Modern Heresies

Subtle Modern Heresies

Caleb Knox on June 16, 2022

We no longer battle explicit Gnostics. Gone are the Arians. Manicheism, Donatism, and Marcionism have passed. Each of these were heresies of a fanatical age, when men sought, in 20th Century author Whittaker Chambers’ words, something to live for and something to die for. Each of these doctrines was wrong, but they were genuine attempts to find and understand God. In combat against these falsehoods, the energetic wisdom of the church met men of equal conviction. The heretics they faced were horribly wrong, and they were terribly brilliant. Their creeds were codified, and their conclusions were definite. They were learned. Their doctrines were perverse but clear, wrong but articulate. They were wolves and fierce as such. They had conviction—true conviction. The Church was writing against fanatics, but these fanatics were not simplistic. Their spirituality pointed to darkness, against the Church’s light.

A different spirit characterizes our age. Both virtue and doctrine seem less important. We are slow to think of ourselves as primarily moral beings. The explosion of commerce in the last three centuries (for which we ought to be grateful) has trained us to think that humans can, in fact, live on bread alone. We see homo economicus not homo religiosus. And when occasional pings of conscience do arrive, therapy is the remedy, where guilt is explained without sin, and peace is sought without repentance. We no longer think on a moral landscape, and great character becomes more difficult to develop.

C.S. Lewis makes this very point in a lesser-known appendix to one of his better-known works, The Screwtape Letters. He observes that the great sinners and saints are made of the same substance. A zealot in Satan’s ranks acts, when converted, often retains his zeal, and returns it to the God who first bestowed it, like St. Paul. But this class of human is lessening; true conviction has been replaced by apathy. Mediocrity, which Tocqueville placed among the defining characteristics of democracy, has stripped men of the excellences of the soul making greatness possible. Lacking fervor, we now slouch toward a sluggish religiosity, where the church is not firm and heresies are not clear. An uneasy mixture of the two is left, which leaves us unsure what we are to believe, what is right, and what is wrong. Lacking clear moral categories, it is more common for humans to stumble into falsehood, than to stand firm in what they assume to be true.

I here refer to the softening of Christianity. The modern heretic is not zealous but mild, and that is his danger. I have found that those who practice this domesticated Christianity rarely have the intellectual might or will to express their beliefs clearly. Given its undefined nature, I myself struggle to name the modern heresy, but we can at least say: it is the disbelief in firm belief; the belief that it does not matter what we believe. As Chesterton once said, our ancestors made the error of burning those at the stake who fell outside of what was commonly held to be true. Our error is the opposite, and just as serious. We figuratively burn the man who upholds orthodoxy, perhaps for no other reason than that he holds to a belief. (If I were to speculate, this is a strain of thought that has been with us since the birth of Liberalism at the end of the Religious Wars. Following two centuries of passion and war, Europe sought, in the Enlightenment, a worldview without such zeal. Self-interest, consent, and conscience replaced courage, glory, and moral purity.)

They who propagate a neutralized Christianity are often unclear and rarely learned. Their errors are neither immense nor developed and, therefore, are not doctrinally neat. Often the one explaining them could not do so in a syllogism; they are instead taught with simple tautologies. I suspect that most doctrinal errors of today are not the product of scholarly errors, but mindlessness. They are not presented in a summa or treatise; they instead bypass both the speaker and listener in vague platitudes and slogans. This ambiguity is their amnesty. Rather than fight on the battlefield in daylight, with clear lines, they sneak into congregations quietly. The Trojan Horse may is filled with lies that are hidden until they enter and burn the city.

Church teaching is becoming less rigorous, less zealous, and less distinct. Messages now slide toward a more general mean, bound together by vague clichés that neither elevate nor disturb. We are led astray, not by persuasion, but by telling us what we already know and keeping us where we presently are. I do not fear the strength of these orations but their simplicity, not their power but their pusillanimity. It is vague moralisms, not strong, developed doctrines that the Church must guard against. Such heresies may be less clear, but they are not less dangerous.

  1. Comment by Tom on June 16, 2022 at 5:29 pm

    “Both virtue and doctrine seem less important. We are slow to think of ourselves as primarily moral beings. ”

    I disagree. The politically correct and the woke think of themselves as supremely moral. And their absolutism about what they perceive as right and wrong are just as sharp, if not sharper, than ours. It is all pretense and shifting fads, to be sure; but their doctrine and sense of their own morality is immense.

  2. Comment by Anuschka on June 16, 2022 at 11:45 pm

    “The modern heretic is not zealous but mild, and that is his danger.”

    The modern heretic is not zealous but winsome. He prevaricates. He placates. He redefines words to give them broader secular meaning. He reframes terms to suit modern sensibilities. He asks “What is a pastor?” despite the Bible being very clear. He knows that he can move the Overton Window for congregants distracted by the physical and monetary concerns of their mundane lives. Who wants to fight for pure doctrine when you have to worry about your child’s schooling, VBS, work and family concerns? Tell us what tickles our ears and makes us feel like we matter. Don’t tell us that we’re sinners when the world tells us we can be winners. As the SBC Annual Meeting music ministry just informed us, Jesus didn’t suffer and die for our sins–he suffered and died for our mistakes. What an evil generation we have become. Lord help us.

  3. Comment by Jeff on June 17, 2022 at 5:57 am

    @Caleb: good article!

    @Tom: Good point. James Lindsey wrote a nice article about the taxonomy of “scientism” and other woke fanatical “religious” beliefs here:

    Lindsey persuades that they are essentially forms of gnosticism, which IS one of the fanatical “old heresies” Caleb mentions.

    I think you’re both right; Caleb’s point seems to be that today’s sloppy, unstudied, watered down cultural Christianity is no match for the fanatical woke heresies not only arrayed against the church, but also advancing vigorously within the “mainline” denominations. In other words the body has been compromised with a woke cancer because of lack of an effective immune system (ref 2Tim 2:15).

    Blessings in Christ!

  4. Comment by Dan on June 18, 2022 at 11:41 am

    I cannot recommend enough “The Cruelty of Heresy: An Affirmation of Christian Orthodoxy” written by retired Anglican bishop C. Fitzsimons Allison. It should be required reading as part of the catechism of any orthodox Christian congregation.

  5. Comment by td on June 19, 2022 at 6:10 pm

    Hmmm. I’m not sure i buy your opinion. I find it hard to believe that the heresies of today are any different, both in zeal and in intellect, than the heresies of the past.

    Let’s be blunt. The devil promotes heresy and the destruction of the foundations of Christianity. But for most, the deal with heresy is that it can be hard to see at the time that is is appealing (even to orthodox believers).

    I don’t argue with the heresies you cite, but i also contend that there are heresies out there today that are promoted with zeal and conviction just as much as in the past. Just take a look at free love, gender denial, the denial of Christ’s divinity, the acceptance of Mohammed, the denial of the devil, critical race theory, the denial of.God’s power, the subversion of the family, and the list goes on and on.

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