Another follow up thought on the Douthat post below: This American “openness to heresy” seems to me to be a peculiarly Protestant stance, particularly, a sort of political/social manifestation of Sola Scriptura. Protestantism rejects human authority as supreme (whether in prelacy or tradition), and insists that Jesus is the head of the Church, ruling through His Spirit and Word in this world (though respecting tradition and human authority subordinated to the Word). In other words, despite the schismatic sins and fleshly rivalries wound through it, Protestantism has always, in principle, had this “openness to heresy” at least as much because of its confidence and delight in the freedom of the Spirit. As Douthat notes, it’s the heretics, the heterodox who are always trying to tidy up the faith, trying to make the Spirit tuck His shirt in and wipe the jelly smudges off His cheeks. But there is something of a symbiotic relationship between heresy and orthodoxy, such that heretics press in on the faithful in an ultimately sharpening, glorifying way, causing the Church to burn brighter with the truth, slowly, relentlessly leaving lies and distortions behind. Just as God is able to destroy death by death, just as sin and evil are able to be deftly wielded by the omnipotent competence of the author of this story we are in, so too, lies, misunderstanding, and false teachers are bent to the good purposes of the Spirit. And all this without striking a truce with any evil.
As I was talking to my brother about this, he pointed out the fact that this too is something that Chesterton insists on:
This was the big fact about Christian ethics; the discovery of the new balance. Paganism had been like a pillar of marble, upright because proportioned with symmetry. Christianity was like a huge and ragged and romantic rock, which, though it sways on its pedestal at a touch, yet, because its exaggerated excrescences exactly balance each other, is enthroned there for a thousand years. In a Gothic cathedral the columns were all different, but they were all necessary. Every support seemed an accidental and fantastic support; every buttress was a flying buttress. So in Christendom apparent accidents balanced… the balance was often distributed over the whole body of Christendom. Because a man prayed and fasted on the Northern snows, flowers could be flung at his festival in the Southern cities; and because fanatics drank water on the sands of Syria, men could still drink cider in the orchards of England…
And then again, the very point that Douthat makes:
It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom — that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.
[Both quotes taken from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, “The Paradoxes of Christianity.”]
Of course I realize the (apparent) irony of quoting two Roman Catholics (Douthat and Chesterton — God bless ’em!) to defend Protestantism, but even more fundamental to that point is the supremacy of Scripture (however that shakes out in our intramural debates). Scripture sets the standard for this “wild truth” that Chesterton praises. Scripture itself is the huge and ragged and romantic rock, seemingly teetering, every buttress a flying buttress. In Scripture we have commands to love our enemies, and we are called to sing Psalms which say that we hate them. God requires His people to sacrifice, but then He insists that sacrifice is not what He has required at all. He desires a broken and contrite spirit, mercy and not sacrifice. We are required to bless those who persecute us and pray for peace, and yet Jesus says He did not come to bring peace but a sword and divisions. In some settings Jesus dines and meets with Pharisees and befriends them, and in other places, He fires off reels of ridicule and mockery at the same folks. The Bible says that God is sovereign and rules over every detail down to the hairs of our heads and the flowers of the fields, and yet man is free and responsible, and we do not collapse into determinism. Jesus is fully God; Jesus is fully man. God is three; God is one.
Scripture is full of this “wild truth,” and the Church is called to guard that wild truth, bearing in itself the breadth and depth and width of this whirling adventure. This doesn’t negate the need for creeds or confessions or ecclesiastical judgments along the way, but because the Church is the body of Christ, it carries within it the wildness of God and his wild truth. And central to embracing this wildness is saying everything the Bible says cheerfully, confidently, without apology, and letting God sort it all out.