Category Archives: Heresy
In the first part of this series I made the claim that American evangelicals both underuse and overuse the “H-bomb.” In the second installment I explained Richard Pratt’s cone of certainty, making the point that charges of heresy should be reserved for doctrinal distortions of first tier doctrines. In the third installment I defined heresy as soul-damning error. Now I’d like, finally, to get back to the original claim I made.
Overuse. For many the word heresy and its cognates (heretic, heretical, etc.) is merely another way of saying “wrong.” With the foundations laid in the first 3 entries I can piece this claim together. First, labeling the doctrinal beliefs of groups with whom you disagree as heretical without regard to the content and/or the centrality of those beliefs within the structure of Christian theology is both sloppy and juvenile. When we say that a person has knowingly rejected sound theology and embraced a heresy we are in fact saying that person is outside the realm of saving grace (for as long as they embrace that belief). If that’s not what you mean when you use the term then please refrain from dropping the H-bomb.
The truth is we have other terms that may well serve to categorize beliefs that aren’t biblically sound and yet aren’t heretical. For one, there’s the term heterodox. According to the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry:
Heterodoxy is a set of beliefs or opinions that are not in agreement with accepted doctrinal beliefs of a church. The word is derived from “hetero” which means “other” of a different type and “doxa”which means opinion.
(Ironically CARM also provides the kind of definition of heresy that I rejected in the 3rd part of this series. They write, “A doctrinal view that deviates from the truth, a false teaching.” From there they provide illustrations of true heresy. But their definition is too broad)
Part 3: Focusing our Definition
In part 1 of this series I stated it’s my belief that Christians in the West tend to throw around the word heresy either too much or too little. I’ll get to explaining that, but first I’d like to think through one of the reasons I fear this is the case. Our definition is too broad. The commonly used definition of heresy is something quite close to what’s presented by Stanley Grenz in his Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms. Grenz defines heresy as “Any teaching rejected by the Christian community as contrary to Scripture and hence to orthodox doctrine.” He provides further helpful clarification of his terms, and mostly limits them to major errors on the doctrine of God or Christ (which I agree with, see below).
I’ve only given the first part of Grenz’s definition not to throw him under the bus (because he does further nuance it), but because most people would provide something like that definition without his further clarifications. This is a major problem. Why? We all hold beliefs “contrary to Scripture,” whether we’d like to believe it or not, whether we intend to or not. Unless we believe that we know all of Scripture perfectly, including how each doctrine and teaching interrelates with the others, and all of the possible daily applications to our lives with god-like accuracy, we know in our bones that we don’t have it all figured out.
If believing teachings that are contrary to Scripture makes one a heretic, we’re all heretics. And to put it mildly, any use of the term that captures all in its wake is much too broad to be helpful.
I propose what I think is a helpful definition of heresy as soul-damning error. That is to say, a heresy isn’t merely an incorrect doctrinal formulation. It’s a denial or repudiation of a first tier doctrine. Thus Jehovah’s Witness belief is heretical because it compromises first tier doctrines such as the deity of Jesus Christ and justification by faith alone. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (the Jehovah’s Witness) view of Christ equates him with the archangel Michael, a mere creation of God, and yet nothing or no one but God himself can save (read Is. 40-55). Mormons functionally deny the Bible as the word of God (because they agree with it only when it confirms what their other scriptures already affirm, making those books the real authority), biblical monotheism, and others. Legalistic forms of Christianity normally maintain a proper doctrine of God and of Christ but functionally include good works as necessary to secure one’s right standing before God.
True heresy presents a roadblock to the gospel. If one truly embraces a heretical doctrine of God, Christ, or the gospel they are shut out from fellowship with God. A false God, a false Christ, or a false gospel cannot save, not matter how desperately and sincerely one may embrace it. A false doctrine of God as represented in Mormonism, process theology, and open theism, just to name a few, amounts to idolatry. And idols do not save.
I propose this definition of heresy can help us get our bearings on how the term should be applied by evangelical Christians. In the next and last installment I’ll flesh out my original claim that we use the label ‘heresy’ or ‘heretic’ both too often and too little.
Part 2: Defining our terms
Not all doctrines are created equal. Here we need to make the point that there exists a hierarchy of doctrinal beliefs. Every doctrinal affirmation or doctrinal error is not of equal weight. That is to say there’s a distinction between incorrect and/or imprecise doctrinal professions and an error so great to present a roadblock from “getting to” the gospel. So, I would argue that holding an incorrect or imprecise view of the 1,000 years spoken of in Rev. 20 is not of the same importance or urgency as an incorrect or imprecise view of who Jesus is. Likewise, if we miss the biblical teaching on the mode of baptism (sprinkling, immersion, triple immersion, etc.) we miss some of what Scripture teaches. But if we miss the nature of God, we miss all of what Scripture teaches.
A helpful way of evaluating what kinds of doctrinal errors are subject to the charge of heresy is to discuss what Richard Pratt calls the cone of certainty. The cone helps us to group doctrines by the relative emphasis and importance in Scripture. As is shown in the picture to the right, the cone is structured in 3 tiers.
First tier. The first tier includes doctrines that are definitional to the Christian religion. Top tier doctrines would include the belief in only one living and true God (biblical monotheism), God’s triune nature, Jesus Christ as the son of God, fully human and fully divine (the theanthropic nature of Christ by way of the hypostatic union), the Bible as God-breathed, justification by grace alone through faith alone in cross-work of Christ alone, and a few others.
Part 1: Introduction
It has been said that the job of Christian theology is to apply the great, unchanging truths of Scripture to our ever-changing times. While we aren’t to reinvent the wheel with every new generation (trusting that the Holy Spirit has given wisdom, insight, and understanding to Christians of previous generations), we are to reexamine and relearn the central truths of our faith again and again. As Jude taught, we are to earnestly contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (v. 4). Throughout its two millennia of history, the Christian church has experienced attacks from both outside and within. Our generation is no different from those before us. So, for example, during the early 20th century we had the modernist-fundamentalist controversy with its debates over the authority of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, and the historical Jesus.
Again, our age is no different. Today we find these same doctrines disputed by post-evangelicals on the one hand and those associated with the Emergent church movement on the other. Peter Enns and Kenton Sparks have challenged the historic understanding of Biblical inerrancy ; respected Old Testament scholars such as Enns, Tremper Longman, and John Walton (all of which have produced helpful works of literature and biblical interpretation) have questioned whether the first chapters of Genesis were written with the purpose to teach us of the existence of a historical Adam (I’ve briefly addressed Enns and Longman here, and here.). Rob Bell has questioned aloud whether Christianity really loses anything vital if the virgin birth of Christ hasn’t historical (see his Velvet Elvis), and more recently has redefined and called into question the historic Christian understanding of hell as eternal conscious judgment under the wrath of God and the exclusivity of Jesus as Savior in his best-selling book Love Wins. Another Emergent leader (perhaps the Emergent leader), Brian McLaren, rejects the Creation-Fall-Redemption scheme as the narrative structure of the Bible (see his A New Kind of Christianity). And Steve Chalke, a Christian leader and social activist, is infamous for calling penal-substitutionary atonement “Cosmic child abuse” (see his The Lost Message of Jesus).
The question I’d like to ponder is the issue of heresy. When is it appropriate to use the term? When should we refrain? And just what does the term even mean? My contention is that the American evangelical church both overuses the term and underuses it.
Sound like a contradiction?