The H(eresy) Bomb: Part 4
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)
The Concise Dictionary of Theology defines heterodoxy as “Opinions that deviate from the normative teaching of the church.” This isn’t to say that heterodox teaching isn’t dangerous, it very well can be. My point is simply that embracing a heterodox teaching doesn’t bar them from the kingdom.
Calling a person a heretic is effectively saying that they are lost in their sins and (for the moment, at least) sitting under the wrath of God. To say that a person is a heretic is to say their “heretical” belief distorts the biblical teaching on either the character of God, the person and work of Jesus, or the gospel itself to such a degree that the person is an enemy of Christianity. If that’s not what you mean, cool your jets.
Underuse. On the other hand, there are others who never apply the terms heresy, even when it’s appropriate. Here I need to make an important distinction between a belief that is heretical and a person that is a heretic. It is not infrequent that a well-meaning Christian imbibes a heretic belief. I recall a time back in college when a student in a course I was taking told the professor that he couldn’t imagine God not having a body (albeit an invisible “spiritual” body). When this happens it’s usually the result of either a) the person’s ignorance of the church’s long history of theological reflection, and/or b) they just don’t see the theological implications such an aberrant point of view has on other vital doctrines that they do affirm. Therefore, like dominos, any denial or misconstrual of a first tier doctrine is bound to have adverse effects on others first and second tier doctrines. (In fact, this kind of qualifications should be taken to soften some of what i’ve said above.)
A denial of God’s foreknowledge of future events (as in Open Theism) compromises the very attributes that Yahweh cites to distinguish himself from the false gods in Isa. 40-45. A denial of penal substitutionary atonement removes the grounds from which sinners can be reconciled to God. A denial of the Trinity is a repudiation of the very nature of God. And if you can redefine the very definition of God and not be considered a heretic, I don’t know why the church is even concerned with orthodoxy. There are times when we need to take a stand and say NO to certain doctrinal formulations. We shouldn’t flippantly use the term heresy, but neither should we be theologically thin-skinned and fear it.
Suggestion. What does this all mean? It means that we need to be both careful interpreters of Scripture as well as careful interpreters of other’s words. We ought not to read (or hear) the positions of those with whom we disagree in the worse light. We should wrestle to understanding where they’re coming from on their own terms. Sometimes this practice will help us realize that we’re getting at the same truth, but from different (though complimentary) perspectives. Other times we’ll conclude that there really is a difference in the two competing positions, but there difference isn’t substantial enough to break fellowship over. Still other times, we’re going to have to call a spade a spade. Even after doing your homework, trying to sympathetically understand the other position in terms that the other person would accept (that’s vitally important), and accepting their sincere motive to know the truth, you may conclude that what they’re saying is out of bounds with historic Christianity and compromises a first tier doctrine (or set of doctrines). This is when it’s both responsible and obedient to Scripture to characterize their position as heretical.
So study positions on doctrines other than your own. Sympathetically listen to them. They may have insights to offer that you’ve missed. And please don’t demonize others. We’re called to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15), with gentleness and respect (1 Pet. 3:15). This isn’t simply about getting our theological ducks in a row so we can preserve the neatness of a little theological puzzle (sorry for the mixture of metaphors!). Heresy prevents us from understanding God’s grace-filled word, and ultimately leads to the diminishment of our eternal joy.
Since God is a God of truth, and God is unified, all truth is unified.