Last week I wrote a post in which I purposely used the emotionally loaded term “heresy” in its precise technical sense. And I did this not because I wanted to slam Evangelicals (I like Evangelicals) but because it’s a useful word, and I because I planned to say more about it.
The essential thing about a heretic isn’t what they deny, but what they affirm. Bishop Arius held that the Son wasn’t of one being with the Father, but was the first and greatest creature in all of creation. In saying this, he wasn’t so much trying to drag Christ down, but rather to protect the status of the Father as the one true God. He was mistaken; but he was mistaken because he took the part of the Gospel that he understood best and judged to be the most important and upheld to the exclusion of other Gospel truths.
I think we are most of us in the same position, even those of us who have every desire not to dissent from Church teaching. I think it’s unavoidable. We are parts of the Body of Christ, and different parts of the body have different functions. (I have sometimes thought that the Catholic blogosphere is the spleen of the Body of Christ.) And each body part is naturally most concerned with its function. You can’t blame a hand for being all about grasping. You can’t blame a nose for smelling.
Given that each of us has a call and particular gifts in support of it, we naturally emphasize it, and the theology that goes along with it. And that will naturally lead us, if we aren’t careful, into a kind of accidental heresy. I don’t mean anything intentional, mind you: but there it is. And when birds of a feather flock together, as they so frequently do, we can be strengthened in our accidentally heretical views of the world. I believe it was Chesterton who described orthodoxy as a kind of balancing act: and keeping your balance can sometimes be next to impossible.
So let’s think about this from Jesus’ point of view. You’ve come to Earth as a man, God-incarnate. You are, yourself, the fullest revelation of God to his people. You bring the Deposit of Faith, with the intent that it be passed down from generation to generation. And you’re dealing with people who are inclined to go off of the rails, even when they give you all of their love and devotion. What do you do?
What Jesus did was, he gave it to a group. And those apostles appointed successors, the first bishops, and passed on the Deposit of Faith to them. And they passed it on to their successors.
Now, each of these men was just a normal human being, and each of them had the same tendencies I described above to emphasize the parts that were most important to them, personnally. So how is it that the Deposit of Faith gets passed down without error? The Holy Spirit, of course, ensures that it will be; we’ve been promised that. But I’ve noticed that Jesus likes to work through simple human things. And here’s the thing about a group: individually, the members might go astray, but collectively they can correct each other. Bishop X emphasizes this while Bishop Y emphasizes that, and so both points of view are preserved. And when Bishop A goes too far and leaves the rails, bishops B through Z can call him on it.
It’s rather like a radio tower with guywires on all sides. Each wire pulls the tower in its direction, but collectively the tower stands vertically and can withstand the winds. Our natural tendency to emphasize one thing and ignore another becomes not a source of division, but a source of strength. I love it when that happens.