Salvation pertains to everyone, but theology to only a few – Erasmus

[This is a guest post from Michael Fletcher, a Th.M. student at Western Seminary.]

Erasmus (formally Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus), was born October 28th, 1466. Today marks 545 years since his birth! Erasmus was a Catholic priest and theologian during the reformation period. With the rise of clerical abuses in the church, he was very committed to reforming the Church from within. Today, I am sharing an excerpt from his book Enchridion militis Christiani, namely, The Manual of a Chrisian Knight. I believe it’s an interesting thought for today, even though it was written in 1503. What do you think?

How can it be that these great volumes instruct us to live well and after a Christian manner, which a man in all his life cannot have leisure once to look over? In like manner as if a physician should prescribe unto him that lieth sick in peril of death to read Jacobus de partibus, or such other huge volumes, saying that there he should find remedy for his disease: but in the meantime the patient dieth, wanting present remedy wherewith he might be holpen. In such a fugitive life it is necessary to have a ready medicine at hand.

How many volumes have they made of restitution, of confession, of slander, and other things innumerable? And though they boult and search out by piecemeal everything by itself, and so define every thing as if they mistrusted all other men’s wits, yea as though they mistrusted the goodness and mercy of God, whiles they do prescribe how he ought to punish and reward every fact either good or bad: yet they agree not amongst themselves, nor yet sometimes do open the thing plainly, if a man would look near upon it, so much diversity both of wits and circumstances is there. Moreover although it were so that they had determined all things well and truly, yet besides this that they handle and treat of these things after a barbarous and unpleasant fashion, there is not one amongst a thousand that can have any leisure to read over these volumes: The great volumes. Or who is able to bear about with him Secunam secunde, the work of St Thomas? And yet there is no man but he ought to use a good life, to the which Christ would that the way should be plain and open for every man, and that not by inexplicable crooks of disputations, not able to be resolved, but by a true and sincere faith and charity not feigned, whom hope doth follow which is never ashamed. The theology appertaineth to few men, but the salvation appertaineth to all.

And finally let the great doctors, which must needs be but few in comparison to all other men, study and busy themselves in those great volumes. And yet nevertheless the unlearned and rude multitude which Christ died for ought to be provided for: and he hath taught a great portion of Christian virtue which hath inflamed men unto love thereof. The wise king, when he did teach his son true wisdom, took much more pain in exhorting him thereunto than in teaching him Those be noted that of purpose make the faculty which they profess obscure and hard, as who should say that to love wisdom were in a manner to have attained it. It is a great shame and rebuke both for lawyers and physicians that they have of a set purpose, and for the nonce, made their art and science full of difficulty, and hard to be attained or come by, to the intent that both their gains and advantage might be the more plentiful, and their glory and praise among the unlearned people the greater: but it is a much more shameful thing to do the same in the philosophy of Christ: but rather contrariwise we ought to endeavour ourselves with all our strengths to make it so easy as can be, and plain to every man. Nor let this be our study to appear learned ourselves, but to allure very many to a Christian man’s life.

What Is Heresy? Just Shut Up!

Blank, white space. Just staring at me. Mocking me. Daring me to write what I really think.

I know perfectly well what I’m supposed to write. I paid attention in class and studied hard for the test. More importantly, I know how this prof works. He’s not looking for anything creative, interesting, or, heaven forbid, new. He just wants the “answer.” You know, the one he gave in class. The one that’s “right.”

One problem. I disagree.

To be honest, I’d probably want to write something else, anything else, even if I didn’t disagree. That’s just who I am. But, this time, I really do think there’s a better answer. And, I’d love let it free, tracing the contours of something different with the tip of my pen.

But I can’t. I need the grade. And, in this class, rejecting the teacher’s authority is the only real heresy.

photo credit: Roujo (via Flickr)

In one of our earlier posts on the meaning of “heresy,” we looked at the idea that the early church created the concept of heresy by using its power to crush the opposition and claim the label “orthodoxy” for itself. And, we saw that one major flaw of this approach is believing that the early church had the kind of institutional and social power necessary for this narrative to work. It didn’t.

But, the situation was far different in the Middle Ages. By that time, Christianity had been the official religion in the west for hundreds of years, and it operated with the (often begrudging) support of rulers and people alike. With money, land, titles, and influence, the Church had power. And, as Alister McGrath points out in Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth, this led to a different view of the nature and function of “heresy.” Heresy came to mean anything that went against the established authority of the church.

Some of the heresies in the Middle Ages looked surprisingly like earlier ones. The Cathars, for example, recapitulated many Gnostic beliefs. So, to find them labeled “heretics” is not surprising. But, other movements seem different. Were the Waldensians really that bad? Sure, they criticized the corruption and materialism of the church, called for significant reform, and embraced the ideal of poverty. But, was that very different from what the Franciscans did a short while later? Yet the former were excluded as heretics, while the latter became one of the most enduring institutions of the Catholic Church. What was the difference? Although this is oversimplified, the key difference is that the Waldensians not only criticized the church, but they rejected its authority. The Franciscans, on the other hand, though vocal critics at times, remained in full submission to the ecclesial hierarchy.

You can see the same dynamic at work with Martin Luther. If you search the writings of the early Luther, you will find very little that had not been said before, and by people who retained their good standing in the church. But Luther, as we all know, did not. And the key shift came not with his 95 Theses but at the Heidelberg Disputation where he clearly refused to submit to the authority of the medieval Church.

The fastest way to be declared a heretic in the medieval world was to reject the authority of the Church. Indeed, you could believe and teach an impressively broad range of ideas at that time. But, if you got the attention of Church leaders for some reason, and they told you to shut up, you’d better shut up. Otherwise, things would get very unpleasant.

photo credit: Teddy Lambec (via Flickr)

But, although this became a common way of using the term “heresy” in the Middle Ages, it is not a particularly helpful approach to defining the nature of heresy.

1. It fails to distinguish heresy from schism. At the very least, this is a rather different use of the term than what we found in the early church, which operated with much less clearly defined authority structures. Indeed, the difference is so significant, that many scholars prefer not to use the term “heresy” for these movements, instead describing them as “schismatic” – i.e. movements whose overall theology does not seem heretical, but who rejected Church authority and either left the Church or were kicked out. Indeed, even the Catholic Church seems to recognize this distinction, having backed away from the language of “heresy” in recent years when describing Protestant churches. We’re definitely more schismatic than we are heretical – at least, most of us are.

2. It turns any rejection of church authority into heresy. Yet, this simply is not the case. Suppose, for example, that a Catholic priest becomes convinced that the celibacy requirement is a mistake, rejects church authority, and gets married. He will certainly come under severe censure, and he won’t be able to serve as a priest anymore. But, he would not be viewed as a heretic. And, I’m sure we could come up with countless other examples. But, if rejecting church authority is not sufficient to make you a heretic, then rejection of authority alone cannot serve as our definition of heresy. It could be part of the definition, but not the whole thing.

3. It depends on a problematic view of church authority. I won’t say too much here because I don’t want this to become a discussion of competing views of the Church and the nature of ecclesial authority. But, at the very least, we should recognize that if we’re not careful, we could develop a definition of “heresy” that would silence the prophetic voice in the church entirely. I think you can operate with a high view of church authority without making the mistake of thinking that anyone who rejects that authority is necessarily a heretic.

So, although “heresy” in the Middle Ages often referred simply to a movement that rejected church authority, I don’t think that is an adequate definition of heresy in itself.

[This post is part of our series on “What is ‘Heresy’ and Who Is a ‘Heretic’?”]

20 Christian academics speak about God, faith, and science

Here’s an interesting video of 20 Christian academics answering questions related to science, reason, and faith. Along the way, they comment on miracles, free will, the problem of evil, foreknowledge, evolution, and son on. And, the academics run the gamut from evangelicals like J. P. Moreland and William Craig to thinkers who reject almost anything miraculous or supernatural in the world. So, it’s a good video for getting a feel for how a broad range of Christian intellectuals respond to these questions.

Right-brain functions in a left-brain world

Here’s a great illustrated lecture correcting misconceptions people have regarding what the right and left sides of the brain do, and arguing that we have built a culture that largely neglects the importance of right brain functions. It’s worth a few minutes, so check it out.

[HT The Daily What]

I teach theology. That means….

I’m sure every profession comes with its own stereotypes. Professors are absent-minded, construction workers are crude, garbage collectors stink, and doctors have bad hand-writing. We all have our burdens to bear.

As a theology professor at a seminary, I’m fascinated by the stereotypes that come with the job. Like many good stereotypes, some come with at least a grain of truth. That’s what makes them sting so much. Others say more about the people who use and believe them. Either way, theology stereotypes are fascinating.

So, instead of fighting these stereotypes, I’ve chosen to embrace them. All of them. Let me know if I’ve missed any.

I teach theology. That means…

  • …half the time I don’t even know where my Bible is, let alone read it.
  • …I think reading a verse in context means finding it in my favorite systematic theology book.
  • …I get paid to start fights.
  • …deep down I wish I had a cool-sounding German name.
  • …my only friends have all been dead for 1000 years.
  • …I’m right. Always.
  • …I enjoy sucking all the mystery out of life.
  • …real people confuse me.
  • …I’m not even sure what “exegesis” is.
  • …I spend most of my time thinking up alien categories to impose on the text.
  • …I’m not even sure what ministry is.
  • …I’m not truly happy until I’ve confused someone.
  • …I think the fruit of the spirit is arrogance, strife, certainty, intelligence, perseverance (in study), loneliness, literacy, irrelevance, and stubbornness.
  • …my favorite books are…never mind, you wouldn’t understand them anyway.
  • …I’ve been trained to speak unintelligibly whenever possible.
  • …no one likes me but I’m so bad with people that I don’t notice.
  • …I think anyone who disagrees with me is a pagan, heretic, unbeliever, Cowboys fan, or some combination of the above.
  • …I confuse belief with knowledge and speculation with reality.
  • …if you saw how I dressed you’d swear I was colorblind.

[Thanks to those of you who offered suggestions for this list via Facebook or Twitter. And, feel free to suggest more!]