Since there’s been some controversy over this blog concerning some particular doctrines, I felt like expressing some of my general thoughts on belief, heresy, and orthodoxy.
Beliefs can be categorized as dogma, doctrine, and opinion (there may be other ways of categorizing, but I think this categorization is fairly common). Dogma are nonnegotiable, essential beliefs, often considered to be the separating line between whether someone can be considered a believer or not. Doctrines are beliefs that are important and significantly affect how one lives, but variety is allowed, at least within certain boundaries. Opinions are beliefs that carry the least weight and for which the greatest variety is allowed.
The funny thing is, even among believers there is no consensus as to what should be considered dogma, doctrine, and opinion. So the distinctions aren’t useful, really – ultimately, it is subjective. People can determine certain criteria for what should be in what category, such as how often it is discussed in the scriptures, what early church fathers wrote about them, whether they exist in the early creeds, what church councils decided, if there has been a historical consensus, etc. But the criteria people choose and the weight they give to each (as well as their interpretations of them) are, again, subjective and there is no universal agreement.
“Orthodoxy” is a myth.
There is no single set of true and correctly articulated beliefs, even if it is limited to “essentials.” Evangelicals have their own orthodoxy and Catholics have theirs, to name just two major streams.
Nevertheless, some will claim that there is a general consensus. But if I ask what about me and others like me who don’t agree about some issue for which they claim there is consensus, I can think of two answers that might be given.
One response is that I am not counted among those whose opinions are taken into consideration. If I pressed further and asked why that is, I would probably get the answer that it is because I don’t believe the minimum requirement beliefs to be considered one of them. But then the “consensus” is really no consensus at all; it is just picking people who are in general agreement and saying, “among these people, there is a consensus.” Well sure! If you only choose people who agree, then of course there is a “consensus.”
The other response is that my position is too much of a minority to be able to illegitimize consensus. But this reduces the meaning of consensus to majority opinion. And when in the history of the Church, I would ask, has the majority opinion ever been a reliable guide to truth?
If we want to say that there is one set of true and correctly articulated beliefs, we have to assume that spiritual realities can in fact be articulated verbally, and perfectly at that. But what if stories, for example, more accurately communicated the spiritual realities they portray compared to philosophical discourse or systematic theology? What if they are so beyond words that they must be spoken of in analogy? I’m not saying that is necessarily the case. But can we really know that it’s not? I don’t think so. But even if a perfect set of beliefs existed, it’s linguistic formulation would have to continually change, because languages change. People’s understandings of the meaning of words do not remain the same over time, and languages are not independent of their surrounding cultures, which also change.
Am I saying that truth is itself subjective? Nope.
There is only one true reality. But our perceptions of it are necessarily subjective. Consequently, our verbal articulations of what reality is are also subjective. We have no sure-fire way of determining whether a belief is true or not. So although truth is objective, our experiences and explanations of it are inevitably and inescapably subjective.
Of course, some beliefs are true, and others are false.
Heresy is real.
And there is a time and a place to address heresy.
But inasmuch as heresy refers to a false belief, we are all heretics to some degree since no one has a perfect set of beliefs. And no matter what we believe, there will always be someone who will consider us to be a heretic. Shucks.
Some people judge a person’s heart by their beliefs or vice versa. The assumption is that the rightness of people’s hearts is directly correlated to the rightness of their beliefs. I understand that the two are not completely unrelated, but no fair conclusion can be drawn about one just by looking at the other. There are people who have good hearts and are genuinely convinced of some ideas that are false. There are also people whose beliefs are very accurate and yet have bad hearts.
Am I saying that your beliefs don’t matter so go ahead and believe whatever you feel like believing? Far from it!
I’m saying that God is only concerned about our beliefs to the degree that they affect our Christ-likeness. First and foremost he wants right living, not right belief. He desires not that we have the perfect concept of love but rather that we become a perfect expression of love. If you had false beliefs but were loving everyone around you perfectly, would God really care?
Of course, our beliefs affect how we live and love and properly understanding love does help us express it. So I understand that the scenario I just gave isn’t realistic. I am simply illustrating that there is something that is infinitely more valuable than getting your beliefs right.
Correct beliefs are only a means to the end of correct action.
Have you ever noticed how getting your beliefs right is not emphasized in the scriptures? The focus of the scriptures is not “what do you believe in?” but “what is your faith in?” Further, it exhorts us to place our faith in the person of Jesus Christ, not in a book or a certain set of beliefs. In fact, a focus on correct belief borders on gnosticism. Our beliefs don’t save us; Jesus does.
If we equate our faith with our beliefs, then changing our beliefs will mean having to throw out our faith. Our beliefs will be continually changing throughout our lives, but our faith in Jesus can remain constant. We can continue to trust him while changing how and what we think.
Diana Butler-Bass points out that the word ‘doctrine’ comes from the word ‘doctor’ and that doctrines were meant to be healing. Doctrine isn’t something we’re supposed to try to “get right.” Rather, doctrine is a means of grace by which we come to change our minds about something (repentance), thereby gaining a new perspective followed by a new way of living. What it really comes down to is us knowing God for who he is through his perfect revelation, Jesus Christ. He crushes our illusions and false beliefs and gives us good doctrine, the truth about what he is like.
I like Frank Viola’s insight on heresy:
The popular understanding of heresy is that it refers to false doctrine. But this is not entirely correct. While heresy certainly includes the teaching of false doctrine, the Greek word translated “heresies” in the New Testament actually refers to creating a sect. That is, it’s the act of dividing a body of believers by persuading them to rally around a certain idea or practice . . . even if that idea or practice happens to be true. Consequently, a person can be a heretic with the truth.
Let’s not divide ourselves over beliefs. It is inevitable that there will always be disagreement. But what’s great about true love is that it is not hindered by disagreement.
Jesus said we would be known not by doctrinal positions or consensus but by our love for each other. Let’s commit ourselves to valuing our connections with one another above agreement. Let’s not rally around particular beliefs but around the living person of Jesus Christ.