Tale of Two Heretics

I was reflecting upon the whole denomination discussion below, especially in light of Annie’s comments. I typically keep audiences in mind when I write, and I find that when I write on denomination/doctrine issues I often think of Annie and Anastasia; Annie reminds me to bear in mind an openness to the Spirit and the Jesus who steadfastly resisted the religious authorities’ attempts to nail him–and the God he proclaimed–down. Anastasia reminds me of the value of hierarchy, the weight and responsibility of the faith handed down from and by the saints, and the need for process and protocol when it comes to matters of doctrine. (The rest of y’all are floating around in there too–they’re just the two edges on *this* topic…)[Update: It just occurred to me how this title and paragraph could be construed…Annie and Anastasia are NOT the two heretics of the title; they show up down below…]

In a way, I want to uphold the value of both positions because there are truly important things that we need from both. The bottom line for me is that an openness to God is essential; the church should not be in the business of squelching anything and everything for the sake of institutional self-preservation (and yes–that goes for liberal churches too…). On the other hand, good theology is also important. We take this God stuff seriously for a reason and we need to have a good sense of what we do and don’t believe and why and how that participates in the openness towards God. Note that I don’t say “precise” or even “correct” theology. These adjectives seem to me to lack way too much humility. So–I’ll settle for “good” taking two sense of the word: more-or-less internally consistent and one that highlights the practice and presence of the virtues. (Needless to say, my starting point for this is the Triune God known through Jesus as explicated in the creeds.)

In some sense I’m arguing for an openness with controls. You’ve gotta have them or else things get *really* wacky. Want an example? I’m a fan of St Boniface. A good English boy originally named Wynfrið, he is the Apostle to the Germans and was the first Archbishop of Mainz. Despite the apostolic toitle, Germany had been a mission-field for quite a while before he arrived. Much of his work was in organizing the Christian presence there, and he did this with a decidedly Roman notion of organization and papal authority. Thus, he did a lot of running around and yelling about clerical celibacy which was big in Rome and not so big on the edges of the empire.

One of my favorite sections of his correspondence is the record of the Synod of 25 October 745, Condemning Aldebert and Clemens. Here, Boniface had apprehended two bishops who he was arraigning on heresy charges. Let’s read about the second one first…

The other heretic, whose name is Clement, is opposed to the Church, denies and refuses to acknowledge the sacred canons and rejects the teaching of the holy Fathers St. Jerome, St. Augustine and St. Gregory. He despises all synodal decrees and declares on his own authority that, even though he has had two children born to him during his episcopate, he can still exercise the functions of a Christian bishop. He accepts the Old Testament ruling that a man can if he wishes, marry his brother’s widow and considers that the same doctrine is applicable to Christians. Contrary to the teaching of the Fathers, he affirms that Christ descended into hell to deliver all those, believers and unbelievers, servants of Christ as well as worshippers of idols, who were confined there. On the question of predestination he holds a number of damnable opinions which are contrary to Catholic belief.

So, this guy is for clerical–even episcopal–marriage, universal salvation, relaxed views on marriage laws, and takes a dim view towards the Church Fathers. This guy could be a time-traveller from our House of Bishops… I sometimes feel a little uneasy about this particular ecclesiastical smackdown. Given the way rhetoric and prosecutors function, I wonder how far outside the pale Clement really was or if the other issues were hopped up to add to the seriousness of the episcopal marriage problem. Clement makes me wonder about the abusive potential of the hierarchical system.

Then there’s the first guy…

Of Aldebert they say that I have deprived them of a saintly apostle and robbed them of a patron and intercessor, a doer of good deeds and a worker of miracles. But hear first the story of his life and judge for yourself whether or not he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

“Quite early in life he deceived many people by saying that an angel in the guise of a man had brought him from the other end of the world relics of extraordinary but rather suspect holiness, and that through their efficacy he could obtain from God whatever he desired. By such pretence he was able by degrees, as St. Paul says, to make his way into house after house, captivating weak women whose consciences were burdened by sin and swayed by shifting passions. He also deceived great numbers of simple folk who thought that he was a man of truly apostolic character because he had wrought signs and wonders. He bribed ill-instructed bishops to consecrate him, in defiance of canon law and, finally, with unbridled arrogance, put himself on the level of the Apostles. He insolently refused to consecrate churches to the honour of the Apostles and martyrs and used to ask people what they expected to gain by going on pilgrimage to the tombs of the Apostles. Later, he dedicated small chapels to himself – or, to speak more truthfully, desecrated them. In the fields or near springs or wherever he had a mind he erected crosses and small chapels [110] and ordered prayers to be recited there. As a result, throngs of people absented themselves from the established churches, flouted the injunctions of the bishops and held their services in those places, saying: ‘The merits of St. Aldebert will help us.’

“He distributed his hair and fingernails for veneration and had them carried round in procession with the relics of St. Peter the Apostle. Finally, he committed what I consider to be the greatest crime and blasphemy against God. Whenever anyone came to him and fell at his feet desiring confession he would say: ‘I know all your sins: your secret deeds are open to my gaze. There is no need to confess, since your past sins are forgiven. Go home in peace: you are absolved.’

“In his dress, his bearing, his behaviour., in fact, in all the details described by Holy Scripture, he imitated the hypocrites.

My own fingernails will be on sale on eBay shortly…
The document continues during the second session:

When he came in, Zacharias, the holy and blessed Pope, said: “Bring forward the life-story of the infamous man Aldebert, together with his writings which you had in your hands at the last session, and cause them to be read out before the present gathering.” Then Theophanius, the regional notary and treasurer, took them and read aloud the following opening sentences:

“In the name of Jesus Christ. Here begins the life of the holy and blessed servant of God, Bishop Aldebert, born by the will of God. He was sprung from simple parents and was crowned by the grace of God. For Whilst he was in his mother’s womb the grace of God came upon him, and before his birth his mother saw, as in a vision, a calf issuing from her right side. This calf symbolized the grace which he had received from an angel before he came forth from the womb.”

. . .

Denehard, the priest, answered: ” I have a letter here which he made use of in his teaching, saying that it was written by Jesus and came down from heaven.”

Then Theophanius, the regional notary and treasurer, took it up and read out the following words:

“In the name of God. Here begins the letter of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, which fell from heaven in Jerusalem [113] and was discovered by the archangel Michael near the gate of Ephraim. This very copy of the letter came into the hands of a priest named Icore, who read it and sent it to a priest named Talasius in the city of Jeremias. Talasius passed it on to another priest Leoban, who was living in a town of Arabia. Leoban sent the letter to the city of Westphalia, where it was received by a priest Macrius. He sent the letter to Mont St. Michel. In the end, through the intervention of an angel, the letter reached Rome, even the tombs of the Apostles, where the keys of the kingdom of heaven are. And the twelve dignitaries who are in the city of Rome fasted, watched and prayed for three days and three nights,” etc.

From the third:

When he had come in, Zacharias, the Pope, said: ” Have you any other writings belonging to those renegades which you ought to hand over to be read? ” Denehard, the priest, replied: ” Yes, my Lord. I have a prayer which Aldebert tried to compose for his own use. Here it is in my hand. Pray, take it.”

And Theophanius, taking it, read it aloud, beginning with the following words:

“O Lord, Omnipotent God, Father of Christ, the Son of God., and our Lord Jesus Christ, alpha et omega, who sittest on the seventh throne above the cherubim and seraphim, immense love and wonderful sweetness is with Thee. O Father of the holy angels, who hast created heaven and earth, the sea and all the things that are in them, I invoke Thee, I cry out and summon thee to my aid, wretch that I am. Thou hast deigned to say: Whatsoever you shall ask the Father in my name, that will I give. To Thee I pray, to Thee aloud I cry, to the Lord Christ I commend my soul.”

And as he was reading from beginning to end, he came to the passage where it said: “I pray and entreat and besecch you, angel [115] Uriel, Raguel, Tubuel, Michael, Adinus, Tubuas, Sabaoc, Sirniel. .. .”

When he had read this sacrilegious prayer to the end, Zacharias, the Pope, said: ” What is your comment upon this, dear brethren? 11 The holy bishops and venerable priests replied: ” What else can we do except consign these writings, which have been read out to us, to the flames and to strike their authors with anathema? The names of the eight angels whom Aldebert invokes in his prayer are., with the exception of Michael, not angels but demons whom he has called to his aid. As we know from the teaching of the Apostolic See and divine authority, there are only three angels, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. He has introduced demons under the guise of angels.”

There’s a problem with Aldebert. This guy should not be a bishop–and I really don’t think that I’m quenching the Spirit when I say that; he’s just wierd. What take from Aldebert is that there is a reason why we have to have boundaries on our beliefs. An openness to the Spirit is essential but we have to be able to say when some one has gone too far and crossed that line. To my mind, Aldebert is a fairly clear-cut case. But what about Clement? And who lies between Clement and Aldebert?

And how do we tell the difference between a heretic and a prophet? Take Jeremiah and Ezekiel–the religious leaders thought they were total nuts and they *did* act quite strangely at times too, but we declare that they were men of the Spirit.

Naturally enough, this topic leads to Spong, Pike et al. I’m not gonna take that up today. Where do–where should–the boundaries of hierarchy and theology lie–and who gets to make the call?

7 thoughts on “Tale of Two Heretics

  1. Annie

    I had to stop and take notes for my fantasy novel.

    By what you have here, we know that the argument against Clement is false. It is false by scripture, as well.

    That said, I believe that the true test is scripture, always. We can all tell that there are ways in which Aldebert fails the test in some measure and yet not in others, or, perhaps I should say he fails our test, if you will. I can’t say I agree with the absolute business of the naming of only three angels. I assume that when Denehard says that he has deprived the people of Aldebert he means that he has condemned him to death? St. Paul says, “A heretic should be warned once, and once again; after that have done with him, recognizing that a man of that sort has a distorted mind and stands self-condemned in his sin.” Which does refer back to your previous post. In Christ, I would say that we test the spirits and we follow those whose teachings pass the test and we reject those whose teachings fail. There are many teachings in churches today that many of us can see clearly are false. In other words, what harm is he doing, exactly, and how permanently damaging? We have a certain group out of Topeka, KS, that are picketing soldier’s funerals claiming that the war in Iraq is punishment of the United States for acceptance of homosexuals. By my standards, this is heretical and does not pass the test of love (1 John). So, back to Aldebert. I would be more prone to pray for somebody that I thought misguided–as I believe we all are to some extent. Poor man! Do his errors effect me or my faith? I’ve never found that to be true–that things I think are false continue to false and my baseline measure is scripture itself, even for myself. But we all have even seen misuse of scripture, as well. Acceptance of new ideas need be slow and carefully considered by many, presenting every possible argument–but always doing it prayerfully, lovingly and without strife.

    So, where are we? They crucified our Lord, you know. Those in authority were threatened by his apparent heretical teachings. They were heretical by the standards of the time and some went directly against the Torah, the Law of Moses, therefore not orthodox and were against tradition.

    I rather like what St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:6-15. That said, I don’t think I am so much against heirarchy and doctrines as you may think. I believe in slow change, but I do question everything and I do believe that we all should. If I were to lose my present church, the Catholic church would be my second choice … that while I feel that no church is exactly right, it holds more truth than most. I am not prone to toss out the baby with the bathwater.

  2. Derek the Ænglican

    Saint’s Lives and correspondence like that of Boniface is great source material for fantasy/medieval novelists. It can really help you get in their heads and see the kinds of questions and concerns that got them excited which are often quite different from our own.

    They are, actually, wrong on the angelology. Uriel is mention in the Scriptures (IV Esdras in the apocrypha). The other names are part of certain esoteric traditions. I recognize both Raguel [patron angel of pasta :-)] and Sabaoc as well as some of the others. I’ve long wnated to try my hand on a scholarly article that discusses this passage and unravels the traditions in play here.

    The depriving probably just refers to his being deposed and possibly imprisoned. I don’t believe they were killing them off at this point though I could be mistaken. The real problem with Aldebert is that he was a bishop and thus was actively and consciously leading people astray. There weren’t public Bibles; there wasn’t real catechesis going on either so whatever the priest said went.

  3. LutherPunk

    Derek –
    Nicely done. There needs to be openness but that does indeed need to be controls that act to prevent some of the more *novel* theology that floats around out there.

    The issue of who today is a heretic really can’t be answered because, IMHO, it seems that we are unwilling to impose some controls on our theology. In an effort to avoid litmus tests, we’ve created an anything goes theological world. So it seems until we discern what the controls are, even Spong has a place, regardless of who absurd his teachings may seem.

    So here is the question: What are the controls?

  4. Annie

    Yes, I was beginning to read more of the work of mystics, although Boniface wasn’t yet on my list. I’m really glad that you think he was allowed to live.

    Just one more thought based on this:
    We have only the viewpoint of his detractors here. If people themselves felt that he was an “intercessor, a doer of good deeds and a worker of miracles” it makes me wonder. I feel as though I could pick at particulars and ask pointed questions about them. What kind of miracles? (If he can work miracles, then by heaven, who by?) Even I could ask what good pilgrimages do. The letter–in what form is it said to have come? Etc.

  5. Anastasia

    How can scripture be the test unless its interpretation is governed by some authority? that’s the question.

    while I don’t take offense at the characterization at all, I did want to say that I harp on the authority point among protestants (liberal and conservative) because I feel like they need to hear it. I often have quite something else to say to my latin rite friend who is, in his opinion, more catholic than the pope.

    Of course, even at that I often can use his own tradition and the official teachings of his own church against him because Roman Catholic theology is, in general and in my opinion, reasonably good theology. That doesn’t always translate into the most helpful norms and practices, it’s true. But I am able to counter my friend’s tridentine legalism with documents that were produced by the hierarchy of the catholic church. Because the official position is often a lot more forgiving and open than he would like to admit. And that, again, becomes a matter of private interpretation.

    the problem with my position is at the root of protestantism: what do you do when the hierarchy is corrupted or has gone awry in some way? It’s a goood question and even I want to preserve some mechanism for critique.

  6. Derek the Ænglican

    Annie–Boniface wasn’t a mystic. More of a politician really… ;-) But one for a good purpose. And I believe that it is through his intervention that I passed my graduate German exam. :-D

    Yes, there’s much here that doesn’t fit modern legal procedure particularly as it pertains to evidence, etc. But I firmly believe that there were folks who had to be reigned in. (Just look at the tv preachers around us who are doing the same kinds of things…)

    Anastasia, I certainly agree on the Scripture point. There is a modern movement of “orthodox” Catholicism that has an oddly narrow view of Catholicism. Much of it springs from a sincerely lack of knowledge about the past. The Newman/Vatican I flag-wavers could learn a lot by looking at the breadth that *legitimately* existed in medieval Catholicism.

    Institutions have an innate instict for self-preservation. Yet the Church is called to not only give itself to the world but to die on its behalf if need be. There’s a real tension in that and–as we all know–the Church as Institution has not always exemplified the Incarnate Body of Christ. The institution must be critiqued especially *as* an institution.

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