“Thinking About Wheat and Tares”: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Nearly a century ago G.K. Chesterton pointed out that heretics have a quite undeserved reputation for being exciting and adventurous, while orthodox believers have an equally undeserved reputation for being dull and narrow, too frightened to venture forth from the confines of the Creeds.
There is, however, some truth in the conventional view. Often those labeled as heretics have been adventurously pushing their inquiries in ways that have disturbed the conventional. Moreover it must be admitted that there are many orthodox believers whose faith is rooted in a fear of change of any kind, whether practical or theological, and who, therefore, hate anything that may disturb their repose. It is also wise to remember that Hus, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Cranmer were all labeled as heretics in their day.
Nevertheless, I think that Chesterton was probably right in terms of his main point. Given that we throw around the terms “orthodoxy” and “heresy” all too lightly, the fact remains that orthodox Christian faith is a larger and more inclusive thing than heresy. It is strange, therefore, that the narrower activity of heretical thought has won a reputation for a broad-minded, free-wheeling openness, while the really broad and inclusive experience of traditional Christianity gets the “grumpy mother-in-law award” for ill tempered rigidity. As is often the case in these matters, the children of this generation are simply much better at their public relations than are the children of light.
In considering the wheat of orthodoxy and the tares of heresy, etymology helps us along at least part of the way. The word “orthodoxy” comes from two Greek words that in the original meant “right praise”, but later came to be understood as “right doctrine” or “right thinking”. Anything that is “ortho” is correct, or “on the level”. There is a sense of measuring in the term, with the idea that in orthodoxy you get the right and/or full measure, that is, the whole range of the thing that is under consideration.
Of course, you can see where, in the conventional mind, it can go wrong after that definition. That is, you can apply orthodoxy like a ruler to measure up in excruciating detail the parameters of someone’s faith. You can use it as a way of excluding people from your particular tribe and descend into sectarianism. The word itself, however, has about it an air of scope and scale and, yes, inclusiveness. I would submit that it is, in fact, the heretic who wants to chop up the full bolt of cloth and make it into nice little suits according to current fashions. For, you see, heresy, in its root meaning is a “choice”; that is, it is something that one has picked and chosen, the little bit of the whole that they can go along with in their own thinking.
Furthermore, the trouble with heresy, as with sectarianism, is that their proponents do not just say, “This is how I see it…” They usually say, “This is how it is…” Moreover, they are often in a strong position because they often speak for their own time or their own generation or their own sect, which usually does see things exactly the way that they see them. The Church, on the other hand, has to speak, in some sense, for the ages… for the dead as well as the living… for all believers, not a few… for the present as well as the future.
The Church, and that means you and me, therefore has to defend the whole line of Christian faith and thought handed on from generation to generation for two thousand years, against those who would discard most of it, or a portion of it, in order to market the tiny bit that they happen to be keen on at the moment. So, the Church often appears to be slow, or out of date, or on the defensive. In fact, she simply has a long memory and knows how often this has happened before. She has seen truth, or part of the whole truth, discarded as irrelevant by one generation only to be rediscovered by a subsequent generation as the very thing that is most needed. So, the Church guards her faith and doctrine not because she is blinkered and does not see very far, but for precisely the opposite reason: She sees on a far wider scale than the present obsessions of some of her more clever children. We remember that the seed of the wheat and the tares are indistinguishable from one another until they are fully grown. You see, we must look to more than merely the present moment.
Now, if we cannot root out the tares without destroying the wheat, we can, at least, try to identify which is which.
Wittgenstein once wrote, “Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and what will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life”. I think this observation points us to the primary truth of Christian history: the experience of God and Christ came before the formulation of doctrines. It took the early Church centuries before it finally put its experience of God into words concerning, for example, the nature and doctrine of the Trinity. The experience of the Trinity, however, that is, the relationship between the believer and Christ and the Holy Spirit and God the Father, was something that had happened in the hearts of countless believers long before it was wrapped up in a creedal formula.
Yet, we might go even further. T.S. Eliot wrote that, “We had the experience but missed the meaning; but when we approach the meaning we restore the experience”. We might note that in the Gospels, the first disciples experienced Christ in his fullness, yet they often got his meaning wrong. They often missed the truth that stood behind his words and actions.
One way to restore the meaning, to sort out the wheat from the tares, is to ponder and consider what the experience of Christ really means. It is that pondering and consideration that makes up the enterprise that we call Christian doctrine – and it is vitally important to all of us who bear the name “Christian” for the simple reason that it is the pondering of the very reality of our lives. You see, Eliot has uncovered the principle that underlies orthodox Christian faith – heresy is heresy, according to Christian tradition, not because it got the theory wrong, but because its theories are not true to Christian experience. The great doctrines of God, Christ, the Trinity, the nature of salvation, were hammered out not because the Church wanted new theories to set down as barriers, but because heresies arose propounding neat and attractive doctrines that contradicted Christian experience. The Church knew that she could never capture these mysteries in words – see the struggle with the creeds – but she had to do something. The Church knew what her experience was and likewise knew that the heresies were not true to the width and the breadth of that experience. The tares could not be rooted out, but they could be identified.
Christian doctrine, the Creeds and regard for tradition became unavoidable when people started exploring what the experience of Christ really meant. For most people, however, it is the experience of Christian faith itself that they care about the most. That is why many are dismayed by the arid nature of doctrinal debate and the often strident manner in which it is pursued.
You see, most of us do not mind when other people express doubt or difficulty with this or that aspect of faith and doctrine. Generally, we do not expect everyone to be able to encompass all of the mysteries and paradoxes of the Christian tradition without difficulty… and we are rightly suspicious of those who claim to have done so. If you choose to climb mountains, it is wisdom to know what side of a mountain that you can tackle and which side you should avoid. Likewise, one should not generalize from one’s own limitations and pronounce on the universal suitability of this or that face of the mountain we all must climb.
Unfortunately, there are many among us who have less modesty than climbers and they are rarely hesitant to tell the rest of us what we may or may not believe; what we should or should not accept. Belief and believability, however, are complex things and might call for us to exercise more reticence and humility in our pronouncements. One theologian has coined the phrase, “the available believable”, with the idea that what was available to one person’s belief is not necessarily available to another. Also, we grow with time in our understanding. There are many, now fully involved in a particular Christian tradition, who started off somewhere else.
In other words, we might consider being content to work with what we can believe without constantly trying to knock down what is available to our neighbor’s belief, even though it might be out of the question for us. Remember, uprooting what we believe are tares will also destroy the wheat. If we followed a more humble approach, I think we would be operating on the very correct assumption that our faith in Christ, or the Trinity, or the resurrection, or eschatology, or our understanding of the ministry, are much larger than any one generation’s apprehension and that, therefore, it is better to affirm what you can in the tradition and not to be too hasty in condemning what you might find difficult in your tradition or another’s, for as F.D. Maurice wrote, “people are usually right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny”.
Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD