Recently, I listened to a 2005 episode of This American Life called “Heretics,” an episode in two acts that follows the rise and subsequent fall of American pastor Bishop Carlton Pearson, an Oral Roberts protégé. After enjoying incredible success as an evangelist, Pearson’s community deserted him in the wake of his decision to start preaching a version of universalism1 that he developed called “The Gospel of Inclusion.” Pearson lit upon his new understanding while watching a television report about violence in Rwanda. During this report he claims to have had a conversation with God who told him that we’d all gotten it wrong.
This post is not about the doctrine of Hell, really. Though, I will say that I happen to believe that Hell exists and that people do need the grace and love of God if they’d like to avoid it.2
Rather, this post is about the very idea of heresy.
The Oxford American Dictionary (OAD) has this to say about heresy: belief or opinion contrary to orthodox religious (esp. Christian) doctrine.
When I look at that definition, one word sticks out as particularly problematic: orthodox. Here’s what OAD has to say about that: (of a person or their views, esp. religious or political ones, or other beliefs or practices) conforming to what is generally or traditionally accepted as right or true; established and approved.
Obviously, what is orthodox for one group can be heretical to another and vice-versa. So, where do we draw the line? Who determines what is really orthodox and what is really heterodox?
Conventional wisdom would tell us that the victors are the one’s who determine orthodoxy. The history of the Christianity is full of victories and triumphs over heretics; one need only skim through Irenaeus’s Adversus haereses to see that this has been the mode of fashion of the church from a very early time period. Really, though, we can go back even further to Paul himself to see this split; Paul frequently writes about people who have turned aside.3
The question I am frequently faced with is this: If orthodoxy is determined by the victor, then is it possible that what we consider “orthodox” is really just a set of teaching determined by aggressive dudes with an agenda who weren’t acting in accordance with the Holy Spirit?
Yes. That’s entirely possible. We can look at just about any major doctrine of the Christian faith and find a battle (sometimes bloody, sometimes not). However, simply because the victors won doesn’t make them wrong.
How then do we go about determining what is orthodox and what is not? The easy answer is Scripture. I say this is easy because some folks are totally satisfied by that. The Bible says so…therefore, it must be. However, the Bible is open to interpretation on multiple fronts. These various interpretation sometimes fall outside of the range of established orthodoxy, and, voila!, we have a controversy. Take Hell for example. There are very few passages which describe how this whole eternal punishment thing works. When the annihilationists and traditionalists go at it, they are often using the same exact passages as proof. The traditionalist says: “Oh yeah? What about Revelation 20?” Then the annihilationist fires back and says: “Yeah! Revelation 20 proves my point!” The epic smackdown that ensues is fueled by differing interpretations of the same exact chunks of Scripture!
The harder answer to our question is this: “I don’t know.” Early Christians talk about the “canon of faith.” This idea is developed thoroughly by Father John Behr in his book The Way to Nicaea. In Greek the word kanōn (κανών) means rule, limit, or principle. This is what a carpenter would use to make things straight — it’s a guide. The canon of faith then are the principles, the guides, the limits, the rules that keep things inbounds. This canon for the early church consisted largely of their new interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in the new light of Christ. In a post-Christ world, these radicals flipped the script on the Hebrew Bible and found it to be the precursor to Christ, a record of all the events that foreshadowed and announced his appearance.
How do we get our hand on this canon of faith? Again, this is all troubling. I’ve already meandered through several pages here, and I don’t have any answers for you other than this:
- Careful reading/exegesis of the Bible.
- Being receptive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Where then do we put Carlton Pearson? He’s a guy who knows the Bible extremely well, and yet he says his 180 on the existence of Hell is a reaction to God speaking directly to him.4 Is this guy a heretic? Is he a brother in Christ? Is he, as my Jesuit friends would say, amongst the “separated brethren”? Or, is he a heretic who deserves excommunication? Do heretics deserve punishment at all, or should we simply rebuke and love them and accept them into our fold?
This is the most dissatisfying post ever. Not only is it long and rambling, but I have come to no conclusions other than this:
Love God. Love your neighbor. Deal with it.
- Universalism, or universal reconciliation, is a doctrine that claims that all humans will reach salvation (i.e., heaven) because of the infinite love and mercy of God. It is considered heretical by most mainline denominations. ↩
- What happens to people who never hear the Gospel? I don’t know. I’d be speculating wouldn’t I? I’ll leave it to God to do the just thing. I will say here, however, that I have lately been interested in some arguments made by Edward Fudge which support an annihilationist perspective. In some very careful, thoroughgoing exegesis in his book, The Fire That Consumes, Fudge attempts to argue that the traditional perspective that damned souls suffer ongoing, eternal, conscious punishment in Hell may not be the most biblical perspective. Rather, Fudge argues that a soul is annihilated, utterly destroyed, on the day of judgment. If you’re really interested in this topic, you can pick up The Fire That Consumes, and I’m also told that Two Views of Hell is worth a look. Not sure how I feel about all of this, but I think it’s worth investigating. ↩
- Recently, I have been reading 2 Timothy in which Paul (yes, I realize the authorship of this letter is disputed) mentions folks that have turned aside from the gospel he preached. This is just one example of many in the Pauline canon. ↩
- After writing this sentence, I realize that in a post-Englightenment, post-modern, and potentially post-postmodern age, the idea of God speaking to someone might sound crazy. I don’t think for a moment that Carlton Pearson is insane. I just don’t. ↩