The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Monday, March 4, 2019

Some Modern Ancient Heresies

The late Modern Age was a period that saw Western Civilization gradually abandon the Christian religion and replace it with the secular religion of liberalism. Indeed, the very label Western Civilization indicates this change. Formerly it had been Christendom – Christian civilization. Not coincidentally, the same period saw large segments of the Christian Church abandon orthodoxy – the sound doctrines of the faith as taught by Christ and His Apostles, written in the Holy Scriptures, and formulated in the ecumenical Creeds of the early undivided Church. Many nominally Christian Churches now reject as literal truth virtually every statement in the basic Apostles’ Creed, let alone the more precise Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed or the comprehensive Athanasian Creed, and teach instead that these were mythological embellishments of the Christian message the only essential content of which is its ethical teachings, by which, such Churches always seem to mean, an interpretation of Christian ethics that supports a progressive, left-wing, political and social agenda. This kind of “theology” was once named Modernism after the Age which spawned it but is now generally called by the same name as that Age’s secular faith, liberalism.

Unsurprisingly, the Age that has seen this retreat from orthodoxy has seen also the rebirth of many of the heresies against which the orthodox Fathers successfully contended in the early centuries of Christianity. The sixteenth century saw the much needed reform of many corruptions and superstitions that had gradually risen in connection with the papacy’s usurpation of supremacy over the entire Church, itself a departure from primitive orthodoxy, but not all of the Reformers shared the same conservative respect for the primitive orthodoxy of the first five centuries as Dr. Luther and the English Reformers. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura was understood, by many of the more radical Reformers, as meaning that the individual should interpret the Bible for himself with disregard to the consensus of the early Church. Unsurprisingly, a tendency towards Nestorianism manifested itself among Calvin’s followers, and some really radical versions of Anabaptism rejected Trinitarianism.

One of the early heresies that has been reborn and which now seems to be ubiquitous is Manichaeism. This system of belief takes its name from its third century Persian founder, Mani, who incorporated elements of Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Hinduism into his teachings. For a decade in his youth, prior to his conversion to orthodox Christianity, St. Augustine was an adherent of this sect against which several of his treatises were written (De duabus animabus, Contra Faustum, Contra Fortunatum, De Natura Boni, among others). The doctrine for which it is primarily remembered is dualism – the idea that the forces of light and the forces of darkness are more or less equal principles between which the world is locked in a perpetual struggle. This is an idea that can be found everywhere today – it is a dominant theme in the Star War motion picture saga and, indeed, is quite prevalent in the fantasy genre of fiction in general. More problematic is its presence in the Church. There are, indeed, many who think that it is sound Christian doctrine.

The error of dualism, which I dealt with in a previous essay entitled The Nature and Origin of Evil, is not in the assertion that there are evil spiritual forces present in the world but in the degree of significance it attaches to these and to evil itself. There are those who in the interest of promoting morality, purity, and holiness constantly harp on the danger of treating evil lightly and, in the sense in which they are speaking they do have a point. Yet there is a greater danger in making evil more important than it really is. The fourteenth chapter of the book of Isaiah contains a “proverb against the king of Babylon” and traditionally Christianity has seen the segment of that proverb that begins at verse twelve with the words “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!” as addressing through the spiritual entity standing behind the king of Babylon, an interpretation that can be supported by our Lord’s words in the eighteenth verse of the tenth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Luke. Therefore, when Isaiah writes:

For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. (vv. 13-14)

this has been understood as referring, at least on one level, to the sin that led to the downfall of the devil. Note that the dualism, which places the forces of evil on the same level as the forces of good, gives the devil precisely the honour that he in his Pride sought to usurp according to the traditional interpretation of this passage.

Orthodox Christian doctrine, however, teaches us that there is only One Being Who is eternal – in the sense of having neither beginning nor end -, infinite, all-powerful, and omnipresent. This Being, God, is also Good. Goodness, therefore, as an attribute of God, is itself eternal. It follows from this that Goodness does not require its opposite, evil, either to exist itself, or, much less, to balance it, as some of the more perverse versions of Dualism suggest.

Furthermore, while Goodness does not require evil for its own existence, the same is not true in reverse. Evil, if it can be said to exist – and something that is neither eternal nor created by God can hardly be said to exist in the most proper meaning of the word existence – exists as a defect in the Goodness of Creation. God, Who is Good Himself and in Whom there is no evil, created all that is and He imparted Goodness to all that He created. “And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” (Gen. 1:31) God imparted this Goodness to His Creation in two tiers. The lower level of created Goodness is that of inanimate objects and irrational life forms which serve the Good for which they are created automatically and whose nature is such that they lack the power to do otherwise. The higher level of created Goodness, voluntary Goodness, is that of angels and human beings, who were created with reason, the power to recognize the Good for which they exist, and will, the power to choose that Good for themselves. This higher level of created Goodness could not exist without either reason or will, and created reason and will are therefore themselves Goods, because they serve the end of voluntary Goodness. The power to choose the Good for oneself, however, at least in a state of Innocence rather than Perfection, which was the initial state of angels and human beings, is also the power to choose what is not Good. Or, more precisely, it is the power to choose wrongly, by choosing what to mistaken reason appears to be the greater Good, but which as the object of wrong choice loses even the lesser Goodness upon which the miscalculation was based. In the case of Lucifer and the angels who followed him in his rebellion, and in the case of our first parents in the Garden of Eden, this is exactly what happened, and in each case the result was that the created Goodness of their nature was broken.

That is all that evil is – broken Goodness. Not a force in this world, equal to, opposite, and independent of Goodness, but the damaged condition of created Goodness itself. Just as speed, the ability to move fast, denotes an actual power which human beings possess but slowness is merely a term for a deficiency in that power, so is evil to the Goodness of Creation.

Note that what I have said here applies also to Truth and Beauty which, like Goodness, are eternal attributes of God, which He imparted as properties to all that He made. (1) Falsehood and ugliness, like evil, are neither things in themselves, nor real properties which exist in other things, but are present merely as defects in the Truth and Beauty of Creation. Note what some of the most famous orthodox writers of the early part of the last century had to say about the kind of falsehood, heresy, with which we are concerned here. G. K. Chesterton, writing for The Daily News on June 26, 1909 said “Every heresy is a truth taught out of proportion” and in America on November 9, 1935 “A heresy is always a half-truth turned into a whole false¬hood.” T. S. Eliot wrote:

Furthermore, the essential of any important heresy is not simply that it is wrong: it is that it is partly right. It is characteristic of the more interesting heretics, in the context in which I use the term, that they have an exceptionally acute perception, or profound insight, of some part of the truth; an insight more important often than the inferences of those who are aware of more but less acutely aware of anything. So far as we are able to redress the balance, effect the compensation, ourselves, we may find such authors of the greatest value. If we value them as they value themselves we shall go astray. And in the present state of affairs, with the low degree of education to be expected of public and of reviewers, we are more likely to go wrong than right; we must remember too, that an heresy is apt to have a seductive simplicity, to make a direct and persuasive appeal to intellect and emotions, and to be altogether more plausible than the truth. (2)

These insights into the nature of heresy are particularly helpful in understanding another ancient heresy which has even more thoroughly permeated Modern Western thought than Manichaeism. This is the heresy of Pelagianism. This heresy was named after Pelagius a fifth century monk from somewhere in the British Isles, probably Ireland, who lived and taught in Rome. St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Jerome were the primary champions of orthodoxy in the fight against this heresy, which was first condemned in the Council of Carthage, a regional synod of the African Church, in 418 AD, but which condemnation was upheld by the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. This Council, convened to address the Nestorian controversy, was the third ecumenical Council and as such spoke with the authority of the entire orthodox Church, eastern and western. Pelagianism is ordinarily thought of as a denial of Original Sin. Think back to our explanation of the origin and nature of evil. Original Sin is the doctrine, clearly taught by St. Paul in the fifth chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, that after the Goodness of human nature was broken by Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden, it was passed down to us in that broken condition. Since one of the implications of Original Sin is the idea, fundamental to orthodox Christianity, that we cannot save ourselves but must rely entirely upon the grace of God given to us in Jesus Christ, an implication of Pelagianism’s denial of Original Sin is the idea that we can save ourselves, an idea clearly present in the Modern concept of progress. However, to go back to the insights into the nature of heresy that we borrowed from Chesterton and Eliot, if Pelagianism is “truth taught out of proportion” then it is the truth of Free Will that Pelagianism exaggerates.

We have already set forward the doctrine of Free Will without naming it as such in our discussion of the origin of evil. It is the power which God gave to rational beings such as men and angels to perceive the Good with their reason and to choose it with their will. (3) While this power is what made evil a possibility and in practice a reality, it is itself a Good because the end it serves, which could not be achieved without it, is Good, which Good, as we have already seen, is the higher order of Created Goodness that is voluntarily chosen. This is a truth that orthodox Christianity holds simultaneously with that of Original Sin. There is a degree of tension between the two truths since an obvious implication of Original Sin is that Free Will along with human Goodness was damaged in the Fall. Orthodox Christians have disagreed as to the extent of the damage however. The Pelagian view, that the Fall did not damage man’s ability to choose Good unassisted by God’s grace, and the Semi-Pelagian view, that after the Fall man retains the ability to initiate the choice of Good but requires the grace of God to complete it, have both been rejected as heresy by orthodox Christianity, but this still leaves a large spectrum of degrees of damage that fall within the scope of orthodoxy, and some of the most unedifying theological conflicts of the Modern Age have been the direct result of attempts to limit that scope even further.

Free Will in orthodox Christianity is not unlimited. It is the power to choose Good or evil, not the right to decide for ourselves what is Good. Goodness is what it is, it is the role of reason to perceive it, and the will is supposed to follow the lead of reason. In the post-modernism of today – if we have not actually arrived at a post-post-modernism – liberalism has arrived at the point where freedom is regarded by many liberals as being so absolute that it is not subject to the limitations even of reality. This is Pelagianism taken to the nth degree, for Pelagius himself would never have dreamed of asserting a freedom of our will that places limitations on the authority of God as Sovereign Ruler over all His Creation, to issue laws, reward obedience, and punish disobedience.

The history of liberalism, from the Whiggism of the seventeenth century to the present day madness described in the previous paragraph, has been one of the progressive removal of limitations, real or perceived, on the freedom of the will. In other words, it is the history of Pelagianism going to seed. The Whig Interpretation of History, which was prevalent in the history books of the nineteenth century and which lingers on still despite having been ably refuted by Herbert Butterfield in 1931 almost a decade before the Modern Age was brought to its conclusion when the rival totalitarianisms of Communism and National Socialism plunged the world into the Second World War, maintains that this period was also a period in which, through the efforts of reformers and revolutionaries, political rights and freedoms gradually increased and tyranny receded. That this is utter nonsense is most evident in the fact that today’s uber-Pelagian liberalism with its absolute freedom of the will from the constraints of reality is one side of a coin the other side of which is the soft totalitarianism of politically correct thought control. If this seems paradoxical, consider the implications of George Grant’s wise judgement on the American and Canadian Supreme Courts after they had struck down their respective nations’ abortion laws in Roe v. Wade and R. v. Morganthaler, that they had “used the language of North American liberalism to say yes to the very core of fascist thought—the triumph of the will.”

A more genuine paradox is perhaps to be found in the fact that the Whigs who started the ball rolling on all of this were originally Puritans, i.e., fanatical Calvinists. Calvinism is ordinarily thought of as erring in the exact opposite direction of Pelagianism by taking Original Sin to the extreme of teaching that it annihilates utterly the Image of God in man and by denying, at least in effect, Free Will. How Whiggism developed from this to the opposite error is difficult to explain but the fact that it did is undeniable. The answer may simply be that to depart from orthodox truth in one area, opens one up to other heresies, even if they seem to be miles removed from your original position. Samuel Johnson had some interesting observations about the direction in which their political ideas pointed. Boswell records the following incident which had been related to him by Dr. John Douglas, Bishop of Salisbury:

One day when dining at old Mr. Langton's, where Miss Roberts, his niece, was one of the company, Johnson, with his usual complacent attention to the fair sex, took her by the hand and said, “My dear, I hope you are a Jacobite.” Old Mr. Langton, who, though a high and steady Tory, was attached to the present Royal Family, seemed offended, and asked Johnson, with great warmth, what he could mean by putting such a question to his niece! “Why, Sir, (said Johnson) I meant no offence to your niece, I meant her a great compliment. A Jacobite, Sir, believes in the divine right of Kings. He that believes in the divine right of Kings believes in a Divinity. A Jacobite believes in the divine right of Bishops. He that believes in the divine right of Bishops believes in the divine authority of the Christian religion. Therefore, Sir, a Jacobite is neither an Atheist nor a Deist. That cannot be said of a Whig; for Whiggism is a negation of all principle.” (4)

The principles that Dr. Johnson ascribes to the “Jacobite” here are the principles of seventeenth century Toryism, and also the principles of civil and ecclesiastical government to which all orthodox Christian believers, if they wish to be consistent with the teachings of their faith, must subscribe. The Jacobites were the Tories who were so true to these principles that they remained loyal to King James II and his heirs after 1688, (5) as opposed to today’s Conservatives, who claim the name and mantle of the Tories while showing little evidence of being acquainted with their principles, let alone subscribing to them. The relevant point, however, is that Whiggism, the original liberalism, was in its rejection of these political principles, a step away from Christian orthodoxy and, while the first Whigs were fanatical Calvinists, by the next century, in which Dr. Johnson lived, many of them had taken further steps towards Deism or even Atheism. If we consider how Unitarianism, a non-Trinitarian sect built on a foundation of theological liberalism, developed in New England out of the colony’s original strict Puritanism, then perhaps it will be less surprising that the political expression of Calvinist Puritanism eventually developed into an extreme version of Pelagianism.

Indeed, the root of the problem with Puritanism and what made it the well-spring of so much revived ancient heresy, can be found in its Calvinism. To return to a point made at the beginning of this essay, John Calvin, like Dr. Luther and the English Reformers held that the Holy Scriptures as God’s Written Word held supreme authority over the teachings and traditions of the Church. There was a difference, however, in how Calvin understood this truth and how Dr. Luther and the English Reformers understood it. Dr. Luther and the English Reformers believed – correctly – that they shared this truth with the Fathers of the early, undivided, Church and that while the Scriptures must have the final say, we need to pay respectful attention to how the Church Fathers understood them. This was not entirely untrue of John Calvin, but it was much less true of him than of these other Reformers, and it would become even less true among his followers, especially the English Puritans. The idea developed among them that the individual believer, aided only by the Holy Spirit, should mine the truth of Scripture for himself, and ignore what other Christians – prior to Calvin – had to say about it.

This goes a long way towards explaining why there has been such leanings towards ancient heresies like Nestorianism (6) in the Calvinist tradition. In it can also be seen the seeds of the perverse Modern attitude that C. S. Lewis and Owen Barfield so aptly dubbed “chronological snobbery.” If we, who live in the present, have better access to the truth the Holy Spirit conveys through the Scriptures when we apply to them directly without consulting the exegesis of the Fathers of the Church, then chronological snobbery, “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited” (7) necessarily follows.

By contrast, Dr. Daniel Waterland, the early eighteenth century champion of orthodoxy against the revived Arianism of Dr. Samuel Clarke, wrote:

Having taken a view of the moderns in relation to the Creed, we may now enter upon a detail of the ancients and their testimonies, by which the moderns must be tried. (8)

Dr. Waterland was speaking with regards to the question of the age and authorship of the Athanasian Creed, but it we would apply this principle, that the moderns must be tried by the testimonies of the ancients, more broadly, we would find in it a curative to chronological snobbery, and the many heresies of our own age.

(1) The philosophical way of saying this is to say that these are the Transcendentals – the properties of Being itself.

(2) T. S. Eliot, After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy, Faber & Faber, 1934, pp. 24-25.

(3) See Richard Hooker’s excellent discussion of this in chapters VII through IX of Book I of his Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie.

(4) James Boswell, Life of Johnson, July 14, 1763.

(5) Dr. Johnson held these principles all his life but upon the accession of George III accepted the Hanoverian Succession as having attained legitimacy through prescription. Boswell inserts the anecdote from Douglas at the point in his narrative where he notes this fact.

(6) Thomas F. Torrance in his book Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 2009, argued that the doctrine of Limited Atonement, implied, although not directly worded as such, by the Second Main Point of Doctrine of the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) had Nestorian implications. Nestorianism cannot be imputed to John Calvin himself, because of this, for it is clear from his writings that he taught an Unlimited Atonement, but others, especially of the Lutheran tradition, have found evidence of Nestorianism in his doctrine of the Eucharist. That the late R. C. Sproul was guilty of outright and open Nestorianism, I demonstrated here:

(7) C. S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1966 p, 207.

(8) Daniel Waterland, A Critical History of the Athanasian Creed: A New Edition, Revised and Corrected by the Rev. J. R. King, Oxford and London, James Parker And Co., 1870, p. 20.

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