For there must be factions among you in order that those who are approved may become evident among you. 1 Corinthians 11:19
Factions – You better sit down for this one. Something happened in the early centuries of the history of the church that altered the way we read what Paul says here. The vocabulary didn’t change but the meaning and the emphasis did. The church interpreted this verse from the perspective of a commitment to Greek metaphysics. In the process, it changed the way we think about all spiritual discussion. The result has been catastrophic.
The Greek word here is hairesis. It’s easy to see the word “heresy” in this root, but in classical Greek this term did not mean anything heretical. Hairesis simply meant “choice.” In fact, it is used to convey the idea of a freewill offering in the LXX. Nothing about opposition to the truth is found in the ancient etymology of this word. But things changed. When Rabbinic Judaism embraced Greek Hellenism, there was a major shift in the concept of truth. The Greeks built their idea of truth on mathematics. In such a system, there can be only one right answer. Every other alternative is false. From the Greek perspective, since only one answer can be correct, everything else must, as a matter of logic, be wrong and anyone who advocated alternatives to the one single truth was a heretic. As Rabbinic Judaism adopted the Greek point of view, the world of necessary tension and dialogue in Hebrew thought was replaced by final answers. Schools of “correct” interpretation took hold. The traditional dialogue of spiritual debate faded away. When the Church, under the enormous influence of the Greek philosophy of the early fathers, vigorously adopted this point of view, the result was dogma, the declaration of a final answer to life’s important questions; an answer which tolerated no opposing views. Many of the ancient creeds and theological positions of Christianity came from this dogmatic, Greek-based metaphysics. In fact, it is the same concept of truth that we embrace today.
But what if Paul isn’t saying anything about heresy? What if Paul is using the word in its LXX and classical form? Suddenly our penchant for Greek-based exclusion doesn’t seem so biblical.
Paul uses Greek in Hebrew ways. Paul writes to believers who were quite familiar with Hebrew Scripture. It seems entirely likely that what Paul has in mind here is not about heresy but rather about the necessity of opposition as part of the testing process of spiritual formation. In other words, Paul isn’t telling us to burn heretics at the stake (something the Church was quite willing to do under the Greek metaphysical assumption). Paul is telling us that there must be choices in our spiritual walk in order for us to discover what is approved. God manifests Himself in the necessary dialogue of interpretative discussion. Where the dialogue of real alternatives is prohibited or suppressed, we are unable to see the manifestation of what is approved. We need contrarians if we are going to be pushed along the path of spiritual growth.
For centuries the Church has rejected real choice by calling it heresy. In the process, it used force to demand compliance and prevented believers from exploring the challenges of true spiritual development. We are all products of this drastic elimination of open dialogue. The real problem now is how much of what we accept as “truth” is the result of suppression of debate. Paul was right. Where there is no alternative choice, human logic prevents God’s manifestation.
Topical Index: Truth