Who is a Heretic? Who Decides?

Have you ever gone against an accepted belief or opinion? Have you ever held to something strongly that was not the norm or majority view? You are a heretic. According to the Merriam-Webster definition, a heretic is someone who “goes against accepted or official beliefs.” Another definition of heresy is “any provocative belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs or customs. A heretic is a proponent of such claims or beliefs.” 

According to these definitions, I have been a heretic at times in my life.  I have held to other views than the surrounding context of my nation, faith, or organization. Thankfully I have never been exiled, shunned, or excommunicated. (there’s always more time for it to happen in the future!) Throughout history, however, there have been many who have had these things happen to them. Many of these same “heretics” have later, usually after they are long-gone, been restored to honor or position.

As I write this, the news has come this morning that a USA based professor at Wheaton College has been re-instated. Prof. Larycia Hawkins was suspended from her Political Science department after posting on FB comments related to Christian and Muslim beliefs related to who God is, and whether the same God is worshipped by both faiths. It has been quite a controversy the past two months, with blog posts galore. At the beginning of it I entered in, but stopped as I’m too close to it with my oldest daughter a senior at Wheaton.

Though Prof. Hawkins was not declared a “heretic” by Wheaton, the timing of her suspension was inopportune with the political climate in the US, and the way it was done was also unfortunate. In a statement by the Provost today, responsibility for that bad process was acknowledged and forgiveness asked of Prof. Hawkins. This reconciliation is a good thing, and happens so seldom whether in the religious or political realm. (It has also come out today that Prof. Hawkins will “part ways” with Wheaton, though agreeing to the reconciliation and further dialogue. That to me is regrettable, as her continued input would be important there.)

One of the most difficult parts of deciding who is a heretic is that often power is involved. The power of the group doing the judging and punishment is unquestioned. They are the victorious party, with the offender left with little to no recourse for appeal or change. Quite often their writings have been burnt, they have been sent away from the group, and people are forbidden from association with them. In a well-known comment usually attributed to Winston Churchill, (though there is no strong evidence he actually said it), it is said that “history is written by the victors.” You can change the word “victors” to “winners” or “conquerors”. One of the reasons the statement is quoted so often is that in history writing it has happened so often!

People like Galileo are silenced by the Church, and at least for a while the official record of his contributions are also hushed up, only to be re-issued much later when he comes back into favor. The same can be said in the political realm for 20th century Czech dissident Vaclav Havel whose writings were banned by the Communist government and he was imprisoned. Yet Havel later became President of his country!

The drawing at the top of this post is of the Celtic Briton theologian Pelagius, born in the latter half of the fourth century. He became the sworn enemy of St. Augustine, and much like Nestorius in the following century would be condemned as a heretic and much of his writings destroyed. Nestorius has experienced something of a restoration to favor in many theologian’s minds in the last 200 years. For Pelagius, that is yet to happen in any great way, though some are re-examining his thought. In my next post I will write more about Pelagius related also to the great mission movement of the Celts.

But it is not only that history is often written by those who “win” whether by valid or invalid means. It is deeper than that. As Philip Jenkins writes in the Jesus Wars, an excellent one volume book on the 5th century battles over whether Jesus was God, Man or both, “We often hear the complaint that winners write history, but the situation is in fact worse than that. In practice, historians write retroactively from the point of view of those who would win at some later point, even if that victory was nowhere in sight at the time they are describing.” So throughout history writing we find this anachronistic problem, looking back at history and writing as if it was a foregone conclusion that someone like a Pelagius or a Nestorius was a heretic.

Perhaps a deeper problem is that of power. Why can’t the offended party or institution take the time to truly understand what the “heretic” is saying? As Wheaton’s leadership has clearly stated, Prof. Hawkins’ suspension was done too fast without enough listening and discussion. It was done right before Christmas break, and just a few days after Liberty University’s president had made very strong comments about guns and defending the campus after the San Bernadino terrorist attacks. It is not easy to spend lots of time listening to someone, humbling yourself as a person or institution to really try and understand. And even if you think they are wrong, why not allow for a diversity of thought from the majority opinion?

Because it is highly threatening to the status-quo, whether that is familial, cultural, national, political or religious. Far easier to use our power to block, silence, shun or ignore. In the next post I will write more on Pelagius, comparing him in some ways to Nestorius. Both had powerful enemies, both had very prickly personalities that did not help them in their particular battles. Both continue to occupy in some minds the place of the “heretic”. I am so glad I’ve never been exiled or shunned. Maybe this post and others will begin the process.






















2 thoughts on “Who is a Heretic? Who Decides?

  1. I have been watching this closely as well and am glad for Wheaton to be willing to be able to change their mind but saddened that this place of work and faith community will no longer be a home or safe haven for her. She must have invested much to be tenured in her role in both work and people. However apart from the issue that fostered the prior decision the act of being shunned is and does have a greater impact than we understand especially from a faith community and family one has committed to, feels safe within, and given to in heart and energy. Words can fail to describe but it is more sad that a faith community that has Christ as it’s focus and purpose fails in knowing of how to embrace those we disagree with….we are at times more challenged to live those within and walk through disagreement in thought than it is to love those outside and walk through issues of disagreement with them. May we ever continue to learn, in Christ.


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