A Recent History of American Heresy

Bad ReligionEach year around our July 4th Independence Day holiday I try to read a book on American history.  This year I read  BAD RELIGION: HOW WE BECAME A NATION OF HERETICS   by Ross Douthat, in which he examines recent history and religious trends in America over the past 70 years or so.  I found the book’s first half, a review of American religious history and trends from the mid-20th Century to be slow and not of great personal interest, though it is needed to help understand what happens to American religion in the 1970s and beyond.   Douthat advocates for a reinvigoration of traditional Christian doctrine and adherence to traditional Christian moral values, especially in the face of the rapidly changing philosophical assumptions in American culture and the corresponding cultural ambivalence toward any kinds of ethical norms for the society as a whole.    Individualism has so triumphed in American culture that the idea of “social norms” or cultural mores are commonly seen as completely antiquated and no longer relevant.   Moral values have become so deeply personal that they can no longer be seen as shared values which can unite us together.  Individualism undermines ideas of shared experience let alone a social ethics.

Douthat’s subtitle is interesting:  “how we became a nation of heretics.”  For by Orthodox or Nicene Christian standards America has not just recently become heretical but was conceived and trained in heretical ideas of the 18th Century Enlightenment, individualism, deism and Unitarianism.  Douthat sees America as moving away from some form of traditional Protestant Christianity, but Orthodox might see America as simply continuing on the path on which it started from the beginning as a nation when its adherence to Nicene Christianity was tenuous at best.  How much America can be measured as having been founded as a Christian nation depends on how much one adheres to the ancient standard and definition of what it means to be Christian: the Nicene Creed, the Trinity and the incarnation of God in Christ.

Douthat summarizes the purpose of his book on the last page:

“This book has often made a more instrumental case for orthodoxy—defending its exacting moralism as a curb against worldly excess and corruption, praising its paradoxes and mysteries for respecting the complexities of human affairs in ways that more streamlined theologies do not, celebrating the role of its institutions in assimilating immigrants, sustaining families, and forging strong communities.  My hope throughout has been to persuade even the most skeptical reader that traditional Christian faith might have more to offer this country than either its flawed defenders or its fashionable enemies would lead one to believe.”  (p 293)

He is concerned about the direction in which he sees the nation as a whole moving, but also about the direction in which Christianity is trending in America.  He offers a very good definition of heresy and shows a good grasp of its effect on Christians.

“Christian heresies vary wildly in their theological substance, but almost all have in common a desire to resolve Christianity’s contradictions, untie its knotty paradoxes, and produce a cleaner and more coherent faith.  Heretics are often stereotyped as wild mystics, but they’re just as likely to be problem solvers and logic choppers, well-intentioned seekers after a more reasonable version of Christian faith than orthodoxy supplies.  They tend to see themselves, not irrationally, as rescuers rather than enemies of Christianity—saving the faith from self-contradiction and cultural irrelevance.” (p 12)

“The goal of the great, heresies, on the other hand, has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus.”  (p 153)

“The method is almost always heresy’s either/or, rejecting any attempt to resolve contradictions or honor paradoxes in favor of a ruthless narrowing designed to make the character of Jesus more consistent, even if this achievement comes at the expense of the tensions that make him fascinating.  Either Jesus was divine or he was human.  Either he was compassionate toward sinners or he preached a rigorous sexual morality.  Either he preached in parables or he engaged in longer theological discourses.  Either ‘all apocalyptic elements should be expunged from the Christian agenda,’ … or else Jesus should be understood exclusively as an end-times prophet.

In the revisionist mind-set, synthesis is always suspect.  We have to choose between Mark’s Jesus or John’s Christ, between the aphoristic Jesus and the messianic Jesus, between Jesus the Jew and Jesus the light to the Gentiles.”  (pp 160-161)

Throughout history, heretics started off by trying to correct something they were uncomfortable with in Christian theology.  Fearing excesses and contradictions, tensions, paradoxes, ambiguities, they tried to fix the problems by eliminating some elements of Christianity to make it more certain, rationally consistent, absolute and monolithic.  They tried harmonizing the Gospels, eliminating the Old Testament, doing away with the troubles caused by the theology of the Trinity, the incarnation, and salvation through the God-man.  They often endeavored to reach their goals by focusing on one idea at the exclusion of others found in Scripture and by rejecting that in the Scriptures sometimes more than one version of an event is presented which leaves us with possible contradictions, paradoxes, ambiguities.  They always wanted to deal with the mystery of God by making the Scriptures completely humanly rational and consistent.

Douthat points out that this heretical tendency has continued down to present day Christianity in America, and has been the cause of much grief for the Church in the modern (or post-modern!) world.  Heretics want to conform God and the Church to their ideas of what is rational or what serves their purposes.

In some ways the polarization of American politics reflects the problems which heresies in American religious thinking have caused.  Or perhaps it is the other way around, American religious trends are simply mirroring or aping what is going on in American politics.  In a media driven culture, all ideas of leadership or leaders whether religious or secular become not only shaped by but even more so driven by the media.

Douthat identifies two tendencies with heretical implications in American religious thinking: messianism and apocalyptism in which either America and its religious leaders are going to save the world by their grand ideas or bring  it all to a decisive end.

“Instead of balancing each other out, the two heresies of nationalism have taken turns in the driver’s seat of both political coalitions, giving us messianism from the party in power and apocalyptism from the party out of power, regardless of which party is which.”  (p 268)

So now both religious and political leaders see themselves as the messiah needed to save the nation and the world from destruction by bringing them to their own ideas of Paradise.  Simultaneously they both see all others (especially the “other” political party) as surely leading the nation and the world straight to hell.  But apocalyptical and messianic figures in Christian history have tended to end up badly, usually as heretics separated from the Church because their ideas were fringe, unbalanced and way too focused on a select few ideas.

Next:  Some American Heresies

Christianity and/or Constantinianism

This is the 14th and final blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great.   We are considering the books by Paul Stephenson  (CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR ) and Peter Leithart (DEFENDING CONSTANTINE) in evaluating Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor of the Roman Empire.   The previous blog is Constantinople, Constantine’s Legacy.  Did Constantine and the Empire become Christian, or did Christianity become tamed and imperialized by Constantinianism?

Minerva: Goddess of Learning

A number of Christians in the initial centuries of Christian existence wrestled with whether Christianity had any relationship to Athens (pagan philosophy) or Rome (worldly power).  What many of them could not even imagine is what would it mean for Christianity if the emperor himself became a Christian.   So Constantine’s embrace of Christianity caught many Christian leaders – who were far more used to thinking of Rome as that beast which persecuted them –  by surprise.   No one apparently had made provision for this, they obviously did not think it inevitable since they were proclaiming a Kingdom not of this world, and Rome was the worldly power most oppressing them.

There was no precedence for the Christians to shape what it means for the emperor to tolerate let alone embrace Christianity.  What unfolded was the unplanned for and rocky marriage between the Church and the emperor/empire.  Neither side knew exactly how to work it out, and yet the event was upon them.  Some aspects of this marriage worked, and some experiments failed, and what emerged in Constantine’s lifetime was a marriage in progress, not a finished product.

We see evidence of Constantine fully embracing some of the teachings and concerns of Christianity.

Constantine “saw it as his duty as emperor, in Lactantius’s words, ‘to protect and defend orphans and widows who are destitute and stand in need of assistance.’” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p   217)

There was a new attitude even toward things at the heart of what it meant to be Roman – military might and triumphing in the mortal combat of gladiatorial games or in war.   In the early Second Century  St. Justin the Martyr  (who professed that truth was truth, even pagan truth is truth) wrote that as a result of accepting the Gospel,  “we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willing die confessing Christ”  (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p  256).   In Constantine’s day we find similar sentiments expressed in the poets of the empire.   Prudentius (d. 413AD) wrote a poem:

Liberty & Peace

“Whoever would worship God

Properly with the whole burnt offerings, let him above all offer peace.

No sacrifice is sweeter to Christ; this gift alone please him with a pure Aroma when he turns his face toward the holy altar.”  (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p   251)

No longer was animal sacrifice, let alone human sacrifice in the gladiatorial games valued more than peace.   Peace became the official offering and sacrifice to God.  (Which many believe is reflected in the now awkward and uncertain phrase in the Orthodox Liturgy:  “A mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise.”)

Constantine’s original tolerance of Christianity came in the form of a general tolerance for all religion in the empire.  But as Constantine became more committed to the values and teachings of Christianity, he also became confronted by the diversity and divisions (schismatics and heretics)  within Christianity.  Prior to Constantine, these divisions were dealt with by excommunications, after Constantine the competing factions asked the empire to intervene in their disputes.   This too was an unexpected and unplanned for affect on how Christians dealt with each other.  Constantine believed it his duty to ensure peace and tranquility in the empire and so naturally assumed he had this god-given role in the church as well.  He tried to use church methods to solve these problems – appealed to the bishops to rule on the disputes, and called forchurch councils to permanently settle the problems.  Constantine also had no precedent to learn from about how to be the Emperor and also be a member of the Church.   So his dealings with church problems show some inconsistencies, fits and starts and changing direction, failure to resolve conflicts, and mistakes.   The record doesn’t show him taking over the church, but being actively engaged in the religion whose God he believed had brought him to power.   He asked for church leaders to solve problems, and then offered to solve problems with the authority only he as emperor had.   It is also obvious in his thinking, that Christian belief had influenced him and he did desire to continue to receive the favor of the God who had brought him to power.

“Once the empire was a creedal empire, heresy could not be seen as a tolerable difference of opinion; it was subversive, an attack on the vitals of the imperial body, and had to be expelled.  Inevitably, then, the empire founded on a monotheistic creed fractured and eventually yielded to a commonwealth of Christian peoples, the Byzantine ‘empire.’

It was not long after Constantine, as Alasdair MacIntyre points out, that people of goodwill decided that maintaining justice, peace and civilized life did not require the maintenance of the Roman empire.  Some left for monasteries, while others continued in the empire but not of it.  Whatever Constantinian moment there had been was over, ironically assisted by Constantine himself, who not only failed to prevent the empire’s inevitable collapse but probably helped to hasten it.”  (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p  293)

Leitharts’ conclusion is that the very merging of the state with the church in the Roman Empire did bring about great changes in ecclesiology and authority.  Simultaneously however, the issues that were of greatest concern to the church became the problems of the state, and this in Leithart’s opinion weakened the empire’s might and power, and eventually fractured the empire itself.  Constantine’s effort to embrace the church directly contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire.  This in Leithart’s final evaluation is the real legacy of Constantinianism.

The Greek Christians tried to live up to the ideals of the Christian empire that Constantine envisioned and embraced, but found Christianity fragmented by those who rejected centralized imperial power running the Church:  monastics, Monophysites, Nestorians, Latins and a host of others (all the non-Greeks of the empire).    Constantinianism thus failed to take over the church.  Eventually the Roman then Byzantine empire disappeared into the dustbin of history, while the Church continued to carry out its mission to go into all the world, even when and where Constantinianism did not and could not exist.

Constantine, Heretics and Schismatics (2)

This is the 8th blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great.   The previous blog is Constantine, Heretics and Schismatics (1).   This blog series is considering Constantine the Great as presented in two books:  Paul Stephenson’s  CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR  and Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE.

Constantine was a politician, and a rather successful one at that.  Both Leithart and Stephenson note his default tendency in dealing with internal Christian disagreements was at first to appeal to unity and to push the parties toward submitting themselves to the will of the church as expressed through decisions rendered by bishops in council.

“When Constantine first learned of the dispute (Arian), his first instinct, as usual, was to urge concord.  ‘Do ye both exhibit an equal degree of forbearance,’ he wrote to Arius and Alexander. …  For himself, the emperor considered it ‘wrong in the first instance to propose such questions as these, or to reply to them when propounded,’ since ‘those points of discussion which are enjoined by the authority of no law, but rather suggested by the contentious spirit which is fostered by misused leisure, even though they may be intended merely as an intellectual exercise, ought certainly to be confined to the region of our own thoughts, and not hastily produced in the popular assemblies, nor unadvisedly entrusted to the general ear.’   …  Both the one who asked ‘unguarded questions’ and the one who offered an ‘inconsiderate answer’ should seek ‘mutual forgiveness.’”  (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p   167)

Thus Leithart sees Constantine as attempting to follow a path of wisdom in which he recognizes human causes for the divisions which occur in the church – some who cause disturbance by asking questions merely for curiosity or sport and those who quickly take offense at such questions.  Constantine’s solution is to lower the rhetoric and tension and to encourage both sides in a dispute to ask for mutual forgiveness.  Here we see Constantine advocating for Christian morality, rather than relying purely on the force of power that he would have as emperor in settling any dispute which threatened the concord of the empire.  Obviously a Christian vision for the church influenced his thinking on how to deal with conflict within the church.

However when Constantine saw that appeals to reason, to peace, and to Christian unity did not end some of the disputes and that the warring factions continued to appeal to his authority, he was willing to exercise the power he had as emperor to intervene.  Even so, Constantine appeals to theology in the actions he takes; his concern is that the disputing factions are bringing disrespect to the “greatest god” and this is not acceptable as it threatens the entire empire with losing God’s favor.

Constantine wrote: “Those who incite and do things so that the greatest god is not worshipped with the requisite devotion, I shall destroy and scatter.  … those whom I find to be opposed to right and religion itself, and apprehend in violation of the due form of worship, then those without doubt I shall cause to suffer the due penalties of their madness and their reckless obstinacy.”  (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, p  263)

To the Donatists Constantine said: “Those same persons who now stir up the people in such a war as to bring it about that the supreme God is not worshipped with the veneration that is His due, I shall destroy and dash to pieces.”  (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p   84)

Constantine had some sense that there is a correct way to worship God, and he came to see the disputing factions in Christianity as dividing not only the Church but in their opposition to one another calling into question which form of worship was the correct way to approach God.  By causing divisions in the church, the Christians were not able to worship God in a consistent and proper manner but instead were divided into different sects each worshipping God in its own manner.  Constantine interpreted this as a threat to the empire.

Constantine saw in his duty to protect the empire from not only external enemies but also from those within the empire who might offend the one God who had brought him into power and who had bestowed peace and unity on the empire.  Constantine wrote to heretics and schismatics:

“…it is no longer possible to tolerate the pernicious effect of your destructiveness, by this decree we publicly command that none of you henceforth shall dare to assemble.  Therefore, we have also given order that all your buildings are to be confiscated … to prohibit the gathering of assemblies of your superstitious folly.”      …..  Constantine’s professed policy of toleration for all faiths, for which he had fought his last great war against Licinius, foundered on the diversity of Christian doctrine and practice.  In the name of unity he persecuted those whose beliefs were now far closer to his own than those held by worshippers of Sol Invictus, and still more than those of devotees of Dionysius or Asclepius.”   (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, pp 270-271)

Though Constantine pursued efforts to maintain unity and concord within the Church, he became incensed at the stubbornness of certain Christian leaders to resist Church unity/conformity.  In his lifetime his efforts to attain peace and unity are obvious in his wavering of which side in various disputes to support.   Especially when one faction did not back down even in the face of imperial threat, Constantine did switch sides and try to bring the more stubborn party into unity by joining them.  This did earn him the rebuke which we noted from St. Athanasius.

As Stephenson notes, sadly for Constantine, his support of Christianity which led him to decree a toleration of religion bringing an end to Christian persecution, revealed the unexpected divisions in the Christian Church of schismatics and heretics.  Now Constantine’s ideas of toleration and his default tendency toward concord proved ineffective in dealing with divisions within the Church.  His call of the first Ecumenical Council brought together his desire for Christian concord, with his trust that the bishops had the authority to decide on internal church disputes, and with his willingness to put imperial force behind the decisions of the bishops.  Yet all of this did not bring a quick and sure end to disputes.  For imperial authority was not recognized as the final say in church matters, and a spiritual wisdom was valued more than mere force in dealing with theological disputes.  Thus the charge that a Constantinian change took place in the church in which the state simply took control of church life cannot be sustained by the evidence.  Constantine himself was not able to enforce Constantinianism.   The Arian crisis continued despite Constantine’s efforts to end it.

Next:  Constantine, the Church and War (1)

Constantine, Heretics and Schismatics (1)

This is the 7th blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great.   The previous blog is Constantine and the Christian Bishops (2).   This blog series is considering Constantine the Great as presented in two books:  Paul Stephenson’s  CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR  and Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE.

Constantine elevated the status of the Christian bishops in society making them recognizable authorities, capable of dealing with some legal disputes between people.  He also declared that the public in general should come to respect the decisions of bishops since their decisions on issues were thought to represent the ideas of God.  Constantine soon came to realize there were warring factions within the church, and the granting of religious tolerance gave the Christians a legal status in the empire  which led to the Christians making legal appeals to the state to help settle property disputes.   This quickly became a means to ask the state to intervene in disputes in which there were disputing candidates each claiming to be the legitimate bishop in a city; thus the state was being asked to legitimize the bishop rather than it be purely a church decision .  Both Stephenson and Leithart see Constantine’s default attitude in these disputes to be one of trying to find reconciliation in order to maintain church unity.

“Letters written soon after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge demonstrate the emperor’s desire to end factionalism within the Christian community, lest this bring down divine wrath upon the emperor.  The sentiment is as authentic as the letters, for it reflects Constantine’s  conception of the summus deus  as a grantor of victory, which might be rescinded as surely as it was given.  Constantine’s concern for Christians was founded in a practical desire to ensure divine favour for his own enterprises, and this facilitated the emperor’s conversion from veneration of a summus deus  that he portrayed in the traditional iconography of Sun worshippers, to his public recognition of the god of the Christians as the true ‘greatest god.’”  (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, p  169)

Stephenson as is consistent with his presentation of Constantine sees his actions as being self-serving:  Constantine wants to please the God who brought him to power and interprets church divisions not as efforts to seek the truth but as threats to the empire’s receiving divine favor from the God who had brought him to power.  Constantine is the pragmatist and Christianity serves his utilitarian motivation.  However, Stephenson does acknowledge that Constantine’s concern is still authentic – there was no separation of church and state in the 4th Century Roman Empire; thus, part of Constantine’s role in defending the interests of the state is to assure that the gods or THE God is appeased through right worship.

Leithart  like Stephenson acknowledges Constantine’s political interests and motivations, yet Leithart sees Constantine being more inclined to support religious truth in his political decisions.  Constantine is a believer in the power of God, and understands that right worship and doctrine are essential for serving this one true God, and for securing God’s favor for the empire.  To this extent, Constantine is a believer in the Christian God and desires to serve this God who has blessed him.

“Constantine was a very skilled politician, and he had definite preferences, strategies, goals.  … his understanding of Christianity was inherently political, structurally similar to Diocletian’s Tetrarchic political theology: right worship of the Christian God would ensure the prosperity and peace of Rome, and right worship demanded the unity of the church.”  (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 152)

Constantine never loses sight of his role as emperor even though he is coming to better understand Christianity and its implication for all aspects of life in the Empire.  Constantine embraces the monotheism of Christianity as it serves his purpose well for uniting the empire under one emperor, namely himself.  Constantine’s vision includes: one empire, one emperor, one God, one religion for everyone in the Empire.   The appeal of the Gospel to unity and oneness is appealing to Constantine’s own vision of the Roman Empire.  Polytheism could not unite all the diverse elements of the empire, but Christianity welcomed women, men, slaves, rulers, Latins, Greeks, Arabs, Africans and all humans to serve the one God of the universe.   Thus the Church does serve his political agenda, and yet the evidence also indicates that Constantine embraced the goals and agenda of the Church to bring the Gospel to all, and to help make things “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Constantine believes the one supreme God has desired the unity of his empire, and comes to understand his god-given role as to help bring about this unity.

Next:  Constantine, Heretics and Schismatics (2)

The Good Samaritan (1988)

The Good Samaritan        Sermon from November 12, 1988

Luke 10:27-35

One of the nice things about being in a Church which repeats the same scripture readings year after year is that we have the chance to increase our understanding of some of Christ’s teachings. We can grow in our knowledge of one aspect of what the Son of God taught. We dip deeper and deeper into the mind of Christ which indeed is a deep well which overflows into eternal life.

The story of the Good Samaritan is one of the best known parables which Jesus told. The implications of this story are accepted by religions which reject the Lordship and divine nature of Jesus Christ. There are several clear teachings from the story.

I would also like for you today to think more deeply into the story.

The lawyer who comes to Jesus, comes not to find eternal life but to test Jesus. The lawyer does indeed ask Jesus how to inherit eternal life, but he hopes that Jesus will say something wrong so that he can accuse Jesus of heresy.

Jesus embarrasses the lawyer. Jesus asks the lawyer, “What does the law say?” The lawyer answers, “To love God and to love the neighbor.”

Jesus then tell him to obey the law and he will have eternal life.

Now the lawyer is embarrassed. He knew the answer to his own question, but Jesus made it look like even the lawyer needs to learn something. But the lawyer was not seeking information from Jesus, but that is exactly how Jesus treated his question. He was made to look bad, so now he really presses Jesus. I can almost hear him say, “All right wise guy, so who is my neighbor?” His question carries with it the more devious statement, “Surely you are not telling me to love these Romans who are oppressing God’s people, or those despicable tax collectors, or those non-believing Samaritans?”

But Jesus indeed is calling us to shape ourselves into the image of God. Jesus is telling us to become compassionate and merciful as God is who bestows gifts even on the sinner. God calls us to be loving and merciful beings with hearts of compassion for the suffering and needy. We are to be willing to interrupt our lives, risk embarrassment, to share our blessings with those in need.

Blessed are the merciful for they shall be shown mercy.

To love our neighbors, means that we seek the good of our neighbors in the same way that we seek good for ourselves. Take all the zeal, all the ingenuity, all the perseverance which you use to get good for yourself, and seek your neighbor’s well being.

Do you seek to satisfy your own hunger? Then with similar urgency feed your neighbor. Do you try to keep us with the latest fashions? Then equally seek to clothe the naked. In your own home, do you strive to keep up with the Joneses? Then also seek to provide shelter for your homeless neighbor. To you seek out companionship and social gatherings so you wont be lonely? Then visit the sick and imprisoned to meet their needs. Do I seek to be happy, popular or successful? Then as a Christian, I should apply myself to helping others be happy, well liked and successes.

Selfishness seeks its own private happiness at the expense of others. Loves seeks its happiness in the happiness of others.

As Jesus told the lawyer, “You go and do likewise.”


(see DESIRING GOD, by John Piper, pp 252-257)