Heretics & Whetstones – Brad Jersak
For the record, I believe the word “heretic” has been weaponized as a dismissive label, a pejorative employed for condemning anyone who disagrees with the one making the accusation. As a tool of debate, we call attacks directed at the person rather than their position “ad hominem,” and these are regarded as “logical fallacies.” In simple English, calling someone a heretic because they don’t agree with you is evidence of nothing, other than rudeness.
Before accusing someone of heresy was a way to exclude, exile or martyr those who didn’t conform to status quo religion, it was at least a little kinder. For one, “heretics” were basically seen as someone who had made a mistake. They held a minority view that was not accepted by the church (whether that meant those at the center who held power or the broader consensus). And their mistakes, even serious ones, were debated in-house for as long as it took, rather than cause for excommunication. The goal was to help the heretics come around without a schism (I.e., they didn’t want the heretics to stomp away to start their own movement).
What actually happened was more complex than that. For example, the Lord often challenges the dominant religious status quo through the minority report of his prophets (as in the Old Testament) and apostles (as in the New Testament), and we especially see this in Jesus. During their ministry, the religious establishment would have called them heretics, but then later (often after their deaths), they were recognized as martyrs and saints. This tells us that we can’t identify a heretic so easily in the heat of the moment, and should never assume that the most powerful religious leaders or the majority vote of the masses have it right.
A good example of these dynamics is the Arian heresy (mistake). Because he tended to read the Bible literally, Arius (early 4th century) believed that Jesus Christ, as the “firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1) was indeed a divine being, but that he was created by the Father and subordinate to the Father. Today, the Jehovah’s Witnesses (also literalists) would represent that view. But unlike the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Arians were part of the broader Christian church for over a century. They didn’t just leave. They weren’t just kicked out. Leading up to the Council of Nicea, some scholars estimate up to 85% of the bishops were Arians, and even after the council rejected Arianism as heresy, it continued to resurface, even among the Patriarchs and Emperors who held central power. For them, the great teachers of that era, such as Athanasius of Alexandria, were labeled as heretics. In fact, he ended up in exile five times for fifteen years, sometimes hiding in the Egyptian desert. It seems that the heretics were every bit as heavy-handed as those who claimed to be orthodox… but in the end, history and heresy are determined by the winners, which should give us all pause before firing that word as someone else.
I spent a few hours with my friend, David Goa, who made two points I believe are worthy of reflection:
1. “Sometimes what we think of as heresy is just an affront to our own ideology.” In other words, my willingness to label someone else a heretic may say more about me than about them. Yes, we hold differing views for a variety of reasons. But even when my opinion is correct, my willingness to charge those who disagree with me with heresy should tell me that I have promoted my correct opinion into an ideology of us-them exclusion… and that’s not Christlike. So my right opinion has become wrong, not in content perhaps, but worse… in spirit. How often has the church been so convinced it was so right that it needed to destroy others!? The moral of the story is “dial down the heresy-hunting” even while continually trying to better understand and articulate the gospel.
2. “Our heretics are the whetstone of Christian thought.” Note how my friend refers to “our heretics.” The word “our” is purposely loaded. First, it’s an acknowledgment that calling them heretics is OUR opinion, our perspective at this moment. We’ve become the self-appointed arbiters of truth and error, which is troubling but also quite natural. Second, David invites us to think of heretics as OUR people, OUR family, rather than excluding them as a disavowed “Other.” What if we insisted on seeing them within the realm of US and WE, brothers and sisters with whom we disagree but try not to reject?
The reference to heretics as “whetstones” is helpful. A whetstone is any stone that is used for sharpening a knife. When the Proverbs tell us, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (27:17), the whetstone analogy suggests even a stony heretic can sharpen a glistening blade. In other words, engagement with “our heretics” pushes us to hone our responses and find better ways of articulating our convictions. So much so that without the heretics, we might have never discovered the depths and heights of truth that God had for us. We needed their resistance to get us from dull metal to shining steel.
Without the Arians, would the church have ever proclaimed Jesus Christ as fully God and fully man, one in essence and undivided? By pushing the church on that in a sustained way from 325 AD to 451 AD, the Arians became part of the dialectic struggle, the fruit of which we enjoy now enjoy as a clearer vision of Jesus.
I have sometimes been called a “Love Heretic” because at PTM, we have proclaimed the loud and clear confession that “God is love.” Those who want to “balance” out God’s love with an equal dose of wrath are “our heretics” and “our whetstones.” We are grateful that they serve our calling by always demanding we make our message clearer, sharper and brighter than we have before. They are brothers and sisters who we can bless and not curse because whetstones are partners of the blades that need them. And both are in the hands and care of the One who holds and molds them. We think we know who the whetstone is and who the blade is. They disagree. But here we are, together in the Master’s shop. Who knows what beauty could come of our mutual grinding?!