American Heresies and Contextual Theology

American Views of God

Where do heresies come from? A recent survey of Americans (Christians and non-Christians of the general public) believe in heaven, hell and a few heresies.1 Some may say this is because Americans don’t know the Bible that well. One commentator argues that Americans depended on their Bibles too much — and ignored Church tradition.2 While there may be valid points for both, I would like to submit my own thought: heresies are contextual theologies that have broken from (Church and Scriptural) tradition.

Very few commentators, for example, point out that the majority of Americans actually have a fairly decent understanding of what is theologically ‘orthodox’. In fact, if you look at the stats, one of the few heresies that is held by the majority of Americans (Christian and not) is that the Holy Spirit is a force and not a person (the so-called Pneumatomachian heresy).

It just so happens that I’m lecturing on the Holy Spirit at the moment in the University of Edinburgh and so this is at the forefront of my mind. But let me suggest three contextual reasons why Americans may be more predisposed to this heresy.

  1. American popular culture has recently been drawn to impersonal, immaterial forces. The best example of this is the classic benediction of Star Wars fans from the 1970s: ‘May the Force be with you’ (note that ‘Force’ is always capitalised). Or think of the growth, also from the 1960s-70s, of Zen Meditation, Yoga and Taichi — all of which refer to the harnessing of an impersonal force to bring wellness to your life.  We like impersonal forces (that do not have a mind of their own) because we can control them and use them for our purposes.

  2. American Christianity is part of the trajectory of the Western church3 which split from the Eastern church in 1053. The Western and Eastern churches split because the West wanted to add into the Nicene creed a clause that said the Spirit proceeded from the Father ‘and the Son‘ (=filioque), rather than coming just from the Father. The Western Father Augustine, then, argued that the Holy Spirit is the Love between the Lover and Beloved, and the Spirit is the being in common between the Father and the Son. Though he didn’t mean it this way, this shaped Western theology to emphasise the work of the Holy Spirit rather than the autonomous, divine person. Luther and Calvin would build on this to underscore that the Spirit was an infused love and illuminated our reading of the Bible. The East, however, have maintained that what the West did makes the Spirit a lesser being when compared to the Son, to the extent that the Third Person is almost an impersonal ‘thing’.

  3. Most Americans Christians who recite the Nicene creed don’t actually realise that it was not the one that was agreed in 381 (and definitely not the one agreed in 325), but a version codified in 589 by the Western church – only.  Part of the reason is because the Western church, in which Catholics and Protestants come from, operated mainly in Latin.4  The argument about the ‘double procession’ of the Spirit is based on John 15:26 which says that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and is sent by the Son. The West, who speaks Latin, argues that this means the Spirit also proceeds (Latin: processio) via the Son – just like you may proceed from Room A, proceed down the hall, and proceed to Room B. The East, who speaks Greek (the original language of the New Testament), argues that this is impossible because the proceeding (Greek: ekporeusis) must come from an absolute origin – you can only ekporeusis from Room A to Room B.  Hence, one of the major points of contention revolved around a language problem.5

These three factors combined show that American understanding of the Holy Spirit as a force rather than a personal being is closely tied to the American context – both in terms of its contemporary popular culture and its Christian tradition.  So back to my thesis: heresies are  contextual theologies that have broken from tradition.  The Eastern church has very often talked about the double procession as a heresy of the Western church.  But that’s because the West broke from the church tradition (and an understanding of the Greek language) codified by the church council in 381.

If we think about China (yes, I have to bring China into this), we may think about groups like the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom 太平天国 or Eastern Lightning 东方闪电, both of which hold very unique views of Jesus Christ and his relationship with their respective founders.  While they are ‘heretical’ in the sense that they are outside of tradition, they are contextual theologies nonetheless – each responding to perceived failings of their respective governments and societies.

  1.  Bob Smietana, ‘Americans Believe in Heaven, Hell, and a Little Bit of Heresy’, LifeWay Research (28 October 2014), see online
  2. Matthew Block, ‘Misreading Scripture Alone: How We Ended Up Heretics’, First Things (29 October 2014), see online
  3. When I say ‘Western’ here, I mean Latin — as in Protestant and Catholic as opposed to the ‘Greek’ church composed of the various Eastern Orthodox churches (eg., Russia, Greek, etc.). 
  4. Yves Congar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, 3 vols. (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2013), 3:120. 
  5. It’s interesting to note that many controversies in World Christianity are rooted in translation problems.  Think about the term controversy of how to render ‘God’ in another language or, in East Asian languages, the difficult in translating the notion of ‘sin’

4 thoughts on “American Heresies and Contextual Theology

  1. Certainly agree about the influence of popular culture. Reading Paradise Lost (very recently) helped me think seriously about the nature of the pre-incarnate Christ. Though ‘popular’ might be stretching it for Milton in the 21st century!

    1. How about we use the word ‘culture’. For Christology, there are definitely a lot of saviour figures in movies and books who shape our understandings.

  2. I think partly the perception that the Holy Spirit is a force is the result of how he is treated in practice. I think few people pray to him as a ‘person’ the way they do to the Father and the Son. He is also more vague and harder to personify in the mind.

    My perspective is as an American Catholic who was raised a Pentecostal. Pentecostals tend to treat him as something that is poured into you and causing wonders to happen, but he is not usually adressed directly. We Catholics actually do have a couple of hymns and prayers to him, but still I think in peoples minds he is an active power of God who does things (strengthens you, guides you, makes Christ present) rather than God himself. Poorly catechised Catholics are likely to fall into the force thinking.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts. Your comments about Pentecostals and Catholics are, of course, true to a certain extent — though many would also disagree. Many Pentecostals, for instance, see their tradition as restoring the failings of Western theology. Moreover, there is quite a variety of views in each tradition though, I would reiterate, the Western emphasis on the filioque has suppressed the significance of the Holy Spirit in the Latin tradition. This is perhaps why the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner was against the filioque and wanted to restore a priority on the Holy Spirit.

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