The H(eresy) Bomb: Part 2
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.
Second tier. Second tier doctrines (placed in the center of the cone) are those that are important and have the power to create communities. What I mean by this is that second tier doctrines are those beliefs we place great emphasis on, define our narrow identification (usually in terms of denominational affiliation) but do not obstruct us from broad affiliation with Christians who differ with us on these very doctrines. Consider the issue of baptism. All Christians have agreed that Scripture is not silent on the issue, and that baptism is closely tied to both local church membership and participation in the body of Christ. Yet, there are at least 4 different views on who qualifies as a proper subject of baptism as well as what is the proper way (or mode) of carrying out this command. Christians maybe rightly divide peacefully over second tier doctrines in order to maintain greater levels of fellowship. What units groups that are otherwise separated over second-tier doctrines are the essentials found in first-tier beliefs.
Third tier. Third tier doctrines, as I would define them, are issues that Scripture teaches on but are nevertheless peripheral to the heart of the Christian faith, twice separated. Even among groups united in first and second order doctrines there should be room for those who differ on third-tier beliefs. Often times third tier issues are related to the interpretation of individual texts of Scripture. So while Baptists and Presbyterians may agree within their own fellowships on topics like baptism and the relationship of women to positions of leadership within the church, they is plenty of room to differ on third tier issues like the timing of the “rapture” and what Paul meant by “baptism for the dead” in 1 Cor. 15.
Convictions move higher or lower on the cone depending on the degree of harmony between 3 things: The interpretation (exegesis) of Scripture, interaction in community with other Christians (after all, we don’t believe that we’re the first generation to think about these issues), and our individual Christian living. The more they cohere, the more confidence we can have we’re headed in the right direction. While further elaboration, clarification, and examples could be provided, I think what we have here is a fair presentation of Pratt’s cone of certainty. The highest we go on the cone (ascending from third to first tier doctrines) the clearer Scripture is on the matter and the greater level of certainty we should have about them.
So at the top of the cone we have the firmest, and fewest, doctrines.
Next I’ll present my definition of heresy and why I think the tradition definition is problematic…