What Is a Dangerous Heresy?

It never surprises me when folks reach for the "Heresy!" panic button when faced with even the best forms of non-binary soteriology. And, as happened in the comments section a few posts ago, it's usually connected to the "universalism is moral escapism" trope. (Which I'm pretty sure no amount of persuasion, however well-written, will manage to erase because it's a matter of willful ignorance.) As though we hoped in God for salvation as a way out of the moral dilemmas we constantly get ourselves into ... and that were a bad thing, rather than the entire point of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As though the real soteriological question were "Will you be weighed and found wanting by the ultimate judge and determiner of your fate?"—and there were a real possibility of answering "no."

And here's the real kicker: most binary soteriologies are riddled with moral escape hatches. And most of those escape hatches are designed to use group membership as a substitute for moral action, just like the one the Roman community was relying on when Paul decided they had to be corrected. Because the system is set up so that there can be no real escape from moral question, face to face with God. So, rather than ask penetrating questions about the system, which works amazingly well for the purpose it was designed for (allowing us to condemn others and extort compliance to our will), we simply give ourselves a "get out of judgment free" card of some sort. That's the dangerous heresy, right there. Not the studied denial that God will use condemnation to torture or destroy in eternity, but the willful denial that the morality of our actions will be thoroughly judged and found wanting, and that we merit a fate like all others on that basis. Biased grace as an outcome of biased judgment is the truly dangerous heresy.

But what is the criterion for "dangerous heresy"? Clearly, if I were a convicted believer in binary, moral-judgment soteriologies, I'd think it was dangerous to believe that there would be no damnation. Why? Because if there were I might not change my ways and thus effect my own salvation. I might miss my opportunity. Which is the entire business model of American tractarian evangelism. It would be dangerous to base my trust in God on falsehood when truth is a requirement for salvation—but even if truth is not a requirement for salvation, it can be dangerous to base our faith in God on false information. Truth is also a requirement for informed moral action in the world—something that every universalist I know of considers to be very important, opposition PR notwithstanding.

A dangerous heresy, put as simply as I can, is a belief that causes us to mis-trust God. I mean that several ways. It can cause us not to trust God for what we rightly should; it can cause us to trust God wrongly for what we shouldn't; it can cause us to trust a god that is not the God we claim to trust, putting our real trust somewhere else. Valid information about God is very important for faith! What God is like, what God's character is, is the only good reason to trust God—and also the only good reason to distrust God, if one chooses to.

We've really hollowed out the word "faith" over the last several centuries, especially by trying to make it not a morally relevant action, something we have willing control over. And we did that by replacing moral action with faith as the criterion for salvation, instead of fixing the real problem with judgment-based, morally-pendent soteriologies. And rather than seeing the Arminian bug report for what it was, we turned faith into an escape hatch keyed to right self-identification. Faith is important. Faith is a moral act. Where you put your trust matters, and it determines what you will choose to do and not do in the world.

Faith requires knowledge. Faith requires awareness. Faith is an act of will. It can be well-informed, or poorly, and it doesn't need to be fully-informed to begin—faith, after all, seeks understanding—but you cannot trust, or distrust, what you do not know at all. Faith is trust that moves from knowledge to greater knowledge. And it can be lost, and rightly so, if the knowledge it receives proves the object of faith to be untrustworthy.

A dangerous heresy is therefore one that feeds bad information into this process—not good information about a bad reality, but bad information itself. Which means that claims of heresy are never stopping points. You want to claim heresy and denounce me, what you've really done is asserted your information against mine, your authority over mine, with no possibility for argument. And if you're going to do that, chances are good it's a sign I shouldn't try arguing with you. Chances are good it's a waste of time, because you're not open to persuasion. The rest of us, however, get by on actually turning our disagreements into discussions of how we understand God, what we think we know and why we think we know it, what we don't know, and where we might go from there.

The truly dangerous heresies don't just feed in bad information; they lock down discussion in order to restrict the possibilities for growth. Don't put your faith in the church, or the tradition, or any subset thereof. Put your faith in God, if you will, and question God, and question the information you receive about God. Question the sources. A faith that cannot risk this is no faith at all, which is the real danger.

Comments

  1. Wow! In my comment I did not say "dangerous heresy," I said "old heresy." So you are saying that your posts are "the best forms of non-binary soteriology"? Wow!

    Universalism can be dangerous for uneducated folk like some of the Evangelicals who are embracing it now.

    You say: "Don't put your faith in the church, or the tradition, or any subset thereof. Put your faith in God, if you will, and question God, and question the information you receive about God. Question the sources. A faith that cannot risk this is no faith at all, which is the real danger." Here a "subset" is a theologian who interprets the Scripture for himself with no respect for the Church. Question the source. I am open for discussion.

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    1. You want to pretend to be open to discussion, when you're the one that used the word "heresy"? You want to pretend to be open to discussion, but I'm doing something wrong by taking responsibility for interpretation, as is my job? And you want to be offended when I take it personally that you waltz in and drop "heresy" like it's a perfectly polite word? Go run up an alley and holler fish.

      This is a big, old game, and you show no sign of being a player in it. You haven't done your homework. You think proponents of Evangelical universalism are uneducated? You, madam, are a pawn. You're being used. You may have started off asking good questions, but you've reverted to shouting slogans at me. You want to be a happy little partisan, don't come around here.

      And if you want to do your homework, go read about Origenism. It's not even an ecumenical heresy, because it wasn't denounced at a council, and it's imperial denunciation only covers one very specific version of apokatastatic restoration, which none of us hold.

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  2. Scripture. Tradition.

    Hell -- CCC -- 1034 Jesus often speaks of "Gehenna" of "the unquenchable fire" reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost.614 Jesus solemnly proclaims that he "will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire,"615 and that he will pronounce the condemnation: "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!"616

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    1. The JPII/Ratzinger catechism from the mid 90s is neither scripture nor tradition. At least dig into Denzinger, if you're Catholic.

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    2. If all you have is prooftexting for both categories, and of texts I know already, you're not going to convince me. I don't confess Rome's doctrines. And you'll need to write a dissertation worth of exegetical work to convince me that all your possible hell texts a) belong together, b) refer to the same reality, and c) are factually correct in their beliefs. Historical critical work is a prerequisite, built on sound Hebrew and Greek, and you'll want to be able to do literary critical work to demonstrate that each text in its context intends to be read as you read it.

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    3. That's not a high bar. That's the threshold for entry here. Otherwise I suggest you go back to asking questions.

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  3. Asking questions to whom? You ? Why? Are you the ultimate interpreter of Scripture? No, you are not. The Church is.

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    1. If the church is not her members, she is nothing.

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  4. (Now we are arriving, as Graham Greene said, to the Heart of the Matter.) The Church? Individually or collectively? You and I are individuals.

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    1. The collective is only individuals working together. You cannot remove authority from individuals without also removing it from the collective, and investing real membership in an oligarchy.

      Why are you doing this? Surely you're aware I'm a Lutheran who studies Reformed thinkers. Says so on the tin.

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  5. Don't you want to be "inclusive"? Don't you care about Church unity? I am doing this because I want you to think about these things....

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