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  • Writer's pictureCasey Garner

You Might Be a Heretic If

Brother Worthy was having a quiet day sitting in the abbey’s garden tending to his prayers and reading when the young man Jeff Faux nearly walked into the bench on which he was resting. Jeff Faux was a kind-hearted young man who had felt a call to religious life and was discerning with Brother Worthy’s order. Jeff had just left the library after reading a book titled, Are You a Heretic? Serious Questions for a Modern Age. How this book came to be in this monastic library, we might never know, but what Jeff read filled him with worry. Jotting a list of statements from the text onto some scrap paper, Jeff left in search of counsel. Upon seeing Brother Worthy, Jeff began to speak and unburden himself, and Brother Worthy, though somewhat bemused by the young man, was delighted to help him sort out his anxieties.

Jeff Faux (JF): “Brother Worthy, I’m sorry to bother you, but I needs speak to somebody about what I just finished reading. I knows I am not a heretic, but after reading these statements I am as scared as a turkey the week before Thanksgiving that y’all might think I am one. I ain’t, no Sir! I was raised on the straight and narrow since I was a babe. My Momma used a rosary to lash my binky to me onesie when I was no taller than my Daddy’s knee. Sir, I needs your assistance!”

Brother Worthy (Br. W): “Jeff, what have you read that has placed you in such a fit? We all find ourselves material heretics at some point in our lives. Part of our education in the faith is to grow in understanding and shed the ignorance of our youth as we grow in knowledge of the divine. Avoid being a formal heretic, my son. Do your best to steer clear of material heresies but know God grants grace and the Holy Spirit shall lead us into truth. Take a deep breath, Jeff, and sit with me for a moment.”

Jeff sat down on the bench and took a deep breath before continuing.

JF: “Sir, I do not have any idea what you mean by a material heretic. I am worried about being like them Arians. You see, I found this here list of statements in a book I was reading in the library. I did not understand them fully, but I do know their implication that affirmative responses imply you are a heretic. The affirmative answers to these statements often seemed the best to me, so I am at a loss. Please do not throw me out of the abbey, Sir.”

Br. W: “Jeff, slow down. We are not going to accost you and jettison you from the abbey. I see you have not been educated on the distinction between formal and material heretics; we will flesh that out later. I assume the parchment in your clenched fist is the list of which you speak and has brought you to this state of discontent. How about we go through them one at a time and see if we can seek some understanding in this matter. Please, if you would, Jeff, read the first statement on the list.”

JF: “I will Sir, but I am sure you will find my case as hopeless as wrestling a greased hog. The first statement was:

You might be a heretic if you believe Jesus has a birthday.

Now, everybody and his brother knows Jesus was born on Christmas! I celebrate Christmas with my family every year. Momma baked a cake for baby Jesus every Christmas eve, and we attended mass in our Sunday best every Christmas morning. You see! I must be a heretic because I believe Jesus is due a birthday cake every December.”

Br. W: “Ahh, I see how this could be misleading. A more appropriate form of the statement would be, ‘You might be a heretic if you believe Jesus has two birthdays.’ Actually, the questioner was referring to Arius when he wrote this remark. The Arians believed Jesus was created by God the Father and was not ‘consubstantial with the Father’ that is ‘of the same substance’ as the Father. An Arian would claim Christ was a created being who would have, in a sense, a birthday. The early Church Fathers fought boldly against this heresy in the 4th century, and the council of Nicaea affirmed the orthodox position of Jesus being co-eternal with God the Father. We recite this affirmation in the Creed each Sunday. From your explanation, Jeff, there is no need to worry. I also believe Jesus was incarnated and born in Bethlehem. Thus, Jesus has an Earthly birthday when he became incarnate and assumed a human form. He has no heavenly birthday in the sense that there was never a time before God the Son, as he is ‘co-eternal’ with the Father. He is from everlasting to everlasting; He is one without beginning. It would be against orthodoxy to say Jesus was created instead of begotten by the Father, but it is perfectly acceptable to say Jesus has an Earthly birthday and a right to an annual birthday cake. I pray this puts your soul at greater ease. What is next on this strange list?”

JF: “The second is a puzzler Sir, and I frankly do not know what to think.

You might be a heretic if you think Christ was more divine than human.

Sir, I believe Jesus was both God the Son and a man, but I am confused about the ‘more’ aspect of this statement. My gut tells me the answer is no, Christ was not more divine than human, but my thinking seems to be driving me the other way. Now, I was not the best at my schooling, but I do remember some basic logics. Now, Jesus is God, and so he is divine. Alright, we all know that God is infinite. Last I checked, I am a man, and I ain’t infinite. So, if Jesus is God, and therefore infinite, but is also a man, which ain’t infinite, then how could it be that Christ is not ‘more’ divine than human. One is infinite and the other ain’t?”

Br. W: “The question you raise is fundamental, and strikes at a key facet of the mystery of the Incarnation. It has been said, ‘The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.’ (Chesterton, 1908) The great theologians of the Church through the ages have sought to understand these questions and have recognized the difficulties of attempting to comprehend the incomprehensible. Oftentimes we must be the poet who allows the Holy Spirit to lift our minds into the heavens and trust the truths revealed to us when we lack the capacity to develop a treatise detailing these deep attributes of the Trinity. Jeff, the Church has affirmed in its Councils and Creeds that Jesus is both truly and fully God and Man; therefore, Jesus is completely and perfectly united both in his divine and human natures. His two natures are not in competition, but are in a mysterious union which neither deteriorates nor degrades his divinity nor hampers his humanity. The Church at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 confessed,

Following the holy Fathers, we unanimously teach and confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, composed of rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father as to his divinity and consubstantial with us as to his humanity; ‘like us in all things but sin’ -Paragraph 467, Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC)

Therefore, Jeff, Christ is neither more divine than human nor more human than divine. He is perfectly God and perfectly Man. This is the mystery of the Incarnation. The Infinite assumed the Finite without destroying the Finite nor limiting its unboundedness. This is the wonder, beauty, and majesty of the God we serve. I went a little long there, Jeff, and this material is deep. How are you doing?”

JF: “Well, Sir. I am better off than I was before you explained it as such, and I am happy to know my gut did not lead me astray. I will not claim I understand you fully, but I get the basic idea. Jesus is God and He is man, and ain’t one side of that coin any better than the other. Thank you very much for the explanation. Can I give you another of these statements?”

Br. W: “Certainly you may. Please, proceed and introduce another one into the fray.”

JF: “Alright, the next one says,

You might be a heretic if you think Christ had only one will.

This one makes me uneasy, you see, because I think this has to be true. Back home when you’re thinking you’re fixing to croak, you ride into town and grab the lawyer. He writes up a will to fix who will be getting your stuff. Ain’t anybody have enough belongings to warrant more than one will, so the lawyer does not even write more than one. And, you see, I do not see why Jesus would be needing two wills. It was not like he had much stuff. He was always walking every which place, and I figure it would be simple to know who would be getting his belongings, probably his Momma and his friends. Also, Jesus was only fixing on being dead for a few days. That ain’t even enough time for the lawyer to come around and read the will. It is convention back home to wait at least a week after the deceased has been pushin’ up them daisies before the will reading. You do not want anyone appearing the eager beaver to be splitting the goods. It might appear someone was wanting the deceased deceased, you see. So, what is the point of having a will anyways!? I must be a heretic. I don’t think Jesus had one will let alone more than one will.”

Br. W: “Another misunderstanding has arisen, Jeff. The writer was not referencing a ‘will` in the legal sense, but the ‘wills` we possess as rational beings which is the seat of our ability to choose. This question pairs well with the previous one because we affirm that, as Christ has both a divine and human nature, he similarly has both a divine and human will. These two wills are undivided and perfectly united. Christ's human will ‘does not resist or oppose but rather submits to his divine and almighty will’ (Paragraph 475, CCC). This is again a wonderful aspect of the mystery of the Incarnation and also God's interaction with time. Christ in His humanity acts out the plan which the Godhead had determined before Christ ever assumed a human nature and entered into the world as The God man.

"We are all either heretics heading to Heaven or heretics heading to Hell."

These have been interesting statements, Jeff, but I do not believe we need to continue discussing them further. The first was deceptive, the second was challenging, and the third is strange if one has never entertained thoughts on the multiple wills of Christ. Set your worries of assuming the role of a heretic to rest, Jeff. We shall not be kicking you out of the monastery on this day.”

JF: “This does place me at greater ease, Brother Worthy. I am much obliged to you.”

Br. W: “You are most welcome, Jeff, but I want to come back to this issue of formal and material heresies. The crucial difference, Jeff, which makes all the difference in the world, is that a formal heretic knows their position is false and yet they teach and proclaim it without regard for the truth while the material heretic believes what is wrong but they do not realize it is wrong. Jeff, inevitably we shall believe false things, but we must be willing to accept the truth when we are faced with it. We are all either heretics heading to Heaven or heretics heading to Hell. So stay vigilant about your beliefs, Jeff, but also remember to take yourself lightly. We do not have all the truth, so we will find ourselves in error; however, God sees your heart and knows your motives. If you desire Him above all else and seek the truth, He will guide you to Himself.”

JF: “I will keep that in mind, Brother Worthy. Thank you again.”

Br. W: “God bless you, Jeff. Your pursuit of truth and orthodoxy is admirable. Before you go, could you tell me the authors of this strange text you were reading which lead to our conversation.”

JF: “Yes, Sir. The authors were Mister Br. Guy Cable and Br. Kevin Hart.”

Br. W: “Ohh, that explains it."

References: 1. Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1908. Print. 2. Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church: Revised in Accordance with the Official Latin Text Promulgated by Pope John Paul II. United States Catholic Conference, 2000.

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