Sunday, August 21, 2005

What's a heresy?

As I’ve said before, I’m more bookish than geekish. As such, I’m not up on all of the exchanges that Prejean has had with Evangelicals as he hopscotches from one forum to another.

But I get the impression from passing references of his that he has a habit of accusing a number of Evangelicals of the Nestorian heresy.

To this charge I’ll make a few general comments:

i) Catholics and Evangelicals don’t use the words “heresy” and “orthodoxy” the same way. For an Evangelical, “orthodox” is synonymous with Scriptural, while heresy is synonymous with some unscriptural position on a fundamental article of the faith.

For a Catholic, by contrast, these are terms of art whose definition and application is supplied by a formal condemnation from an official organ of the church.

For an evangelical, the authority to pronounce a given doctrine heretical or not comes from Scripture, but for a Catholic, from the church speaking in, say, an ecumenical council.

Put another way, for an Evangelical, the key question is not whether one’s Christology is “orthodox,” in the Catholic sense, as defined by the church, but whether it’s true, as taught in Scripture.

ii) In Protestant theological method, we should avoid the temptation to be more precise than Scripture itself. Scripture is a practical synonym for revelation. To go beyond the implicit or explicit teaching of Scripture is to go beyond what God has revealed to us of himself. And once we cross that line we cross over into a figment of our own imagination.

iii) Where doctrines such as the Incarnation and the Trinity are concerned, we have far more on the relata than on the relations. God has revealed that Christ is both human and divine. God has revealed that he subsists in three eternal, consubstantial persons.

The chief duty of systematic theology is to avoid reductionistic formulations that minimize the revealed truth of the respective relata--in making Christ less that human or divine, and in making the members of the Trinity less than personal or divine.

iv) Now, Catholicism formally repudiates the principle of continuing revelation. Yet you have guys like Prejean who deny that the original intent and implication of Scripture suffice to furnish an adequate Christology.

Instead, he tries to impose on us the fine-spun refinements of his favorite church fathers, derived from allegorical exegesis and Neoplatonic ontology.

But the problem with this imposition is that if these various refinements are not clearly revealed in Scripture, then you end up with a Christology which is not a revealed Christology, but--to that degree--a figment of the human imagination. And that, my friends, is the dark heart of idolatry.

14 comments:

  1. Steve, don’t you think we Evangelicals have our own popes and councils? Your statement, “For an Evangelical, ‘orthodox’ is synonymous with Scriptural,” seems . . . I don’t know . . . too Scottish Common Sense. Is this really what Evangelicals do (or are able to do)?

    Of course this raises the question of tradition (or lack thereof) in Evangelicalism.

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  2. Jonathan,

    Big question. One can approach it from both a practical and theoretical angle. Preacher-centered Evangelical traditions are more prone to personality-cults.

    Traditionally, Calvinism, with its catechetical emphasis and accent on an educated clergy has fostered an academic style of preaching which has the side-effect of discouraging a personality-cult.

    But in the media age, there is more opportunity for certain Reformed figures to develop a cult-following.

    In addition, as Calvinism makes inroads in the SBC, which is a preacher-centered tradition, there is additional opportunity for star preachers to emerge from within the Reformed community.

    You might also say that the creedal and catechetical tradition within Reformed theology can degenerate into a group-loyalty oath.

    Regarding the above abuses, I’d just say the following:

    i) We’re only responsible for what we’re responsible for. You always have folks on the lookout for some guru to whom they attach themselves with all the tenacity of a tapeworm. That’s unfortunate, but that’s really out of our hands. No point fretting over things over which we have no control. Ultimately, I’m directly answerable to God. I’m not responsible for the next guy—not beyond a certain point.

    ii) In Evangelicalism, we have a theology which is formally opposed to blind traditionalism and personality-cults whereas Catholicism has made a virtue of sin by turning blind traditionalism and personality-cults into a point of dogma.

    At least in Evangelicalism, we have a rule of faith which we can leverage against this sort of abuse—whereas in Catholicism (and Orthodoxy) there is no counterweight, for the abuse is the rule of faith.

    On the theoretical side, evangelical tradition is an interpretive construct—almost like a theory. In my opinion, this should operate as a two-stage process. We treat these traditions as provisional theories (e.g., Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, fundamentalist, charismatic) for the interpretation of Scripture. We test them against Scripture. They are ways of reading Scripture.

    But some lenses admit more light than others. So we try on different spectacles to find out which one allows us to see the most of what Scripture has to show. Dropping the metaphor, which interpretive grid enjoys the greatest integrative power in synthesizing and harmonizing the witness of Scripture?

    As to Scottish realism, I assume you’re using this as a synecdoche for Princeton v. Amsterdam. One could spend a lot of time on that subject. For the moment I’ll confine myself to the following observations:

    i) I regard the Marsden/Noll version of Old Princeton as simplistic and one-sided. One basic methodological problem is that it tries to explain everything by recourse to some overarching sociological theory rather than examining the particular biographical influences on the key players.

    For example, Hodge, Warfield, and Machen all studied abroad—in Germany. So they were certainly conversant with Continental currents of thought.

    In his autobiography, Finney explains the origin of his theology as an apologetic countermove against the faddish universalism of his day.

    Machen was a Classicist by training, who studied under Warfield, then suffered a crisis of faith when he went abroad. So there are a number of very personal factors which feed into his subsequent apologetic approach.

    Scottish realism is more in evidence in Hodge than in Warfield. It isn’t clear to me if Warfield had an all-bracing conceptual scheme. He strikes me as more eclectic and adaptable than that. Try asking yourself, who was Warfield’s favorite philosopher? I don’t know the answer. I don’t know that he had one.

    In addition, Warfield’s original ambition was to be a natural scientist. That doesn’t have much to do with Scottish realism.

    ii) You’re probably alluding to Hodge’s famous comparison between the scientific method and his theological method. Certainly this leaves him wide open to criticism, but that must be tempered by other considerations:

    a) The classification of theology as a science antedates the rise of modern science. It’s a Scholastic category. You know, theology as the “queen” of the sciences. Of “scientia” as knowledge, in contradistinction to mere opinion.

    b) Critics suggest that his comparison reflects a naïve view of hermeneutics. That may well be. But, if so, it also reflects a naïve view of the scientific method.

    In principle, one could retain the comparison, but recast it in a more astute form in both respects, viz., Kuhn-cum-Thiselton.

    I myself don’t care for the comparison. I’m just making the point that if Hodge’s positivism sounds somewhat naïve, his critics are, in their own way, just as naïve.

    c) As far as Scottish realism is concerned, Hodge may have had the last laugh on that score, for Reid has been rehabilitated in contemporary epistemology, viz., Alston, Chisholm, De Bary, Lehrer, Pappas, Plantinga, Rowe, Wolsterstorff.

    Again, I’m not trying to make a case for Scottish realism. I myself subscribe to indirect realism, which Reid regarded as the source of the problem.

    But my point is, again, that some of Hodge’s critics are behind the curve.

    d)”Baconianism” has become a generic, formulaic analysis in the absence of any historical pathway directly connecting Bacon to a particular thinker down the line. I’m waiting to see the evidence.

    As far as the business end of science is concerned, I don’t see that most practicing scientists are all that philosophically self-conscious. They are pragmatic and opportunistic. They do whatever works, and if it works, they take that as a vindication of their methods. They are very down-to-earth and results-oriented.

    Let’s go back to Kuhn. Has Kuhn had any impact on how a chemist or physicist or geologist or biologist does science? Not that I can see.

    The impact has been on the so-called social sciences rather than the hard sciences.

    iii) Finally, it’s grossly lop-sided to equate Colonial America or the early Republic with the Enlightenment. That certainly had a seat at the table, but not the only seat.

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  3. Steve, thanks for the lengthy reply.

    (1) I think your initial remarks are right on. I agree that there are “ways of reading Scripture.” Ergo, the question seems to be one of theological method.

    (2) Yes, my reference was referring to the Baconian philosophy, or Scottish Common Sense Realism. I don’t think the conclusion of Marsden and Noll is isolated to them, however. The influence of Baconian philosophy appears to dominate the 19th century. You are right to include the personal influences too though.

    (3) Regarding Hodge and Warfield, I suppose I hold the opposite view that Warfield seems to be more Baconian. Your statement that Warfield’s interest in natural science “doesn’t have much to do with Scottish realism” misses the point (in my humble opinion – you’re the TA :-) that the inductive approach is in its essence scientific. Bacon himself is a primo example.

    (4) I don’t know if I have ever committed the “grossly lop-sided” error of equating early America with the Enlightenment. Maybe we should talk about dates. However, do you think the French or American revolutions would have occurred without the Enlightenment?

    (5) For Baconian influence I would recommend:

    Bozeman, Theodore Dwight. Protestants in an Age of Science: The Baconian Ideal and Antebellum American Religious Thought. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.

    Holifield, E. Brooks. Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War. New Haven: Yale University, 2003.

    Thanks for the interaction!

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  4. Sorry, Jonathan, but this is still quite unsatisfactory:

    1.Which of the Princetonians are we talking about? A. Alexander? Chas Hodge? A. A. Hodge? Warfield? Machen? All of them?

    2.One can’t just slither over from Scottish realism to Baconism, as if these were interchangeable.

    3.Warfield’s dad was a gentleman farmer and cattle-breeder, and Warfield seems to have picked up his interest in science as a boy. He got this from life on the ranch, not from Bacon or McCosh.

    4.A. A. Hodge studied under Asa Gray.

    These were the only two Princetonians who had any real grounding in science that I’m aware of.

    5.When you talk about the Baconian influence, what, exactly, do you have in mind? The scientific method, viz., induction, or a particular model of the relation between faith and science, viz. the two books of nature and Scripture? These are not synonymous propositions.

    6.Bacon was an armchair philosopher, not a practicing scientist. Did he have any real impact on how a scientist actually goes about his business, viz., Galileo, Newton?

    7.Apropos 5-6, are you saying that Bacon’s influence was direct or indirect? Are you saying that Bacon had a direct influence on science, and, thereby, and indirect influence on theology?

    Or are you saying that Bacon had a direct influence on theology as a popularizer of the scientific method?

    8.Is there a difference between the influence that Bacon might have a non-scientist like Chas Hodge and the influence, if any, on someone like A. A. Hodge or Warfield who got their science from the source?

    I’m not trying to be pedantic here. When we talk about historical influence, we really do need to document a historical chain-of-custody linking a particular influence on a particular individual.

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  5. "Neoplatonic Ontology"

    Just what is that? How is Platos view of "being" different from the Bible ?

    Not sure I understand. I have heard people criticise Aquinas of similar, and not been able to see what they mean by it.

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  6. Mark,

    An example would be apophatic theology, or the via negativa, where we cannot know what God is, but only what God is not. That's classic Neoplatonism. And that agnostic epistemology is grounded in a certain view of divine transcendence.

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  7. Steve,

    As far as your sophomoric level of Neo-Platonism goes, exactly, tell me how the monad (Augustinian Triadology) is doing these days? So much for your Neo-Platonism, huh?

    Master Photius

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  8. Apparently Master Photius doesn't know how to mount a reasoned argument for his position. We have the affectation of intellectual superiority without anything substantive to back up the lofty pretensions. Attitude is everything. And that seems to be habit-forming in the circles you move in.

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  10. I could be mistaken, but I think Photius' umbrage arises from your (very accurate) description of apophatic theology as neoplatonic.

    I think Photius is EO (hence the alias).

    The EO [naively] think that their theology is "Apostolic" and he was probably indignant over the charge that it is, in fact, "neoplatonic."

    :-)

    And yes, you were quite perceptive in noting his lack of a reasoned argument. But, if he had an appreciation for intelligent discourse, it would undoubtedly be reflected in him ditching the alias “Photius,” and instead adopting “Cyril Lucar” as his namesake, who was an infinitely more palatable patriarch.

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  11. The Christology that Prejean is furnishing us with is pretty much the Christology common to Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox. The Reformers and their descendents were perfectly comfortable and taught it was Biblical, so much so that they enshrined it in confessions.

    The via negativa and the via affirmativa are no less Neo-Platonic than say Predestinarianism,absolute simplicity, impassibility, simultaneity, the opposition of soul to body, all of which are doctrines in Protestantism. Specifically Platonism is quite manifest in the Reformed tradition say in Calvin's rejection of the idea that the Father alone was autotheos. There is plenty of neo-platonism to go around.

    The via negativa doesn't say that what we know positively of God is false but rather is not exhaustive. The Bible confronts us with language of seeing God and language that indicates that it is impossible to see God. So what if Platonic metaphysics lends us a hand in cashing out Biblical concepts? And complaining about neoplatonic influence on chalcedonian christology is hardly useful when attempting to cash out the biblical portrait on other metaphysical grids falls into heterodoxy.

    As to blind tradtionalism, the "rule of faith" has hardly helped Protestantism stop or curtail personality cults and theological innovations. And Protestants aren't the only ones with a "rule of faith." In the one sherrif towns of protestant congregationalism "the abuse is the rule of faith." Certainly Episcopal systems of polity have a leg up on such quackadoxy. Such things as ecclesiastical courts and canon law furnish the layman with rights and a way of appeal. In such a system it is much harder to have personality cults and such things.

    As to idolatry what is the difference between,

    "But the problem with this imposition is that if these various refinements are not clearly revealed in Scripture, then you end up with a Christology which is not a revealed Christology, but--to that degree--a figment of the human imagination. And that, my friends, is the dark heart of idolatry."

    and

    "On the theoretical side, evangelical tradition is an interpretive construct—almost like a theory. In my opinion, this should operate as a two-stage process. We treat these traditions as provisional theories (e.g., Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, fundamentalist, charismatic) for the interpretation of Scripture. We test them against Scripture. They are ways of reading Scripture."


    Are not all protestant theological formulae then constructs of the human mind? And who exactly is the "we" who does the "testing?" If this is done with human authority and appeals to an "inner witness" of the Spirit then it seems Protestants are forever bound to a form of subjectivism and what is worse holding up their mentral constructs as divine truths. The underlying idea is a kind of nominalism, we don't ever gain access to reality, just our models of it that we test on a phenomenal level.

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  12. Robinson said:

    ***QUOTE***

    The Christology that Prejean is furnishing us with is pretty much the Christology common to Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox. The Reformers and their descendents were perfectly comfortable and taught it was Biblical, so much so that they enshrined it in confessions.

    ***END-QUOTE***

    i) Try telling that to Prejean. He’s the one accusing Evangelicals of the Nestorian heresy. Your argument is with him, not me.

    ii) You are also failing to distinguish between the ancient creeds (e.g., Chalcedonian, Athanasian) and the further refinements of private theologians.

    For example, the Westminster Confessions statement on the person of Christ (WCF 8:2) is basically a paraphrase of Chalcedon.

    But that is quite different that, say, drawing distinctions between an anhypostatic union and an enhypostatic union.

    ***QUOTE***

    The via negativa and the via affirmativa are no less Neo-Platonic than say Predestinarianism,absolute simplicity, impassibility, simultaneity, the opposition of soul to body, all of which are doctrines in Protestantism. Specifically Platonism is quite manifest in the Reformed tradition say in Calvin's rejection of the idea that the Father alone was autotheos. There is plenty of neo-platonism to go around.

    ***END-QUOTE**

    Now you’re jamming a whole lot of stuff together.

    i) I don’t have an a priori objection to Neoplatonism. But two conditions must be met:

    a) We need to decide if Neoplatonism is any good.

    b) We need to distinguish between using philosophical categories apologetically to show that something is reasonable, and elevating these categories into dogma.

    c) We can dogmatize philosophical categories if we can show that certain categories derived from reason intersect with categories derived from revelation, i.e., different ways of saying the same thing.

    Since there is a finite number of possible positions in epistemology and ontology, there will sometimes be a point of coincidence between philosophy and theology.

    ii) You try to infer predestination from simplicity. We’ve had that debate before.

    iii) It is true that impassibility has historical roots in Neoplatonism. But I believe that it is also deducible from Scripture.

    iv) I reject the simultaneity-model of divine eternality in favor of divine timelessness, which I believe is deducible from Scripture.

    v) I believe that Cartesian/substance dualism is taught in Scripture.

    vi) The acid test for me is whether Calvin’s Trinitarian theology is Scriptural. Calvin is not my authority. Calvin is not my rule of faith.

    Whether Neoplatonism was an intellectual stimulus to his reexamination of Nicene Christology is incidental to its truth or falsehood.

    ***QUOTE***

    The via negativa doesn't say that what we know positively of God is false but rather is not exhaustive. The Bible confronts us with language of seeing God and language that indicates that it is impossible to see God. So what if Platonic metaphysics lends us a hand in cashing out Biblical concepts? And complaining about neoplatonic influence on chalcedonian christology is hardly useful when attempting to cash out the biblical portrait on other metaphysical grids falls into heterodoxy.

    ***END-QUOTE***

    i) There is more than one interpretation of the via negativa in Byzantine theology. Cf. Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy & Evangelicalism, 552-53, n27.

    If you favor a less extreme version, so much the better.

    ii) Platonism is of no value in exegetical theology. It would only be of possible value in systematic theology, which operates at a higher level of abstraction, or else polemical theology (apologetics).

    One doesn’t use an extraneous belief-system to harmonize Scripture. One must interpret Scripture within its own thought world, it’s own usage and culture.

    ***QUOTE***

    As to blind tradtionalism, the "rule of faith" has hardly helped Protestantism stop or curtail personality cults and theological innovations. And Protestants aren't the only ones with a "rule of faith." In the one sherrif towns of protestant congregationalism "the abuse is the rule of faith." Certainly Episcopal systems of polity have a leg up on such quackadoxy. Such things as ecclesiastical courts and canon law furnish the layman with rights and a way of appeal. In such a system it is much harder to have personality cults and such things.

    ***END-QUOTE***

    i) As I’ve said on more than one occasion, a rule of faith is not a dispute-resolution mechanism. Its justification doesn’t depend on playing that role. Sola scriptura is our rule of faith because it was the rule of faith of Christ, and the Apostles, and the prophets. It is grounded in the principial primacy of revelation.

    ii) The only reason I’m in a position to condemn personality-cults and blind-traditionalism when they crop up in Protestant circles is because I have a Protestant rule of faith which condemns personality-cults and blind-traditionalism when they crop up in Protestant circles.

    You are assuming that I’d agree with your horror stories—and I do. But I can only do so because I have a standard of reference. And I’d add that every theological tradition has its horror stories. No polity really works.

    iii)You are also assuming that theological innovations are bad news. Remember--that’s your prejudice, not mine.

    ***QUOTE***

    As to idolatry what is the difference between,

    "But the problem with this imposition is that if these various refinements are not clearly revealed in Scripture, then you end up with a Christology which is not a revealed Christology, but--to that degree--a figment of the human imagination. And that, my friends, is the dark heart of idolatry."

    and

    "On the theoretical side, evangelical tradition is an interpretive construct—almost like a theory. In my opinion, this should operate as a two-stage process. We treat these traditions as provisional theories (e.g., Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, fundamentalist, charismatic) for the interpretation of Scripture. We test them against Scripture. They are ways of reading Scripture."

    ***END-QUOTE***

    The difference is between a theological tradition which claims to be deducible from Scripture alone, and therefore answerable to Scripture, and a theological tradition which does not claim to be deducible from Scripture alone, and therefore is not answerable to Scripture.

    ***QUOTE***

    Are not all protestant theological formulae then constructs of the human mind? And who exactly is the "we" who does the "testing?" If this is done with human authority and appeals to an "inner witness" of the Spirit then it seems Protestants are forever bound to a form of subjectivism and what is worse holding up their mentral constructs as divine truths. The underlying idea is a kind of nominalism, we don't ever gain access to reality, just our models of it that we test on a phenomenal level.

    ***END-QUOTE***

    i) I didn’t say a mental construct, I said an interpretive construct.

    ii) It is done with the human mind, but the role of the mind is instrumental. Revelation, not reason, is the source and standard of theology.

    iii) Whatever your rule of faith—sola Scriptura, sacred tradition, living tradition--the mind is going to play an instrumental role.

    iv) I did not appeal to the witness of the Spirit. That is a function of regeneration and the assurance of salvation, not a criterion of truth.

    v) None of this will work without a doctrine of providence. But in that respect, everyone is in the same boat.

    vi) Where propositional revelation is concerned, the applicable theory of truth is the coherence theory, not the correspondence theory. The operative question is not what sort of access the mind may enjoy in relation to the sensible world—a la direct realism--but whether the mind has access to the truths of Scripture. Whatever the external world is really like, the question is whether we can decode the linguistic tokens of Scripture in order to process the conceptual content.

    In principle, one could be very skeptical about the relation between appearance and reality without being skeptical about the truths of Scripture.

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  14. Steve wrote:

    For an evangelical, the authority to pronounce a given doctrine heretical or not comes from Scripture, but for a Catholic, from the church speaking in, say, an ecumenical council.

    (1) For the Catholic, there is an authoritative Church AND Scripture. For the Protestant, there is the Bible, which needs to be interpreted, but, in theory, no authoritative teaching office to guide or direct us.

    (2) When one talks about the authority coming from Scripture, does that mean that Scripture gives one the authority to decide, or does it mean that Scripture is the ground on which one should decide?

    (3) But how is the Protestant to know who is offering the right interpretation and the right theology given Protestant principles and resources when Protestants disagree on so much?

    (4) How is a Protestant, given his own resources and principles, really in a position to define another position as heretical? He can appeal to Scripture, but so can the so called heretic. And, many times, both interpretations and subsequent theologies will be reasonable. In those instances, who decides which view is really the correct interpretation of Scripture?

    Eric

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