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The Newer Heresies

by Rev. Geo. C. Lorimer, D. D.


It is a good thing that the Inquisition, Star-chamber, and other compulsory institutions of the dark past have departed from Europe, and have never been tolerated in America. Were it not so, at the present time there would be much excellent work for the rack, the thumbscrew, and the faggot. Heresy is in the air, especially in the northern latitudes of the United States. We inhale it with the morning breezes, it stimulates us to mental activity during the noon hour, and at times stifles us as by the sultry atmosphere of a blistering day. Everywhere it is being discussed, and by every kind of individual, qualified or unqualified for such high contentions. Daily journals, hitherto never remarkable for orthodoxy, have suddenly grown anxious as to the future of the faith; and other journals, that have always antagonized orthodoxy, are, figuratively speaking, rubbing their hands most gleefully and smiling through their editorial columns with a most perceptible "I told you so"; while religious papers, representing as they do, the conservative element in this country, are apparently staggered at the inroads which the so-called higher criticism has made of late. Aged people ominously shake their heads, and striplings of the limp-back Bible type are amazed at the stir which ideas are making in the community, and which threaten to disturb the peace and quiet of their mediocre godliness; and pious women engaged on crazy quilts, in the interest of noble benefactions, stop with punctured and bleeding fingers to protest against all departures from ancient doctrinal symbols.

Suspects are numerous, and, as in the days of the worthy Council of Ten in Venice, no prominent person, especially a teacher, is beyond surveillance. If he adventures just a little from the beaten path, even though it may be to gather a thought, which, like a wild field daisy, given by the bounty of the Infinite One for the delight of his creatures, he has found growing on the wind-swept plain of natural religion, honored possibly by heathen seers and philosophers, he is likely to be summoned before the black draped, gloomy councillors and familiars of modern inquisitorial conservatism.

In my opinion there is no real need for the morbid anxiety that now prevails in certain quarters, and surely no serious alarm should be felt for the perpetuity and stability of truth. Truth is truth, and all the bad captains that ever sailed that bark, and all the bad navigators that ever misdirected its course, have never been able to run it on the lee shore, or bring it to final shipwreck, and never can; for over and above all human devices and guidings there is a divine hand that upholds and shields that which, next to his Infinite Self, is the most precious blessing yet conferred upon the human mind.

Let us remember that the heresies of the hour are not of the "damnable sort" which, as Peter declared, deny the Lord who bought us; neither are they mixed with such immoralities as Paul condemns in his letter to the Galatians. And if we may believe that the words of that same apostle have any pertinency in our times, then, when he declares that heresies or schisms must arise among us "that they which are proved may be made manifest," we may confidently expect that out of the present discussions and the "jangling of sweet notes out of tune" some broader thought and some nobler conception of divine teachings, revealed to us in Holy Scripture, will assuredly come to the church and to the world.

I think that the leaders who are solicitous for the ark of God ought to try to characterize the opinions which have given rise, in these latter days, to threatened trials for heterodoxy. It is so easy to say that a man who differs from ourselves is not orthodox, and to avoid an actual and exact statement of what we mean; when in fact we deal unjustly with him, and produce a wrong impression on the community at large.

Let us notice the three distinctive and discriminating marks of so-called heresy in evangelical churches, and I think you will be persuaded that it is unwise for us to be alarmists, and imprudent "to breathe out threatenings and slaughters."

It will be observed that the newer heresies do not challenge the truth of Scripture inspiration, only the form and philosophy of such inspiration. The men who are suspected of entertaining erroneous opinions concerning the method of Divine impartation of truth are the strenuous advocates of the moral grandeur, spiritual authority, and faith-sufficiency of the heavenly oracles. They, it is true, deny what has been known as the verbal theory—a theory which owes more to the post-reformers' fear of an infallible pope, than to any real, intelligent cause—but by no recognized council or decree, acknowledged by Protestants, has that mechanical conception ever been made binding on the conscience. Modern scholarship is simply leading us to recognize a more rational criticism than was possible to our fathers; a mode of criticism which almost every Sunday-school teacher, in his humble way, adopts, and which is common, and has been in the most orthodox pulpits for unnumbered years, every man bringing the passage he is discussing to the test of knowledge that he has acquired and, in a sense, to the test even of his reason. I do not say that scholars have uttered the final word upon this great subject, nor is it possible for such a word to be pronounced at the present stage of investigation, but I do insist that we should recognize the authority of enlightenment, and that we should not carelessly brand as heterodox men of eminent attainments, who are merely seeking to guide us to foundations which, in the long run, shall prove absolutely indestructible.

We have to decide whether the Christianity of the immediate future shall be governed supremely by intelligence or ignorance. If ignorance is to rule supreme, then let us found no more universities, nor open any new theological seminaries. Let us not go through the farce of instructing, unless it be merely to insist on the assimilating by students of dogmas that must never be questioned, and from which they will swear by the eternities they will never depart, either in spirit or in letter. But, if we believe that education means the quickening of a man's nature so that he will investigate, and if we really believe that God has more light yet to break in upon the world, through the casements and windows of holy scriptures, then, in his Divine Name, let us not be alarmed when, here and there, after infinite weariness and labor, a little ray penetrates the darkness of the ages and promises to give us a noonday view of the origin and influence of God's Word.

It should also be considered that the newer heresies are not primarily defections from Christian doctrine, only from the creeds which assume authoritatively to define such doctrine. Public teachers are being arraigned for their departure from certain standards, such as the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Westminster Confession, and the lugubrious compilation known as the New Hampshire Confession of Faith. These documents, with whatever excellency they may be accredited, were prepared by fallible men—some of them, indeed, exceedingly fallible—who were hardly qualified in their day to define the faith of Christ for the guidance of future ages, and were adopted in most cases by meagre majorities. Why we should suppose their statements are to be regarded as infallible, and why thinkers of our times should be strictly held to their formulas, is something that no one yet has had courage or intelligence sufficient to explain. What right has any body of men to insist on conformity to a creed prepared by beings like themselves, even though it has been venerated for a century or two? Who is Melancthon, and who is Luther, and who are the Westminster divines but "men by whom we have believed"? But are we bound to their word, or are we strictly held to the Word of our common Lord and Divine Teacher? Is Chillingworth's cry, "the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible the religion of Protestants," a mere illusion? It certainly is, and the sacred idea concerning the right of private judgment, if the withered hand of men long dead is to hold the brain of the present in the grasp of death; if we respect ourselves and our avowed belief in the adequacy of Scripture as a rule of faith, then we had better make one huge bonfire of all the antiquated creeds, than denounce the so-called heretics who are, in reality, trying to bring us back to the position of the primitive saints who allowed no human word to obscure or darken the divine Word given by revelation.

I think that every candid soul will admit, in addition to what I have stated, that the newer heresies are not revolts from the scriptural high ideal of Christian life, only a noble protest against narrow interpretations of that life. The men who have recently been arraigned before the tribunals of various denominations are eminent for their uprightness, their conscientious candor and tolerance. No word has ever been uttered to their moral detriment; they are, in this blameful age, among the most blameless of its people. They insist, however, that all doctrine should be regarded merely as moulds in which the life should be cast, and are valuable only in so far as they are able to shape the life in pattern of that one career which has excited the admiration of the ages and the adoring wonder of the heavens.

It hardly seems in accord with any just conception of our Master's faith that men and women who are trying to serve God and their generation should be branded with foul names, should be sneered at as reckless and dangerous guides, and as even denying the Lord whom they reverence and worship. Let us be careful. Heterodoxy of conduct is a greater evil than heterodoxy of creed, and I am free to say, though I may not, with my convictions regarding the atonement of Christ, understand how some eminently philanthropic people can enter the golden gates, yet I should hardly myself appreciate a place beyond their threshold if God could not plan, in some way consistent with His honor, to find a radiant seat of glory for them.

I write these things because I am not a heretic. I do not, of course, agree with the fathers, for, like other Scotchmen, I cannot agree with anybody else in the world; but I am perfectly satisfied with my own orthodoxy.

Occasionally I have been startled to find some adventurous soul giving utterance to views, as being novel and hazardous, which I have entertained, without any perturbation of spirit, for nearly twenty years. I was somewhat amused, not long since, on hearing a venerable theological professor, with tears in his eyes, perspiration on his brow, and anguish in his voice, relate how, after a fearful struggle, he had emancipated himself from certain of Calvin's dictums; but while some clergymen present seemed astounded, I remarked at the close of the meeting that I had accomplished that feat for myself some quarter of a century agone, and what is more, though I did not say this to him, I did so without any tears, and without any anguish whatever. These personal references are merely to show that in taking up the cause of the newer heretics I am not in any wise biassed by a misdirected mind in their favor.

Let us have freedom. Let us think it out. Let the struggle go on, and let us not, with pallid faces and strident voices, cry out in fear; for the only tribunal that can righteously adjudicate the lightness of human thought is the tribunal, as Schiller has it, of history, which unquestionably is on earth the tribunal of the infinite God. He rules in the world of mind as well as in the globe of matter, and eighteen centuries ought to convince us that truth slowly emerges from warring opinions, conflicting theories, and especially from pathetic longings of the human soul to discover its hidden meanings and its widest and grandest applications. Alas! perhaps our ignorance and intolerance may render it necessary that now, as in the past, the prophets of God must first be stoned to death before we will give heed to their message or commemorate their greatness by the homage of our mind. But seriously, I would advise all who have any regard for their own comfort, happiness, and even self-respect, to have as little to do with this wretched stoning business as possible; for I have never yet been able to discover what satisfaction there can possibly be in helping a dear brother or sister to a martyr's crown at the expense of one's own fairness and kindly charity.