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THE Cruelty of HERESY
AN AFFIRMATION OF CHRISTIAN ORTHODOXY
By C. FitzSimons Allison
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 1994C. FitzSimons Allison
All rights reserved.
Short Beds and Narrow Blankets
For the bed is too short to stretch oneself on it, and the covering too narrow to wrap himself in it.
In spite of popular ideas concerning heresies, they are, in fact, narrow and limited ways of understanding Christianity. They are "short beds" and "narrow blankets," but they are inevitable. Any group of Christians today are apt to arrive at conclusions similar to those of the early church as they puzzle over and respond to crucial texts of scripture:
"Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone." (Mark 10:18)
"The Father is greater than I." (John 14:28) Jesus wept. (John 11:35) "I thirst" (John 19:28)
And Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. (Matt. 27:50)
Do these, and other texts like them, mean that Jesus was a good man but not God? Is he merely a human to whom God gave divine attributes? Or was he a remarkable man to whom divine qualities were attributed by disciples and impressionable believers?
Consider, on the other hand, these texts:
"But who do you say that I am?" And Peter answered, 'The Christ of God." (Luke 9:20)
"He who has seen me has seen the Father." (John 14:9) "I and the Father are one." (John 10:30)
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. (John 1:1)
He is the image of the invisible God, the first born of every creature. (Col. 1:15)
Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28)
Do these, and other texts like them, mean that Jesus was indeed God and that God himself took on flesh, suffered and died? Or do they mean that God was in Christ but only appeared to be a man, appeared to suffer, and appeared to die?
Each of these inferences and many more have been made by people reading the Bible or, in the case of the early church, hearing the story of Jesus Christ before it was set down and read as scripture. Misunderstandings and distortions of the gospel message were innumerable, and many of them can be found in one form or another today.
The meaning of these texts must necessarily be asked in each generation and of each individual. "What think ye of Christ?" is a question addressed by our Lord not only to Peter, but to each of us. Christians, in the early centuries, used a three-hundred-year process of accepting and rejecting writings before finally approving certain ones as "canonical" and placing them in what we call the Bible. This process is called "canonizing," and the result is called the "canon of scripture." Over subsequent centuries Christians used a similar process of accepting and rejecting teachings, based on varying responses to questions such as those above, to set limits and boundaries for these teachings. We know these boundaries as our classical creeds.
Personalities, politics, and intrigue were factors in the development of creedal statements. Christianity has never promised its adherents a purely spiritual arena, with wise and selfless leaders working out pure doctrine insulated from and uncontaminated by politics, rivalry, partisanship, fear, strife, and other "works of our fallen nature" (Gal. 5:19). Then as now God has only sinners to do Gods work.
After Constantine (318), emperors attempted to use Christianity to bring unity to the empire by coercion, exile, and imprisonment of "heretics." Certainly this imposition and enforcement of the church(tm)s teaching by law was one of the less fortunate aspects of the agonizing process of determining orthodoxy.
But the positive aspects of limits on teaching that claimed to be Christian have too often been overlooked in modern times. We fail to appreciate the necessity of preserving Christ(tm)s teachings and his work in order to safeguard the graceful and liberating experiences of Christians. As a skull and crossbones on a bottle warns that the contents are poison to our bodies, so the label "heresy" warns us that it is poison to our souls.
One cannot give one(tm)s own experience of redemption to another person, much less to another generation. One can only witness to it, describe it, and tell the story of that experience and live in a way that makes the witness believable and attractive. In telling the story, it was then, and is now, crucial to get the story right.
One of the earliest versions of the story of Jesus that jeopardized what Christians had experienced was called Docetism. The Docetists found it incomprehensible that Jesus could have actually suffered. They answered the essential questions about him by insisting that he only appeared to suffer, to weep, to thirst, to hunger, to sweat in agony, and to die, and that his incarnate human state was so spiritual that he only appeared to be human. (Docetism is derived from the word dokein, which means "to seem, to appear.") The faithful denied these teachings early on because telling the story the Docetic way would cause hearers to miss the essential aspects of Christian experience.
Jesus(tm) disciples had known a person who had really been born, had lived through a real childhood, had had a real body, and had experienced real suffering, a real crucifixion, and a real resurrection. His followers in subsequent generations had a similar experience because they had been told the story of a real man and not one who only appeared to be human.
Experiencing and surviving one(tm)s own suffering can be one of the transforming realities of a Christian(tm)s life. Suffering would have been left untouched, in all its painful and despairing hopelessness, if Docetism, which taught that God in no way has taken on human suffering, had been accepted as authentic Christian teaching.
Too few studies have mentioned the religious and devotional experiences of Christians that led them to reject Docetism. All who had been able to rejoice in their suffering because of its role in the development of patience and hope (Rom. 5:3, Col. 1:24, James 1:2–4) insisted passionately that these treasured experiences were dependent upon, and could not be detached from, the experience of Christ(tm)s suffering.
The "fellowship of his sufferings" (Phil. 3:10 AV) was a key to the new Christian life. We are "heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him" (Rom. 8:17). The apostle Peter reflects the Christian view that turns the experience of suffering wrongly or for righteousness(tm) sake into an occasion to give thanks (1 Peter 2:19) and be glad (1 Peter 3:14). Such experiences in Christian lives depended upon the thorough repudiation of the Docetic lie.
The Docetic version of Christ(tm)s death on the cross was that Simon of Cyrene, who was pressed to help carry Jesus(tm) cross was actually crucified in Christ(tm)s stead and thereby saved Christ from the indignity of the crucifixion. Although this version of Christianity was repudiated early, human hope that religion will provide escape from suffering and from the offense that Christ suffered an excruciating execution, has caused it to recur repeatedly in church history, in varied and often more subtle forms.
Islam, which honors Jesus as a great prophet, has adopted and preserved the Docetic teaching about Jesus(tm) escape from suffering on the cross. The shame of crucifixion, which gave power and impetus to Docetism, is hard for twentieth-century minds to comprehend, with our tamed and domesticated familiarity with crucifixes in art and jewelry. The fact that several centuri
Excerpted from THE Cruelty of HERESY by C. FitzSimons Allison. Copyright © 1994 by C. FitzSimons Allison. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by the Archbishop of Canterbury
1 Short Beds and Narrow Blankets
2 Attacks on Christian Faith
3 The Trinity
4 Arianism: The Three Deities
5 The Cappadocians
7 Nestorianism: The Train of Salvation Does Not Stop for Sinners
8 Eutychianism: The Religious Withering of Humanity
9 A Rectitude of the Heart
10 Orthodoxy and Pagan Religions Revived