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The ‘Heretic’s Club’

Father Arius is the founder of the Heretic’s Club. Heretics are people who publicly question the religious teaching authority of their day. In the year 325, Father Arius was a brilliant Christian theologian in Egypt, teaching that Jesus was the son of God, but not equal to God the Father. This went against the Trinitarian theory that was invented by a group of bishops who happened to be the religious authority of the day. And Arius and his “Arian heresy” was condemned.

Was Father Arius wrong? Who knows? Just because people are condemned for heresy doesn’t make them wrong. It just identifies them as thinking people who stand up with questions.

Father Martin Luther was a brilliant young priest teaching in the University of Wittenberg. He thought the selling of indulgences to release souls from the fires of purgatory was not only Vatican greed but scandalous theology, and he raised questions about it in a series of 95 statements attached to the door of the church. Father Luther and his “Lutheran heresy” was condemned by Pope Leo X on June 5, 1520, in a long document called a Papal Bull, (honest) which cited each of his 95 statements and then condemned Martin himself — the heretic. Was Father Martin wrong? Ask the millions of Protestants around the world.

A young woman named Joan from the town of Arc in France joined the army to free France from English rule, but on 23 May 1430, 22 years before the end of the 100-Years War, she was captured. She was handed over to Bishop Cauchon of Beauvais who was pro-English. This Christian bishop conducted a religious trial that was obviously political, and he condemned her to burn at the stake for heresy. Was Joan of Arc wrong? She was later declared a saint by the same church that burned her.

There are many heretics in the Heretic’s Club. Wikipedia lists 142 heretics burned at the stake by Roman Catholics; 14 by Protestants; three by the Eastern Orthodox and one by the Calvinists. And these are just the deaths by burning. Starvation, beheading, hanging and stoning have also been used. But, of course, some heretics walk away …like Father Martin Luther and Father Bill Cummings.

I was a scripture scholar teaching in a Catholic college in a small town in California in 1966. I focused on the infancy narrative in Matthew’s gospel and I explained how the five quotes which Matthew uses are not prophesies but Midrash, a Jewish literary form. For example, when Matthew is talking about Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children in Bethlehem, (Matt. 2:18) the evangelist quotes Jeremiah where Rachel is crying over the children of Israel (Jer. 31:15). When Matthew says, “fulfillment,” he means he’s giving Rachel’s scene a deeper meaning. It’s called Midrash.

Bishop Begin of California was the religious teaching authority in California. He had never heard of Midrash, and he condemned me for heresy. Even though all my students staged a march with posters and foghorns and chants, he ended my career as a professor in that Catholic college. Was I wrong?

There are hundreds of scripture scholars today, Catholic and Protestant and Jewish, who agree with what I had taught. But Bishop Begin was the authority at the time and he condemned me publicly. Looking back, I feel honored to be a bonafide member of The Heretic’s Club.

I would like to extend membership to any of you who have strong faith and questions which seem to run contrary to your own religious teaching authority. (Even my Forsyth Wal-mart friend) You’ll find standing up will strengthen your faith. I know it did for Father Arius and Father Martin and St. Joan of Arc and me. Besides, they don’t burn us at the stake anymore.

Contact me: drc@billcummings.org.