I’ve been reading through Alexander Schmemann’s little book, For the Life of the World. Schmemann was Orthodox priest who died in 1983. Check out his wiki-bio. Honestly, I don’t know too much about Schmemann, and this is the first thing I have read from him. I will review the book soon enough, but, for now, I wanted to reproduce a small passage from the book that I found compelling.
Heresy, however, is always the distortion, the exaggeration, and therefore the mutilation of something true, the affirmation of one “choice”…, one element at the expense of the others, the breaking up of the catholicity of Truth. But then heresy is also always a question addressed to the Church, and which requires, in order to be answered, an effort of Christian thought and conscience. To condemn a heresy is relatively easy. What is much more difficult is to detect the question it implies, and to give this question an adequate answer. Such, however, was always the Church’s dealing with “heresies” – they always provoked an effort of creativity within the Church so that the condemnation became ultimately a widening and deepening of Christian faith itself. (Pp. 127-8)
I come from (and happily stand within) the tradition of American Fundamentalism. This variety of Christianity has been particularly skilled at denouncing error and heresy. We are highly skilled at spotting what’s “wrong” but maybe not so good at “detecting” the question implied in the error. I think we’re even worse at offering a creative answer to the question posed by the heresy.
Now theological creativity can be both very good and very bad. There is the liberal creativity that seeks to supplant the Scripture with any idea du jour. These “creative” theologians are actually wimps who will not stand for God’s truth against what’s “known” to be true according to this week’s scholarship. This variety of creativity is simply unbelief. But there is a theological creativity that is wholesome and important. The better variety of creativity may very well make use of cutting-edge scholarship, but is not the slave of it. One looks back on some of the great creative Christian thinkers: Augustine, Anselm, Edwards, and Van Til for example, and sees a great deal of “creativity.” Not all that creativity is good, but it I think there is more good than bad. All of these thinkers addressed problems, errors, heresies. All of them listened to the errors and formulated not just a condemnation, but a positive response. They didn’t merely react to heresy; they made the effort to understand it.
There is a tendency toward self-righteousness in opposing error. I can attest to this in my life. One can easily make one’s way onto a righteous high horse when opposing an error (real or perceived). I own this sin of pride, and I repent of it. One of the fruits of humility is the genuine effort to understand one’s opponents. This understanding takes not only humility, but also hard work . Creativity is hard work. Listening is hard work. Judging and condemning is usually not very hard work. It is not difficult or threatening to sit in judgment upon people and ideas that are far away. Sometimes this sort of judgment is quite heroic, for it is a judgment upon people and ideas in one’s own world. Sometimes the people proffering the condemned ideas hold the strings of power. Such would be the case at the apex of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. In any event, these condemnations (and they are necessary) should be based upon a thorough understanding of question being posed to the Church. Ideally, as the heresy is condemned, the questions should also be answered. That old Fundamentalist, J. Gresham Machen, is a good example to follow.