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Heresy hunting and the Church

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(Photo: Unsplash/Chris Liverani)

First off, what is heresy hunting? I define it as follows:

heresy hunting: the practice of searching for indictable theological offenses in written or spoken text.

Now let me add immediately that “indictable theological offense” is not a proper definition of heresy. But that’s because the heresy hunter is not really after heresies at all. To be sure, he’d love to find one, but he’ll be satisfied if he could uncover any indictable theological offense.

So what is an indictable theological offense?

indictable theological offense: a doctrinal position the holding of which is sufficient to get one disaffiliated with a particular church or parachurch ministry.

Yes, a heresy would qualify, but many other lesser “errors” would as well. For example, if the pastor in a Baptist church starts preaching infant baptism, he may not be guilty of a proper heresy but he has certainly committed an indictable theological offense relative to that ecclesial communion.

And so the heresy hunter is that person who devotes his time to reading blogs, listening to sermons, skimming books et cetera, with the hopes of finding some statement or utterance in the written or spoken text which could qualify as an indictable theological offense and thus provide grounds for getting the guilty individual disaffiliated from a particular ecclesial communion.

You might ask: What’s wrong with that? If somebody commits an indictable theological offense, shouldn’t they be held to account? That’s a fair question and it deserves a response. Let me make three points.

First, there is a world of difference between engaging written or spoken texts while attuned to indictable theological offenses and engaging written or spoken texts with the primary or sole purpose of finding indictable theological offenses.

The world of difference is this. In the former case you are reading or listening for understanding and illumination, while in the latter case you read or listen for error. In other words, the heresy hunter engages texts like a hammer looking for nails to pound. As you can imagine, with that attitude he all but ensures that he will find nothing worthwhile in the text. This has a negative impact on the reading of texts as I explain in the second point:

Second, the heresy hunter’s fixation on identifying indictable theological offenses undermines a charitable and properly nuanced reading of texts.

As you can guess, were the heresy hunter engaging texts to the end of understanding rather than merely condemning, he would likely end up with a much more charitable reading of the putative heresies he thinks he finds in the text.

Third, the heresy hunter’s reading of texts is cynical and fails to evince proper love of neighbor.

This is really nothing more than the Golden Rule: engage the written and spoken texts of others as you would like others to engage with your written and spoken texts. Can you imagine a world in which everybody reads with a hermeneutical hammer looking for nails to pound? What a sorry world that would be.

So why is it that the heresy hunter is so fixated? Let me suggest at least two possible impulses.

Theological agenda heresy hunting: this is the heresy hunting which is motivated by a principled commitment to a particular theological paradigm. In other words, theological agenda heresy hunting reflects the desire of the hunter that everybody conform to his theological vision.

Personal vendetta heresy hunting: as you can imagine, this is the hunting that is motivated by personal anger against an individual and for that reason is even worse than theological agenda heresy hunting.

Finally, we should note how quickly and naturally the heresy hunting driven by a theological agenda can devolve into one driven (at least in part) by a personal vendetta. This naturally occurs when the attempt to identify a failure of conformity to a theological agenda is rebuffed.

Picture, for example, that Pastor Smith comes to a new church. It is not long before he realizes why the last pastor left. On Monday morning he receives a long email from the head deacon explaining all the alleged indictable theological offenses in his first sermon. Let’s say that this first shot across Pastor Smith’s bow is purely an instance of theological agenda heresy hunting based upon the deacon’s conviction that everyone must conform to his pet theological vision.

Pastor Smith then writes an email back to the deacon, politely thanking him for his concern while basically rebuffing his concerns. From the moment the deacon reads the response his initial objection begins to morph into the much more acerbic personal vendetta. “How dare Pastor Smith not take my concerns seriously!”

Speaking of pastors, I know several that have been victimized by the attacks of the heresy hunters. As you can guess, professors are also frequent targets. Indeed, anybody in a position of teaching or leadership in a church or parachurch ministry is a live target. And yet, the saddest irony is that far from securing the doctrinal purity the heresy hunters claim to want, their attacks are more likely to poison theological discourse and fracture communities with a McCarthyite paranoia that is absolutely devastating to the health and witness of the church.

Dr. Randal Rauser is Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton, Alberta, where he has taught since 2003. He blogs at randalrauser.com and lectures widely on issues of theology, Christian worldview, and apologetics. Randal is the author of many books including his latest, What's So Confusing About Grace?

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