On ‘Heresy’


A small dust-up has occurred over the word ‘heresy.’ The word was used at the Lutheran CORE meeting by Bp, Paull Spring (here) and such talk has been criticized here by Gettysburg Seminary president Michael Cooper-White. Both men seek to be faithful leaders in the church and my contacts with both have attested to that intent. I wish to cast aspersions on neither, though I am closer to Bp. Spring’s outlook than President Cooper-White’s.

There is a problem with the word ‘heresy.’ The classical definition of heresy is ‘obstinate error,’ error maintained in the face of authoritative correction. This is the definition in the present Catholic Code of Canon Law (c. 751) and the definition elaborated in the 17th century by the greatest of the Lutheran scholastics, John Gerhard. To be a heretic, Gerhard said, a person must not only hold an error that “directly conflicts [impingat] with the very foundation of the faith,” but must join to the error “wickedness and obstinacy, through which, though frequently admonished, he obstinately defends his error” (references below).

The concept ‘heresy’ presupposes beliefs about the faith ‘once and for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3), about the church as bound to that deposit of the faith, and about the role of rightly constituted doctrinal authority. Those beliefs become effective only in connection with a set of practices of pastoral admonition and obedience. (Gerhard takes up ‘heresy’ under the topic: De pugnantibus cum ministerio – Of those doing battle with the ministry).

Are these assumptions and practices to be found in the ELCA at present? If a pastor or professor avoids explicitly denying a few central doctrines and uses some standard Lutheran shibboleths, is there anything that would call down doctrinal admonition from a bishop? Does the ELCA as a church body understand itself as ‘bound’ to the deposit of teaching on faith and morals? If so, how could the unanimous consensus of the tradition on a foundational matter of Christian ethics be overturned by 55% of one Assembly?

More fundamental than the question whether the ELCA has fallen into heresy is the question whether the ELCA has become a church in which heresy has become an unusable concept. Heresy as obstinate error requires authoritative teaching and correction against which to be obstinate. The presence of heresy is a serious problem; the impossibility of heresy is catastrophe.

Michael Root

English for Gerhard quotations in Heinrich Schmid, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. 3rd ed. Trans. Charles A. Hay and Henry E. Jacobs. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), p. 615.
Latin for these passages, Johann Gerhard, Loci Theolgici , marginal reference XIII, 214, 222.


16 Responses to “On ‘Heresy’”

  1. Brian Bennett Says:

    Michael Root wrote:
    “Does the ELCA as a church body understand itself as ‘bound’ to the deposit of teaching on faith and morals? If so, how could the unanimous consensus of the tradition on a foundational matter of Christian ethics be overturned by 55% of one Assembly?”

    In a post-modern world where the existence of an objective metanarrative is denied, allowing instead for the individual to determine meaning in a story, does the category of heresy mean anything for anyone, let alone the ELCA?

    A friend of mine, commenting on the proceedings of the Churchwide Assembly, said that this Assembly was the first truly postmodern assembly of ours. The speeches (not really debate) reflected that.

    Is heresy dead, at least as a usuable category? Is it necessary to move into the realm of decentralized, persuasive example, and away from top down centralized authority? And what does that mean for heretics?

    • Michael Root Says:

      I am not so sure. I think postmodernity is best understood as an extension of modernity. Postmodernity seems to contradict modernity in that it brings out self-contradictions within modernity’s self-understanding.
      I think there was a metanarrative shaping the views of many who supported change at the Assembly, the rather standard modern metanarrative of the steady elimination of any limitations on self-choice and self-expression in what is defined as private life. I think that narrative was clear in the speeches of those who connected this decision with civil rights and women’s ordination. R. R. Reno has written perceptively (here) about the importance of the question of the approval of homosexuality for this narrative. “Homosexuality richly suggests freedom from an old, restrictive moral order, freedom from the inhibiting power of shame, freedom from the burdens of judgment, censure, and condemnation. And it evokes the promise of existential freedom, the inner release from inhibition and fear of social censure.” The way this narrative meshes with what I discussed above as “standard 20th century Lutheranism” illustrates what I mean about the way this theology intertwines with an accommodation to contemporary society
      Michael Root

      • Noah Hepler Says:

        I don’t think that this is the only way to understand how and why people make the connection with women’s ordination and civil rights.

        There is also a suspicion that the hermeneutic employed by “traditionalists” seems too similar to the hermeneutics used against ordaining women which was, in turn, too similar to the hermeneutics used historically to exclude eunuchs, Gentiles, Jews, and non-Caucasians, not to mention women in general (and not just ordination). Looking at the history of interpretation, the arguments against homosexuality are not far too entwined in views that we find unacceptable. Chrysostom rails against because in the act a man (who is superior) takes on the role of a woman (who is inferior). It is not only the “revisionists” that have intertwined gender in this argument – so have the Church Fathers. It was to that very hermeneutic that we responded with that in the body of Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. While its not as though that race, class, and gender do not exist – but that they are no long means by which we can make distinctions in the Church.

  2. Pr. Dan Biles Says:

    Paul Hinlicky, in his article on lutheranforum.org, has suggested that “heterodoxy” more accurately describes what the CWA decisions approved.

    Recently, reading Frank Senn’s excellent little book, “Lutheran Identity,” I came across this passage: “Within the Lutheran Church, there is concern to receive the magnum consensus – the great consensus of the catholic tradition” (p. 58).

    In light of this, what the CWA decisions mean is that the ELCA has moved in the direction of a sectarian Christianity. The decisions depart from the catholic tradition of Christian teaching on sexuality and marriage. They are a clear break with the teaching of 99+% of the Church today – Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical Christianity, Pentecostal. Our ecumencial direction is towad a less perfect communion with the Church catholic.

    “One, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” After CWA, can the ELCA honestly claim that it confesses the latter two marks of the Church?

  3. Harvey Mozolak Says:

    Dr. Root,

    This is a good site. Much to be learned, thank you.

    Are theological error, false teaching, heresy, heterodoxy and apostasy, (you can drop any or rearrange any of the terms) various points on a measure of ecclesial sin, some worse or deeper than others?

    How or why do we make the distinctions that allow us to call what CWA has done, heresy, while calling our theological differences with say Rome on good works role in salvation and the real presence with the Reformed… just something we are working on with beloved brothers and sisters somehow separated? And why should not the LCMS call us heretical for our women clergy or we they for not allowing women to be ordained?

    Finally, your fourth paragraph speaks of avoiding denying central doctrines. What if the prof or pastor believes, say all doctrines as well as any human can, but only departs from that norm in this one teaching of who can be ordained and married by the church? Apart from sin against one commandment, tumbling all… what is the church to do with such narrow a departure from the great deposit of faith?

    Can you make some sense of my muddlings? Harvey Mozolak

  4. Michael Root Says:

    Pr. Mozolak,
    Big questions that I will try to address in the series on “Are We Divided?” Let me just say for the moment that one essay I have found helpful in thinking about these matters is from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Question of the Boundaries of the Church and Church Union.” in The Way to Freedom: Letters, Lectures, and Notes 1935–1939 (London: Collins + World, 1966), pp. 75-96. This essay has not yet appeared in the Fortress translation of the complete works. Bonhoeffer makes some suggestive remarks about the difference between a pilgrim church, an erring church, and a false church.
    Michael Root

  5. Pastor Keith A. Hunsinger Says:

    We speak proudly of the Gospel as being counter cultural. We employ that phrase in civil rights, gender questions, and justice for the poor. Yet in this case we have instead bent a knee to a cultural norm.

    I continue to appreciate the work done on this blog. It is providing me a framework for how I address the institutional church in the upcoming weeks. Thank you

  6. Lawrence804 Says:

    Not heresy (yet) but serious error. Perhaps leading the way for future heresies as all is up for grabs and a New Thing is erected before our eyes. The mindset behind the vote and what that mindset will lead to down the road is ultimately more significant than the specific decisions reached at CWA 09.

  7. Christopher Luke Seamon Says:

    I’m reminded of a comment I heard regarding racism in the US. Racism has become so narrowly defined, was the suggestion, that unless you say the “n” word, you’re not a racist. I believe this is true, but also instructive in our situation regarding the word “heresy”. Unless one denies the divinity of Christ blatantly or the Trinity, then the word heresy is off limits. (Though, I wonder if that’s even the case anymore. I recently heard a pastor say that Crossan and Borg are “excellent Lutheran theologians”, though, as far as I know, they deny the resurrection of Our Lord)

    The president of Gettysburg, in recent comments, points to apartheid as modern day heresy. Perhaps anything that goes against the inclusivity narrative can possibly be implied as heresy in the ELCA. However, I’m not sure any of our standing bishops would go so far to do so in any case.

    I think bishop Spring is not simply referring to this particular decision regarding homosexuality, but all that goes with it: the pervasive ideology that deeply colors the reading of Scripture in the ELCA, and allows us to ignore any part of scripture that goes against that ideology, and still be able to claim to be biblical. Certainly the devil was a skilled exegete as well.

  8. Pastor Keith A. Hunsinger Says:

    I keep getting accused of “not understanding” the questions regarding sexuality. It is as if I were to understand better my position would change. But it seems to me President Cooper-White is the one who does not understand.

    His argument is that the sexuality questions are of insufficent gravitas to warrant accusations of heresy. Yet it is not the sexuality questions that make the decisions in Minneapolis subject to that label but questions of what is sin! For me, the decision in Minneapolis was to call a sin, not a sin. Those questions have the gravitas to make calls of “heresy” valid.

    I ma currently using the phrase “heterodox decision” and have not used Bp. Spring’s definition but after reviewwing Dr. Root’s article I may change my mind.

  9. Pr. Ian Wolfe Says:

    I tend to agree with Dr. Root, Pr. Hunsinger, and others that the word heresy may be an appropriate charge to make. The problem though is that I think at this point it can only be a charge, not a definitive statement of conviction. Good or bad we do not have a formal magisterium within the ELCA who is charged with the task of making that judgement.

    Dr. Root mentions Can. 751 to help us define heresy, but we can help us make that decision is Can. 749 §2, “The college of bishops also possess infallibility in teaching when the bishops gathered together in an ecumenical council exercise the magisterium as teachers and judges of faith and morals who declare for the universal Church that a doctrine of faith or morals is to be held definitively.” Not saying that we need an infallible magisterium, but we need some form of Lutheran version of that which serves as teacher and judge of faith and morals, a check against the practical infallibility of a Churchwide Assembly.

    It may be the case that the ELCA is in a state of heresy, but we have no way of authoritatively judging that. At least in my understanding the judgment of heresy is not an individual one, but rather the judgment of the whole church (or at least “this church”), because the violation is against the whole church and her teaching. While Bp. Spring may be accurate in his charge, he may not be able authoritatively to declare it. I could be wrong in this and would appreciate correction.

    What we do have in the ELCA is a constitution and there are those who are now rightly making the argument that the social statement and the ministry policies are unconstitutional, that is that they violate the Confession of Faith (ELCA Const. Chapter 2). At least there may be a more formal process by which we can judge whether or not the decisions are indeed heresy. Although in my limited understanding of ELCA canon law, the judgment on all things constitutional end with Secretary Swartling with the possibilty of appeal to the Church Council. Yet this end is only a judgment about the constitutionality of the decisions, not whether or not they are contrary to the one deposit of the faith. As much as I support this effort it still lacks what we desperately need within the ELCA, an authoritative corrector of errors, obstinate or otherwise.

  10. Noah Hepler Says:

    I find myself more in agreement with Dr. Cooper-White. The term “heresy” is far too strong of a descriptor for the actions of CWA09 – even assuming that you happen to disagree with it (which I do not). Such elevates the discussion to a theological level which seems inordinate. If CWA09 had voted to make it optional for pastors to affirm the divine and human natures of Christ – then yes, heresy. But to call a vote to permit congregations to call pastors who are in same-sex relationships strikes me as fundamentally no different a departure from the historic teaching of the Church than allowing divorced pastors to remarry or allowing people beyond the age of child bearing to wed – how then can this be heresy?

    Bruce D. Marshall said:
    “Take for example, the views of our neighbors, whether Episcopal or Lutheran on homosexuality. An Episcopal Church court refused to find Bishop Righter guilty of heresy for ordaining an openly homosexual person. Is the best possible construct we [Lutherans] can put on this decision that the Episcopal Church now regards morals as completely divorced from, and irrelevant to, the apostolic faith? Or would a better construction (and therefore, if Luther reads the commandment rightly, one closer to the truth) be that the court regarded the charge as unsuited to the case, not because faith has nothing to do with morals, but because not every disciplinary matter in the Church can be settled by appeal to the central doctrines of the faith, as would be required for a charge of heresy to stick? From which sentence of the Nicene Creed, for example, can it be inferred that open homosexuals are not to be ordained?” (The Lutheran Forum 32,1 (1998): p40.)

    While we might find ourselves in departure from some other denominations on this matter, we are also in departure on the ordination of women. Rome can, will, and does excommunicate for teaching this, let alone practicing it (should we consider abandoning this decision also?). Yet, in one form or another, on this matter, we have responded with,”Tradition without truth is simply an ancient heresy” (Cyprian Letter 74,9). While there is much accusation about there heretical nature of the CWA09’s decisions, I believe that the “traditionalists” cannot label these decisions as heresy while never defining what is the nature of the sin that they are accusing what we now call homosexuality as being – and therefore that the Church’s tradition on this matter is not simply yet another long held error of interpretation.

    • Pastor Keith A. Hunsinger Says:

      If the concern was only about a change in sexual practice then I would agree with you. But for me the question is about the nature of sin and whether or not the Lutheran Church is willing to call sin, sin. Questions of sexuality may not rise to the level of heresy but questions of sin , in my opinion, do!

      • Noah Hepler Says:

        But the question was not about the failure to be able to label sin. We were not asked to no longer worry about sin. The question posed was does what we call and describe as same sex relationships match that which is condemned in Scripture. What CWA09 said was to acknowledge that the church was divided on whether or not the texts appealed to apply to what we call homosexuality; and it did so in a far less emphatic way than the predecessor bodies did in saying that the texts in regards to the prohibition against women having leadership roles in the Church do not apply to the situation we find ourselves in today.

        As best as I can understand the “traditionalist” argument – homosexuality (or perhaps homosexual acts) is sinful because its unnatural. Yet there is no description as to how it is unnatural. Catholic Moral theology at least offers the explanation of the inability to reproduce – yet protestants (and Orthodox) have not placed reproduction as _the_ goal of marriage, but rather invested in the power of marriage and sex to unite.

        So the CWA09 did not ask us to ignore sin – It did not say that we are not in need of salvation. Therefore, I believe “heresy” remains a term far too strong and that application of the term to this situation equivocates the analogy of faith with the rule of faith.

      • Noah Hepler Says:

        I said that the CWA09 decisions were made in a way “for less empathetic than” in regards to the ordination of women…. that should read “far more empathetic”

  11. R. Reimann Says:

    Although I am not, nor ever will be a theologian, I submit Pr. Paull Spring most certainly (in the minds of most traditional lay Lutheran individuals I know) has hit the mark. The totality of what our ELCA organizational leaders have allowed and the direction(s) taken are heresy! Period!

    What debate is necessary? Those of us in the trenches, trying to make some sense of what a select few have accomplished within the CWA and other areas within the ELCA, would simply like to go forward in a Christian manner. We are unable to back up and “fix” what is wrong with a “broken” ELCA. The Lord will judge all our actions and/or lack thereof. I pray that collectively we will have the opportunity to make our Lord smile. He may even say “At least you tried thou good and faithful servants.” And yes, the “log” is out of our eyes, only splinters remain.

    Thank you, I thank each one of you for allowing myself and others to learn from your thoughts and prayerful insights. We as ole Bible believing traditional catholic Lutherans pray for guidance in our collective journey forward.

    Blessings in the Risen Christ! He is forever alive!

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