Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Is Atheism A Christian Heresy?

I was thinking more about what I wrote yesterday on liberals trying to be true to the heart of Christianity but not the the rules and doctrines of Christianity. I thought about one definition of heresy that I like. That heresy is over-emphasizing one part of Christianity and using it to destroy other parts. Arianism emphasized the humanity of Jesus at the expense of His divinity. Protestantism emphasizes a personal spirituality with Jesus and me and my bible at the expense of the church and the sacraments. Not that what they emphasize is wrong. It is out of balance. It needs to be understood in relation to other truths of the faith.

In that light it is easy to see liberal Christianity as a heresy. They have emphasized the mercy and love of God at the expense of our response. Especially sexual morality is lost but also the importance of personal salvation and authentic worship. It is in line with what secular anthropologists say about religion. That it is useful not really because the doctrines are true but because it encourages a morality that helps human society to flourish. Many liberal Christians would agree. They would affirm the truth of many of the main doctrines of Christianity but not their importance. Who cares if Jesus literally rose from the dead. Christianity ushered in a society that was less barbaric than the Roman empire. That is what matters.

Once you have Christianity reduced to a positive social development then what do you believe about its future? You either believe it will continue to play a positive role or you don't. We may or may not have found a better way of forming the consciences of citizens. We have learned some important moral principles during the Christian period that we want to retain but we can have those in a post-Christian society as well. Can't we?

How you answer that question determines whether you become atheist or remain a liberal Christian. But even those that go all the way to atheism retain large sections of Christian morality. They more than retain it. The use it to destroy the rest of Christianity in much the same way other heretics do.

The two things they focus on are the importance of reducing human suffering and the value of human reason. Those are things they import from Christianity. If you ask them why they believe those things they cannot explain it. Like asking a protestant why he believes the bible is true. It is just foundational and is never questioned. But then they use those tools to defeat other Christian doctrines. One being the existence of God.

It is odd how many argue that God must not exist because the bible records Him causing human suffering in various places. We know reason is valid and we know suffering is wrong so God must not exist. The problem with this is that suffering is not always bad. Still atheists go on and on with moral outrage. There is a myth that atheists have no morality. In some ways they should not but they do. They are often very zealous about right and wrong. They are often very Christian too. They know we should not judge others. They know that hatred and violence are wrong. They believe in the dignity of the poor and the handicapped. They believe in equality. They believe in education.

If you suggest to them they believe these truths because Christianity taught them they just don't accept that. Like when you tell a protestant that he only knows the New Testament is the word of God because the Catholic Church told him. It is just something everybody knows. You can't give you religion credit for that. But why does everybody know it? How long before it is questioned? When it is questioned what will be your answer?

So atheism flows from Christianity. Doesn't it cease to be a Christian heresy when it denies all the major doctrines of Christianity? Not really. Islam is often called a Christian heresy. It denies some pretty important doctrines like the truth of the bible and the crucifixion of Jesus. So the fact that they wandered very far on some fronts does not make them cease to be a heresy. You can look at many small Christian splinter groups and find some very wild doctrines.

So what is the advantage of thinking of atheism this way? It makes sense of the link between liberal Christianity and atheism. They share much in common. Liberal Christians still might go to church once in a while and say nice things about the bible but in practice their thinking is similar to that of atheists. It is very confusing because when you talk about atheism or secularism or whatever you call it different people put liberal Christians in very different categories and therefore paint very different pictures of the prevalence of atheism. I think of it as a dominant ideology in our society. Some talk about it as a small minority of around 1% because that is how many self-identify as atheist. The point is the self-identified atheists are just one very vocal form of this larger heresy. If it was only the 1% nobody would care.

The other reason it makes sense to me is that modern western atheism does not make sense apart from Christianity. Many atheists would disagree with this but so much of their value system is borrowed or stolen from  Christianity. They all believe in human rights. Why? They will never admit they took that from Christianity and really don't have a solid rational basis for it within their own creed. They like to think of themselves as people who went back to first principles and reconstructed a worldview based on pure reason. If that was true they would disagree on almost everything. Reason without tradition does that. The truth is they share a pretty strong tradition and much of it is Christian. Atheists get offended by this suggestion but I actually think it is a compliment. Christian tradition is a good thing.


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  2. Thanks for the comment Pele. Interesting thoughts. I have heard the idea that modern secularists are more pre-Christian. There are many similarities to the Roman paganism Christianity replaced. A woman who has left her husband is similar in many ways to a woman who has never been married but there is a huge difference as well. There is a betrayal. What if they had kids together and she won't even admit they are his? This is what I see when atheists claim Christianity had no role in the development of human rights, concern for the marginalized, and even the desire to master science.

    As far as the East goes. I agree and disagree. We do need to learn a a lot form the East. That is why we need to heal the divide and bring both lungs together. There are some important perspectives there. But I get the sense from you that you see the East as more advanced than Rome. I don't agree there. We need to be humble but the truth is the papacy is a great blessing that we have and you don't.

    As far as the "I have sinned" example goes? I think both protestants and Catholics would accept what you say. I have never heard anyone say they need to calm God down. They understand legalism is wrong and seeing God as Father is important. We tend to drift back to legalism because it makes God more predictable and it makes us kind of independent of God. We need to do X, Y and Z to keep Him happy and for the rest we can do our own thing. It is just easier to swallow than a total surrender to the mercy of God.

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  3. I know the East has many interesting insights. I don't that they are radically different on key doctrines. I would never accuse St Augustine of legalism. He totally believed in God's grace because he needed it. He did lack a solid understanding of God as father mostly because of his own father.

    About the papacy, if it was erroneous then it could not work. It depends totally on God's grace to keep it free from abuse and error. Humans with that much power don't do that well for that long. It has to be a God thing.

    You have to quote me exactly where Anselm-Aquinas say "God gets offended and must punish someone to relax." You characterize both protestant and Catholic traditions as legalist. I don't buy that either. God being our father is simply the way Jesus taught us to address Him. It is not just an eastern thing. The prodigal son is the classic picture of redemption I saw both as a protestant and as a Catholic. A welcoming back to the family. Sure the family has rules and responsibilities but it is not based on merit. It is based on sonship.

    I would love to hear more about Eastern Christianity. Is there a place I can go to understand it better?

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  5. I wonder if you are reading Catholics through protestant interpreters. The penal substitution theory of the atonement is basically a protestant thing. Some Catholics teach a form of it but protestants push much more extreme forms. That need to be distinguished from the satisfaction theory taught by St Anselm in Cur Deus Homo. Satisfaction is focused on Christ's obedience. Substitution is focused on Christ's punishment. So St Anselm sounds more Greek than he does protestant. Some protestant characterizations will make them all sound like penal substitution guys. They were not. Try this.

    I do think the Desert Fathers and Dostoevsky are widely respected in the West. I think there is much less of a gap than you think.

    I am not sure you understand St Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine. They developed the faith in many ways. That is they were a huge positive influence on our understanding of God. The East would do well to be influenced by them. Just as the West would do well to embrace Eastern thinkers.

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    1. Both theories, the penal substitution and the satisfaction theory, show that God needs something. He needs Christ to die to satisfy his righteousness or his honor.
      In the Eastern tradition, the Incarnation is viewed less legalistically. It doesn't happen so that God can be satisfied, but for the deification of man (theosis in Greek).

      I don't think this is an either/or. That is protestant thinking. Catholics see it as a both/and. Jesus paid the price for our sins but He also transforms us. He gives us the ability to love with the supernatural love of God. That is salvation.

      The Scholastics degraded, if I may say so, God, and made him an idea, something belonging to the Mind: this is the rout of atheism. If God is something I can think, then I cannot think Him.

      St Thomas Aquinas rejected this. He taught that the mind cannot grasp the nature of God. We can understand Him partially by analogy and we can make direct negative statements about Him. That is we can know what He is not. But describing Him and even grasping Him with our mind is not possible in principle. St Augustine also said, "If you underastand it then it is not God.

    2. Sorry, the last comment was a bit of a mess. Things are busy these days. I may try and fix it later. I did find another article about the relationship between Augustine, Aquinas, and the reformers on justification. Basically saying many false characterizations have been made and become widely accepted.

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  8. I am headed out to world youth day with some of my children. I shall try and respond to this when I get back. Just don't have time right now. God bless you.

  9. Have fun with your family Randy! God Bless!


    Heresy is an opinion, especially a self-willed opinion, which is substituted for submission to the power of truth, and leads to division and formation of sects. Christian heresy is opinion contrary to the Scriptures. Christian heresy is opinion in opposition to the doctrines of God.

    One mans heretic is another mans truth teller.

    There are men who believe there are many ways to heaven. Was Jesus being a heretic when He said (John 14:6 ..."I am the way, and the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father but through Me.)

    There are believers in Christs as well as others who believe that that it took God millions or billions of years to create the heavens and the earth. Was Moses being a heretic when he wrote in Genesis of a six day, twenty four hour day creation? (Genesis 1:1-31......31 God saw all that He made, and behold, it was very good. And that was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.)

    Many believers in Christ believe and teach that water baptism is not essential to have sins forgiven. Was the apostle Peter being heretical when he said (Acts 2:38 ....and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins..)

    Some believe that Jesus is God the Father. Was the apostle Paul guilty of heresy when he said (1 Corinthians 15:20-28.....24 then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when He has abolished all rule authority and power......28 When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.)

    Some men believe that you do not have to believe in Jesus to be saved. Other men assert that water baptism is not a requirement for salvation. Was Jesus demonstrating an act of heresy when He said (Mark 16:16 He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved...)

    There are those who proclaim that Christians cannot fall from grace. Was the apostle Paul deemed a heretic when he said (Galatians 5:4 You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.)

    There are a few who believe that God only offers salvation, by His grace, to a select chosen few. Was the apostle Paul showing his heretical side when he said (Titus 2:11 For the grace of God has appeared bring salvation to all men) Gods grace is available to all who accept His terms for pardon.

    Are Jesus, Moses, the apostles, and the writers of the Bible, all heretics?

    Is it heretical to be opposed to denominational doctrines that are contrary to the facts found in the Bible?

    Are Jesus and the apostles heretics because they disagree with denominational doctrines?


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    1. Hi Steve, thanks for commenting.

      You go over many doctrines that Christians dispute over. You declare that the your view is the biblical view. Guess what? Everyone does that. But does disagreeing with you make someone a heretic? Or do they have to disagree with something that has been widely held by Christians for a long time? How could one tell what doctrinal positions they have to accept to avoid being a heretic?