The H(eresy) Bomb: Part 3
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.