Friday, February 29, 2008

On Burning Heretics

I've been reading any interesting post by Stumac over on In the Moment about the bad behaviour associated with battles over theology. I think we find this kind of thing so hard to deal with partly because we view heresy so differently from the ancestors. We tend to see it as an intellectual infirmity - the person isn't thinking straight. They, on the other hand, saw it as a moral fault - the willingness to believe a lie. Actually the New Testament seems to assume this pre-modern concept. It's interesting to note that in the Book of Revelation it is not only the false prophet who is thrown into the lake of fire but also "all those deceived by him." Hang on isn't being deceived something amoral, something "not my fault"? Perhaps not; perhaps I allow myself to be deceived because of some inner fault that is willing to believe a lie.

The other difference between us and earlier generations of Christians is that because religion was previously so much a part of society (especially from the late medieval/early modern period) a heretic threatened the very stability of the social order. Today a heretic can hold whatever false doctrines he or she wants and it doesn't bother us at all because we live in a free and liberal society, in a world of complete freedom of religion. Every suburban Kingdom Hall is evidence that this system works very well. But to a person in, say, Luther's Germany, a heretic such as Michael Servetus (just as an example) was considered not unlike the way we might consider a terrorist - a person whose view threatened the safety of society and who needed to be prosecuted for his religious views for the good of the whole.

Now, I am not trying to make excuses for the atrocious act of burning and torturing heretics. It was as unChristian then as it would be today. But understanding these people's context and the way they acted as people of their time helps us understand a little better the actions they took (even if we still believe they were wrong). I'm glad we no longer burn heretics - these days we make them bishops.


Ross McPhee said...

Interesting. The other problem is that these historical atrocities committed in the name of religion can often be used by atheists or agnostics as straw man arguments to justify their rejection of Christianity.

Ben said...

I agree that that burning heretics is wrong, and you make some great points about heresy not just being an intellectual endeavor.

Another thing that's significant is that even in the heresies that some may want to consider smaller or less significant (i.e Iconoclast, Nestorianism, monophysite) were not seen as isolated from necessary doctrines. For example, not only was iconoclastism an attack on the holy images, but upon the doctrine of the one hypostasis and dual natures of Christ that had previously been established at Chalcedon and later in the 2nd and 3rd councils of Constantinople.

Shannon said...

Your very cheeky with your last comment, I must say! What George Pell think? (Not that I care)

I think the reason that all soughts of doctrines prevail today, has to do with the golden rule of, 'tolerence at any cost', that underpins or every society.

An if you do stand up for 'truth', that is God's truth, your are accused of being arrogant and pushing your non tolorent beliefs where they are not wanted.

I think the complete 180 dgree turn that our society has undergone, means that we believe everything, (except Christianity) and no nothing. Which is a shame!

Glen O'Brien said...

It wasn't George Pell I had in mind. He's alright in my book.


Share |