So, the entire Christian world seemed to go into collective riot-mode when comments by Victoria Osteen went viral. The main thrust of her comments was that what we do as Christians is not about God so much as it is about our own happiness, because God’s ultimate desire is for His people to be happy. This pretty much goes along with the main tenets of Prosperity Theology.
Oddly enough, I was more intrigued by the outcry than what I heard from Olsteen. What particularly caught my attention was a post by blogger Matt Walsh, entitled “Joel Osteen and his wife are heretics, and that’s why America loves them.” Heresy is a strong word, but even without using the word, the outcry had to do with exactly that: labeling the Osteens as heretics. I’m not about to say I agree with Mrs. Osteen, or anything that Mr. Osteen preaches, but I think the outpouring of disdain should make Christians take a step back and think about a few things.
A.) THE PRESCRIPTION AGAINST HERETICS
One thing that reading the Early Church Fathers does is give someone the humbling realization that nothing they think is novel. The issues we face today in Christianity are as old as Christianity itself. So, when reading Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225 AD), what you will find is that heresy shouldn’t be shocking in the slightest. Not just in a limited scope of American Christianity as Matt Walsh was addressing (heresy isn’t uniquely American), but as a whole throughout history. In fact, it should be expected. In making reference to 1 Corinthians 11:19 in the Prescription Against Heretics, Tertullian stated:
The character of the times in which we live is such as to call forth from us even this admonition, that we ought not to be astonished at the heresies (which abound) neither ought their existence to surprise us, for it was foretold that they should come to pass; nor the fact that they subvert the faith of some, for their final cause is, by affording a trial to faith, to give it also the opportunity of beingapproved.
So, there really is no reason to be shocked that there are people out there who say heretical things not just in America today, but ever. It was foretold, and they provide a trial for the faithful to lead to the very approval of their faith. However, what exactly is heresy? St. Thomas Aquinas summed it up pretty well:
There are, therefore, two ways of deviating from Christianity: the one by refusing to believe in Christ Himself, which is the way of infidelity, common to Pagans and Jews; the other by restricting belief to certain points of Christ’s doctrine selected and fashioned at pleasure, which is the way of heretics.
Essentially, the way of the heretic is the way of the salad bar. It’s when one picks and chooses what they want on their salad and then insists Italian dressing is pronounced “EYE-talian” dressing.
So, heretics are those who pick, choose, and interpret what they want to believe. And, you should put away your shocked face when you hear about it.
B.) WHAT IS THE NATURE OF HERESY?
That’s all good. I think most people take the view of “I know heresy when I see it.” Which is why so many were quick to condemn the Osteens. However, that being said, look at the pronouns in that sentence. They are all first person pronouns. Which, of course, points to the very nature of heresy, which is the same today as it always has been: individualism and vanity. It may look different today, but it smells the same.
Again, that isn’t a new revelation at all. Tertullian, in his aptly named work mentioned earlier under the heading declaring heresy as “Self-Will”, pointed this out as well using references to the teachings of Paul:
Of these the practical effects are false doctrines, called in Greek heresies, a word used in the sense of that choice which a man makes when he either teaches them (to others) or takes up with them (for himself). For this reason it is that he calls the heretic self-condemned, because he has himself chosen that for which he is condemned.
Heresy is choosing what is right for you and you are condemning yourself because of it. It is because of one’s Self-Will, an appeal to one’s own delusion of his or her own correctness, that lies at the heart of heresy.
C.) HOW DO YOU KNOW YOU’RE RIGHT?
So, it truly begs the question: who the heck set up the salad bar in the first place, and who gave you the authority to tell that guy he can’t call it EYE-talian dressing? I think most Christians would agree: Christ set up the salad bar. Which is true. But even in that simplest of answers you are still not answering the question.
Even in a recognition of Christ there is still a danger of Self-Will, because we still haven’t determined if we are actually talking about Christ or if we are talking about your definition of Christ. What if one person doesn’t think olives are even included in the salad bar? Maybe we even agree on the ingredients, and you have avoided picking and choosing the ingredients of your salad. However there is a second part to heresy, which is fashioning doctrine as you please. Maybe you did pick up the olives, but you are supposed to eat them, not put them on your fingers.
Heresy, as an offense, is offensive to orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is the tenets of Christianity. So, at some time, in some place, someone had to decide what those tenets were. Which points toward how to solve the dilemma: authority. Orthodoxy can’t exist without authority to declare it. So, as Christians, we really need to sit back and ask ourselves not just about whether or not we are right, but by who’s authority?
Again, the Early Church Fathers were on that like olives on the fingers of a heretical child. Tertullian, in the same breath as the last quote above, discusses this:
We, however, are not permitted to cherish any object after our own will, nor yet to make choice of that which another has introduced of his private fancy. In the Lord’s apostles we possess our authority; for even they did not of themselves choose to introduce anything, but faithfully delivered to the nations (of mankind) the doctrine which they had received from Christ.
This is very important. Tertullian had access to the epistles written by Paul, and quoted them frequently, but he does not state that his authority comes from those documents in of themselves. A document is an inanimate object. It needs an author and a reader. Tertullian, rather, states that authority comes from Christ, and through Him the very men the Lord entrusted with His message. The ones who were directly taught and formally appointed by the Son of God himself, something no one else can claim. Those men received the gospel and delivered it from Christ not just by written word, but by actual teaching. They did not get their answers from some modern theologian’s commentary, not from a best friend, not from their local pastor, but from Jesus.
Human beings, though, can’t be everywhere at once (or live forever) so as the apostles delivered the message to the nations, they directly taught others what Christ taught so the flock had a shepherd and the message could continue to be spread. The importance of this was tantamount to the Early Church Fathers. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35 – c. 117 AD), who was a student of the Apostle John (in other words, one person removed from Jesus), said this about the bishops who were entrusted with those flocks:
See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.
A ton of emphasis was placed on the shoulders of those ancient message-bearers, and there is a good reason for that.
D.) WHAT’S GOOD FOR THE GOOSE IS GOOD FOR THE GANDER
Matt Walsh and others are making the argument against the Prosperity Gospel by pretty much asking how it can be true when Christians elsewhere suffer horrific things because of their faith. It is a good question, and I think we need to carry that same question when we discuss authority. If it applies to a Christian at A, it should apply to a Christian at B.
The reason for the focus on the apostles and those the apostles taught in the writings of the Early Church Fathers is rather simple: Christianity predates the written Bible. The Church in Corinth existed before the letters to the Church in Corinth were written, although the ability to mail a letter to a place that doesn’t exist yet to talk about things that haven’t happened yet is pretty cool to think about.
So, let’s say you converted when you heard the Good News for the first time from one of the apostles. After hearing the message, you go back home to tend to your day-to-day duties with a newfound set of beliefs filling your sails. But wait. What did he mean by what he said exactly? To whom should the question be asked? You had no Bible to refer to (it wasn’t readily available at the bookstore yet) and may not even have a deep understanding of the Old Testament if you were a Gentile. This is the point where heresy first springs to life. Some would take what they heard and answer their own questions or interpret what they were taught to explain what was really meant. Some would ignore certain things to fit their own worldview. Heck, maybe some people just didn’t even hear things correctly.
There was truly, at that time, only one way to know what was right, and that was to ask the people who were directly told what was right and entrusted with the mission to tell the nations that message. It was the only way to know, and you knew because that was where authority was derived. And as time progressed, those people in authority passed their authority onto others, and they passed it along to others, etc. In Catholicism, this is called Apostolic Succession, which is the unbroken link between Christ himself and the priests we have today.
E.) THE OSTEENS ARE A SELF-INFLICTED WOUND
Unfortunately, Joel Osteen is the natural end of the individualism and personal importance that is perpetuated by an ever-spiraling schismatic approach to Christianity.
Again, Christians should really ask themselves how they can use that heresy word. Heresy? Against what? A theologian’s personal interpretation of scriptures? Heresy against Baptists? Heresy against my opinion? Heresy can only exist where there is authority, and the Self-Will of modern Christianity killed authority long ago when EVERYONE claims to be the authority.
Just like following the money, Christians should always follow the authority trail. This pastor said this and I think he’s right. How do you know he’s right? Because he was taught at seminary. How do you know the seminary is right? Etc. Keep going back as far as you can. If your chain ends at some individual in history and goes no further, and does not end in Christ himself, then there’s a pretty good chance that your authority is nothing more than the perpetuation of Self-Will. It’s even more readily apparent and easy to see the end of that chain when your belief structure is described by using the last name of the guy that came up with it followed by the -ism suffix.
That kind of perpetuation of Self-Will has led to the unfortunate predicament we’re in today. For instance, the PC(USA) recently affirmed same-sex marriage. Forget the actual content of what that means in terms of gay marriage or any current debate for a moment and look at what such a decision truly means as a matter of faith, which is nothing short of a lose-lose situation. It forces a member of that denomination to have to do one of two things: 1.) admit the PC(USA) was always wrong up to this point and has now gotten it right, or 2.) always had it right and has now gotten it wrong. In either scenario, depending on (again, Self-Will talking) your personal belief on the subject, you are forced to admit that your denomination, your Church, and, in actuality, since you choose to be a part of that denomination, true Christianity was wrong at some point. How can the proper teachings of Christ with proper authority (which I assume one would feel their denomination has proper authority if they choose to be a part of their denomination) ever be wrong or allowed to be wrong? How can a matter of faith, 2,000 years after Christ’s death, be screwed up from the beginning by the first people to teach it or, alternatively, screwed up now? The answer is that somewhere, you will find the corruption of Self-Will.
And so we continue. It makes me sad every time I make my way through a town and see a street lined with churches. Those people, although they outwardly call each other brothers and sisters in Christ, believe something so different from each other that they refuse to worship under the same roof. And the unfortunate truth is, at the heart of each of those denominations, you will eventually find a guy who started it with his own Self-Will.
In conclusion, take Tertullian’s words to heart. Do you believe in the Christ that was introduced to you through the private Self-Will of yourself or another, including personal opinion and interpretation? Or do you believe in the Christ who’s message He entrusted to us through the apostles, and accept it all, including the easy and the hard? The latter can help you discern what is heresy. The former is heresy.