February 20 2024

Academic Heresy

by Kathryn Lofton, Yale University

What is the purpose of theological education? Reflecting on the archives of religion in the United States, my answer is this: the purpose of theological education is the production of heresy. Heresy is the accusation that comprises the dramatic exhale between theological education and the world. I intentionally here oppose the production of heresy to the production of ministry. While the latter may be central of every seminary mission statement, the former is integral to its lifeblood. There is no theological education without an enemy against which this theology is imagined to be articulated.

Heretical Matters

In her 1992 book, The Origenist Controversy, Elizabeth A. Clark concludes that the condemnation of Origenism, along with that of Pelagianism shortly thereafter (a result she claims to be related), “made effective in the West the flourishing of a Christian theology whose central concerns were human sinfulness, not human potentiality; divine determination, not human freedom and responsibility; God’s mystery, not God’s justice.” I pause here in the commitments lost: commitments to human potentiality; to human freedom and responsibility; to God’s justice. As Clark writes, “Christianity now clung more snugly to assertions of human sinfulness, ecclesiastical unity, and obedience to episcopal authority.” Origenism lost, then. And I want to think about where heresy went from there, from that place of “rigid doctrinal dogmatism” that allured a thousand dissenting voices over the subsequent centuries of Christian history.1

I want to observe, then, that the fading obviousness of theological education is in direct proportion to the fading power of heresy. If you want theological education to matter, heresy must again be possible. I hope also to remind us of a powerful subtext to Clark’s (2001) more recent book Founding the Fathers, namely that in the modern West heresy has had but one fertile home: the academy. Do you remember when the idea of the modern university was itself a rebellion? When we thought just being a university was a certain kind of dissent to the world we occupied?

Of course you do. It still is now. Even as we feel embattled—especially as we feel embattled—we must remember that embattlement was our origin. It was never easy to defend the meaning of the work of universities, of seminaries, of schools. The question for our conversations now is: Are we meeting the standard that these frames allow? Or put more simply: Are we all we can heretically be?

Heresy in the History of Religions

In the history of religions, it seems safe to summarize the opinion about heresies, which is that they are, by and large, good for the very organizations they critique. John Gager wrote of the positive functions of heresy, emphasizing the establishment of social power through its rejection. “The tradition of the heretics offers one of the finest opportunities of renewal that the churches have,” wrote George H. Shriver in 1997.2

Renewal, yes. But such renewal can only exist in reply to a present frame. And what makes the United States an appealing testing ground for heresy is that this frame was spectral at best. As one observer has written, the significance of religious disestablishment is that it “destroyed heresy in the United States, for where no system of belief has precedence over any other, there is no legal or recognized orthodoxy and therefore no heterodoxy.”3 

Of course such a description might be posed in its extreme opposite, as every practitioner might be seen as complicit in a national heresy. The democracy of America produced a kind of obsessive denominationalism in which splinter group after splinter group cracked off from their parent communions. It has been estimated that the Protestant sects in American alone number over six hundred.

In the United States, then, heresy is the new orthodoxy. This is not a unique observation. Peter Berger suggested in 1979 that we understand the modern world as the universalization of heresy. But what I want to highlight is the increasing authoritarian flaccidity component to this universalization. As Carl F. H. Henry has said: “Heresy trials became an oddity in contemporary church history, not because of an absence of heresy, but because of the lack of zeal to prosecute heretics.”4 The choice of the believer is now more important to protect than the maintenance of right belief. Heresies (in their original meaning of choices) now multiply, to the point where now the greatest heresy seems to be the existence of any dogma at all.5

Heresy as an Academic Practice

Heresy as a formal designation has, in the United States, been the practice of people working in seminaries or universities that propagate theological education. Let me remind you of the stories. In 1891, the Presbytery of New York appointed a committee that accused Charles Augustus Briggs, Edward Robinson Chair of Biblical Theology at Union Theological Seminary, of speaking counter the confession of faith. In 1893, Luther Gotwalk of Wittenberg College was accused of false teaching. In 1899, trustees of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary accepted the resignation of William Heth Whitsitt, professor of ecclesiastical history and president of the institution, after he was accused also of false teaching. In 1900, formal charges of heresy were brought by the New York Presbytery against Union Theological Seminary professor Arthur Cushman McGiffert. In 1904, the Methodist Episcopal Church levied charges of heresy against Boston University professor Borden Parker Bowne; in 1905, the same church authorities held an ecclesiastical trial for Boston University professor Hinckley Gilbert Thomas Mitchell under charges of “misteaching.” 

What I mean to emphasize through this incomplete listing of heresy trials from the late 19th century is the role academic institutions have played in the perpetuation of heresy as a possibility in this, a nation of free-market heretics. Much ink has been spilled on the subject of modernist-fundamentalist thought, the swirling fact of which produced much of the foregoing accusatory energies. What is less often explored is how clear-eyed the parties were about the consequences of their interpretations. When theologian George Burman Foster of the University of Chicago published The Finality of the Christian Religion in 1906, he was absolutely clear that there could be no religion, and therefore no legitimate heresy, in the new world.

I want to underline the self-conscious production of the end of Christianity by Christian modernists. By this reading, the vocabulary of modernism is not so distinct from that of Origenism. And this is not because of the content of their call, but because of the inversion of their results. Just as “Origen” served as a code word for various theological concerns problematic to Christians at the turn of the fifth century, so do I want to write about how “modernist” served as a code word for various theological concerns problematic to Christians at the turn of the 20th century. But this is no mere admiring glance. I would argue that the inversion of the story transpires in the epoch of my attention. Elizabeth Clark watches as Christianity in the ancient world goes in a certain direction—deciding, therefore, what will be orthodox. And I observe that the ecclesiastical combat of this much later fin de siècle moment was the bookend of a long arc of Christendom. Not where it began to go another way, but where the very frames of a certain theological conversation concluded.

Here I seek to invoke the social history of the Christian twentieth century: the decline of denominations, the ecumenical movement, the diluted value of systematic theology, the growth of toleration. It does not now seem to most believers (those that remain) inconsistent for a person to stoutly maintain the doctrines of his own communion while not regarding as heretics those who hold different views. Authentic identity matters more than an authenticating tradition. This is, we all must agree, a relatively recent epistemological revolution, and I would locate its formation in this cluster of American heresy trials situated in academic institutions.

Heretical Futures

In her 2006 presidential address to the North American Patristics Society, Maureen A. Tilley investigates the possibility that we have collapsed the relationship between schism and history. We like to think of heresy as being about doctrine whereas schism is about practice. Pointing to contemporary examples, however, she writes:

The distinction between heresy and schism, at least in these cases, seems clear to participants: heresy has to do with creedal matters, with believing wrongly, and schism has to do with church organization and membership. But perhaps it is not as clear as it seems. The issue of the ordination or non-ordination of women may be a point of ecclesiastical polity and bring the danger of schism, but at root, it also involves multiple doctrines such as theological anthropology, the interpretation of Scripture and the extent to which Scripture is a norm of Christian life, and thus it flirts with our earlier definition of heresy. So too the ordination of homosexuals in long term committed relationships may seem to involve only discipline, but at heart concerns the same issues as the ordination of women.6

Tilley here raises the specter of those subjects which remain topics of heresy claims and excommunication trials. Over the past thirty years, across the Christian spectrum (Protestant, Catholic, and Mormon), the question of gay rights and women rights have pressed some denominations to familiar postures of nervous orthodoxy. Some churches (like the United Presbyterian Church) would bar from ordination those who did not agree with the ordination of women; others (like the Episcopal Church) struggled over the naming of gay men as deacons and priests. The LDS Church excommunicated women for their support of the ERA, and Catholic and Baptists wondered about the relationship between reproductive rights and Christian teachings. These are the subjects, now, that take us to the limits of orthodoxy.

Within religious history, proper adherence to creeds has been referred to as orthodoxy, whereas dissenting interpretations have been understood as heterodoxy. Heterodoxy might propound schismatic movements. It might lead to accusations of heresy; or it might lead to an individual’s apostasy. The modern assertion of sexual identities has indeed become the new form of confessional dissent. Although in the history of American religions, such heterodoxy has often been articulated as an outright apostasy (the gay youth abandons their childhood religion upon the realization of their sexual identity), such an abandonment narrative fails to capture how co-constitutive these concepts have been. That is to say that our very ideas about sexuality and its expression are deeply tied to the history of heresy and the orthodoxies it rebuts.

The question for us, now, as scholars and educators and theologians of the present, is not where did the orthodoxy go, but what are the social premises of heresy now? The modern university framed and determined the end of orthodox Christianity. It did not, however, conclude the end of social structures for Christianity. To understand where we might go next—into what new religious freedom, into what new religious limit—we would do well to remember that our stories here have profound power to shape the terms of survival and change for people and places beyond such rooms. We may not intend it, but there it is: the power of these heretical practices to change our stammering worlds.



1 Elizabeth A. Clark, 1992. The Origenist Controversy: The Cultural Construction of an Early Christian Debate (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press) 245–46.

2 George H. Shriver, 1997. Dictionary of Heresy Trials in American Christianity (Westport, CT: Greenwood), 487.

3 David Christie-Murray, 1976. A History of Heresy (London: New English Library), 192.

4 Shriver, xiv.

5 Christie-Murray, 226.

6 Maureen A. Tilley, 2007. “When Schism Becomes Heresy in Late Antiquity: Developing Doctrinal Deviance in the Wounded Body of Christ,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 15 (1), 3.

Kathryn Lofton is professor of religious studies, American studies, history, and divinity at Yale University where she also serves as the deputy dean of diversity and faculty development in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the chair of the Department of Religious Studies.


Header Image: Mary Magdalene announcing the Resurrection to the Apostles, St. Albans Psalter, 12th century