My first semester at Yale I took a class called “History of Christian Theology to 451.”
It was a class in patristics, or the theology of the early church fathers (and mothers).
Like so many others, I have always been one of those people (by which I mean most people) who claim to love the early church fathers, but who have never, you know, actually read much of what they wrote.
So, it was great to finally immerse myself in their writing.
Obviously, there was lots of great stuff. We wouldn’t still be talking about them nearly 2,000 years later if there wasn’t. But what really stuck out to me were the heretics. I don’t mean I was necessarily drawn to their theology, though it was interesting. I’m talking about the people themselves and the reasons for which they were doomed to an eternity in hell.
Take Arius, for example.
He was the first and one of the most famous heretics of all time.
He was also a pastor who loved his people and loved Christ, every bit as much as his fellow pastors who would eventually condemn him to hell.
Arius’ love drove him to study and write and teach as much as he could about the Christ he loved, the Christ the church itself was only just beginning to understand. Like his fellow pastors, he wondered what it meant for Jesus to be the Son of God and what it really meant to claim that God existed as the Trinity. And just like his fellow pastors he turned to the scriptures he had at his disposal to try and understand the unknowable – the inner life of God.
Unlike his fellow pastors, Arius speculated that within the inner-Trinitarian life of God, the Son is subordinate to the Father.
For this speculation on the ultimately unknowable metaphysics of the nature of God, Arius was declared a heretic and damned to hell.
He was but the first of many.
This past week I had the chance to hang out with a couple of people who have also been declared heretics and damned to hell by many of their fellow Christians today – Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo.
You may hear their names and think “How are those guys heretics?!” or “Of course they’re heretics!” or “Who are Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo?”
While we have a few mutual friends, it was my first time meeting them in person. So I confess, I don’t know them well. For all I know, maybe they were completely faking it last week and they do spend their evenings worshiping satan and plotting the overthrow of the church as they’re so often accused of doing across the internet.
But just a few days and a handful of conversations, to say nothing of the countless stories about them related to me from mutual friends, were enough to make one thing clear to me – these men love Jesus and they love the church.
It’s not that I had much doubt about that before meeting them, rather seeing them incarnate the love and grace of Christ to those around them just confirmed what I already suspected.
I also have a sneaking suspicion the same could be said of Arius and countless other men and women who were branded heretics by their fellow Christians.
Look, I get it. Ideas are important. They shape not only how we think, but also how we live. But I think there’s a big difference between important and salvific.
In other words, as important as they really and truly are, I don’t think our ideas save us, nor do I think they damn us to hell.
Maybe I’m just a sap, but I find it extremely difficult, if not altogether reprehensible, to believe that at the end of all things Jesus will be sitting on his heavenly throne with a list of doctrines, condemning people to eternal torment in hell because, in doing the exact same sort of theological speculation as other Christians, they came to different conclusions about what theory of the atonement was right or how the inner-life of the Trinity works or when the rapture will happen or whether or not predestination is true and if so, what kind of predestination is the right kind of predestination.
I mean, seriously, what kind of monstrous God would that be who burned people in hell for all eternity because they essentially guessed wrong about things we won’t even know the definitive answer to until we actually get to heaven?
But if you listen to a lot of Christian pastors and teachers today, to say nothing of lay people lurking around the internet, you would think that the final judgment scene will essentially be a cosmic episode of Jeopardy. Forget to state your answer in the form of a theological question or quote the wrong theologian and you’re gonna burn in hell.
If I’m reading the gospels correctly, and I think I am, Jesus thought this was pretty ridiculous too. It’s in part why we continually see him battling the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Teachers of the Law. They seemed to have reveled in condemning anyone and everyone who taught or believed differently than they did. Jesus would have none of it.
And that’s to say nothing about how Jesus himself described the final judgment scene.
The lists of orthodoxy we use to damn each other are conspicuously missing.
Gone are questions about atonement theory or Trinitiarian metaphysics or predestination.
They’ve been replaced by far more simple and yet vastly more important questions: I was hungry, did you feed me? I was thirsty, did you give me something to drink? I was naked, did you clothe me? I was sick and in prison, did you come and take care of me?
In other words, Jesus doesn’t really seem to care much about our theological orthodoxy.
He seems to care a lot more about our orthopraxy, that is to say whether or not we actually lived our lives like he did.
Again, that’s not to say that ideas aren’t important. They are. But I don’t see anywhere in any of Jesus’ descriptions of the final judgement where he says or even implies that our salvation rests on agreeing to all the right doctrines.
Look, I love theology and I think good theology can lead to good living, just like bad theology can lead to bad living. But I’m convinced it’s the fruit of our theology – the way we live our lives and how we treat others – that determines the goodness of our theology, not whether or not our ideas adhere to a particular theological system.
Which is why I think when it comes to dealing with the self-appointed watchdogs of orthodoxy who plague the internet and torment the church, Rhett Butler said it best in Gone with the Wind.
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
And neither should you.
Grace and peace,