Heresies and How to Avoid Them

Ben Quash is one of my favorite young, British theologians. His study of theodramatic conceptions of history, Theology and the Drama of History, was great; his expositions of Hans Urs von Balthasar are lucid, his judgments judicious, and his prose makes you believe he really does find joy in crafting them. He also contributes the essay on ‘Revelation’ in the Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology which is equally good. So I was excited to get hold of his most recent edited volume, Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why it Matters what Christian’s Believe.

Here is a short excerpt from his essay: “Donatism: Do Christian ministers need to be faultless for their hereisies-and-how-to-avoid-them-2jpg1ministrations to be effective?”

[T]he border between schism and heresy is a blurry one. And in fact, one of the instructive features of the Donatist dispute as a whole is precisely  the way it highlights the artificiality of separating faith (or belief) from love (or practices). Christian practice is a sort of theology, an exposition…And in lots of ways the Donatists (at least those not marauding or supporting the marauders) embodied just that proper emphasis on right practice as inseparable from Christian truth…They wanted at their best, to be disciplined communities of character.

The problem was that their practice betrayed two things at the heart of Christian teaching: the ineradicable fallibility of creation (including the Church) and its consequent unavoidable need of grace on this side of the end of time. It is God’s job to make the Church pure, not ours, and he will do it when he is ready. However morally zealous we are, we will never by our own effort carve out a pure space which we can call the true Church by pointing to the unimpeachable lives of its members. Instead, they will sin, and they will need to be forgiven, and they will do so constantly. The holiness of the Church is precisely that it is a place where this circulation of forgiveness goes on all the time; it is not because forgiveness is never necessary in the first place. A Church which insisted that its members – or even just its clergy – had to be spotless would be an empty Church, or else a dishonest Church (p. 83, 88-89)

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5 thoughts on “Heresies and How to Avoid Them

  1. Pingback: links for 2008-11-28 | The 'K' is not silent

  2. Thanks again Kent for bringing to the conversation a valuable book. I am encouraged that Quash is able to give the Donatists a fair shake in his evaluation. Is this how he treats the other heretical movements that he highlights in his book? If so, then I would be interested in getting the book for myself.

    The practical affect of the Donatist movement is still alive today. There is a tension within the church (and needs to be) that the shepherd should have a higher moral integrity than his or her congregation without losing the reality of the fallen nature of humanity. How does a church and a shepherd achieve a proper balance?

    I believe that the answer is transparent discipleship. In transparency we find the authentic struggle of our life with Christ and our pursuit of holiness. In discipleship, parishers see and experience a life of moral integrity.

    Unfortunately, discipleship gets shunted sideways from the shepherds and elders to a specific ministry or process called discipleship. In doing so, they make the same error that the Donatist’s made by creating a gap between the leadership and the parishioner.

    Does this resonate with anyone?

  3. Derek, great to hear from you. I haven’t spent any time in the other chapters yet, but I expect they will follow a similar format.

    So does the minister/priest need to have a higher moral integrity or not on your view? I shudder to think that he or she would be expected to. How would you ever decide what was ‘higher’ enough? And who would do that measuring? It seems that it would only lead where Quash indicated: either empty or simply dishonest.

    Maybe I misread you on that one though. Want to clarify?

  4. Thanks for your response Kent. I do not think that I expressed myself that clearly – let me clarify. The Donatist movement was a reaction against the seemingly corrupt priests who evidenced little to no maturity of faith – or pursuit of holiness – while acting as the moral guides for their parishes. Obviously they went to far in their reaction but they did have a point. A shepherd needs to evidence a pursuit of that which leads to holiness.

    My comment on transparent discipleship speaks to this concept. A shepherd and/or elder needs to evidence a pursuit to that which brings us into a deeper relationship with God. Paul’s concept of follow me as I follow Christ. Transparent discipleship walks the fine line between both the donatist error of perfection and the “cheap grace” error that Bonhoeffer laments.

    The key is in one’s understanding of transparent discipleship. A maturing believer is one who comes to a deeper understanding of their own depravity thereby causing one to rely more upon the sustaining power of the Spirit. Following this concept, holiness becomes not a “perfected life” as understood by being sinless, but a “perfected life” as an utter and total dependence upon God.

    Understanding holiness as a pursuit allows for a shepherd or elder to be viewed as having a “higher moral integrity” as you say. In my experience, the deacons, elders, and shepherds that I have desired to imitate are those in whom Christ shines forth from their person. I have thought about how they have achieved such courageous faith and have come to the conclusion that they have a deep understanding of their own depravity, which causes them to fall upon the utter grace of God. That is moral integrity – not simple white knuckled obedience to God as the Donatists thought.

    Does this clarify my position? As a person who has read much about authentic community, does this resonate?

  5. Derek, yes you have put it much more clearly here, and I can see where you are coming from. I think your account of ‘holiness’ as ‘utter dependence’ or ‘pursuit’ could be helpful, and I definitely gravitate to your comments regarding the shephers awareness of their own depravity – but (if I were honest) I still have some worries that I can’t find the right words to express. Rather than be rash, give me a couple days to think this over before I weigh in. I will get back to you.

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