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.
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.