Hunting the Heresy Hunters
The SBL forum is up and running and has published some very interesting things… Lyons has been getting around a bit fairly lately…or so I thought: this is not W. J. Lyons but W.L. These two are going to get confused a fair bit and it doesn't help that they both cover reception historical stuff. We could have one of those polls to vote which one is your favourite...
One of the very recent ones is has been doing the rounds on the blogs and I’m behind the times on this one but whatever. Tony Burke has published a very entertaining (and I mean that in a positive sense) article called ‘Heresy Hunting in the New Millennium’. In general terms, I think he has hit on to a significant recent trend also in NT studies which is broader than the the study of the Christian Apocrypha (though there is seignificant overlap, of course). As ever, the mighty and incomparable Bishop Wrong put the point well:
Mind you, the folk that Tony Burke exposes are perhaps just the most blatant offenders in a ‘discipline’ which is riddled with the type of apologetic reasoning which would just be laughed at in other branches of the Humanities.
I suspect something similar underlies one of the reasons why some of us have been so spectacularly misrepresented, even in scholarly works (see a couple of posts back and see my comments on Wright and the resurrection). We could cast the net further to Hebrew Bible studies and look at some of the ways in which some of our friends from the Guild of Biblical Minimalists have been misrepresented, at times quite disgracefully. Incidentally, it’s good to see the return of Bible and Interpretation where there are some very useful arguments on the deceitful nature of some aspects of this all-new-heresy-hunting.
I wonder if a post-Burke and post-Wrong example of this would be our old friend Mike Bird who responded to Burke while subtly wearing his confessional mitre on his head. I’ve added the odd study note to bring out the true meaning of Bird and should add that I am so glad I don’t work in let's say those kinds of contexts:
If one genuinely believes in "false belief" as the NT indicates and "heresy" as the church fathers did, then there is nothing inherently wrong in exposing deviant forms of belief and behaviour that do not correspond to a perceived norm. Christian Apologetics is legitimate so far as it can explain to lay people why the "lost" Gospels (i.e. excluded, non-canonical, apocryphal, gnostic or whatever) lost out. It explains why the church leaders rejected writings that were androgynist (like the Gospel of Thomas) [unlike…?] or too ascetic (like the Acts of Paul)… we should be cautious and critical of those who promote an alternative "liberal myth" of Chrisian Origins. Something that supposes that the two hundred years of the church was a period of innocent pluralism and tolerance that was destroyed by the machinations of a self-appointed and needlessly narrow oligarchy of bishops who imposed their orthodox faith on a vibrant and diverse church…I'm all for more accurate [er, who isn’t?] and more rigorous use of the non-canonical writings. Yet I advocate that Christian Apologetics written by "conservative authors" is a legitimate activity since it correctly casts aspersions on the theological character and historical origins of the non-canonicals for lay audiences whose own theological profile attempts to line up with the NT canon….he [Burke] cannot disparage the theological and pastoral motivations for critiquing these documents unless he himself comes clean on his own theological and ideological biases [why not? Who will stop him?!]…I certainly don't want seminarians getting their theology of gender from the Gospel of Thomas [presumably Paul then?] or preaching the empty tomb story from the Gospel of Peter on Easter Sunday. In Burke's opinion, what does that make me? I'd like to know!
I could answer that last question – very kindly, naturally – but instead I’ll ask another: have we found ourselves another heresy hunter…?