Friday, January 03, 2014

Dialogue with an Anglican Historian on Heresy, Heretics (Particularly Arius), and the Relationship of Blasphemy to Heresy (vs. Dr. Edwin W. Tait)

By Catholic Apologist Dave Armstrong

This all came about spontaneously on one of my Facebook threads. Edwin and I have engaged in many fun dialogues through the years, especially on the topic of development of doctrine. They always seem to end unresolved and hanging in the air, but they're enjoyable nonetheless. I always like shooting the breeze with academics. His words will be in blue. Paul Hoffer, a Catholic friend, also contributed a few comments. His words will be in green. Arius the heretic's words will be in red.

* * * * *

I don't think predestination debates have any practical importance to the Christian faith or walk, but it's fun to argue about in the same sense that various philosophical disputes are enjoyable diversions for the mind.

Well, it was practically relevant for me for some years, because I taught at an evangelical college where my predecessor had been fired for promulgating open theism, and a well-known open theist philosopher was still professor emeritus with an office across from my own (William Hasker). I've read some of his work and had some conversations with him, partly in order to present the issues fairly to my students and partly because I became interested myself.

Glad to hear he was fired.

Well, I'm not, because he wasn't violating anything in the institution's statement of faith. And in general, I think Erasmus has been right all along--it's better to refute heretics than suppress them. Truth has nothing to fear. But that's yet another debate.

It's not "suppressing" someone who believes and teaches things contrary to an institution's beliefs. You called it "evangelical" and that means something. That is called "orthodoxy." 

I think that an institution has the right to do this, and sometimes it may be necessary. (Again, my problem in this particular case was that the institution fired him because they were worried about his effect on student enrollment, not because of a genuine belief that he was a heretic by the standards of the institution.) But yes, it is suppressing, because that voice won't be heard any more. Academic institutions need a diversity of voices. Church-based institutions face a necessary tension between this and the need to preserve clarity about what the institution stands for. It's a difficult issue and there are no easy answers. (The initial compromise in Sanders' case was that he would not be teaching systematic theology anymore.) But I'm never going to rejoice at someone being fired, unless perhaps in really extreme cases. And empirically, I know that his being fired helped rivet his ideas in the minds of his former students. It discredited any arguments one could make against open theism.

Heresies arise because there is some genuine problem in the existing orthodoxy that needs to be resolved. Trying to cut off the debate ensures that the problem will just fester endlessly, or indeed it gives moral legitimacy to the heretical side and causes it to triumph temporarily beyond its intrinsic merits. This is my big problem with how the Catholic Church is handling the women's ordination issue. The really interesting theological arguments have barely even been raised.

not because of a genuine belief that he was a heretic by the standards of the institution

Then it's not "evangelical": both things can't be true. "Open theism" is not evangelicalism. But of course, evangelicalism is going more and more liberal all the time, too . . . This is the problem with the rule of faith in Protestantism. What is "liberal" today may be fashionably orthodox tomorrow . . .

Academic institutions need a diversity of voices.

Christian academic institutions don't need that. They need professors who have a strong faith and who are orthodox according to how that is defined by the institution.

Heresies arise because there is some genuine problem in the existing orthodoxy that needs to be resolved.

I disagree. Developments arise for that reason, but heresies come from rebellion and disobedience, and inability to accept received orthodoxy and (for Catholics) apostolic tradition.

Trying to cut off the debate ensures that the problem will just fester endlessly

I agree. We must debate and refute error, but hiring heretics in an educational institution does not further that end. They are teaching students things that are contra
ry to the goals of the school . . . The students are not in a place to debate the professors. They sit there like sitting ducks and take in the heretical errors of the professor. That's what is so despicable about it.

Again, I'm not disputing the right of institutions to enforce orthodoxy when that orthodoxy is clearly defined. For instance, I agree that there's a huge problem when Catholic institutions have theology faculties where there is in effect an alternative "orthodoxy" which is blatantly opposed to Church teaching. And without the right to fire individual dissenters, there's nothing to prevent this happening. I'm arguing first that institutions cannot and should not get rid of faculty members just because their views are controversial and many people in the institution's supportive community (i.e., potential donors, parents and pastors of potential students, etc.) think that the faculty member is a heretic. To do so is a blatant violation of academic freedom, and that's what happened here. In the second place, I'm arguing that standards of belief should be interpreted very generously in this context. And I'm also arguing that there is a legitimate place for faculty who don't agree with the standards of belief at all, as long as there's clarity about their place in the institution. (For instance, it would be inappropriate for a Catholic institution to have a non-Catholic or a blatantly heretical Catholic teaching an introduction to theology to first-year students, or teaching the key systematic theology classes for majors. It would be appropriate to have such folks on the faculty teaching their perspectives as part of a vigorous culture of debate and discussion.)

Our basic disagreement, I think, is about the nature of heresy. And I think it explains why we often clash about the Reformation, apart from the fact that I'm naturally more pedantic and concerned with "trees" than you are, given my training as a specialist in Reformation history. We agree that Protestantism is heretical. But I see Protestantism as a reaction to genuine problems in orthodoxy as it had been defined up to that point. I think that much of the time Protestants gave the wrong answers (indeed, in important ways I think they made the existing problems much worse, as with the monstrous invention of "forensic justification"), and insofar as they gave the right answers those answers were compatible with Catholic orthodoxy. But I'm much more willing to see positive value in what they were doing than you are. And the same would apply to how I'd view modern liberal Catholicism. It's a response to real problems and it raises real concerns. Demonizing liberals will lead to the same disasters that demonizing Protestants did, even if this time around (thank God) no one gets killed.

Our basic disagreement, I think, is about the nature of heresy.

Okay: what is it, and how can it be consistently defined? You don't think Open Theism is heresy according to historic Protestantism, Anglicanism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy?

No, that's not our disagreement. I meant that you see heresy just in terms of "disobedience and rebellion," whereas I give it a more positive role in the development of doctrine, because it always has a genuine theological concern at its core. I am certainly not arguing that open theism is orthodox, although I'm not sure Protestants are in a good position to make that judgment. Open theism is a reaction to Calvinism--it's an attempt to provide a consistent philosophical basis for Arminianism. Given the Calvinist/Arminian dichotomy and the way in which Calvinist assumptions have warped a lot of "historic" Protestantism, I think that's an understandable response. In other words, I'm not sure that open theism is any more heretical than Calvinism, though I'm not going to make an argument of that. Also, there are different versions of open theism. The Sanders/Hasker version, which I encountered at Huntington, is terribly anthropomorphic, and is basically a philosophical system built on the evangelical conviction that one can have a personal relationship with God, and thus on a fairly literal reading of personal/anthropomorphic language in the Bible. Greg Boyd's version, which I would like to study further, is probably the most orthodox, relatively speaking, but still very anthropomorphic. Tom Oord's version is perhaps the most radical (of the versions known to me, at least) and closest to process theology, but it raises a lot of interesting issues (Oord goes beyond the other open theists by suggesting not just that God has chosen to limit His knowledge but that perhaps God's nature is constituted by self-emptying love, so that God can't engage in any kind of coercion, including that which would be implied in exhaustive foreknowledge of people's choices).

How does, for example, the blasphemy of asserting that Jesus is a mere creature [this is Arianism, folks] have "a genuine theological concern at its core"? To assure that God (the Son) is not worshiped and adored as the Father is? That's just . . . heresy and blasphemy. There is nothing good in that. It rejected what was clearly revealed in Scripture and always held in Christianity.

Dave, that's not historically true. I don't think any scholar of the fourth century would claim that Arius "rejected what was clearly revealed in Scripture and always held in Christianity." Arius' letter to the Patriarch Alexander [ Link ] shows that he was concerned to maintain the historic orthodox teaching that Jesus was the Son of God and was not just a mode in which God had revealed Himself or somehow a part of God, making God composite. He was upholding logos Christology, which was the historic mainstream position. But he was making a claim (before the Son was begotten "he was not") that went way beyond the historic orthodox position in his zeal to uphold it. In fact, he was undercutting orthodoxy radically. But his heresy wasn't obvious and didn't just proceed from some kind of depraved insanity, though that's what the language of orthodox polemic said. Lots of people had trouble seeing what was so heretical about this and what was so different from orthodox "Logos Christology."

It's harder, perhaps, to see something positive in the radical Arianism of Eunomius late in the fourth century. But even he was pushing on some remaining ambiguities in developing orthodoxy, forcing the Cappadocians to clarify the doctrine of the Trinity in ways that we have reason to be grateful for today.

In a way all I'm saying is the longstanding truism that heresies force the orthodox to clarify things. What I'm saying that's different is that since heretics generally have good intentions, the combination of their good intentions and the positive effect of their heresies should affect our attitude to them. It isn't simply a case of wicked people being used by God for good purposes, but (most of the time, as far as I can see) sincere Christians seeking a good end in the wrong way and ultimately serving that good end, just not quite in the way they thought. Hence we can be more patient with them than we used to be.

In a way all I'm saying is the longstanding truism that heresies force the orthodox to clarify things.

That's a different claim from what you made before. I agree with that.
I also agree that heresy and blasphemy often comes from a mix of ignorance and good intentions. But I'm talking about the thing itself (heresy), not the person, just as I do in my apologetics today. Luther was well-intentioned, likable, said lots of good stuff, etc. At the same time he taught a lot of rebellious, worthless rotgut. It's a mixed bag. It's a lot less mixed with something as atrocious as Arianism, which is not Christian, as Lutheranism is.

Maybe Arius was a fun guy to have a beer with. I don't care. That's neither here nor there. I deal with the theological opinions . . .

Once again we have a fundamental difference of definition. One who denies the Trinity (I say) is not a Christian at all. They don't even accept the Nicene Creed, for heaven's sake. That's why both Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses are not. You act as if any theist at all is a Christian. By that criteria, both Jews and Muslims (as well as all these non-trinitarian heretics) are in the fold. That's an awful big tent. :-)

Well, by your definition there were no Christians before the fourth century, since the Nicene Creed didn't exist :-) I agree that those who deny the Trinity are heretics in a manner fundamentally different from those who deny, say, the Real Presence, and if you want to express that by saying that they aren't Christians at all, I won't object as long as we're clear on what we mean by "Christians" in this context and that this isn't the only historically meaningful definition of the word. But again, read the letter of Arius. Unless the man was simply lying through his teeth, he's clearly working within the framework of previously defined orthodoxy. It's not about being nice or not nice--it's about being part of the "argument extended throughout time" that is the Christian tradition and sincerely desiring to further that conversation in ways that will glorify God and bring people to union with God. There are good reasons to think that both Arius and Luther had those intentions. As I said the first time, they had genuine theological concerns. (Modalism was still a danger in Arius' time, and in fact some of the folks who sided with Athanasius and upheld the homoousios could be legitimately accused of modalism.) They were trying to uphold the faith, and given their contexts it is easy to understand why they made the mistaken choices they did in their attempt to do so. As a result of their work and that of the orthodox who opposed them, we now have a clearer understanding of the faith. Arius and Luther aren't in the same category, of course. Arius is much more radically heretical and there's much less positive one can learn from his work.

Arius actually became a heretic by opposing another heresy-Sabellanism or Patripassionism. He erred by over-emphasizing the incomparability and majestic solitariness of God by under-emphasizing the nature and substance of the Logos and by extension the Holy Spirit. His biggest problem was that he could not understand the meaning of the word "begot".

We need to be careful in not equating heresy with blasphemy or apostasy. They are not synonymous.

I agree, but relegating Jesus to a mere creature is certainly objectively blasphemy, whether intended or not (it usually isn't intended as such). The act of turning God into non-God is blasphemous as well as heretical.

I think much of heresy is going to the extreme: either in irrational or hyper-rational reaction to an orthodox tenet, or in extreme counter-reaction to another heresy. Thus, Monophysitism is arguably the other extreme of Nestorianism. The latter emphasized Jesus' human nature to the detriment of His divine nature, whereas the former made the opposite mistake.

The modern definition of blasphemy as contained in the Catechism 2148 would seem to exclude Arius as his theology did not consist of uttering against God - inwardly or outwardly - words of hatred, reproach, or defiance; in speaking ill of God; in failing in respect toward him in one's speech; in misusing God's name. Arius was trying to be the opposite of blasphemous. His thought was certainly heretical, but he was not attempting to be contemptuous of God.

Dave, you are certainly right though about monophysitism. All heresies involving the Trinity fall into two categories:

1. Exaggerating the notion of unity and eliminate persons in the Trinity.

2. Exaggerating the notion of Trinity and deny the unity of persons.

Is it not "speaking ill of God" [the Son] to deny that He is God? I can think of few things more insulting to God than to deny that He is Who He is. It's like the flip side of idolatry. That makes something not God into a god; whereas Arius makes God into not-God or a mere lesser "god."

If Arius thought Jesus wasn't God, he wasn't trying to blaspheme Him (quite obviously); yet it is objectively blasphemous, because He is God. Thus He blasphemes by claiming that Jesus was created, which makes Him a creature on our level, not the eternally existent God. That's objectively blasphemous (saying things of God that aren't true), if not subjectively. It's a lot like the distinction between mortal and venial sin.

St. John Chrysostom said it was blasphemy to assert that God could change (which His supposedly being created or having a beginning is an instance of):
. . . He is Omnipotent as long as He continues to be God. But if He admit of change, change for the worse, how could He be God? for change is far from that simple Nature. Wherefore the Prophet saith, “They all shall wax old as doth a garment, and as a vesture shalt Thou roll them up, and they shall be changed; but Thou art the same, and Thy years shall not fail.” ( Ps. cii. 27 , LXX.) For that Essence is superior to all change. There is nothing better than He, to which He might advance and reach.. . . let the blasphemy return upon the heads of those who utter it.

(Homily XI on John, v. 1:14; NPNF1-14)

Likewise, St. Cyril of Alexandria says it is blasphemy to deny "Mother of God" and hence deny Jesus' divinity:

. . . if the opponents say that the holy Virgin ought to be called in no wise mother of God, but mother of Christ, they blaspheme openly and drive away Christ from being God and Son: for if they believe that He is really God, in that the Only-Begotten has been made as we, why do they shudder at calling her mother of God, who bare Him, I mean after the flesh?

(That Christ is One; LFC47)

St. Basil the Great specifically asserts that Arius blasphemed:

One of those who have caused me great sorrow is Eustathius of Sebasteia in Lesser Armenia; formerly a disciple of Arius, and a follower of him at the time when he flourished in Alexandria, and concocted his infamous blasphemies against the Only-begotten, . . .

(Letter #263 to the Western Bishops, 2-3; NPNF2-8)

Dave, to be fair, Arius didn't say that Jesus was a "mere creature"--indeed he very carefully said the opposite: " a creature, but not as one of the creatures." What the heck does that mean? Well, that's the problem with "original" Arianism. It was examined and found hopelessly inadequate, because the concept of "a creature but not as one of the creatures" was incompatible with an orthodox understanding of the relationship between God and creation. Ironically given the frequent charges that the Trinity is pagan, it's Arius' view that coincides better with the general pagan understanding of the divine--an inaccessible God with degrees of heavenly beings mediating our access to Him. The orthodox view as expounded by Athanasius and later the Cappadocians taught that there's an infinite distance between God and the beings God has created out of nothing, and no possible half-way point between the two. Hence, the mediator can't be half-and-half but must be 100% human and 100% divine. That's a theological breakthrough guided by the Holy Spirit--simply from the point of view of intellectual history, it's brilliant and revolutionary.

The Two Natures of Christ was already quite implicit (if not explicit) in the "kenosis" of Philippians 2:5-8 and arguably other passages. Highly developed later, of course, but present in kernel from the beginning: precisely as Newmanian development asserts:

Philippians 2:5-8 (RSV) Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, [6] who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, [7] but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. [8] And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. 

Saying Jesus is a creature at all: in any sense, is already heretical and blasphemous. If Arius was confused even in his own mind, what in the world he meant, what else is new with heretics? Their errors always spring from mental confusion, whatever else we may say about them.

Right. When I said "revolutionary" I'm talking about the intellectual formulation--the combination that emerges by the end of the fourth century of divine infinity, creation ex nihilo, and the existing, hitherto rather undefined faith that Jesus is both human and divine. And Dave, the problem here is that you aren't taking the intellectual context of the ancient world seriously enough. You have to try to imagine a world full of gradations of spiritual beings shading up to an unimaginably distant (but not infinite) supreme Deity. That's the world Jews, pagans, and to a great extent early Christians all believed in. But Christians had this weird faith in Jesus as Lord and the Son of God (combined with the existing weirdness of the Jewish refusal to worship any god but the supreme God) to mess up this culturally accepted picture. Arius, without realizing it, was watering down the faith with culturally accepted notions, just as heretics have done from then till now and are still doing But out of this came greater clarity--not just the reaffirmation of what was already obvious, but something that was genuinely new in terms of its intellectual formulation, as the use of the hitherto suspect "homoousios" showed (as I'm sure you know, the term had up to then been used only by heretics). The great tragedy of the Reformation is that there was no Athanasius. Or rather, he was on the wrong side. . . .

The letter of Arius cited above makes quite clear that this is extreme heresy and blasphemy alike:
Our faith from our forefathers, which also we have learned from thee, Blessed Pope, is this:--We acknowledge One God, alone Ingenerate, alone Everlasting, alone Unbegun, alone True, alone having Immortality, alone Wise, alone Good, alone Sovereign; Judge, Governor, and Providence of all, unalterable and unchangeable, just and good, God of Law and Prophets and New Testament;

He shows that he knows what God's attributes are, but by making Jesus a creature (as though this is what "begotten" means), in that very act he contradistinguishes Him from the Father, so that all the characteristics above do not apply to Jesus.

who begat an Only-begotten Son before eternal times, through whom He has made both the ages and the universe; and begat Him, not in semblance, but in truth; and that He made Him subsist at His own will, unalterable and unchangeable; perfect creature of God, but not as one of the creatures; offspring, but not as one of things begotten;

Jesus in Arianism stands between God and men (I think that is all he means by "not as one of the creatures"). He was created, but then the Father uses Him to create everything else, etc.

at the will of God, created before times and ages, and gaining life and being from the Father, . . .

The Bible plainly states that the Son has life and being in Himself (much of the point of John 1, among many other passages). He doesn't derive it from the Father.

Arius is also confused about the monarchy of the Father, thinking this somehow makes Jesus less than God.

So far then as from God He has being, and glories, and life, and all things are delivered unto Him, in such sense is God His origin. For He is above Him, as being His God, and before Him.

This garbage is very painful to read . . .

Of course, heresies cause a more precise formulation of faith, as Augustine stressed. I totally agree with that. But you seem to be making Arius out to be "better" than he was. Heresy also stems from a loss of faith and loss of a fully Christian notion of mystery. Basically, they can't figure stuff out according to orthodoxy so they go their own way and come up with the various errors of heresy. Like you said, he didn't "get" what "begotten of God" meant. That is the basic root of the heresy in all likelihood. Arians don't grasp stuff like "the father is greater than I."

I do not disagree [with] your theological definition of blasphemy. I am using the term in its more modern connotation.

However, if you look at the little bit of Arius' writing that actually has survived, he would certainly demand that we ado
re and reverence Jesus because of what the Father bestowed upon Him by virtue of His adoption as His Son. Because Jesus was "begotten", Arius argued that the Son’s nature was not capable of moral change as a result of a gift from God. (Different from his disciples) God foresaw that the Son was going to be good and granted Him merits or the grace necessary to avoid evil in advance and deprived Him of the ability to earn merit. At His creation, the Son was adopted by God, given the name Son and the divine glory that comes with that name. The Son’s adoption was different from ours in that He can not sin, we still can. Arius did not claim that Jesus was not divine, he claimed that Jesus' was created divine.

That's what he says, Paul, but he's confused. Being created is not a thing that is said about God. It denies His immutability and self-sufficiency and self-existence, which are of the very essence of God. So Arius' thinking there is some "middle position" between God and man is complete nonsense: rationally and biblically. Jesus becomes, in effect, an angel at best.




Mark Alan said...

Greetings Mr. Armstrong!

Nice debate! Question: I'm so used to coming to your blog to do research on Catholic topics and for some strange reason, the last week(?) the "search" window is not working. Did you remove the "search" capability?


Dave Armstrong said...

I noticed that. I'll have to reload it or something. It's a nuisance for me, too. I'll try to get to it soon!