Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Health or Heresy?

Lest anyone imagine that the time of heresy trials is over, here is a brief summary of some which have received public attention since 1900 [1]. There may well have been many others. Most have occurred in the United States of America, somewhat belying that nation's popular reputation for freedom of thought and expression. 

On the other hand, it may be that more come to the surface in the USA than elsewhere because proceedings there are more likely to be heard in public than in most other countries. Many cases in Africa and the East will have never come into the public forum. Most will have been dealt with in secret ("privately"), without recourse to careful public enquiry.

In the Church of England, conservative elements have recently (2010) been pushing hard for a change in the laws regarding heresy. (The Church is "established" - that is, Parliament still regulates some of its affairs.) The changes would make it easier to bring to book any cleric who is accused of denying the venerable Thirty Nine Articles (now over 300 years old). 

An initial attempt to pass a draconian new measure to limit the free speech of clergy was defeated in the Church's General Synod in 2004 by a tiny margin. Since then the signs are that further attempts will be made to have a slightly revised measure passed by the Synod. 

It is significant that these trials are about heresy - and not about the canons by which present-day enquiries are pursued. That is, the subjects of inquisition are arraigned not because they have reached incorrect conclusions using reasoned evidence, but because they have not conformed to orthodoxy (whatever that is). The Church, despite all that has changed over the previous three centuries, still reserves the right to censor enquiry on dogmatic grounds.

The heretics are pursued because they have rested a case upon an autonomous effort of mind, because they have followed intellectual norms of the modern era. What they have not done is merely to conform to the authority of the Church as superceding reason. One writer on the philosophy of history has put it well:

The old morality was fond of the slogan "faith seeking understanding"; the new morality believes that every yes and no must be a matter of conscience. [2]

Autonomy in Christianity has won only the shakiest of victories. Tough minded reason prevails only as long as its conclusions are convenient. The old morality of authority as the arbiter of truth is defiantly maintained by the various ecclesiastical structures, forcing the new morality into the shadows. But truth will out - and when it does emerge into the light of day it must needs be quickly subdued, lest the faithful begin to see what they choose rather than what they must.

1900: A C McGiffert, Presbyterian USA
McGiffert�s inaugural address at Union Theological Seminary was described as "most excellent Quaker teaching, but � a direct onslaught on the very basis of Reformed and, indeed, of the whole Protestant theology." 

His 1897 book A History of Christianity in the Apostolic Age had aroused much hostility. He worked on the basic assumption that historical change makes all religious teaching relative and that there is no continuing "essence" of Christian history. The Assembly strongly disapproved of the book, issued a warning to McGiffert, and counselled him to reform his views or peaceably withdraw from the Presbytery. 

McGiffert refused to do either and the next Assembly referred the matter to the New York Presbytery, which disapproved of specific views but voted against another heresy trial. However, one member then filed formal heresy charges which were again brought to the General Assembly in 1900. McGiffert decided to withdraw to save the Presbyterian Church, which he loved dearly, from a great heresy trial. 

He later joined the Congregational Church and was president of the Union Theological Seminary from 1917 to 1926. 

1901: Hinckley Mitchell, Methodist Episcopal, USA 
Mitchell was investigated in 1895 and 1899 for tendencies towards naturalism and Unitarianism, in the context of the general struggle between traditional teaching and "higher criticism". 

His 1901 book The World before Abraham opened a further investigation, leading to refusal by the Board of Bishops to appoint him to another 5-year term at Boston University. Mitchell requested a trial but this was refused. The Conference passed a vote censuring his teachings. He continued to write and was later appointed to Tufts University, Boston. 

1906: Algernon Sidney Crapsey, Episcopalian, USA 
Crapsey�s troubles began around 1895 regarding his preference for moral and social issues, and church unity, over doctrine. 

In 1905, as part of a series of lectures on the relationship between the Church and the State, Crapsey made statements which were understood to challenge the doctrines of the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection and the divinity of Jesus. A committee appointed to review his case declined to recommend a trial, but condemned his teaching. 

Considerable controversy was raised, and his Bishop initiated a presentment in 1906 on two counts of heresy and appointed a court to hear the case. Witnesses called to support the orthodoxy of Crapsey�s views were not allowed to testify, and Crapsey was convicted. On appeal the conviction was upheld. 

Crapsey resigned and never took another church position. Later in life he described himself as a Pantheistic Humanist. 

1909: George B Foster, Southern Baptist, USA 
Foster, an ordained Baptist minister, taught systematic theology and philosophy of religion at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. 

The Baptists Ministers� Conference condemned his 1906 book The Finality of the Christian Religion. On the publication of his 1909 book, The Function of Religion in Man�s Struggle for Existence, the Minister�s Conference voted on 26 June to expel him. 

However, he never surrendered his papers of ordination and continued to teach at the University of Chicago. 

1910: James Chapple, Presbyterian, New Zealand 
In 1907 there was an attempt to remove James Henry George Chapple (1865-1947) from his Timaru church. The vote was 200 for him and 8 against. In 1910 proceedings were brought against Chapple in the Timaru Presbytery for having, amongst other things, preached in the Unitarian church at Auckland as a candidate. 

Chapple resigned and started a Unitarian church in Timaru. He stayed until July 1915, then spent two years in California, and returned to Christchurch in 1917 to start Unitarian meetings there. 

1911: Frank Staff, Southern Baptist, USA 
Staff was a professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He was investigated and charged with undue emphasis on the human elements in the New Testament, alleging that the Trinity was unbiblical, viewing the atonement as "transactional", holding that God�s wrath was the consequence of sin rather than a response to sin, and holding a "too psychological" explanation of demons. 

Staff was called before the Trustees to respond, and then acquitted. 

1911: John Dietrich, Reformed Church, USA 
John Dietrich was minister of St Mark�s Memorial Church in Pittsburgh. His ministry appears to have been controversial in several ways. The Allegheny Classis investigated his teaching and determined that Dietrich did not believe in the infallibility of the Bible, nor in the virgin birth and deity of Jesus, nor in the traditional understanding of the atonement. 

A trial was set for July 10, 1911. Dietrich refused to defend himself and was "defrocked", in spite of the continuous support of his board of trustees and many of the members at St Mark's. After his last Sunday as minister, St Mark's was closed and the next service was not held until a year later. 

Dietrich became a Unitarian minister and gradually moved from a position of liberal theistic Unitarianism to religious non-theistic humanism. 

1924-1925: Bishop William Brown, Episcopalian, USA 
Brown was tried for heresy in 1924-25, largely because of his outspoken support for Communism. In 1920 he wrote Communism and Christianism while diocesan Bishop of Arkansas. Its subtitle was Analyzed and Contrasted from the Marxian and Darwinian Points of View. While waiting for the verdict of the heresy trial, which deposed him, he was consecrated a bishop of the Old Catholic Church. He continued lecturing and writing until his death in 1937.

1927: Dr Ernest Davey, Presbyterian, Ireland 
Dr Davey was Principal and Professor at Presbyterian College, Belfast (now called Union College). He was tried for heresy in 1927, primarily on issues related to modern biblical criticism. Although he was acquitted, the trial had a deeply discouraging effect on him, virtually ending his activity as an author. 

1932: J Gresham Machen, Presbyterian, USA
Machen was expelled from the Presbyterian Church for his opposition to modernism. In his 1923 book Christianity and Liberalism he stated that liberalism/modernism was not a perversion of Christianity but a completely different religion, because it was not based on the narration of a historical event. In 1932 he published an attack on the report "Rethinking Missions", which had advocated tolerance and acceptance of other religions. 

He set up an independent mission board in opposition to the General Assembly. The New Brunswick Presbytery then pressed charges against Machen for violation of ordination vows, rebellious defiance, and disobeying the lawful authority of the Church. They refused to hear substantive justifications of Machen�s position and focused only on the question of obedience. He was found guilty and suspended. 

Machen formed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church but died of pneumonia in 1937. 

1939: Mercer University, Baptist, USA 
In 1939, thirteen University students filed charges against four professors, focusing on issues of modern biblical criticism and evolution. Resignations (under pressure) due to doctrinal irregularity had already occurred in 1894, 1905, 1906 and 1924. A 10-hour trial was held during which the faculty were accused of denying the existence of demons, the blood atonement of Christ, conversion from sin, the second coming of Christ, the resurrection of the body, hell, the Genesis account of creation, and the moulding of Eve from the rib of Adam; and of saying that the Bible contained contradictions. 

The trustee investigative committee however refused to condemn them and simply issued a caution; the majority of students also supported the professors. 

1958: The Louisville 13, Southern Baptist, USA 
In 1958 13 faculty members were forced to resign from Southern Seminary for unorthodoxy, despite the spirited defence by its President, Duke McCall, of the Seminary's somewhat more liberal stance in the 1940s and 1950s. McCall sought to preserve the serious study of the Bible while at the same time reassuring the majority, whose main concern was for orthodoxy - many of them along the lines of 19th century theology. In the event, the conservatives won and McCall almost lost his job.

1960: Theodore R Clark, Southern Baptist, USA 
Clark taught at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He was dismissed in 1960 primarily as a result of the publication of his book Saved by His Life (Macmillan, 1959), a meditation on salvation. The trustees did not make clear the nature of their complaint but said that

His recently published book is one of several instances in which the board had been confronted with questions as to limitations in the area of communication with students and hearers as well as content of lecture materials.
The process appears to have been obscure. It is not clear that the Board ever met with Clark or that the faculty were aware that an investigation was underway. The Dean, J Hardee Kennedy, had written an approving review of Clark�s book and does not appear to have participated in the dismissal. 

Clark later took an appointment at Pan American College in Edinburg, Texas. 

1962: Ralph Elliott, Southern Baptist, USA 
Elliott was dismissed from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary over conflict about contemporary biblical criticism. He was tried twice. In 1960, after publishing The Message of Genesis: A theological interpretation, he was examined by the Board of Trustees who supported him 14 to 7. 

At the next Southern Baptist Convention, elections at the convention changed the balance of trustees at Midwestern. The new board met for a second trial. They agreed with Elliott on 9 out of 10 points, but they failed to agree on re-publication of the book. The trustees didn�t want to take responsibility for banning it, and Elliott refused to "volunteer" not to seek its republication. The board then dismissed him by a vote of 22 to 7. 

Elliott moved to the American Baptist church and continued his career. 

1962-1964: Revd Walter Gill, Methodist, England 
Walter Gill was expelled from the Methodist ministry for heresy in 1964. In 1962, he was charged with denying the virgin birth, the resurrection and the divinity of Christ. The Methodist Committee of Doctrinal Appeal dropped the first charge and accepted Gill's response to the second charge. They rejected his view of the divinity of Christ and formally reprimanded him. 

When Gill persisted, they expelled him from the ministry in 1964. He later wrote a book, Truth to Tell, published by Lindsey Press. In 1970, he applied for re-instatement as a local preacher, but his application was rejected by the Ministerial Session of the General Purposes Committee. 

1962 and 1980: John Hick, Presbyterian, USA 
Hick has twice been the subject of heresy proceedings.

  1. In 1961 or 1962, when he was teaching at Princeton Theological Seminary, he sought, as a Presbyterian minister, to join the local Presbytery of New Brunswick. He was asked whether he took exception to anything in the Westminster Confession of 1647 and answered that several points were open to question. For example, he was agnostic on the historical truth of the virgin birth and did not regard it as an essential item of Christian faith.

    Because of this, some of the local ministers appealed against his reception into the Presbytery. Their appeal was sustained by the Synod. A year later, a counter-appeal was sustained by the Judicial Committee of the General Assembly, and Hick became a member of the Presbytery.
  2. In the mid-1980s, when teaching at the Claremont Graduate School in California, Hick sought to join the local Presbytery of San Gabriel. His application was strongly opposed by certain local ministers. After long discussion, the relevant committee told him that his application would be extremely divisive and invited him to withdraw it, which he did.
1961; 1965; 1966: James Pike, Episcopalian, USA 
Pike was Dean of the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York, then became Bishop of California. Pike was close to and much influenced by Bishop John Robinson and theologian Paul Tillich. He rejected dogmatic interpretations of the virgin birth and the Incarnation, questioned the basis of theological concepts such as original sin and the Trinity, and challenged the infallibility of scripture. 

His critics charged him with heresy in 1961, 1965 and 1966. The first time, Pike defended his views as orthodox, and counterattacked that racial segregation was a worse heresy than anything he had written. 

The second time he was accused both of unorthodox views and of plans to ordain women. He defended himself and was cleared by the House of Bishops, which nevertheless ruled that women could not be ordained. 

In 1966 charges were again raised. In an attempt to avoid a trial, a committee was appointed which produced a report declaring Pike�s teaching irresponsible, "cheap vulgarizations of great expressions of faith". The report was accepted, 103 to 36. Pike then demanded a formal trial, claiming that the Bishops had refused to address the theological issues. 

Again attempting to avoid a trial, the House of Bishops created a Committee on Theological Freedom which included Pike along with prominent theologians such as Bishop John Robinson. Pike agreed to withdraw demands for a trial if the Committee�s report was accepted, which it was. 

The Church then made formal moves to allow more room for doctrinal diversity and to make heresy charges much harder to bring. 

1964: Robert Briggs, William Strickland and Harold Oliver, Southern Baptist, USA 
Briggs, Strickland and Oliver taught at South-eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. In 1960 an investigation was begun into their teaching, alleging "the application of radical Existentialism and so-called Bultmanianism". 

Over the next three years an extended struggle regarding the academic freedom of the faculty versus adherence to the Seminary's Abstract of Principles which all faculty members had signed on appointment. No formal charge of heretical teaching was ever made. In 1964 Briggs resigned. 

Shortly thereafter he took a post at Vanderbilt University, and then moved on to the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. Oliver resigned and went to Boston University. Strickland resigned in 1966 to go to Appalachian State University. 

1967: Lloyd Geering, Presbyterian Minister, New Zealand Geering was tried for doctrinal error and disturbing the peace of the Church by the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand in 1967. The trial was televised in New Zealand, but the Assembly judged that no doctrinal error had been proved, dismissed the charges and declared the case closed. 

The Church later published a 112-page booklet about the trial. Geering has since become a well-published theologian, and was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2001. In 1988 he was honoured as a Companion of the British Empire. He is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand, a founding member of Sea of Faith, NZ and a Fellow of the Westar Institute Jesus Seminar. [Geering's trial is well covered in his book Wrestling With God, Imprint Academic, 2007.]

1971: Ray Billington, Methodist, England 
Billington was charged with teaching false doctrine following the publication of his book The Christian Outsider (Epworth Press, 1971), specifically because he stated that God does not exist, that Jesus was not the Son of God, and that there is no life after death. 

The complaint was researched and the Committee of Doctrinal Appeal submitted a report to the 1971 Methodist Conference. Mr Billington was dismissed in June of that year after a day-long closed meeting of Methodist ministers, few of whom had either read his book or been forewarned of what was to be discussed. Billington's most recent book is Religion without God (Routledge, 2001).

1973-1977: John Tietjen, Missouri Synod, Lutheran, USA 
Tietjen was President of Concordia Seminary. He favoured a more moderate, ecumenical approach to religion, but became entangled in struggles with the Missouri Synod President to control the teaching at Concordia. In 1973 the Convention declared the faculty heretical (e.g. for denying the historicity of Adam and Eve). 

In 1974 the Board suspended Tietjen as President, whereupon the students and faculty declared a moratorium, then created the Seminex (Seminary in Exile). The board terminated them. In 1977 Tietjen was formally expelled from the ministry. In fact he had by then already joined the American Evangelical Lutherans. 

1974: Walter Kenyon, Presbyterian, USA 
Kenyon was barred from ordination by the United Presbyterian Church in 1974 because of his stance against the ordination of women. He believed that an inerrant view of the Bible required subordination of women. 

At his final interview with the Committee on Candidates and Credentials, he was asked if he would ordain women. Kenyon made it clear that he would not block women and would work with women elders and ministers, but that he would not participate in their ordination service. 

The Committee did not recommend him for ordination. The Presbytery, however, authorized his ordination by a vote of 144 to 133. A case was then filed stating that the Presbytery had violated Presbyterian constitutional law. The Synod�s Permanent Judicial Commission upheld the complaint, stating that Kenyon was "in irreconcilable conflict with Presbyterian polity, government and discipline". 

The Presbytery appealed to the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, which agreed with the Permanent Judicial Commission, stating that a candidate for ordination must endorse Presbyterian polity as a matter of government. 

The case is unusual in that it focused on Kenyon�s actions (he was free to think as he liked, but not free to refuse to ordain women), and on the actions of the Presbytery rather than of Kenyon himself. 

1984: Dale Moody, Southern Baptist, USA 
Moody taught at Southern Baptist Seminary. He aroused controversy as to whether he supported the Baptist principle of "perseverance of the saints" (drawn from Hebrews 6.4-6). He was accused in 1961 of teaching that it was possible for a person "once saved to be lost" but was acquitted. 

In 1979, Moody proposed revision of the Seminary's Abstract of Principles on this point. The University then said it did not wish to inhibit faculty freedom but would not extend his teaching contract past normal retirement age unless his teaching on this point was more traditional. 

Moody argued that his reading of the principle was in line with the original biblical texts and the argument continued for roughly 3 years. In 1983, Moody gave a talk on the topic "Can a saved person ever be lost?" - whereupon the Arkansas Baptist State Convention asked the university to terminate him. 

The University employed him until 1984 but refused to give him a further contract. 

1984-1994: Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, USA The Seminary was initially investigated for allowing teaching contrary to Biblical inerrancy. In 1987 the Trustees announced a hiring policy that would include only those who regarded the Bible as inerrant. Whereupon the President resigned. 

Since then, the school has declined. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools has declared it deficient, multiple resignations were submitted in 1991 and the school has been placed on probation (i.e. just short of loss of accreditation). Between 1985 and 1994, 27 of the 34 faculty and 13 of the 16 administrators resigned. 

1992: Dr Peter S Cameron, Presbyterian, Australia 
On the 2nd March 1992, the Revd Dr Peter Cameron, Principal of St Andrew�s College at the University of Sidney, preached a sermon at a Dorcas Society Rally in the Ashfield Presbyterian Church entitled The Place of Women in the Church. As well as supporting the principle that women should be ordained to the ministry, it argued that the Bible had to be understood within the context of the times in which they were written. 

Cameron was tried and convicted for heresy. He appealed, but resigned before the appeal could be heard. He has subsequently published three books: Heretic (Doubleday 1994), Necessary Heresies (New South Wales University Press, 1993) and Fundamentalism and Freedom (Doubleday, 1995). 

1992: Paul Simmons, Southern Baptist, USA 
Simmons was Professor of Christian Ethics at the Southern Baptist Seminary. He was attacked not for theological beliefs but for ethical positions, particularly in the areas of abortion, elective death and homosexuality. 

In 1987 the Trustees reviewed Simmons� positions and asked that he "moderate his public involvement" in the debate on abortion. In 1989 he was accused of saying that Jesus was sexually active but the accusation was proved false. Pressure to remove Simmons for his position on abortion continued and in 1992 the President attempted to offer him a financial package to leave, which Simmons refused. 

Following a further controversy about a film used by Simmons in a lecture, the Trustees proposed sanctions which Simmons was unwilling to accept, and he resigned. 

1994: Molly Marshall, Southern Baptist, USA 
Marshall resigned from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1994. A heresy trial was in the offing at the time of her resignation. The Seminary statement at the time of her resignation says that her views were "significantly outside the parameters of the Abstract of Principles" although it did not offer any specifics. 

Marshall then went to Central Baptist Theological Seminary (American Baptist, not Southern). 

1994: Anthony Freeman, Anglican, England 
Freeman, an ordained priest of the Church of England and a member of Sea of Faith, was sacked by the Bishop of Chichester following the publication of his book God in Us: The Case for Christian Humanism. He is currently the editor of The Journal for Consciousness Studies

He remains a priest and has since written Gospel Treasure (1999) and The Volitional Brain (co-edited 1999). 

1996: Walter Righter, Episcopalian, USA 
In the fall of 1990, Barry Stopfel was ordained a deacon in the Diocese of Newark, USA. Stopfel is gay and, at the time of his ordination, was living "in a sexual partnership" with another man. The Assistant Bishop of Newark, the Rt Revd Walter Righter, then faced a Church court over his decision to ordain the gay man. 

On May 15, 1996, an Episcopal Church court dismissed charges against Righter. The Court held that neither the doctrine nor the discipline of the Church currently prohibit the ordination of a non-celibate homosexual person living in a committed relationship. 

1998 - 2003: C. Joseph Sprague, Methodist, USA 
Bishop Joseph Sprague, who directs the United Methodists' Northern Illinois Conference, has been the target of ongoing complaints since 1998. 

He was accused of heresy in June 2000 and again in early 2003. He is supposed to have denied the apostolic, orthodox, and ecumenical Trinitarian understanding of Jesus as God in favor of a form of Unitarianism or 'adoptionism' that denies the virgin birth and full deity of Christ. He also is accused of having denied the physical resurrection of Christ's body. He is also supposed to have maintained that Jesus Christ is not the only way to salvation and appears to deny the substitutionary atonement of Christ through his sacrificial death on the cross. 

These theological positions are held to be contrary to the standards of doctrine established by the United Methodist Church, particularly as stated in the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith. The charges were dismissed by Bishop Bruce R. Ough, President of the North Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops in 2003. 

The supervisory committee which reviewed the charges against Sprague has proposed a public dialogue, facilitated by a third party, in order to explore the implications of Sprague's statements. 

2001: Don Stroud, Presbyterian, USA 
The Revd Don Stroud, a minister in the Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland, was accused of heresy in September 2001 because he is openly gay. Allegations include:

  • Practising the "sin of homosexuality";
  • Failing to be governed by church polity (form of government);
  • Believing holy unions are the equivalent of marriage;
  • Admitting his homosexuality in defiance of the constitution of the Presbyterian Church.
I have been unable to discover the outcome of this case. 

2002: David Moyer, Episcopal, USA 
The Revd David Moyer, President of Forward in Faith of North America, has been dismissed by his bishop for refusing episcopal visits and for generally violating canonical discipline. 

Although canonical discipline is cited as the immediate cause for this affair, the underlying cause is doctrinal. Moyer objects to the ordination of women and to his bishop's liberal position on this and other issues. 

In 2004 it appeared that Moyer had been elected a bishop in the Anglican Church in America (ACA), a conservative offshoot of the Anglican Church activated and legitimised in part by Archbishop Bernard Malango of the Diocese of Upper Shire, Malawi. Moyer was due to have been consecrated in February, 2005 by three bishops of the ACA. 

2002: Andrew Furlong, Anglican, Ireland 
In 2001 Furlong published on his church website a number of articles challenging traditional doctrine, including statements that Jesus was not the Son of God. His bishop directed him to take three months to reflect on his beliefs. Having not changed his beliefs in that period, Furlong was invited to resign, which he declined to do. 

He was then due to appear before an ecclesiastical court on charges of heresy, but resigned on the day before his trial. Furlong has published an account of this episode in Tried for Heresy: A 21st Century Journey of Faith (John Hunt, 2003). _____________________________________________________ 
[1] The list above relies heavily on one taken from an Internet site - the address now long since lost..
[2] Van Austin Harvey in The Historian and the Believer, SCM Press, 1967

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