Heresy or Walking in the Steps of Jesus?

I’ve been mulling over an article I read in NCR the other day. I was filled with, shall we call it, righteous anger, and knew that I best let it sit a while before commenting.

As is often the case, another bit of teaching came my way today, that pretty much foundationed my thoughts.

I was reading EFM material on year two, the New Testament. In particular I was examining the various means by which we decide what was said, and what was meant. Various types of criticism were explained.

Over against this, it was noted that some folks (the far right) chooses to find all this simply wrong; they prefer a non-intellectual approach to the bible. We, as believers are to obey, not thinking but rather accepting God’s word as given.

And, as I read, I could see rather plainly what was going on in my Church. Confused? Let me explain.

It seems that two theologians at Creighton University, a Jesuit-run institution, have been severely rebuked by the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine, for straying from Catholic teaching on a number of social-ethical issues. This is not something new of course, but happens with some regularity within the Church, as various scriptural experts and theologians beg to differ with the Church on matters of interpretation and faith.

It remains, always to me, utterly sad. Moreover, Saltzman and Lawler’s 2008 book, The Sexual Person: Towards a Renewed Catholic Anthropology, although critically acclaimed by many, was claimed to contain “serious error and not authentic Catholic teaching.”

As I said, this is an old tradition within the Church, one that arose almost from its beginnings, and indeed it could be argued, that the Church itself coalesced around its victories over various “heresies” in the early centuries. It is much like might makes right, and to the victor belongs the right to write history.

Many would argue of course that any church has the right to defend itself against what it considers false doctrine which can mislead the flock. However, let’s face it, only a small percentage of believers ever involve themselves in theological matters let alone fine biblical exegetical points.

I think the Creighton smack down bespeaks a greater error however. And it is this: if what you believe is true, that it will stand against falsity. . .it cannot be suppressed. History is replete with this lesson. All the attempts to quash Christianity failed, because the message contained great truth. Attempts to muzzle other points of view merely suggests that perhaps you don’t feel yourself to be on very firm ground.

Worse, it defies the very scriptures that it seeks to protect. The history of Judaism is that of a people who continually argue and test scripture for meaning. Midrash is but one means by which rabbis and other Judaic teachers have mulled over, studied, and teased out the truths of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Indeed, the history of the New Testament also makes it clear that interpretation is an ongoing process. Are not the Gospels and letters attempts to re-interpret the Hebrew Scriptures in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ?

Paul interprets the events of Sinai and Moses as happening for out benefit and as a lesson to us. (1Cor 10:1-11) And in Gal 4:21-31, Paul interprets the stories of Sarah and Hagar as to the  Jerusalem of his day and the new Jerusalem (Sarah) born through the Spirit.

We save the best for last, for it is without question that Christ Himself interpreted scripture continuously. He interprets the commandments, he interprets Isaiah, he explains. He stood as the One who was telling his church that it was teaching falsely, without true understanding. And we know where that got Him.

Dissent goes back, indeed to Abraham himself, who felt free to question God’s decision to destroy Sodom. He argues with God!

And yet, the Church claims that dissent is inappropriate and is error. In essence, it would claim that we are to obey, leaving to them the too difficult for us, task of interpreting. They reserve the right to make the decisions about what is true and right.

Finally, Peter speaks most eloquently in 2Pet 1:20-21:

At the same time, we must recognize that the interpretation of spiritual prophesy is never a matter for the individual. For no prophesy ever came from human initiative. When people spoke for God it was the Holy Spirit that moved them. (NJB) (italicize mine)

To decree that only the Church is moved by the Holy Spirit to speak truth about scripture and the will of God, is to deny that each and every person is imbued with the Spirit upon baptism. Indeed, who are we to say that only the baptized carry the Spirit within? And we each have a solemn duty to express truth as we see it.

In the history of humanity, those ideas and beliefs that ring true, survive over time, and flourish. Those that are erroneous or weak fall by the wayside. It seems to me that if these dissident voices are finding purchase in the minds of significant numbers of the faithful, then the Vatican would do well in humility to listen carefully.

***

A significant portion of my thoughts are derived from Education for Ministry, Year II, The New Testament, Chapter 6, pgs. 58-59. (EFM is an Episcopal Church offering, consisting of a 4-year course, open to all.  For more information see: http://www.sewanee.edu/EFM/

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