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#103 - Should Christian Science be considered heretical?
by Robert Nguyen Cramer
This BibleTexts website administrator has very much enjoyed questions and insights that have been emailed to him ever since this site was launched in September of 1996. On this page I share with BibleTexts browsers a few of the questions, insights, and responses, so that we all can further learn from and with each other.
After reading your BibleTexts website, I'm wondering why you quote Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the heretical religion called Christian Science. I'd be interested in your response.
Your comment for which you request a response elicits the following important two questions, which I will describe as follows: (1) If we are confronted by what is officially labeled by our denomination as heresy, how should we act toward those we consider to be heretics? (2) Can we assume that a religion is heretical, just because it has been so labeled by others? In the process of responding to your comment, I hope to satisfy your request to know why I quote from Mary Baker Eddy's writings on Christian Science.
Though not all denominations use "heretical" as a label for other denominations, virtually every Christian denomination is labeled as heretical by one or more Christian denominations. The fact is that "sects" ("factions" or "denominations") is the meaning of the Greek word hairesis as used by Paul as the last word in the Greek textt of Gal 5:20. The concept of heresy as unsound doctrine or practice, as compared with the sound doctrine and practice of orthodoxy, came out of the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church and its early councils; therefore, if we want to explore orthodoxy and heresy, the Roman Catholic Church has the oldest ecclesiastical claim on officially pronouncing what is orthodox and what is heretical.
The inquisitions of the 12th and 13th centuries and their very harsh punishment tried to stamp out heresies. Interestingly, many of the movements condemned as heretical appear to have been born out of the honest desire to root out ecclesiastical corruption, materialism, and inhumanity, and restore the practice of genuine Christianity. Some leading critics of "heretics" were themselves greatly deficient in morality and humanity, but that did not stop them from fabricating tales of the so-called heretics' immorality and excesses in their attempt to subvert the so-called heretics' endeavors. The motives of some ecclesiastics who have condemned groups as heretical often have not been nearly as pure as the Christianity of those whom they have condemned.
Some groups labeled as heretical appear to have been very much on the mark in their desires and practice of Christianity. For instance, a group originally led by Peter Waldo and known as the Waldensees practiced very literally what the Jesus of the New Testament taught. Kenneth Scott Latourette (A History of Christianity, Revised Edition, Volume 1, NY: Harper & Row, 1975, pp. 451-453) describes Waldo's "heretical" movement as follows:
Peter Waldo, a rich merchant of Lyons, became impressed with the brevity and insecurity of life and went to a theologian to ask the way to heaven. In reply, he was given the injunction of Jesus to the rich young ruler: "If thou wilt be perfect, go sell that thou hast, and give to the poor." Waldo proceeded resolutely (1176) to carry out the command. Paying his creditors and providing for his wife and children, he distributed the rest of his property among the poor and began begging his daily bread. He made a diligent study of the New Testament through a translation into his native tongue. Inspired by it, he undertook to imitate Christ. Garbed as Christ had commanded his apostles to be in their special missions during his lifetime, and, like them, taking no purse, he preached in city and countryside.
Peter Waldo soon attracted followers The Pope at first looked favourably on their vow of poverty and gave them permission in dioceses where the bishops would allow them. Soon they found this restriction too hampering and disregarded it. They asked authorization of the Third Lateran Council (1179) but were denied it. Still they persisted and in 1184 the Pope excommunicated them. Believing that they ought to obey God rather than men, they continued to preach
In their tenets and practices the followers of Waldo continued to seek to conform to the New Testament. They memorized large portions of its vernacular translations. Following what they believed it commanded them, they went about two and two, preaching, simply clad, barefoot or wearing sandals, and subsisting on what was given them by those who listened to them. They refused to heed Pope or bishop and taught that the Church of Rome was not the head of the Catholic Church but was corrupt. They held that women and laymen could preach, that masses and prayers for the dead were without warrant, the purgatory is the troubles which come to us in this life, and that to be efficacious prayer need not be confined to churches. They criticized prayers in Latin on the ground that they were not understood by the people, and derided church music and the canonical hours. They declared that while priests and bishops who lived as had the apostles were to be obeyed, sacraments administered by unworthy priests were invalid and that a layman was as competent as a priest to hear confessions. They taught that every lie is a deadly sin, that oaths, even in law courts, are contrary to Christ's commands, and believed that all taking of human life is against God's law
For the most part the Waldensees were humble folk. Even their enemies described them as dressing simply, industrious, labouring with their hands, chaste, temperate in eating and drinking, refusing to frequent taverns and dances, sober and truthful in speech, avoiding anger, and regarding the accumulation of wealth as evil.
Yet, branding them as heretics, the Catholic Church and the civil authorities sought to eliminate them, by persuasion if possible and if not by force
One of the striking features of the movements of these centuries which the Catholic Church branded as heresies was that they either completely died out or, in the case of the Waldensees, dwindled to small groups. This disappearance appears to have been due in part to inherent weakness and the lack of an effective organization and in part to measures adopted by the Catholics.
Nearly three centuries later Martin Luther was condemned as an arch-heretic. Judged by the inquisitions' standards of heresy, all of today's Protestant churches would be considered heretical. The Church of England and other Protestant churches have also carried out their share of finger-pointing regarding purity of doctrine and heresy. We have so many denominations today, because there have been not only human power struggles but also doctrinal disagreement and divisions. For many different reasons, such divisions have been difficult to mend. The simplest means of uniting Christendom would be for all Christians first and foremost simply to follow the teachings and example of Christ Jesus in the worship of God. After all that is ultimately what it means to be a Christian. To be a Christian is not a mere ecclesiastical designation. If our Christianity is genuine, our following Christ and being a Christian takes priority over any denominational affiliation. Yet to follow the authentically historical teachings and example of Jesus has a considerable degree of complexity, because 2000 years of traditions have made it difficult to determine with certainty what Jesus and the first generation of Christians really knew, believed, and practiced. Paul's writings are our earliest records, and even they appear to have been tampered with by the end of the first century A.D. (See http://www.bibletexts.com/qa/qa078.htm .)
I personally know at least one Christian Scientist, who, after a very thorough study of the Bible and the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, carried out virtually the same course of action that Peter Waldo took in following Jesus' teaching as represented in Mat 19:16-22. This young Christian Scientist had large financial holdings, sold all his stock, gave literally all the proceeds, all money, and many of his few possessions to those in need and subsisted on what he occasionally received from his Christian ministry and from a factory job that he secured at night, so he could continue his ministry throughout the rest of the day as a Christian healer and Christian brother to those in need. Should he have been condemned as a heretic for heeding Eddy's teachings to fully follow Jesus' words and example? Should Eddy be condemned as a heretic for encouraging Christians to radically obey Jesus' teachings, which in this case led that young man to conclude that he should fully comply with Mat 19:16-22?
How should Christians of all denominations act toward those who consider themselves to be heretics? How should we act toward those that are condemned as heretics by one's own denomination or by groups within one's own denomination? Should we not first examine ourselves as to our own faithfulness to the teachings and example of Jesus? Should we not model our prayers after our Lord's Prayer, which includes the wording, "And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors?" (Mat 6:12, NRSV) Should we not love our enemies and bless our persecutors, as Jesus taught us? Should we not also be slow to judge? After all Jesus often even commended and otherwise spoke very charitably about Samaritans, with whom he did not agree theologically. We, too, should speak charitably of all of our Christian brethren, and, where necessary, first rebuke privately, in accordance with Mat 18:15-17. (Regardless of the outcome of such a rebuke, we need to daily/constantly forgive all with whom we may have a grievance -- rejoicing that God, the true and just arbiter, has all under His control.) We should be especially heartened by and appreciative of our Christian brethren - in the past or present, and of any denomination - who actually strive to follow in Jesus' footsteps - in thought, in word, and in action.
Mary Baker Eddy was a Christian woman who founded a Christian church, which was originally denominated "the Church of Christ." She later changed the name to the "Church of Christ (Scientist)" and then "The Church of Christ, Scientist."
In my review of her primary work, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (reviewed at http://www.bibletexts.com/reviews/other/sh.htm), I explain:
Since its initial publication in 1875, this book has been breaking new ground for Bible students looking for more than just religious ceremony and blind belief to grow and sustain their faith. Based upon the Bible and constantly quoting from, alluding to, and otherwise referring to the Bible, it explains the application of biblical teachings to the practice of everyday Christian living, salvation, and healing
Mary Baker Eddy incurred the wrath of many ecclesiastics of her day, not only for being a woman who was a leading religious figure but also for her use of modern translations and her use of some of the findings of modern biblical criticism. For example, at a time when the Revised Version/American Standard Version (RV/ASV) of the Bible was being savagely attacked by most of the clergy of her day, she quoted from the RV/ASV -- rather than from the KJV -- on the "Cross and Crown" seal of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. The RV/ASV-based seal is still carried on the cover of all authorized editions of her writings.
At http://www.bibletexts.com/glossary/heresy.htm, there are definitions and descriptions of "heresy" from a variety of authoritative sources. That webpage concludes with a section titled, "Do any of us today teach or practice heresy? -- Some questions for each of us to ask oneself, based upon biblical Christian norms." Those questions were originally designed entirely for self-examination, but your question made me consider those questions for a different purpose: to evaluate whether or not Mary Baker Eddy qualifies as a heretic. I have read all of Eddy's works, have read many biographies of her, and was very well-acquainted with someone who had visited Eddy's home when Eddy spoke to a crowd and who had known many of Eddy's closest church workers. I have also explored through various archival resources information about the life, writings, and works of Eddy that are not generally known. As a result of what I know of her, Eddy would have been able to answer affirmatively all of the questions posed at http://www.bibletexts.com/glossary/heresy.htm#questions. On that basis, she does not even on one point qualify as a heretic. She may have expressed herself in terms that were different from those used by most other Christians of her day, but her message and theology were deeply rooted in first generation Christianity. Just as the lyrics and rhythms of Christian rock music today reach a segment of humanity that had become religiously disenfranchised, so the verbiage of Christian Science helps provide Christianity not only with very relevant terminology to relate Jesus teachings to the present scientific age, but more importantly teaching Christianity as a demonstrable Science also has helped restore the dependable Christian healing of sin, sickness, and other human difficulties - all to the glory of God.
Aware of accusations of heresy, Eddy quoted Act 24:14 (Miscellany, page 285:19-28):
In the words of St. Paul, I repeat:-- "And they neither found me in the temple disputing with any man, neither raising up the people, neither in the synagogues, nor in the city: neither can they prove the things whereof they now accuse me. But this I confess unto thee, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets."
Two other resources that may be helpful to you are the following:
I should add that although I am a member of The Church of Christ, Scientist, some of my closest Christian brethren are members and clergy from other Christian denominations. Recently a Roman Catholic clergy commented to others in an international forum that "BibleTexts.com has become a monumental resource for biblical research." By browsing the partial listing of my library at http://www.bibletexts.com/bibliogr.htm, you will see that my own biblical resources include good, honest scholars from many different denominational traditions: Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Church of England, Presbyterian, Baptist, Church of Christ, and many other religious communities. I feel a deep sense of fellowship with and appreciation for those scholarly Christians. Of the nearly 1500 volumes in my biblical research library, very, very few of those books were written by students of Christian Science. When it comes to being a Christian and being a serious student of the Bible, I do not closet myself within my denominational community or even require total theological agreement with those authors of other denominations. I simply look for scholarship that is honest, thorough, insightful, and hopefully thought-provoking. (It is especially valued if I also know the scholar to be loving, charitable, faithful, reverent, and humble in his or her practice of Christianity.) I am eager to learn from and share with all of my Christian brothers and sisters, which certainly includes you. Together we all comprise one Christian church.
To read a continuation of the dialog between the writer and BibleTexts.com, browse http://www.bibletexts.com/qa/qa104.htm.
Copyright 1996-2003 Robert Nguyen Cramer