For some 35 years, I’ve made my living crafting words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into articles and books. I enjoy words. They are symbols for thoughts. Writing is thinking on paper. Words, however, are not always what they seem. Many of them are loaded with “freight” or “baggage.” Take, for example, the words “orthodoxy” and “heresy.”
The Medical Example
In virtually any profession, you have your “orthodox” practitioners, and your “heretics.” For instance, consider the nomenclature of the medical profession. Mainstream medical practice is referred to in the media, and by itself, as “orthodox” or “conventional.” Sometimes the word “traditional” is used as well. “Standard” medical practice is also called “scientific medicine.” These are all positive words.
Conversely, natural medicine is termed “unorthodox,” “alternative” or even “quackery.” It is viewed as “unscientific.” Generally negative imagery.
As we daily absorb the literature and media that use this nomenclature, we find ourselves buying into it. We accept the idea that it is “normal” or “conventional” to burn, toxify and cut away body parts, and we embrace the notion that working with the body’s natural physiology is somehow “quackery.” Natural medicine is based on an understanding of how the human body works as a total system. It is quite scientific. When the body becomes toxic, or when the flows of any of its systems are arrested (bowel, liver/gall bladder, kidney/bladder, nerves, blood vessels, lymphatic system, lungs, skin etc. etc.) then the thing to do is detoxify and release blockages so that normal flows can be restored. What’s so unscientific about that?
What’s unscientific about bowel cleansing or releasing stones from the kidney and gall bladder through natural means rather than cutting them out? What’s unorthodox about detoxifying the body, getting good nutrition into it, and rebuilding the immune system, which is our first line of defense against disease? Why is that “quackery”?
It’s quackery because those who don’t believe in it have gained power, and those who do have lost it. “Orthodox” medicine is Big Business these days. HMO’s are in business to make a profit, not to get people healthy so that they don’t have to use them. Mainstream medicine is interested in getting rid of its competition. Hence, it must discredit it, and label it “heresy.” Big Drug considers natural foods and supplements “ineffective” because they don’t instantly mask symptoms and cause side effects.
Orthodoxy and heresy are defined by those who win battles for power and influence. In China, the Communist Party decides what’s orthodox and what’s heresy. Politically, Communism defines one-party rule as orthodox and multi-party competition as heresy. In this country, we see it the opposite way. Who is right? The Communist Party is “right” for China, the Constitution is “right” for America. The point is: orthodoxy and heresy are not defined objectively, but by power.
Theological Orthodoxy & Heresy
In recent days, the world has been transfixed by the death pageant surrounding the pope. The world’s largest Christian church has lost its leader. For millions of Catholics the world over, the pope was the paragon of orthodoxy. World leaders have recognized his preeminent position in Christianity by beating a path to his coffin. The Roman Catholic Church views itself as the guardian of Christian orthodoxy. All other claims must be evaluated in the light of its official dogma and doctrine.
Protestants of course disagree. The various cults also disagree – both with Catholicism and Protestantism. The Orthodox Churches – both Russian and Greek – also disagree. Who is truly orthodox, and who is heretical?
Within the Christian Church, as in the medical profession, orthodoxy is determined be those who won the power struggles for dominance. Bart D. Ehrman writes: “During the first two and a half centuries, Christianity comprised a number of competing theologies, or better, a number of competing Christian groups advocating a variety of theologies. There was as yet no established ‘orthodoxy,’ that is, no basic theological system acknowledged by the majority of church leaders and laity. Different local churches supported different understandings of the religion, while different understandings of the religion were present even within the same local church” (The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, p. 4).
Sect of the Nazarene
In its original form, the “Church” was not an institution but a “sect” within Judaism. It was known as “the sect of the Nazarene” and it revolved around the teachings of Yeshua the Jewish Rabbi (Acts 24:5). It was also known as “the Way” (Acts 9:2; 24:14). The religion of Jesus and his followers was Judaism, not “Christianity.” The word “Christian” was not even invented in Jesus’ day. It was not until more than a decade after Jesus’ resurrection – around 43 AD – that the term “Christian” was coined in gentile Antioch, possibly as a pejorative (Acts 11:26). Until the gentiles began fellowshipping with the Jewish believers in response to Paul’s Gospel, what later became known as “The Church” was a wholly Jewish “witnessing body” (Hebrew = edah). The Jewish apostles bore witness to what they had seen and heard.
The first followers of Jesus had no formal theology. The story of Jesus’ life and teachings was not even written down until some 40 years after his resurrection. Everything the early Christians knew, they knew from word of mouth (oral tradition). In the mid-fifties, the letters of Paul were first copied and circulated among the gentile congregations that were springing up all over the Roman Empire. Most of these groups were founded from synagogue Jews and “God-fearer” gentiles and proselytes who fellowshipped with them in their synagogues (Acts 10:1, 22; 13:42, 49).
For the first decades of its existence, the fledgling Church had no formal or structured theology. The Jewish Christians practiced the tenets of normative Judaism. The God-fearers among them were like Noachides. They adopted the aspects of Jesus’ and the apostle’s Judaism that applied to gentiles. Yet they knew they were not under all of the same obligations to Torah as were the Jewish believers. This is clear from a close study of the implications of the Jerusalem Conference recorded in Acts 15 and the letter that followed it.
The teachings, doctrines, dogmas and theologies that emerged from the gentile Church in the centuries following the deaths of the original apostles bore little resemblance to the fundamentally Jewish teaching of the earlier Church. In fact the edifice of subsequent church theology was erected upon a foundation of anti-Judaism.
The Roman Emperor, Constantine, was the founder of the “Holy Roman Empire” and the one who ended persecution against the Church. In 325 AD, he called the Council of Nicea, at which the basis for much Catholic theology was established. It was Constantine who married Church and State in what turned out to be an unholy alliance. Following Nicea, the emperor wrote a letter to the Christian churches of which he was now the head. In it he excoriated the Jews, their teachings, their character and their right to represent God. He deemed it “…a most unworthy thing that we should follow the custom of the Jews in the celebration of this most holy solemnity [Easter], who, polluted wretches! Having stained their hands with this nefarious crime [killing Christ], are justly blinded in their minds…”
He wrote of “…rejecting the practice of this people…” and he said, “Let us have nothing in common with the most hostile rabble of the Jews…that most odious fellowship…the vilest of mankind…these parricides and murderers of our Lord…” etc.
Dan Gruber says of Constantine’s purple prose: “In this letter, Constantine officially establishes an anti-Judaic foundation for the doctrine and practice of the Church, and declares that contempt for the Jews, and separation from them, is the only proper Christian attitude” (The Church and the Jews by Dan Gruber, pp. 33-35, excerpts).
With the power of the Roman Empire behind him, Constantine was in a position to enforce any kind of doctrine and thinking he wanted to. Needless to say, the Church became the “Church of Constantine.” He was the 600-lb. gorilla who decided the direction it would take from that time forth. Needless to say, it moved farther and farther away from its Jewish roots and deeper and deeper into Greek and pagan philosophy. In fact, the formation of doctrine in the Church was influenced by many streams: Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism (the religion of the Persians), the allegorical method of interpretation (as set forth by Origen), and various prevailing manifestations of paganism. It became truly a “Catholic” – that is, Universal – religion. The Jews, and Jewish Christians, were left in the dust.
The purity and simplicity of the original apostle’s doctrine (Acts 2:42) was contaminated by the inflow of a wide variety of toxic streams. The Church that emerged in the wake of Constantine was a far cry from Jerusalem. It was gentile through and through. Its doctrines continued to evolve and develop over a period of many centuries. Many of them bore no resemblance to the thought worlds of the Old and New Testaments. The Church, under the heavy-handed guidance of Rome, had the power to define “orthodoxy” in any way it wanted to, and it did just that. As Gruber writes, “God’s Truth was to be determined by Church councils, and not by the Word of God. Consequently the teaching which was a blasphemous heresy to Justin Martyr became the new, unchallengeable orthodoxy” (The Church and the Jews, p. 39).
Gruber sums up what happened this way: “Constantine and Eusebius institutionalized many serious errors. They made changes that were to plunge the Church and the world into a literal thousand years of darkness. They laid a different foundation than Jesus and Hs apostles had laid. A new era in the history of the Church had begun. In actuality, a new Church began” (ibid. p. 40).
Throughout ecclesiastical history, the same principle – that power defines orthodoxy – has prevailed. When the Reformers gained power in various parts of the so-called “Holy” Roman Empire, they too imposed their doctrine as orthodox. Those who dissented were sometimes burned at the stake. When Henry VIII established himself as head of the Anglican Church, he defined orthodoxy in accordance with his own wants and needs.
Within autocratic, smaller sects and denominations, the leader du jour is able to enforce his will as being orthodox, and all who disagree are by definition, heretics. It was ever thus in the world of religion. It’s a variation on the old theme: “Might makes right.”
Perhaps this is the reason the synagogue, to its credit, has long been a democratic institution. Consequently, no rabbinic tyrant has been able to force his will upon the whole of Judaism, or even upon one of its divisions. For all of its antiquity, Judaism is nowhere near as divided as Christianity with its thousands of denominations. Judaism has only three main groupings: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Within those groups, there are variations, but nothing like the chaos we Christians have experienced. But then, it’s probably a good thing, as I wrote in an earlier column. At least it prevents any one group from imposing its orthodoxy on the rest of us. We are free, therefore, to live in conscience toward God.