Heresy and the Average Man

"It is not true at all that dogma is 'hopelessly irrelevant' to the life and thought of the average man. What is true is that ministers of the Christian religion often assert that is is, present it for consideration as though it were, and, in fact, by their faulty exposition of it make it so. The central dogma of the Incarnation is that by which relevance stands or falls. If Christ was only man, then He is entirely irrelevant to any thought about God [take that, Dan Brown!--FB]; if He is only God, then He is entirely irrelevant to any experience of human life. It is, in the strictest sense, necessary to the salvation of relevance that a man should believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Unless he believes rightly, there is not the faintest reason why he should believe at all. And in that case, it is wholly irrelevant to chatter about 'Christian pirnciples.'

"If the 'average man' is going to be interested in Christ at all, it is the dogma that will provide the interest. The trouble is that, in nine cases out of ten, he has never been offered the dogma. What he has been offered is a set of technical theological terms which nobody has taken the trouble to translate into language relevant to ordinary life.

"Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man.' What does this suggest, except that God the Creator (the irritable old gentleman with the beard) in some mysterious manner fathered upon the Virgin Mary something amphibious, neither one thing nor t'other, like a merman? And, like human sons, wholly distinct from and (with some excuse) probably antagonistic to the father?

"And what, in any case, has this remarkable hybrid to do with John Brown or Tommy Atkins? This attitude of mind is that called by theologians Nestorianism,* or perhaps a debased form of Arianism.** But we really cannot just give it a technical label and brush it aside as something irrelevant to the thought of the average man. The average man produced it. It is, in fact, an immediate and unsophisticated expression of the thought of the average man. And at the risk of plunging him into the abominable heresy of the Patripassians or the Theopaschites,*** we must unite with Athanasius**** to assure Tommy Atkins that the God who lived and died in the world was the same God who created the world, and that, therefore, God Himself has the best possible reasons for understanding and sympathizing with Tommy's personal troubles.

"'But,' Tommy Atkins and John Brown will instantly object, 'it can't have mattered very much to Him if He was God. A god can't really suffer like you and me. Besides, the parson says we are to try and be like Christ; but that's all nonsense--we can't be God, and it's silly to ask us to try.' This able exposition of the Eutychian heresy***** can scarcely be dismissed as merely 'interesting to theologians'; it appears to interest Atkins and Brown to the point of irritation. Willy-nilly, we are forced to involve ourselves further in dogmatic theology and insist that Christ is 'perfect God and perfect man.'

"At this point, language will trip us up. The average man is not to be restrained from thinking that 'perfect God' implies a comparison with gods less perfect, and that 'perfect man' means 'the best kind of man you can possibly have.'

"While both these propositions are quite true, they are not precisely what we want to convey. It will perhaps be better to say, 'altogether God and altogether man'--God and man at the same time, in every respect and completely; God from eternity to eternity and from the womb to the grave, a man also from the womb to the grave and now.

"'That,' replied Tommy Atkins, 'is all very well, but it leaves me cold. Because, if Jesus was God all the time He must have known that His sufferings and death and so on wouldn't last, and He could have stopped them by a miracle if He had liked, so His pretending to be an ordinary man was nothing but playacting.' And John Brown adds, 'You can't call a person "altogether man" if He was God and didn't want to do anything wrong. It was easy enough for Him to be good, but it's not at all the same thing for me. How about all that temptation stuff? Playacting again. It doesn't help me to live what you call a Christian life.'

"John and Tommy are now on the way to becoming convinced Apollinarians******, a fact which, however 'interesting to theologians,' has a distinct relevance also to the lives of those average men, since they propose, on the strength of it, to dismiss 'Christian principles' as impracticable. There is no help for it. We must insist upon Christ's possession of 'a reasonable soul' as well as 'human flesh'; we must admit the human limitations of knowledge and intellect; we must take a hint from Christ Himself and suggest that miracles belong to the Son of Man as well as to the Son of God; we must postulate a human will liable to temptation; and we must be quite firm about saying 'Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood.' Complicated as the theology is, the average man has walked straight into the heart of the Athanasian Creed, and we are bound to follow.

"Teachers and preachers never make it sufficiently clear, I think, that dogmas are not a set of arbitrary regulations invented a priori by a committee of theologians enjoying a bout of all-in dialectical wrestling. Most of them were hammered out under pressure of urgent practical necessity to provide an answer to heresy.

"And heresy is, as I have tried to show, largely the expression of opinion of the untutored average man, trying to grapple with the problems of the universe at the point where they begin to interfere with his daily life and thought. To me, engaged in my diabolical occupation of going to and fro in the world and walking up and down in it, conversations and correspondence bring daily a magnificent crop of all the standard heresies. As practical examples of 'life and thought of the average man' I am extremely well familiar with them, though I had to hunt through the encyclopedia to fit them with their proper theological titles for the purposes of this address. For the answers I need not go so far: they are compendiously set forth in the Creeds."

--Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos? (1949) (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 1974), pp. 36-40 (including footnotes, below)

*Christian heresy named after Nestorius (d. about 451), bishop of Constantinople. He taught that there were two separate persons in Christ, one divine and one human.
**Christian heresy named after Arius (c. 250-336), a priest of Alexandria in Egypt. He denied the full divinity of Christ [rather, he argued that the Son, although divine, was lesser in divinity than the Father--FB].
***Early Christian heresies that claimed that Christ's divine nature suffered as well as His human nature during the Passion.
****Bishop of Alexandria (c. 296-373), opponent of Arius and defender of the Nicene Creed.
*****Christian heresy [a.k.a. Monophysitism--FB] named after Eutyches (c. 378-454), a monk from Constantinople. He denied that the human nature of Christ was consubstantial with ours.
******Christian heresy named after Apollinarius of Laodicea (c. 310-390). He denied that Christ possessed a rational human soul and thus a full human psychology.


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