Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Ivory Cubicle | Everyday Heretics

I remember my first encounter with bona fide heretics. About a year or two after I became a Christian, I found myself doing parking lot evangelism at a church event known as Judgment House. The idea was pretty simple – tour groups would go through the walk-through drama, which told a story of salvation, death, judgment, heaven, and hell. We’d fall in step with groups on the way out, asking what they thought of the drama, if they believed in Christ, and answering any questions they may have.

Well, at one point, we got a little bit of a rowdy group that came from a Oneness Pentecostal church in town. Oneness Pentecostals, just so you know, deny the triune nature of God, affirming that God is one person who expresses himself in three different ways. They immediately set about asking a series of questions about our churches conception of baptism, wondering what our pastor said when he baptized a believer, insisting that legitimate baptism occurs in Jesus name alone, and that the Trinitarian formulation (I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit) was in error.

Being a bit of a rookie at doctrine myself, I remember fumbling around a bit, not really knowing what to believe, and saying something like “well, the really important thing is believing in Christ and making him Lord of your life.” I don’t think it went over too well.

How to Talk to a Heretic

I think a lot of people fall into the same category I did when it comes to Christianity. They’ve just recently come to faith in Christ, they’re still working through all the details, and they’re ripping into Scripture with the zeal of a star-crossed lover. But the one point that the Church universal has all agreed on for a couple millennia is that Scripture is pretty complicated and it’s really easy to come up with some pretty whacky doctrines. Throw in the cocktail of liberal and emerging Christianity, some pretty cunning non-believers out to undermine belief with the perennial question “did God really say?” and the popular “folk religion” that gets handed around in the United States, and you’ve got a veritable minefield out there for the new convert to Christianity. I’d be willing to wager that most new converts to Christianity go through a stage where they’re affirming outright heresy.

I guess I should take a moment to clarify exactly what I’m talking about when I say heresy. It seems the term gets tossed about with a bit of imprecision, Calvinists are accusing Arminians of heresy, Arminians are throwing it right back at them, Baptists think that high-church folks are heretics, and the high-church folks are chanting anathemas at the bulk of evangelical Protestantism. Heresy, typically speaking, refers to a denial of the doctrines established by the early Ecumenical Councils (the councils held before the 800s A.D.). Most often it consists in a denial of one of the teachings of the Nicene Creed, though a few prominent heresies are denied elsewhere by the councils (here’s a helpful list to work your way through the major heresies of Christianity).

Heresy, then, is more grave than simply disagreeing over Calvinism, speaking in tongues, or infant vs. believer’s baptism. It usually blatantly contradicts Scripture, rather than parting ways over interpretation of Scripture (for example, the Oneness Pentecostals have to deal with Matthew 28:19). But usually it involves slipping into error unwittingly. The average heretic isn’t out to contradict the clear teachings of Scripture. He’s usually unaware of what it actually says.

Last week, I criticized a particular school of thought that is gaining prominence in the church today – the belief in universalism – and ripped into a few of the underlying presuppositions behind it. I did so after having almost become an adherent myself, being a big fan of the writings of George MacDonald and Søren Kierkegaard, who are both overt universalists, as well as C.S. Lewis, who appears to have had a brush with the heresy over the course of his life. I also have a number of close universalist friends with whom I’ve had many conversations. I believe universalism to be a heresy. But I firmly believe that there will be universalists in heaven. It is Christ who saves, not a creed, and I think there are heretics who confess Jesus as Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead (per Romans 10:9).

Engaging with heresy in this day and age is not a matter of anathematizing someone. It’s about meeting people where they’re at in their own spiritual journey and helping them towards truth. Or, if you’re one of the new believers who are trying to get their feet under them, it’s about seeking wise counsel and godly mentors to avoid falling into error. In either case, correcting heresy, like Christianity itself, requires building relationships in love and charity in order to point people towards Christ.

Sound doctrine is essential for growing in knowledge of God. But we must keep in mind that its ultimate purpose is to bring someone to a closer relationship with God. Christianity is ultimately not about making creeds. It’s about making disciples.

Posted by Nick Barden


  1. I really enjoyed reading your article, Nick. This is a great topic, and extremely applicable today when the spirit of antichrist is so alive with all these different pseudo-Christian cults surrounding us.

    Hillaire Belloc wrote a great definition of heresy in his book, "The Great Heresies." He says:

    "Heresy is the dislocation of some complete and self-supporting scheme by the introduction of a novel denial of some essential part therein."

  2. Would you mind elaborating on the line between being a heretic and being part of a different denomination?

    1. The way I used it in this article, and I would say that reflects the way it's typically used today in relation to Christianity, heresy would be a denial of a core doctrine of Christianity. Like denying that Christ was fully God and fully man, or that God is three persons, one essence. A heretic would be someone who refers to himself as "Christian" but denies a core doctrine of Christianity.

      The line is tricky, because some denominations differ in what they consider to be a "core doctrine" of Christianity. Non-core doctrines of Christianity would be things like Calvinism/Arminianism, the gift of tongues, etc. They're important, and have large impact on Christian living, but people who part ways on the issue are still affirming the core tenets of Christianity.

      Does that give a better sense of the term? The line's really tricky, because the term doesn't have terribly much precision, which is why many refer specifically to those things that virtually all Christian denominations trace their roots back to - such as the Nicene Creed.

      It gets even more complicated, because certain entire denominations ARE heretical, like Oneness Pentecostals.

      Brutus, I really like that definition of heresy.

  3. I like the point you made Nick about how herecy blatantly controdicts the scripture. However, you might want to know that the word Trinity is never once used in the bible. Trinity didn't appear until the fourth century in the Athanasian Creed. You stated that the Oneness Pentecostals had to deal with Matthew 28:19. That's true. It says, "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." Notice, it says the NAME of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Well then what is the name? Acts 2:38 gives us that answer, "Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. Well there's the answer: Jesus Christ. So Matthew 28:19 fully backs The Oneness. In a conversation with a trinitarian, the question was brought up about who the father of Jesus was. The trinitarian simply replied, God The Father. However, according to The Bible, The Holy Ghost came upon Mary. That would make The Holy Ghost the father of Jesus. The only way that God The Father could have fathered Jesus was if he and The Holy Ghost were one in the same. It seems to me, that trinitarians think that us Oneness Pentecostals deny the existence of The Father and The Holy Ghost. That's not true. We just understand that they are all one under the name of Jesus Christ. We understand the three to be manifestations of God, not seperate beings. I don't mean any disrespect, just some food for thought. I just think that you might want to dig a little deeper into The Word before calling someone a heretic.

  4. Hey Tyler,

    I'm sorry for not getting back to you for so long, it's been crazy here in the office.

    I respect that you've taken considerable time studying the Scripture, but unfortunately, I'm afraid I can't back off my statement that Oneness Pentecostalism is heresy. It definitely differs from Orthodox Christianity as recognized in the Athanasian Creed (which emphasizes both the threeness and oneness of God, neither confounding the persons nor dividing the essence).

    As far as the Biblical account goes, you see throughout Scripture the concept of Trinitarian community, beginning in Genesis "let US make man in OUR own image" or in the baptism of Christ, where we see all three person of the Trinity present - in the voice of the Father, the baptism of the Son, and the descent of the Spirit as a dove. There are also key Christological passages don't make sense without an understanding of God in at least two persons (such as Hebrews 1 and 2, which talks about our adoption into the family of God our Father through Christ our elder brother), or elsewhere in Hebrews, where Christ is described as the mediator between God and man (does one person mediate with himself?). There’s also the Scriptural dialogues between the Father and the Son ("The Lord said to my Lord, 'Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet'"). I can bring up many more examples, but I think these are sufficient to make the point.

    I, on my own, wouldn’t presume to pronounce judgment upon Oneness Pentecostalism, had not the Athanasian Creed before me already clearly condemned any form of modalism, of which Oneness Pentecostalism is a strain, as heresy. The best way to approach the Trinity is to simply leave it at a mystery, affirming both threeness and oneness, "neither confounding the persons nor dividing the essence."