As someone who struggles with the symptoms of PTSD, I am acutely aware of the phenomenon of hypervigilance, where someone is constantly surveying the landscape for potential threats to one’s well-being. In a state of hypervigilance, your mind is prone towards surveying the environment for threats, and if you catch something that sets of a signal, to jump ready to action to protect against this threat. While some state of hypervigilance are in accordance to reality, as one really is being attacked and has to be protective, many times are hypervigilant states are distorting. As a result, we are prone to see threats that aren’t there; furthermore, we are prone to exaggerate the threatening nature of something. For instance, what may be signs of frustration by a person may get interpreted as signs of hostility. I use this phenomenon as an analogy for what I am referring to as theological hypervigilance.
What brought this up is uproar on social media over Andy Stanley, the head pastor of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, GA, about his statement of “unhitching” faith from the Old Testament. Many electrons have been spilled over the discussion on social media as to whether Andy Stanley is a heretic in the mold of Marcion. Despite the fact that Stanley explicitly stated that he believes the Old Testament to be inspired, people are insistent on saying Stanley is like the guy named Marcion from the 2nd century A.D. who believe the God of the Old Testament was different from Jesus and thus cut out the Old Testament entirely, along with significant portions of the New Testaments he believed to be too influenced by Judaism. While I have not watched the sermon, so perhaps I am missing something, but upon reading various articles such as Wesley Hill’s article with First Things and social media commentary and conversation, I have found the ultimate gist of Stanley’s sermon to be this: Stanley endorses a legalistic view of the Torah as a contract, which is a false stereotype, in trying to tell people that their faith is grounded in the resurrection of Christ and their way of life is not defined by Torah. While some of his language riled up people such as the word “unhitched,” what I have seen is guilty of oversimplified and problematic exegetical assumptions, but otherwise is pretty on point with Paul’s style of evangelism to the Gentiles.
My point is this: it seems upon careful examination (again, I did not watch the sermon; only read people’s quotes from it) that Stanley is far from Marcionism. Rather, what has “triggered” people is certain phrases that diminish the role of the Old Testament that many people were immediately prone to read as “Marcionism.” A sermon that is, in my view, guilty of oversimplification and poor exegesis gets upgraded in the eyes of others into a destructive heresy. Why? Because of theological hypervigilance.
In the secularizing and progressivizing Western society, we who are evangelicals stand in a place where we are seeing our views, opinions, values, and ideas being denigrated, disvalued, mocked, and treated with intellectual contempt. While certainly not life and death persecution, the repetitive experience of such disvaluation in popular discourse certainly signals to people their inferior status; it is a milder version of what has happened to minority communites, most particuarly African-Americans. Furthermore, as Christian churches in America have long been more accommodating to the socio-political ideals of the society, as secular and progressive ideals have become more prominent, so too have the church becomes more dividiing into sharp, bitter conflicts in denominations over concerns such as gender, sexuality, race, justice, etc.1 Many evangelicals and those of us like me who have evangelical sympathies but may not identify strictly as evangelical have grown defensive towards this repeated experience of external, societal devaluation and internal strife. As a result, we are in a state of theology, if not also ethical, hypervigilance, trying to protect ourselves and our churches from the shifts away from the truth of the Gospel. As a result, there is a quick readiness to see adulterous distortions of the truth in other people who gives even the appearance of heresy or of those who try to bring some civility and careful thinking to the conversation.
Now let me state something. I understand this. There are a lot of emotions associated with this. There is fear about the future of the Gospel in the West. I get it. I really do. But… this type of theological hypervigilance is unhealthy, sinful, destruction of the foundations of the Gospel of Christ. Instead of a foundation of love that while speaking truth, is quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger, it plants the seeds of anger and suspicion and readily justifies this anger by cloaking it as some righteous zeal. It undercuts the very basis by which the Church can come to grow and share the same confession because its readily treats anyone as a false teacher. If theological hypervigilance were to have its way n the end, it would create a unity of faith by kicking everyone out, rather than by the often slower, more arduous process of bring both grace and truth to our relationships in the church. It is as if people feel that God has selected them to be the defenders of the faith and they can only accomplish that goal by pulling out the sword anytime a sheep seems to move the slightest bit suspiciously.
Also, ironically, in trying to root our heresy, we often times are at risk of reinforcing the opposite heresy. Within the history of the church, heresy tend to come in pairs. The early Judaizing that made Torah necessary to justification is contrasted with the Marcionist heresy of rejecting the story of Israel and Torah. Whereas many engaged in Docetic forms of Christology that did not allow Jesus to be truly human, Arianism came in and said that Jesus wasn’t truly divine. Whereas modalism does not grant independence to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but suggest they are merely three appearances, tritheism would come in and say that there are three different gods. Rarely is Christian heresy a battle between a clear right and wrong; rather heresy is an unrestrained engagement with the extremes. However, when we are quick to label anything that might be construed to bear the slightest resemblance to some heresy and we attack it strongly and viciously, what we are in fact doing is pushing our body of believes more towards the opposite extreme. Witness how some radical Calvinists will reinforce the extremeness of their own views on predestination and unconditional by labeling anything that provides a place for human response as “semi-Pelagian.” Theological hypervigilance plants the seeds of heresy by pushing people towards and extreme.
This is not unique simply to Western evangelicals, however. It is a similar trend I notice in Barthian circles of theology, where the fear of anything like Nazi Germany creates a hypervigilance towards anything that might look like natural theology as distorting the faith; this form of theology where it comes only by direct revelatory inspiration to the person does bear some resemblances to gnosticism; its fight against immanence creates a tendency towards an over-spiritualization of the Christian message. There are other examples littered throughout history, I am not just trying to pick on evangelicalism or Barthian theology. However, the point is this: theological hypervigilance is the result of “trauma-like” experiences as it relates to our theological and spiritual identity, where we have seen the bad and evils of others in either treating us wrong or, more empathetically, treating others wrong so we vow to resist anything that might bear the slightest resemblance to these evils, that we might imagine might open the slightest space for those “heretics.”
However, theological hypervigilance wasn’t Jesus’ method for addressing the leaven of the Pharisees. Paul didn’t jump to conclude anyone, such as the other apostles such as James as in Galatians 2, who may not have been immediately on board with his mission to the Gentiles as themselves standing against the true faith. While there were false teachers, prophets, and apostles that the New Testament warns against, there is nothing that suggests they see the churches just littered with them, sniffing them out by rather arbitrary litmus tests based upon the slightest of resemblances to something false, to protect the churches as every turn. Rather, while they will occasionally talk about false teachers and expelling them, the main tactic for protection against them was more pedagogical, guiding people in their spiritual development so that they will be able to resist the false allures of said false teachers and the devil himself.
Translated into our modern day reality, it would entail helping people to see the difference between what the heresies actually teach (and not some overly genericized, stereotyped, caricatured version of them that we use to delegitimate our opponents) and put them into contrast with the way of Christ and the Spirit that we who hear the witnesses of the New Testament adhere to. However, insofar as our emphasis is pointing out false teachers and we are hypervigilant to find them, rather than training people to discern false teaching from what is true. Sometimes this entails addressing what other teachers have said, but we can critique what someone said as bearing potential problems without labeling them a heretic. I can say “Andy Stanley said some things that falsely portrays the Torah with a negative stereotype and could be taken too far as rejecting the Old Testament entirely, and we refer to this rejection of the Old Testament as Marcionism.” I can say “Karl Barth is fighting against a great evil, but his sole focus on revelation if taken too far may have some bad implications.” There, my focus is on a pedagogy of those I am teaching while allowing myself to see the weaknesses of what some people may teach, rather than engaging in some (often testosterone-fueled) conflict with others persons, falsely imagining that our “righteous” zeal will save the day and make everything better.
In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul addresses the future fate of different teachers of the church. There are some times when teachers who build with gold, silver, and costly stones; other times they build with wood, hay, or straw. Then, there are those who destroy the building of Jesus Christ. If your theological hypervigilance makes you see fewer and fewer people as building with wood, hay, and straw and more and more people who are destroying the church, you are probably in a state of theological hypervigilance. If your first impression of teachings you find problem with is to think the people are destroying the church, which you justify because you find some superficial or mild resemblance to heresy of the past, rather than to see their teaching as being wood, hay, and straw, then you are probably in a state of theological hypervigilance. When we use the word “heresy” readily upon people and what they are teaching in such a state of theological hypervigilance, we do not respect the power of that word and misuse and abuse in inappropriate way.