Burning the Bones of the Dead

The church in the West no longer burns heretics, however we burn those with theological failings and who do not fit the spirit of the age on social media.

It is only those churches that have theological confessions that are able to define heresy. Thus heresy, since it to be opposed, ought rightly to be opposed and condemned, not by individuals with their differing individual standards, but by the church courts, properly called. When the shortcomings of our forefathers are examined in light of our confessions, it may be that their views are properly called heresy, and that heresy is to be condemned. But let it be done decently and in order, not by the rabid pack of social-media hounds who madly tear to shreds that which they often do not even comprehend.

 

John Wycliffe was a fourteenth century reformer who is largely credited with one of the first translations of the Bible into English. This activity, and many of the theological views he espoused, were contrary to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. His influence, however, was so widespread that forty-three years after his death, his bones were dug up by church authorities, burned, and the ashes scattered in the river Swift. In his day, that made sense. Heretics were burned at the stake. Wycliffe’s death prevented that. A space of forty-three years between his death and his burning does seem excessive. Luther, born almost exactly a century after Wycliffe’s death, shared many of Wycliffe’s theological views. One supposes that if the Roman Catholic Church had been able to get hold of Luther, he would have met the same end as Wycliffe’s bones.

The church in the West no longer burns heretics. In fact, given the plethora of Protestant denominations, the disagreements among various Catholic orders, and the vast numbers of non-Protestant, non-Catholic sects, and non-denominations, it seems impossible any longer even to identify a heretic, let alone burn one. Yet we have, perhaps, a more effective way of dealing with those whose views do not fit the spirit of the age. If not more effective, it is at least more satisfying to the heresy-hunters of our day. We burn those with theological failings on social media. We denounce them. We denounce their views. We point out, with a fair measure of glee, their shortcomings and their foibles. We hold them up to mockery and ridicule. Like the French Revolution, we lead them to the guillotine and lop off their heads.

But perhaps we ought to rethink our approach. After all, those who began the Reign of Terror in France ended up as its victims. Times had changed. Views had changed. The former revolutionaries were now considered oppressors, rightly to be beheaded. It may well be that, as times and cultural commitments change, those who are now leading the pack in decrying the failures of their forefathers will become the victims of a new social media purge. They, too, may be hanged, drawn-and-quartered, beheaded, burned at the social media stake.

True heresy is rightly opposed. But who defines the heretic? The non-denominations, and most of the non-Protestant, non-Catholic sects have no way of defining heresy, because they have no confessions that define the limits of orthodoxy. It is only those churches that have theological confessions that are able to define heresy. Thus heresy, since it to be opposed, ought rightly to be opposed and condemned, not by individuals with their differing individual standards, but by the church courts, properly called. When the shortcomings of our forefathers are examined in light of our confessions, it may be that their views are properly called heresy, and that heresy is to be condemned. But let it be done decently and in order, not by the rabid pack of social-media hounds who madly tear to shreds that which they often do not even comprehend.

Benjamin Shaw is Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. This article is used with permission.