment of the quest than in the finality of the creed.

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.