Friday, February 15, 2008

How Does Heresy Happen?

Christians who believe that the Bible is God’s inspired and infallible Word of God believe that the instruction in the Bible is sufficient for all of our human needs and has the ability to transcend our times and culture. The difficulty presents when we try to diligently and faithfully apply the proper meaning of Scripture to the specifics of our lives today. At this point, without a wise, clear, broad and well-informed perspective, we could easily fall into error. How can we keep from branching off from what God teaches us in the Word into error, be it misguided, false teachings or heresy, especially concerning central and critical doctrine?

Harold O. J. Brown has this to say in Heresies:

pg 150

“The spiritual contrast between these variant views and what we now call orthodoxy lay first of all in the goal that each sought to accomplish: the heretical positions had in common a desire to understand the mystery of God; the orthodox sought to preserve the salvation Christians find in Christ.”
Intent has a great deal to do with whether we descend into heresy. If our goal is to develop and formulate a clear doctrine about a mystery, then we are branching off into dangerous territory. Intent to meet a goal dominates and governs our actions. If our approach however concerns intent to clearly discern what the Word of God teaches us about a particular issue, then we are less likely to fall into error or predispose ourselves to error. Our primary commitment must be to the preservation of the integrity of the Word of God, following a sound hermeneutic.

Paul Elliot, in Christianity and Neo-Liberalism points out several pitfalls resulting from departure from sound hermeneutics into ones that are poorly informed or very narrow in understanding. “First, it is not a fixed set of principles or a defined methodology for the interpretation of Scripture.” In our postmodern world, truth is determined by experience and meaning is imparted by the person who deems a thing truthful, so it is not an objective measure of truth. Concerning the group that Elliot discusses in his book, these religious leaders stated that as long as their group agreed on the basics of the creeds, they were willing to tolerate the inconsistencies on other levels, sacrificing objective truth in favor of what Elliot calls “artificial confessional unity.” (Pg 248-249)

“Second, notice that the primary focus of the hermeneutic of trust is not on correctly interpreting the words of Scripture at all. It focuses instead on interpreting the words of the church’s confessional standards, and on construing them in ways that are elastic enough to permit the OPC to fit diverging doctrinal views under one big confessional tent… So the hermeneutic of trust is at least one step removed from Scripture. It focuses not on the Scripture itself but on human perspectives on Scripture… It is not only significant that the hermeneutic of trust draws attention away from Scripture, but also that it draws attention to something called the “animus imponentis”, or the intention of the imposing body.” (pg 249)

Elliot goes on to point out an example where Charles Hodge (a mid 19th century seminary instructor at Princeton) argues for the use of “animus imponentis” to maintain denominational unity and prevent a type of pluralism. Elliot says

“But with all due respect to Hodge, to use the animus impotentis as the fundamental guiding principle in establishing conformity to sound doctrine is to adopt a fatally flawed benchmark… By this logic, Rome’s doctrine of justification and the Protestant doctrine of justification have equal standing. In fact, any competing doctrines that bear the stamp of approval of their respective “imposing bodies” would have equal standing. Each imposing body is after all, its own ‘community of interpretation.’” The problem with this method is that the standards will change over time.” (pg 250-252)

Elliot concludes this section stating that “at the end of the day, what is important is not what men say the Bible says, but what the Bible actually says. For that reason, our starting point in sound doctrine must never be the secondary standards of the church, but always Scripture. It is Scripture that gives meaning to the words of the confessional standards, not vice versa. The hermeneutic of trust perverts this fundamental order." (pg 254)