On Heresy, and Why It Matters

Yes heresy is real and it must be resisted:

Because there is such a thing as truth, there is such a thing as error. Because there is theological truth, there is theological error – what we call (at least in its extreme form) heresy. Because the truth matters, so too does heresy. Yet in our postmodern age where the notion of absolute truth is minimised, ignored or rejected, notions of error are also given short shrift.

And Christians have not been immune from all this, with perhaps the majority of Western believers today uninterested in the reality of heresy because they are interested in the reality of biblical truth. Heterodoxy is rife in so much of the church because orthodoxy is disregarded and seen as unimportant.

Indeed, to stick up for biblical orthodoxy is seen as being arrogant, intolerant and unloving by many Christians today. Now, are there some who are in fact arrogant and loveless as they push theological orthodoxy? Sadly yes. But the answer is not to dismiss orthodox teachings but to seek for a Christlike disposition as we do defend biblical truth.

Alister McGrath speaks to this matter of how talk of heresy is so frowned upon today:

For many, heresy is now seen as a theological victim, a set of noble ideas that have been brutally crushed and improperly suppressed by dominant orthodoxies and then presented as if they were devious, dishonest, or diabolical. In this romanticized account of things, heresy is portrayed as an island of freethinking in the midst of a torpid ocean of unthinking orthodoxy enforced more by naked ecclesiastical power than by robust intellectual foundations. This is certainly the account of heresy that is firmly established in Brown’s Da Vinci Code.

Justo and Catherine González also speak to this matter, dispelling some myths along the way. They argue that the early church was “willing, within limits, to accommodate a variety of views” while the heretics were not:

This goes against the common stereotype of the church being narrow-minded in contrast with the open-minded attitude of heretics, when in fact the opposite is closer to the truth: at least in the early centuries of Christianity, it was the heretics who rejected all views but their own, and most often the church at large allowed for more latitude than did the heretics.”

Image of Heretics for Armchair Theologians
Heretics for Armchair Theologians by González, Justo L. (Author), González, Catherine Gunsalus (Author) Amazon logo

But in today’s truth-repellent climate talk of heresy and its dangers is seldom heard. But heresy exists, so we must take it seriously. Certainly the early Christians took it very seriously indeed. Simply reading the New Testament makes this clear. The Apostle Paul for example could chew out the Galatians for departing from the recently articulated orthodox Christian teachings.

He even could wish that those pushing these false views were accursed (see Gal. 1:6-10). Wow, that is some pretty hardcore stuff. Today we would accuse Paul of being unloving and putting doctrine ahead of relationships! But Paul knew that allowing people to head into hell because of false teaching was hardly loving or Christlike.

Heresies, like the cults, are usually so very dangerous because they mix truth with error. They are quite deceptive and the theologically unlearned can easily fall victim to their falsehoods. As John Stott put it in his 1982 volume, I Believe in Preaching: “Every heresy is due to an overemphasis upon some truth, without allowing other truths to qualify and balance it.”

And Ben Quash says this: “The ‘heretics’ real menace is not their out-and-out hostility to the convictions and teachings of the true Church, but the insidious way they assimilate themselves to Christian orthodoxy. Heretics, for example, frequently make use of Scripture – drawing on the same sources as the orthodox in most cases. This is a big part of the problem: what they produce looks so plausible, so legitimate.”

So just what is a heresy? Harold O. J. Brown puts it this way:

The word “heresy,” as we have noted, is the English version of the Greek noun hairesis, originally meaning nothing more insidious than “party.” It is used in this neutral sense in Acts 5:17, 15:5, and 26:5. Early in the history of the first Christians, however, “heresy” came to be used to mean a separation or split resulting from a false faith (1 Cor. 11:19; Gal. 5:20). It designated either a doctrine or the party holding the doctrine, a doctrine that was sufficiently intolerable to destroy the unity of the Christian church. In the early church, heresy did not refer to simply any doctrinal disagreement, but to something that seemed to undercut the very basis for Christian existence. Practically speaking, heresy involved the doctrine of God and the doctrine of Christ—later called “special theology” and “Christology”.

The early church especially came to produce a solid body of biblical doctrine as it wrestled with various heretical views. As false teaching plagued the church, these believers knew they had to resist it, and in the process theological orthodoxy was ironed out and affirmed in great detail.

The early church creeds and councils for example dealt with many heretics and heretical beliefs. Here are the seven main church councils and the issues they dealt with and the heresies they rejected:

What

When

Main theme

Main figures

Condemned

Nicea

325

Deity of Christ

Alexander, Athanasius

Arianism

First Constantinople

381

Holy Spirit, person of Christ

Gregory of Nanzianzus

Apollinarius

Ephesus

431

Reaffirmed the Nicene Creed.

Cyril of Alexandria

Nestorianism, Pelagianism

Chalcedon

451

Christ one person, two natures

Leo of Rome, Cyril

Nestorianism, Eutychianism

Second Constantinople

553

Reaffirmed Chalcedonian Christology

Leontius of Byzantium

Three chapters

Third Constantinople

680-681

Christ had two wills, a divine and human

Maximus the Confessor

Monothelitism

Second Nicea

787

Justify the use of idols in worship

John of Damascus

Iconoclasm

Let me just refer to the first one a bit further. Arias (260–336), the Alexandrian presbyter, believed that Jesus was not of the same substance as the father. He argued that Jesus was not the eternal Son of God, and not co-equal to the Father. Arius claimed that Jesus was simply a creature – but the greatest of all created beings.

Athanasius was one of the great champions of orthodoxy who had to deal with Arias and his views. And this was costly: for his efforts he was exiled, not once, but five times. All up he spent some seventeen years away from Alexandria during these periods of exile. I wrote about him and his work in more detail in an earlier article. In it I said:

There have always been heretical Arian-like groups throughout church history that have attacked the orthodox teachings on the deity of Christ and the Trinity. Cults like the Jehovah’s Witnesses of course deny the eternality of the Son and the Trinity. And like the Arians, they also posit the Logos as an intermediary between the Creator and creation.

 

But if it were not for the relentless and tireless efforts of Athanasius, it is certainly possible that orthodox Christianity could have been supplanted early on in church history by heterodox Arianism. Thus all the abuse, persecution and suffering he had to endure in the name of standing up for biblical orthodoxy makes him one of the greatest of church fathers. billmuehlenberg.com/2012/12/30/athanasius-contra-mundum/

As can be seen from the above chart, most of these disputes had to do with the nature of God and the person of Christ. The orthodox formulations that resulted from so much prayer, discussion and deliberation – especially as over against the heretics – highlighted and clarified the biblical data on God (he is one God in three persons) and Christ (he is one person with two natures: human and divine).

The biblical material for this was always there, but it needed to be articulated and systematised in order that false notions and spurious theologies could be identified and excluded. Other important doctrinal issues were also debated and championed over the centuries.

I should mention before closing however that these were major and vital biblical doctrines which were defended and the heretical views thereof rejected. Less important matters – secondary doctrines – were NOT to be a matter of schism and heresy hunting. Yet sadly that too often happens. I have often discussed this matter. See here for example: billmuehlenberg.com/2018/03/12/on-heresy-hunters-again/

But core biblical teachings must be defended, as the perversion and twisting of Scriptural truth causes tremendous harm, including the missing out on eternal salvation by those who cling to such false beliefs. So all believers should be quite concerned about heresy and the need to affirm and defend biblical orthodoxy.

For further reading

There are plenty of books that look at individual – or multiple – heresies. Perhaps a future article will list some of the better volumes on them. But here are five rather more general works that are quite useful, and most of them do look at particular heresies as well:

Brown, Harold O. J., Heresies. Doubleday, 1984.
Evans, G. R., A Brief History of Heresy. Blackwell, 2003.
González, Justo and Catherine Gunsalus González, Heretics for Armchair Theologians. Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.
McGrath, Alister, Heresy. HarperOne, 2009.
Quash, Ben and Michael Ward, eds., Heresies and How to Avoid Them. SPCK, 2007.

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3 Replies to “On Heresy, and Why It Matters”

  1. Great article Bill. Very clear and ‘honest’. Orthodox Catholics, to which I identify, base their beliefs on the teachings of those early Church Fathers. They are necessary to clarify the words expressed in the Bible and so proclaim the truth
    .

  2. Yes but I think the forces of evil have moved on since the first few centuries AD and what we see now are different heresies. If Satan cannot zig he zags and so if he is unable to convince people that Jesus is not fully God he will attempt to promote false images of Christ and false ideas while not actually contesting the idea that Jesus is fully God. If Satan can promulgate a false image of Jesus, which is actually in the image of himself or even sinful man, he then is able to use this to usurp God’s rightful position. I believe this is a large part of the heresies we now see and is what Jesus prophesied when He said:-

    ” For many will come in My name, saying, I am Christ, and will deceive many.”

    Mat 24:5, Mar 13:6, Luke 21:8

    While Jesus warns of false Christ’s He is not saying here that people will pretend to be Christ but that they will actually admit that Jesus is the Christ but will then go on to paint a false picture of the nature of Christ and so will “deceive many”.

    I believe this is exactly what we are seeing now with people claiming to believe in Jesus but at the same time promoting a Jesus who does not oppose sin. They are saying Jesus is the Christ but are concurrently deceiving people.

  3. Very sad to see twelve of the Anglican bishops at the recent Australian synod are heretics. I believe the only way forward is for the Anglican church to split and allow those who wish to nurture and promote sin to find their own way to Hell without continuing to contaminate the remainder.

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