I never expected St. John of Damascus to insert himself into my Black Lives Matter pondering, but leave it to a member of the Church Triumphant to nudge us, the Church Militant, in the right direction. I have no direct experience with BLM and my very limited interaction has come first through the online heresy hunters who found heresy in the movement. After a bit of eye rolling I thought I should at least check out their claims. That led me to the writings and podcasts of RAAN (Reformed African American Network, now called “The Witness”) led by Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) pastor Jemar Tisby. Let’s be clear that my opinion is an outsider’s perspective. I almost pursued ordination in the PCA but quickly became troubled by their utterly scholastic theology. Even though I am quite theologically conservative, I ended up being ordained by the mainline PC(USA) rather than it’s Evangelically oriented step-child. I am now Eastern Orthodox and as lily white as a Midwesterner of Danish decent can be, so this whole reflection is by an outsider both culturally and religiously.
I have been impressed by the theological consistency of Tisby. RAAN also includes those who know a lot about systematic theology but who have little clue how to think theologically and are thus caught up in the winds of popular outrage. I took a couple of RAAN members to task for just this sort of faux-theology a few months ago in this post. Black Lives Matter provided a mirror into our American psyche precisely because of this mix of good and bad theology. The PCA (Tisby’s own denomination) had an opportunity at their annual assembly to affirm the theological wrestling that some of their own members (such as Tisby) were doing. Instead, they sorted through that which had been said and written, found things that smelled of heresy, condemned it, back off a bit, then side-stepped the issue, and in the process furthered the suspicion that racism is far from rooted out of this denomination.
Shortly after this debacle in the PCA (and a similar debacle in the Southern Baptist Convention) RAAN changed their mission statement and their name. Rather than an umbrella organization for Presbyterian and Reformed African American pastors, it is downplaying the Reformed part and focusing more on how racism is still endemic within Evangelicalism as a whole. The new name, “The Witness” appears to be an attempt to highlight this change. Tisby and company have taken the high road and not railed against the PCA or the SBC, but it’s hard not to think that the new name is a direct result of the convention this summer.
I have struggled mightily to sort these events out. I believe that heresy (if it is actually there) needs to be rooted out by proclaiming the true faith. Furthermore, most of what this summer’s heresy hunters said about the theological claims surrounding Black Lives Matter was technically accurate (in a motes vs logs manner), so it seems I should have been happy. But I was deeply troubled by the heresy hunters, although I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Last week Cambridge professor Demetrios Bathrellos posted a paper to http://www.academia.edu entitled St John of Damascus and the Future of Orthodox Theology which helped me sort out this summer’s kerfuffle. For John of Damascus, the heresy in question was Islam. (Yes, the Church Fathers of the era considered Islam a Christian heresy and not a distinct religion.) Bathrellos argued that while John’s critique of Islam was insightful and very skilled, it also had a weakness that is common in anti-heretical scholarship. The critic is “often unfair to the other, tending as it does to draw a caricature of its opponents’ position instead of describing it accurately and fairly” Bathrellos goes on to say that this is “particularly repulsive in some of its forms that are still with us today” (p. 215).
Some of its modern forms, because of their excessive preoccupation with heresy, tend to make Orthodoxy defensive, and to give rise to multiple (and naïve) conspiracy theories. Modern heresy-hunters see heresies everywhere, not least in prophetic voices or practices that attempt to promote authentic Christianity in the context of (post-) modernity. This excessive preoccupation with heresy is responsible for the fact that Orthodoxy sometimes tends to define itself not positively, but negatively, namely not on the basis of what it believes but ont he basis of what it rejects. In this way it unwittingly allows its enemies to exercise upon its self-understanding a very powerful influence. (pp. 215f)
Although Bathrellos’ immediate context is the Catholic-Orthodox Epiclesis dispute, the repulsion he expresses about that quite perfectly summarizes my unease with the heresy hunters going after the organization formerly known as RAAN. Furthermore, Bathrellos puts his finger on the root cause of this sort of repugnant heresy hunting. Quoting Angelo de Berardino, he says, “in line with a large majority of post-Chalcedonian authors, he [John] rarely makes direct use of Holy Scripture. To defend and confirm Orthodoxy—the main aim of his theological work—he bases himself, as do the others, more on the authority of the Fathers.” This tendency to rely on “an assumed canon of fathers who represented infallible Orthodoxy” is how “Scholasticism was born” (p. 210) Here’s how Bathrellos describes Scholasticism:
This type of theology, albeit true to the Bible, depends largely on a mediated access to the Scriptures through the works of earlier fathers.
After describing it, Bathrellos goes on to describe the primary symptom of a scholastic theology.
This tendency for a certain dislocation of Scripture has at times been evidenced in all Christian traditions, including not only medieval scholasticism but also the Protestant Reformation. So, in spite of their emphasis on a return to Scripture, the reformers focused rather on the Epistles of Paul than on the Gospels, because the latter gave them more material for constructing dogmas, ideas, and values of perennial significance. (Is it, I wonder, merely an accident that the Damascene’s scriptural commentaries are almost exclusively on the Epistles of Saint Paul.) (p. 211)
In spite of his tendency toward scholasticism, Bathrellos insists that John transcended the tendency because of his ability, not only to wrestle with that which had been written previously, but also with the culture in which he found himself.
John belongs to a very long tradition of Christian authors who rejected innovation as heresy and yet were original thinkers. No innovation is allowed, for we cannot invent new truths … nevertheless, originality and creativity are necessary in a changing world, which demands an ever-deeper understanding of different aspects of the same Gospel, as well as a capacity to address it afresh to new and different persons, conditions, questions, and problems. (p. 214)
There are two points where I am deeply troubled by the heresy hunters that went after RAAN. The first is the above-mentioned tendency to critique a caricature of the other rather than learning to know them in their complexity. The second is this necessary intersection that Bathrellos describes above. The heresy hunters seem only to be concerned that no innovation is allowed. Authentic theology, on the other hand, requires a capacity to address the Gospel (and not just the revered theologians of a previous generation) “afresh to new and different persons, conditions, questions, and problems.” And that is the medicine that keeps the virus called scholasticism at bay.