Sunday, November 11, 2007

That Slippery Little Word "Heresy"

Early in the last century Presbyterian J. Gresham Machen called "liberalism" heresy and the New Brunswick Presbytery returned the favor by expelling him from the PCUSA. Episcopal Bishops James Pike and John Shelby Spong have often been treated as such. Even Baptist theologian Molly Marshall has been dubbed one by her detractors. Left Behinder Tim LaHaye has called Calvinism "perilously close to blasphemy" if not actually using the "h" word. Slippery little word, "heresy," isn't it?

In Roman Catholic circles, they distinguish heresy from schism (disunity through lack of love) and apostasy (abandonment of Christianity). In the Roman Catholic sense of the term, "heresy" comes in two principle flavors: "formal" (adherence to false doctrine by a baptized Roman Catholic) and "material" (false doctrine held in ignorance by a non-Roman).

For those of us Protestants, we often throw the word around about as loosely as we do political/ideological labels. A "liberal," for instance, is just about anybody to the left of me. Religiously, "I am a conservative evangelical," YOU are a fundamentalist. In this sense, a heretic is anybody who disagrees with me over any point of doctrine. The problem comes when, as a result of seeing through a "glass darkly," we begin to disagree on eschatological schema, patterns of polity, candidates for baptism, or whatever. I have heard Arminians, name-it-and-claim-it preachers, credobaptists, Calvinists, and premil folks labeled "heretics" at one time or another. Some think theonomy is a heresy. Most Reformed folks have no problems calling dispensationalism heresy.

It would seem to me that one might distinguish between beliefs that consign one to hell and notions that are to one degree or another untrue, but not a "salvation issue." In our Protestant tradition, heresy has often been used in a more technical sense of a two-fold move: denying a "crucial" (???) Christian truth + embracing an unbiblical error. But herein lays the rub. Who is to distinguish between a central/crucial doctrine and an "unimportant" one? Might it even be heretical to call ANY doctrine of God "unimportant"?

The origin of the word in the New Testament is instructive. Hairesis denotes . . .1. a choice; 2. a chosen opinion (used only negatively in the NT of views caused by false teachings); 3. a sect or party (holding certain opinions). 2 Tim 3:16 pictures the role of the Scriptures as establishing the "line" ("teaching" - didaskalian), showing where we have deviated from the line ("reproof" - elegmon), directing us in the proper change in course to return to the line ("correction" - epanorthoosin), and how to continue our conduct on the line ("training in righteousness" - paideian teen dikaiosunee). The "geometry" of obedience leads us to follow the line of God's leading in His word. Our "choice" seems responsive to His gracious provision of truth to follow in and error to avoid.

Heresy would seem to involve a very different kind of "choosing," one that exalts the autonomous will of man. "Choosing" to separate from the life-giving truth of God in favor of one's own determinations, differentiations, and decisions, sometimes even forming a schismatic party would characterize heresy. In fact, you might even argue that heretics are those who "choose" a different view than orthodox Christianity and then practice their choice divisively in the church as schismatics.

Another distinction seems necessary. My observation is that conservative Protestants often suffer from degree envy. So we send our best and brightest off to Harvard, Claremont, Chicago, the GTU, etc. for their terminal degrees. They return with their piety and heart for the Lord intact, but often infected with a mindset that destroys the faith from within. Having known and grown close to mentors who are unashamedly liberal, they suffer from bouts of cognitive dissonance. Unable to condemn the pernicious doctrines of their mentors without seeming to slam their academic father-figures, they waffle. However, the next generation of students, taught by the wafflers, begins to move further away from the truth. When they go off to university for their PhD's they return with little heart for the Lord and a decidedly liberal methodology and mindset.

My point being that sometimes a teacher may be unassailably displaying evident piety and devotion, even giving lip service to all of the right doctrines, yet teach in such a way as to infect students with heresy. My concern is that we make the word narrow enough not to throw everyone but me and thee off the boat and yet broad enough to include the professedly orthodox person who leads people astray.

In lecture 39 of Dr. Curt Daniel's History and Theology of Calvinism series, he speaks of the problem of giving sinful humanity an inadequate diagnosis of our depravity and inability. He analogizes to a physician who offers (for a fee) to "doctor" your X-ray to make it look less dire rather than operating to remove the cancer. Daniel says that such a doctor should be "run out of" the ranks of physicians. Then, he adds: "In my opinion, Arminians should be run out of the ranks of theologians too."

Slipery little word, "heresy," isn't it?


Amill-Presup said...

I've always distinguished between upper-case-H Heresy and lower-case-h heresy. Really, from one's POV, anything perceived as false doctrine must be understood as (at least potential, assuming I'm right and they're wrong) heresy. For example, I would certainly call classical dispensationalism heresy. Yes, I'd never call it Heresy, since eschatological systems are anything but an essential of the faith.

Dennis E. McFadden said...

Amill-presupp - I guess I still struggle with calling unintended error heresy unless it involves a core conviction and/or schism.

Amill-Presup said...

Etymologically (there's no way I spelled that right) the word heresy comes from a Greek word for "sect." So a group who has an unintended error is heretical (yes, I realize I'm flirting with the root fallacy).

But, really... can you give me an example of intended error?

Even the hardcore German modernist liberals, while they knew they were going against the most plain meaning of Scripture, didn't intend to fall into error.

Dennis E. McFadden said...


My bad! When I wrote "unintended" I meant it in the sense of willful. If a person takes a position which they know to be outside the bounds of orthodoxy, it would seem to me that they are guilty of willful heresy. Of course, from their perspective, it would neither be an error or heretical. However, from the standpoint of the orthodox community, it would be both.