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True, False, or Heresy?

By Koa Sinag

True, False, or Heresy?


Orthodoxy and Heresy

Orthodoxy means right doctrine or belief. In one very important sense it is essential to salvation. Although we are saved entirely by the grace of God, not on the basis of the correctness of our thinking, right views of God promote wonder, reverence, and love. Moreover, for future generations to believe in Christ, it is imperative that we guard the gospel without which no one can be saved (2 Tim. 1:14). Hosea bemoaned the fact that “my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hos. 4:6). Israel’s idolatry had affected its whole national existence. False worship bred sinful practice. God is faithful; allegiance to him requires and entails attention to what is true and right. Ideas have consequences. Truth is healthy for both body and soul (1 Tim. 6:3). Worship is to be in truth, which is embodied in Jesus Christ (John 4:21–24; cf. John 1:9, 14, 17–18; John 14:6). True biblical orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy (right practice), which should promote healthy living and relationships.

Not All Orthodox Doctrine Is of the Same Weight

Some aspects of right doctrine are of vital importance, whereas others may be of lesser significance. This important distinction is best expressed by John Calvin (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4:1:12):

Not all the articles of true doctrine are of the same sort. Some are so necessary to know that they should be certain and unquestioned . . . as the proper principles of religion. Such are: God is one; Christ is God and the Son of God; our salvation rests in God’s mercy; and the like. Among the churches there are other articles of doctrine disputed which still do not break the unity of faith. . . . Does this not sufficiently indicate that a difference of opinion over these nonessential matters should in no wise be the basis of schism among Christians? . . . But here I would not support even the slightest errors with the thought of fostering them. . . . But I say we must not thoughtlessly forsake the church because of any petty dissensions.

Heresy Must Be Distinguished from Error

At my former church, on one or two occasions close to Christmas we would play a game called “True, false, or heresy?” We would select lines from a range of hymns and carols, split the congregation into teams, and fire away. It was designed to keep people alert to what they may be singing and also served to teach the important distinction between heresy and error.

What Exactly Is Heresy?

Heresy is something that, if it were true, would falsify the Christian gospel. An example of heresy is the claim the church faced in the early centuries that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was not eternal or coequal with the Father but came into being at some point in time. In short, he was other than God. If this were so, we could not be saved. If Christ were less than God and not of the same being as the Father, he would not have been the true revelation of who God is. He could not have truthfully said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). The gospel—and our salvation—was at stake in this issue.

How Does That Differ from Error?

Error is simply something that is not in accordance with Scripture. It does not necessarily entail falsification of the Christian gospel. It means that this or that pronouncement is wrong, without regard to the seriousness of the mistake. All heresy is error, but not all error is heresy.

An example of error is evident in answers to the question of whether Christ, on his return, will establish a reign on earth of one thousand years prior to the final judgment.

Premillennialists affirm this claim; amillennialists and postmillennialists deny it. It is hard to see how all three groups can be right on this issue. At least one must be wrong. May an error on a matter like this have consequences? Quite possibly. Does such an error negate the gospel of God’s grace in Christ? No.

Another instance where error is involved is an answer to whether the infant children of a professing believer or believers should be baptized. Some say yes; others say no. One of these groups is wrong. Both groups believe that bad consequences ensue from the other position, even if they are not of such a nature as to destroy the gospel.

From this we can see the seriousness of heresy. It goes far beyond error. It is an immediate threat to the faith. It follows from this that we should refrain from calling heretical a position with which we merely do not agree.

Examples of Heresies

Here are examples of heresies, together with a brief explanation of why each falls into this category.

In the Bible we find traces of Docetism in the claims refuted in 1 John. This was the idea that Christ’s humanity was not real but only apparent. If this had been the case, we could not be saved. Man sinned; man must make atonement for sin. So John says that whoever teaches that Jesus Christ has not come in the flesh is not of God (1 John 4:1–6).

In Galatians, Paul opposes legalism in the teachings of the Judaizers. Why? By their insistence that the Gentiles be circumcised, these people were destroying grace. In effect, they claimed that salvation was in part dependent on actions that we perform (Gal. 2:21). Paul calls down a curse on them (Gal. 1:8–9).

Angel veneration may have been a problem in Colossae (Col. 2:18). Such veneration is idolatry. Paul insists that Christ is the image of God, the Creator and sustainer of all things — including all kinds of angels (Col. 1:15–20).

All heresy is error, but not all error is heresy.

The following are a sample of teachings that emerged in postapostolic history that the church has determined to be heretical.

We have already referred to Arianism, a denial of the eternal deity of Christ and his indivisible union with the Father. Macedonianism followed soon after, a denial of the deity of the Holy Spirit. The church rejected this denial because if the Spirit were not God, he could not unite us to God in Christ, and thus we could not be saved (Rom. 8:10–16). Additionally, we would have been baptized into the name of the Father and the Son—both recognized as God—and the Spirit, who was alleged to be a creature. This would be idolatry (Matt. 28:18–20).

Apollinaris of Laodicea was judged a heretic since he held that Christ, while having a human body, did not have a human mind or soul. The church maintained that if the Son did not take into union human nature in its entirety, we could not be saved. Man sinned; man must atone (see Heb. 2:10–18). As Gregory of Nazianzus wrote, “Whatever is not assumed cannot be healed.”

Later, Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, so stressed the humanity of Christ that he could not give an account of how he was one integrated person. His enemies claimed he divided Christ into two persons. He taught a conjunction between the Son and the humanity, not a union and incarnation (John 1:14). Again, if there were no such incarnation, our humanity would not have been taken permanently into union by Christ.

In another area, the monk Pelagius held that fallen persons have the ability to respond to the gospel unaided by divine grace. The church renounced this as heresy on the basis that it rejected the gravity of sin and thus the need for God’s grace to enable us to believe. It set the stage for the teaching of salvation by moral effort rather than dependence on the grace of God.

In our own day, the idea of universal salvation has become widespread. Since the church is now deeply divided, it is not capable of making the determinations it did in the early centuries. This does not diminish the reality and the danger of heretical ideas; in fact, it increases it, since authoritative pronouncements for the truth are that much more difficult to make. If everyone is to be saved, or if there is no judgment that leads to eternal consequences for the wicked, then there is no need for the gospel, which in place of the reality of perishing offers eternal life to those who believe in Jesus Christ.

In each of these instances, from the Bible and church history, heresies emerge from within the church. They are not ideas produced from the outside world. Often they arise because a resolution to a particular problem has not yet been reached. When proposals are advanced in such a debate, some are seen to pose grave threats. Heretics do not necessarily have evil intentions—but that does not diminish the danger they pose.

Difficulties Arise

Sometimes it is difficult to determine whether a particular teaching is heretical or simply erroneous, however serious the error may be. This is the case with many of the dogmas of Rome. Rome’s doctrine of justification is effectively the same as Augustine’s. It is seriously wrong and justified the Reformation—but are we prepared to anathematize Augustine?

It can also be difficult to judge whether an erroneous teaching has the potential to be heretical. This is especially so when it is first advanced. It is important to grasp the meaning a particular preacher or theologian intends before we move to assess him.

Some branches of the church may, and often do, consider a teaching held by another branch to be heretical, when this may not be the case. The Latin church maintains that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Eastern church believes the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone (citing John 15:26). Some more strident voices in the East have argued that the Western position is heresy since, in their eyes, it blurs the eternal distinctions between the Father and the Son and jeopardizes the indivisible unity of the Trinity by positing that the Father is not the sole source of the personhood of the Spirit. However, for the most part the East has thought the Western position to be a serious error.

Practical Dangers of Heresy

Since heresy is an effective denial of, or fatal wound to, the gospel, it resembles a weed growing in a beautiful garden, something to be rooted out before it absorbs the nutrients in the soil, occupying space and choking the good plants. False beliefs are not neutral; they distort and destroy true godliness.

Practical Benefits of Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy is an outflow of what the church believes and confesses about God, Christ, and salvation. The bishops at the great ecumenical councils were conscious that they were not innovators but were simply confessing the faith the church had always held, coming down to them from the apostles. As such, orthodoxy is rooted in the Bible and in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Indeed, given this, it is perhaps misleading to look for practical reasons to support orthodoxy, as if those reasons carry greater weight than the reality from which they are derived. It is sufficient to say that maintaining the gospel is preeminently something that brings glory to God and thus is its own justification.

As an example of how orthodox teaching is rooted in the Bible and is nothing about which to be ashamed, we note the statement of the Council of Constantinople (a.d. 381): “We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Far from being an imposition by those determined to enhance church power, this declaration reflects the teaching of Scripture. In Ephesians 2:11–21, Paul proclaims that the gospel has broken down barriers of culture and race, uniting Jews and Gentiles in one body. The one church is thereby to be found throughout the world, catholic in its scope. It is built on the teaching of the apostles and prophets as a holy temple in Christ, indwelt by the Holy Spirit to the glory of the Father.

Since Scripture is breathed out by God the Holy Spirit (2 Tim. 3:16), teaching in accord with Scripture and the gospel is life-giving under the impetus of the Spirit. Orthodox theology is an application of the gospel of Christ as it addresses this or that aspect of Biblical teaching.

The Holy Spirit leads, guides, and protects the church of Jesus Christ, enabling it to follow the word of God that he himself breathed out for our life and salvation. Expressions such as “dead orthodoxy” are oxymorons. Orthodoxy is not dead. Any teaching that can be considered dead can hardly be orthodox. Right doctrine is the specifically focused expression of the gospel, the power of God for salvation.

This article is by Robert Letham and is adapted from the ESV Systematic Theology Study Bible (Expanded Edition).



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Author: Robert Letham

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