Thursday, May 12, 2005

Metaphor and Heresy

One of the ugly facts of Christian history is that people labeled heretics have been horribly mistreated. They weren't always burned at the stake, but even in the best of times it was no fun to be a heretic. It's not without reason that the very idea of heresy leaves a bad taste in our mouth today.

A consequence of this deprecated status of heresy is that the idea of orthodoxy tends to get downgraded in the process. Richard John Neuhaus has proposed the following principle: "Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed." That is, if I voluntarily give up the option of saying anyone else's theology is wrong, sooner or later I will be forced to give up the option of saying my theology is right.

Many people would consider this to be a good thing. What business do any of us have saying that our theology is correct in the first place? Remember our discussion about mystery? Surely we shouldn't be so foolhardy as to say that we have correct beliefs about God?

I would suggest that right and wrong, correct and incorrect, just aren't good categories to use when talking about theology. But does that mean that I'm willing to throw away the concept of orthodoxy? Not quite. What we need is a new understanding or orthodoxy and heresy, one that takes into account the essentially metaphorical nature of our talk about God.

Lutheran theologian George Lindbeck has suggested just such a new understanding in his book, The Nature of Doctrine. Summarizing, adapting the terminology, and no doubt (but inadvertently) changing the flavor slightly, what Lindbeck has suggested may be stated briefly as follows:

All our talk about God, indeed all religious speech, is to some degree metaphorical in nature. Metaphors gain their meaning by convention (i.e. by how they are used). Religious doctrine functions as a set of rules that regulate how these metaphors are used.
If I understand correctly, Lindbeck isn't merely saying that this is the way doctrine should work; he is saying this is the way it does work whether we recognize it or not.

Within this view, orthodox doctrine provides the groundwork that tells you the proper way to utilize the metaphors that the community uses to speak about God, and heresy involves a misuse of metaphor. I believe we will see something like this when we work through the history of the early Church.

Continue to "Creeds"
Go back to "The Basic Problem"


Anonymous Brett said...

"I would suggest that right and wrong, correct and incorrect, just aren't good categories to use when talking about theology. But does that mean that I'm willing to throw away the concept of orthodoxy? Not quite. What we need is a new understanding or orthodoxy and heresy, one that takes into account the essentially metaphorical nature of our talk about God."

You have a great deal of insight, in my opinion. Obviously you have not only studied these issues carefully, but you have processed them to a high degree also.

12:21 PM  
Blogger cranmer said...


"the proper way to utilize the metaphors" = right.
"a misuse of metaphor" = wrong.


Ok, "right" does not refer to the whole truth, rather a statement consistent with our (orthodoxy's) use of metaphor, if we're following Lindbeck. But, we're still making statements about what we believe to be true and what false ... if a bit more humbly.

I'm no expert at all in these matters, but wouldn't it be fair to say that the execution of heretics occurred as a consequence of the connection between Church and State - that without this connection people tended to be sent into exile - that politics tended to be very significant in these issues?

If we take the politics and the horror out of the situation, would we still feel the need to redefine heresy?

A suggestion - keep the "right" and "wrong" categories but assign them to what we are seeking after, not what we achieve.

Having said this, surely it will be apparent - even with a recognition of the metaphorical nature of our language - that everyone will believe that some language is a 'misuse' and therefore 'wrong'.

I think what I find a little unsettling about Lindbeck's language is that it risks being too humble. Of course, we can always add 'I believe' as a prefix to every doctrinal statement we make to make clear that we recognise that others believe differently. Does that really add much to the discussion? If I do believe that Christ was God then I believe this to be true not just for me but for everyone. Yes, I appropriate this truth subjectively, but the content of the truth relies not on my weak, inadequate ability to appropriate it but rather on divine objectivity. No?

Does not the content of Christian doctrine demand that we make claims that are unjustified by our apparent epistemological ability?

In sum, I'm not convinced yet that it makes much sense to give up our categories of right and wrong in theology - although I'm open to persuasion. What obviously needs revision (although I would have thought the revision has already taken place in most of Christendom) is a rethink of how the Church enforces its Orthodoxy with the aid of the State.

12:43 PM  
Blogger Andy said...

Your reaction is interesting, Cranmer. My primary intention in this piece was to defend the idea of orthodoxy against hyper-postmodern distaste for such a notion. That is, I'm trying to develop a reasonable, yet still postmodern, conception of what orthodoxy means.

I wouldn't want to deny the objectivity of truth, in the final analysis. And I do intend to say that orthodoxy is in many important respects objectively better than the alternatives. Frankly, I think it's usually the heretics who cross the line and try to make the right and wrong distinction sharper than it should be.

But I don't think that holding orthodox beliefs should mean denouncing everyone who believes something contrary. Contrary belief systems often contain truths, sometimes truths that are obscured by rigid orthodoxy.

12:37 PM  
Blogger cranmer said...

I think I agree. I suspect that I'm sheltered from some of the problems of "hyper-postmodern" and that will make a difference to what I inevitably look for in addressing these questions.

I guess I've been reading Barth recently and what I've come away with is a thorough conviction about the relative nature of my pronouncements and the Church's pronouncements. This seems very postmodern ... but he combines this, however, with a conviction about the absolute reality of God. I suppose what he is saying is that all theology is done by faith (and that a gift of God!) not holding to our own certainty but seeking God's.

Maybe the above raises more questions than it answers! But it would certainly demand more humility from those who arrogantly set themselves up as the defenders of orthodoxy and condemn everyone who raises a hand and asks a question.


My understanding of Chalcedon was that it was a masterful way of defining what shouldn't be said. The mystery of the Incarnation was defined in it's mystery, not solved and explained.

Is this a model for defining faithful boundaries? Beyond these boundaries one we cannot follow. Within these boundaries one may think and speculate but must not insist.

It seems to me that the difficulty of this heresy game always becomes evident when we get down to particulars. I wonder if it is here - discussing particulars - that we all realise that it's not a question of whether we will draw boundaries, but where we will draw them?

At least ... I can't see how boundaries can be avoided and I think this is effectively another way of coming to the same conclusion that you do via Lindbeck(?) If we can't avoid these boundaries - we need to recognise them while being aware of our own fallibility.

What do you think? Helpful?

2:48 AM  
Blogger Andy said...

Yes, boundaries are key to this, and I think that's definitely what Chalcedon was about.

The core of Lindbeck's model is that doctrines have the same function with respect to theology as syntax rules have with respect to language. And this is very much like setting up boundaries.

So Chalcedon, in Lindbeck's view, was saying when you speak of Christ, these are the rules that speech must follow. More particularly, within the Christian understanding of who God is, these are the ways that understanding must be expressed.

1:00 PM  

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