(The following is an excerpt from my new book, Homebrewed Christianity Guide to Church History: Flaming Heretics and Heavy Drinkers.)
But as for those who say, “There was when He was not” and, “Before being born He was not,” and that “He came into existence out of nothing,” or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance, or created, or is subject to alteration or change — these the Catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes.
— Creed of Nicaea
In 1980/81, when I received tenure at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., I stood at the pulpit of the school’s chapel and, with quill pen in hand, signed the “Abstract of Principles,” the school’s confessional document, in a ledger that had been signed by every tenured faculty member since the school’s founding in 1859. With that signature I pledged to teach “in accordance with and not contrary to” the doctrinal statement of the Southern Baptist Convention’s oldest theological school. All went reasonably well, until the early 1990s when the seminary board of trustees, like the SBC itself, took a hard right turn theologically and ideologically.
Soon, a new set of doctrines was proposed as an addendum to the confessional mix. They were taken from a document set forth by the SBC Peace Committee, an ad hoc group appointed to find some way through a burgeoning division in the Southern Baptist ranks. The added dogmas were to be used as guidelines in “tenure, promotion, and hiring” at the seminary. They required the following beliefs:
- Adam and Eve were real persons.
- The named authors did indeed write the biblical books attributed to them.
- The miracles described in Scripture did indeed occur as supernatural events in history.
- The historical narratives given by biblical authors are indeed accurate and reliable as given by those authors.
For most of us faculty, it wasn’t simply the dogmas but the process by which they were being imposed. We knew that once we signed off on these tenets, there would be others, until we’d either lost our theology or our souls. So we protested the changing of the rules, and the grandfathering in of new doctrinal tests for tenure and promotion. We raised concerns with our national accrediting agency, which sent a team to investigate.
Ultimately, a trustee/faculty committee was established to respond to the situation, negotiating a temporary “covenant” that held long enough for a significant number of the faculty to secure other positions, leaving the seminary and its denomination to its more rightward intent. In academia, sometimes the ultimate benefit of tenure is to get you to the roof of the embassy in time to catch the last helicopter!
The Baptist orthodoxy wars taught me this: When ideologues decide you are a heretic, they’ll raise the doctrinal ante until they prove it — if not to you, at least to themselves.
Theological dictums have energized, solidified, divided and even broken the church for 2,000 years. Sorting out true doctrine from false is no easy matter, but it remains essential, sometimes so intensely that it becomes a matter of life and death. At the same time, the history of the church reveals occasions when efforts to protect or defend against certain beliefs have fueled multiple atrocities initiated in Jesus’ name, requiring repentant apologies in a later time.
That’s where the word anathema comes in. Concluding his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “Let anyone be accursed who has no love for the Lord. Our Lord, come!” (1 Cor. 16:22) The Greek words anathema (accursed) and maranatha (Lord, come) ultimately became watch words for excommunication, separating unruly and/or heretical individuals not only from the church, but also from salvation itself. To provide a guide to flaming heretics requires confronting some of the church’s strongest convictions and most horrendous mistakes, and searching for the wisdom to discern the difference.
Questions over the nature of Christian orthodoxy have haunted the church from the start. Very quickly multiple groups that understood themselves as Christians introduced ideas that were in conflict, even contradiction with others. Some of those groups gained enough power, stability and influence that their definitions of doctrine were understood as “normative,” or “orthodox.” Over time, they controlled the documents that defined orthodoxy itself, often undermining or even destroying alternative visions. Often in Christian history, particularly in the early centuries, we know the most about flaming heretics as they were articulated by the people who despised them.
In his study of Lost Christianities, biblical scholar Bart Ehrman notes that issues of orthodoxy and heresy once seemed clear and rather easily defined. Orthodoxy, he says, “was the right belief, taught by Jesus to his disciples and handed down by them to the leaders of the Christian churches.” Heresy, on the other hand, comes “from the Greek word for ‘choice,’” and refers to “intentional decisions to depart from the right belief; it implies a corruption of faith, found only among a minority of people.”
As his book title suggests, Ehrman insists that from the beginning there were multiple Christianities, with varying definitions of orthodoxy, ultimately defined by a “proto-orthodox” or “normative” theological majority, the ecclesiastical winners in the doctrinal wars. As thus defined, heretics were those who held false beliefs, not simply out of ignorance or from deceitful teachers, but who willfully chose damnable notions that carried them beyond eternal truth. So anathema became a label applied to the excommunicated ones, often with dire spiritual, even violent, effects. Sometimes the heretics were indeed flaming in their obstinate insistence on alternative readings of scripture or theology. They simply would not be silent. At other times they were literally flaming, burned alive or otherwise executed for their perceivably false beliefs and practices.