Saturday, October 14, 2006

Dangerous influences?

My recent post on the 14 most influential religious figures in the Christian tradition has generated many suggestions and much discussion. In particular, christian a has made a provocative suggestion, that 'influence' might be merely the scars left upon the health of Christian teaching by the novelty-peddlers.:

I love this kind of activity and appreciate people's suggestions, but perhaps there's an ominous side to the "most influential" question.

History by its very nature loves to record the influential. But the easiest way I can be influential is to succeed in getting people to move away from what the last most influential figure (or an earlier unchallenged one) taught.

The coming of the Christ and the testimony of the apostles leaves so much room for Spirit-inspired Christian thinking and influence, but I reckon it leaves even more room for deficient thinking and harmful influence….and surely it’s deficient thinking and harmful influence that stands out in the pages of history and attracts the attention of church historians, rather than the faithful Christian thinkers who thought of new ways to make the same truths more coherent and more relevant to the struggles of their contemporaries.

Often we look at a list like the ones people have written and think “I admire these people” when in fact we should be thinking “I’ve ended up thinking like these people….is that good or bad?”

What do people think? Am I being too cynical ;-)
Christian makes a very good point. I never intended this to be the fourteen people you wish were most influential, but it can quickly become so.

Part of what the exercise invites us to do is to look beyond our own local situation and struggles, to focus instead on the historical church over space and time and to ask about its shape and history - both the glorious and the shameful. Thus, the suggestions to include Arius (or mine to include Hegel and Kant - amongst others) indicate a desire to acknowledge the problematic innovations/renovations of the tradition, in order to become conscious of them. Indeed, it has very often been the faithful Christian thinkers who thought of new ways to make the same truths more coherent and more relevant to the struggles of their contemporaries who have, in hindsight, also exhibited deficient thinking and harmful influence. Arius was trying to be biblical! The task, privilege, burden of handing on tradition, of gospel ministry (for the two are one), is utterly dangerous, utterly necessary.


Anonymous said...

This leads to the scary question, I think, of how God deals with those who eventually come to heretical beliefs, such as Arius. If you are truly trying to be biblical in your presentation of christology and get something like he did, what should the response of the church be, and is there any indication in Scripture of how God would deal with such a thing?

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Well, I want to START with Balthasar Hubmaier's essay, _On Heretics and Those Who Burn Them_: We don't kill heretics. Since people disagree over who is a heretic, this is REALLY important.

I do think that churches have a responsibility to remove someone they deem heretical from teaching positions. But conservatives are too quick to do this. They are always quenching scholarship this way. Do you know that Thomas Aquinas THE "Doctor of the Church" for Catholics today was almost excommunicated as a heretic in his lifetime? We have to be cautious.

Then there's the problem of self-fulfilling prophecies where we basically drive the most creative and brilliant of our scholars (and many youth, too) either to heresy or unbelief. My favorite example from my own Baptist tradition is Crawford Howell Toy (1836-1919). Toy was a genius who breezed through the University of Virginia (the premier institution in the U.S. South of his day) and taught Greek while applying to be a missionary--but was never accepted. He was part of the first class of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (then located in Greenville, South Carolina on the campus of Furman University) and soon surpassed his Hebrew professor. He was a chaplain for the Confederacy during the War Between the States, but was captured by the North and spent his time as a prisoner of war teaching others.
After the war, he was hired by his alma mater, SBTS, and went for additional training to Germany where he encountered and accepted the Graf-Wellhausen approach to the Old Testament. Toy brought historical criticism back to the States. He was soon fired as a heretic from SBTS, though he believed he was still teaching within confessional guidelines and defended himself.
After that, he spent the rest of his career at Harvard University's new Divinity School and created the University's Semitic and Oriental Languages Dept. He also became a Unitarian because the Unitarians accepted him where the Baptists had ejected him.

Would Toy have become a heretic if not driven away by his family of faith?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that, Michael. Sad and challenging.

byron smith said...

Great question Rob, and Michael's response is an important one.

I'd love to think about write more about this topic, but at the moment I'll just one small historical point. Having read more of the debate around Augustine's "justification" for Christian persecution, I've realised that he cannot straightforwardly be notched up as a fan of force to crush heresy (despite medieval writers treating him as such).