Wednesday, January 11, 2006

If I Call You a Heretic, Please Be Assured that I Mean that in the Nicest Possible Way.

Words mean things. They have to, or else Dictionary companies are making a killing by convincing people to buy absolutely useless books! But no, in order to communicate, we as humans have devised this code called "language" in order to portray certain ideas.

To that end, when I write something, I attempt to use the best words that I can find in order to project the ideas I want to communicate. Unfortunately, often terms are misunderstood because the person to whom I am speaking doesn't always know the words I'm using. They may have heard those words used solely in an insulting sense, usually devoid of any concrete meaning, and simply assume that I am trying to insult them. Admittedly, sometimes I am. On the other hand, I would say that most of the time, I am not.

Take the recent "debate" (if one could correctly call it that), in which I and my opponent stood on one side of a 500-odd-year-old rift in the Church. In discussing "religion" as a whole, since it is something that must be believed on faith, it is hard to make universally meaningful and convincing points why one particular religion, say Hinduism, is better than another, say, Islam. Obviously, the Hindu is going to believe his faith is superior to all others, or else he will not remain a Hindu very long (if he is courageous and honest enough, anyway).

However, when the conversation is limited to one religion in particular, and that conversation is discussing two distinct opinions about what that religion teaches, there can be an objective standard, or standards, to measure which opinion is closer to what that particular religion actually teaches. In the case of Jacob's and my debate, we were wrangling about two different interpretations of the Christian religion, which, after 2000-odd years, has very definitively and concisely defined what it does and what it does not believe.

As Christians, we are not moral or doctrinal relativists, meaning that we don't believe those parts of Christianity that "make sense" or "feel good" to us, but that we accept the totality of the Christian faith: even (especially?) the hard parts. When we talk about a "heretic", the term originally comes from a Greek word meaning to pick or choose, and refers to someone who doesn't like X doctrine, and so chooses to change or ignore it, and so change his entire faith to reflect the absense of that particular doctrine.

One such heretic was a man named Pelagius. He lived around the same time as St. Augustine of Hippo, and he taught that it is not, strictly speaking, by grace that we are saved, but more, that we ourselves, devoid of any grace, could live such a moral life as to earn God's forgiveness. Jesus, Pelagius taught, came not to save us from our sins but rather to give us an example of how we should live in order to gain God's forgiveness. St. Augustine adamantly refuted this heretic and his teaching, and the Augustinian view of grace was adopted officially when at the Council of Orange, Pelagianism was condemned. Thus the Christian Church defined itself by believing that it is by Grace we are saved, not works, and that without that Grace, we cannot be saved.

Later on, there was another teaching, similar to Pelagianism, so that it was called "Semi-Pelagianism," which attempted, it seems, to reconcile Grace with our need to do something. They maintained that it is we who take the first steps toward God, in our faith and in our works, in order to earn or deserve God's grace. However, this heresy was also condemned by the Church, stating that God, and God alone, originates our salvation. It is His Grace that reaches down to us and enables us to have faith and to do the works that He requires--and His grace gives new life to our souls so that this faith and works are pleasing and acceptable to Him.

As a Catholic, I often hear the charge that Catholicism teaches "works-based righteousness", or that it is "Pelagian" or at least "semi-Pelagian" because it does not follow the Protestant canard of "Faith Alone." Most recently, Jacob Allee, a youth minister from down in Kansas, made those statements in our recent debate, chronicled on this blog. He even went so far as to call me "an enemy of the Cross". And he's right: I would be an enemy of the Cross, if I did in fact believe in a system of works-righteousness to save me. However, since it was the Catholic Church that condemned such a system, and defined itself by not believing or practicing that system, and if I try my best to abide by and practice, as best as I am able, the Catholic teachings, then no, it is a false and quite absurd charge to say that I believe and practice something that was condemned by the very thing that I believe and practice.

Well, as things turned out, an amazing irony occurred. Jacob, choosing not to continue the debate (though he made it very clear that he was not admitting "defeat" *coughcough*), still couldn't resist reprising his unproven opinion that this was in fact what we believe. After I (and Chris Freeman) labouriously explained, again, that this is the opposite of what we believe, but that it is God who gives the faith and the ability to work through His Grace, Jacob made the shocking denial that God in fact gives us the grace to have faith! Not only is this plainly contradicted in Scripture (and I gave him numerous examples to that end), but (and here's the irony), it made him guilty of the self-same charge which he leveled against the Catholic Church!

Initially, I was indignant and offended at being labelled "an enemy of the Cross." My only relief was knowing that I wasn't, and knowing that anyone who actually knows me at all realises that that is an absurdly ridiculous thing to accuse me of. But now, indignance has given way to great mirth, because irony is my favourite form of humour. Jacob, believing that faith is something that originates in us and we need to have that faith within ourselves in order to respond to the Grace of God, has truly made faith a "work", and more, has made that work a condition of salvation--to the degree that we must do something to be saved! It is, quite plainly, the definition of Semi-Pelagianism, and I said so.

However, in so saying, I think that I offended him possibly worse than when I simply called him "ignorant." However, while that accusation was made in frustration with him, neither "ignorant" nor "heretic" as descriptors of Jacob are intended as simple hurled insults. He displayed his "ignorance" literally by ignoring my refutations of his claims about my faith (and further, by ignoring virtually every argument that I made and then leaving altogether), and he displayed his "heresy" by claiming, contrary to the Bible and to the Church's definition of itself, that we must work to gain God's grace.

If words had no inherent meaning, and more, if the Church had not defined itself in terms of being opposite to the meaning of those terms, then I could have no grounds to label Jacob a heretic, and it would have simply been an insult. But because he espoused a belief that was defined and condemned by the very faith that he claims to uphold, he is rightly called a heretic.

Jacob often said that he thought our debate would be constructive because he was concerned for the salvation of my soul. I, initially, was not overly concerned for his salvation, because I believed that he trusted Jesus as best as he knew how. Now, however, at the close of this debate, I am concerned for him, and calling him a heretic, and not simply in order to make fun of him, I hope he examines his beliefs on that issue, and comes to a right understanding of faith: because in the end, what Jacob expressed faith in, was not Jesus, but faith itself.

God bless, and keep Jacob in your prayers.


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