I adamantly believe that heresy is dangerous. Ideas have consequences. A doctrine can make or break the believer or the Church. A small degree of variation can result in being miles off course later if never corrected. The Bible is clear that we must guard against heresy (2 Peter 2:1-3). How we perceive the world, ourselves, and others will govern the entirety of our lives. How we engage with possible heresy is also a matter of truth. We should look to Scripture to see how God engages with it in order to glean how we should engage with it. To engage heresy in a heretical way is itself heresy.
Today many are quick to label heresy. Often times, they are right. Other times, they are wrong. Even when they are right, they confuse heresy as nearly a capital offense, such as Calvin sentencing Michael Servetus (first to discover pulmonary circulation) to death for not affirming the trinity. Today, thankfully, Christians are not legally allowed to carry out such a sentence but we attempt to ruin people’s careers and reputations, such as Rob Bell and Gungor. The Shack is yet again stirring the waters. What concerns me is our trigger-happy compulsion to slap the label of “heretic” on whatever moves against our precious current systematic theology. We assume that the Bible is crystal clear on matters it hardly addresses. We ridicule others for opinions on topics the Bible is opaque on. We refuse fellowship with those who question doctrines that are ambiguous in Scripture. Luckily, God is less draconian. If He complied to our standards, nearly all of the heroes in the Scripture may have been burned at the stake.
It is doubtful Abraham believed in the trinity as taught today. At best, he may have been monotheistic but there is a case to be made that he could have been polytheistic. Either, he believed in Yahweh and was only loyal to him but also believed there were other lesser gods (no where in Genesis does God instruct him otherwise) or Abraham believed in a modalist trinity with a god who spoke to him and a physical god (i.e. the angel of the Lord) who visited him. Even if he somehow held the orthodox doctrine of trinity, it is doubtful that Abraham was a student of Grudem’s Systematic Theology or could accurately articulate the Athanasian Creed. I wonder what his views on eschatology, inerrancy, ecclesiology, and other doctrines were or if he would even have an opinion.
Abraham’s descendants would spend 400 years in Egypt – I wonder how much bad theology they assimilated over that time. Out of them Moses was taken and raised for 40 years in the house of Pharaoh and would have spent hundreds of hours in the temples of Egypt’s deities. His education, training, culture, and family would have been Egyptian. Then for 40 years he lived under the roof of a Midianite priest. Tell me he didn’t have some theological inconsistencies. This would be why, when God makes His introduction at the burning bush, Moses asks for God’s name – every god in Egypt and Midian had a name (Exodus 3:13). Yea… he had the whole speaking to God “face to face” going on but that came later (Exodus 33:11) and even after Mount Sinai it would seem unreasonable to conclude that Moses had a perfect grasp on doctrine. In his five books trinity, penal substitution atonement, heaven/hell, ecclesiology, pneumatology, eschatology and other “key” doctrines are not clearly spelled out.
What of Noah’s curse, Rachel’s stolen idols, Joseph’s divination, Aaron’s golden calf, Gideon’s idolatry, Samson’s marriage, or Solomon’s polygamy? Judges is chuck full with judges’ heretical views. We find a hectic cycle of heresy through out the kings of Judah and we’re not even going to touch the kings of the north. It would seem, however, that after the exile Israel got much of their theology straight – God’s people finally were somewhat on track. Sure, there was still some issues but things looked promising. Enter Jesus.
The Heresy of Jesus
Much of Jesus’ teachings were not challenged by the “world” but rather the “church” – the religious establishments of the day. It was the Pharisees and scribes, those most devoted to the Scriptures, that argued against the doctrines of Jesus. It was for Jesus’ “heretical” teaching that the Jews sought His death on multiple occasions. Jesus’ teaching on the nature of God, sin and sinners, the Spirit, and the self-righteous hypocrisy of the religious elite were among the topics that made Jesus denounced by the religious and accepted by the masses. I doubt that if Jesus were to re-incarnate today it would be much different. His words would probably tick-off the religious establishment today just as much as it did then. We would do well to remember that sometimes it is the heretic who speaks the truth.
So, after Jesus, was doctrine finally set and in order? Do we finally have a clear black and white by which we can determine heresy? Not quite. The first few decades, we find the apostles and early church wrestling with questions. What of the Gentiles and circumcision, kosher and purity laws, and the Temple and sacrifices? These, for the modern Christian, seem insignificant and obvious. For the first Christians – nearly all Jews – they were vague but of utmost importance. They eventual came to a consensus but there was still even weightier matters that would come.
What would they do with Jesus and God? Imagine you knew nothing of the concept of trinity. You knew the clear teaching that there was only one God (Deuteronomy 6:4). So what of Jesus…who frequently referred to God as His father but also said and did some very contradicting things? He claimed titles of God. He accepted worship. He used the “I AM” for himself and claimed to exist before Abraham (John 8:58). He said that God and he were one and in each other. He had the uncanny ability to know things no one should. He walked on the waves, stilled the storm, commanded the demons, healed the blind, and raised the dead. To be sure, there is so much more that highly suggest some the deity of Jesus. But what about the concept of trinity? We kind of find it in the teachings of the Apostles by not by name. My hunch is that they knew of it but had no idea what it was. They seem to treat God and Jesus as almost distinct but then seem to get the two confused with each other. Mix in the Holy Spirit into this and we really start to have some fun.
To be clear, I do think the apostles “believed” in the trinity but it was not systemized and clear. They did not understand the mechanisms or exact nature of the God-head. For the next several decades and even centuries the Church would wrestle, develop, and eventually arrive at our understanding of trinity, as through the formation of Nicean Creed in the mid 300’s and the Athanasian Creed to come even later. However, the trinity remained (and still remains) in a mysterious fog. Today, the trinity has come to be a solid (like Jello?) Christian distinctive, but it took time for that to become so.
Through out church history, there have been an abundance of doctrinal debates. The early church fathers were plagued with a multitude of important debatable matters. It was at the council of Nicea that there was finally an extra-biblical code of agreement. But this “peace” wouldn’t last long. There would be crisis after crisis as the theology of the Church continued to develop. Century after century, the ambiguity of Scripture was being fought over until one side’s position became orthodox – and hopefully the winning side was also the right side. The truth is that these debates were often mingled with political issues and power struggles and were not just merely theological so they were often won through political campaigning and social force. These battles, unfortunately, often ended with the other side being occasionally sent into exile or killed (without a Scriptural basis) for their beliefs, such as Robert Barnes.
Let us fast forward to today. There are indeed many doctrines that are heretical – maybe more than are true. However, the way in which the Church responds to these is itself often heretical. We slander and demean the “heretics” with a self-justified hatred. We then hold some of our heroes of the faith in an ivory-white idealism in order to ignore the inconvenient truth that they too may have been heretics (at least according to our standards). Augustine didn’t believe in a literal creation account. Martin Luther was anti-semitic and challenged the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. C.S. Lewis was okay with evolution and disagreed with penal substitutionary atonement (among other things). William Barclay was a devout universalist and a evolutionist who authored the incredibly popular The Daily Study Bible Series. Several of the American founding fathers had theologies we would never allow in the pulpit but yet Christians still idolize them. For some, the Christian mob makes exemptions and for others our full wrath is poured out, such as Rob Bell, Gungor, and William P. Young (author of The Shack).
There is a point to be made that as the Church matures so should its theology. I get that and even agree with it. But who decides what is mature and what is not? Is the liberal leaning theologies more mature than the conservative orthodoxy of Calvinists? There have been many doctrinal threads of Christianity that run back centuries; who determines which is more “mature”? And maturity is not equivalent to legitimacy, much less authority. I worry that instead of maturing the Church has become the old cranky mafia boss.
Here’s my point: heresy is an issue that we must protect against but the quick and hateful response the Church often responds with (to what may or may not be heretical) is also heresy. Be slow to speak the word “heresy” and quick to listen. Differing view points may in fact have some truth in it for us to consider. Sometimes the heretics are right. Instead of resorting to name calling, dialogue. We must aways remember that there are rock solid biblical principles as well as a slew of ambiguities. We must remember that the mandate to love is the greatest of doctrines – the greatest of heresies is that of hate.
Considering how many “heretics” that have been sacrificed at the altar of “truth”,
one wonders why in church history no one has ever been tried as a heretic for being unloving.
– Modified quote form Greg Boyd