A mind-stretching reflection that may need correction!
All informed Christians have heard of heresies—concerning the nature of God (e.g., Modalism and Tritheism); concerning Jesus of Nazareth (e.g., Nestorianism and Monophysitism) and concerning the grace of God (e.g., Pelagianism). In recent years we have been introduced to new heresies—e.g., that same-sex covenanted partnerships are holy before God, and that in baptism each and every person is given by God in embryo and potential the gift of every form of ministry known, utilized and practiced in the church.
One could claim, even want to assert, that heresies are simply irrelevant to orthodoxy and have nothing in common with it whatsoever. One could also assert that they are, in fact, pure forms of error, owning nothing to the truth. However attractive it may be to hold this kind of approach of heresy as being just error, it is basically untenable because of the basic principle of Christian philosophy that evil has no positive being of its own but is necessarily a defect of something that is good.
Let us now hear from my learned and godly tutor of many years ago, Dr. Eric Mascall, on what is heresy:
In some way or another we are bound to hold that heresies arise when one aspect or element of orthodoxy gets detached from the rest and develops on its own without the controlling and balancing influence which the others would be capable of bringing to bear on it. The detached element may become stunted or hypertrophied as circumstances may dictate, and even if by some chance it more or less retains its original shape its detachment from the other elements will inevitably lead it to exercise a one-sided and exaggerated influence upon thought and practice. Nevertheless the fact remains that whatever is positive in heresy must be something essentially orthodox; and the way in which orthodoxy treads the via media between the heresies is—to change the metaphor—by rectifying, appropriating and reconciling their several affirmations. And—need it be added?—by doing this, orthodoxy finds itself enriched and strengthened. [Via Media, 1957, p.xii]
Obviously heresy arises within Christianity and is not something that is imported into the Church as a finished product. That all the major heresies contain a major element of orthodoxy is easily verifiable by the study of the major heresies that were encountered in the Early Church—e.g., Arianism was a form of Tritheism because it separated too radically the essence/substance being of each of the Three Person, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; but is was right to insist on the Trinity
Dr Mascall sustains his thesis of orthodoxy treading a holy via media by taking four examples—the doctrine of Creation, the Processions of the Persons within the Holy Trinity, the unconfused union of two natures in the One Christ, and the doctrine of grace as conferring deified creaturehood. If you have the mental commitment, this book is well worth reading!
I shall not attempt to summarize the presentation. Rather, I will briefly investigate whether that which Dr Mascall did not envisage for the Church of England when he wrote the book in 1957—I refer to the ordination of women—is, on his terms, a heresy, and, if it is not, then what it is.
So, first of all, we ask: Is there here with this doctrine of women’s ordination one aspect or element of orthodoxy that has got detached from the rest and has developed on its own without the controlling and balancing influence which the others would be capable of bringing to bear on it?
By way of answer one could say that the act of ordination (the use of laying on of hands with prayer) has been detached from such elements as (a) the biblical doctrine of order in creation where, within the equality of man and women, there is a headship given to the man, and (b) the example of Jesus who chose only men to be his apostles, who in turn chose only men to be their successors. Having been set free from such elements, then the act of ordination can become the experience of anyone whom the bishops place before them.
Or, from another standpoint by way of answer, one could say that the vocation of women within the church has got detached from its proper, valuable forms of ministry and service through the influence of the women’s liberation movement, and has been transferred to a new place prepared and carved out for it in the 1960s and 1970s in the mainline churches by the same movement. And in all this the reaching for equality with dignity by women in the church has been confused with being ordained.
Obviously the ordination of women is not pure error; it is better regarded as the misplacement and misdirection of several important and good things—the devotion of women to Jesus the Lord; the vocation of women to serve him; the gifts and graces of women; the recognition of the full dignity and equality of women before God and in Christian service, and so on..
And one could proceed to say that it should be only men whom the Lord calls who are actually ordained, and that ordaining women—whatever the good motives for so doing and whatever the excellencies of the women involved—is a major mistake. Thus the ordination of women is a heresy. It is what seems to be in modern western thought an apparently good thing, but only good in the estimation of human beings guided by the human rights and human potential movements. If God does not will it then it cannot be good in his sight.
Further, one could go on to show that ordaining men is the way of the true via media between two heresies or extremes or poles, just as Trinitarian Orthodoxy is the via media between Modalism and Tritheism. What then are the two poles between which the ordination of men occurs?
In the Early Church one pole was that of the charismatic local assembly where every-member ministry was in operation and leadership was associated with the exercise of spiritual gifts and thus could be female or male. The other pole was a more settled situation but very much relying on the frequent or infrequent visits of traveling evangelists, prophets and teachers. In between the ministry of male presbyters and pastors (epsicopoi), assisted by deacons, was the via media and that which became in gradual development the settled threefold Ministry of the Church. Even as Jesus had chosen only men to be apostles, and only men were elders (presbyteroi) in the synagogues, so the church’s ordained Ministry was male. However, wealthy widows often served as hostesses for the meetings of the churches in their homes.
Of course, if the ordination of women is a heresy it is one amongst several, even many, in the mainline denominations today. In fact where women’s ordination is closely tied in origin and exercise to the women’s liberation movement, it is itself often closely tied with these heresies, often beginning with the theology of Panentheism and embracing Pelagianism, and including the holiness of same-sex partnerships. But if women’s ordination is not a heresy it is most certainly a major innovation in the Christian Church for it has led not only to a major change in the nature of the Ministry but also in the way that the Church speaks of and addresses God, since women cannot be expected continually to address an all-male God!
October 19, 2006 firstname.lastname@example.org
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)