December 11th 2005, 11:01 PM #1
OUR FEATURED MEMBER ARTICLE: The other "H" word, Heresy by Justin Moser aka Sheepdog
Let's start with the fundamental framework through which we will deal with subsequent issues. What is heresy, and how do we deal with it? One must be a tad cautious here... lest we forget, the Roman Catholic Church condemned Protestantism as a heresy until the 1960's.1 No matter what conclusion we come to on this, there is no need to alienate fellow Christians unless there is a darn good reason to.
And just for this purpose, I cracked open my brand new Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Here, we find what I think is a good summary statement about what heresy is: "The concept of 'heresy' is grounded in the conviction that there exists one revealed truth, and that other opinions are intentional distortions or denials of that truth.... But the Christian belief that truth has been revealed means that heresy becomes, not merely another opinion, but false teaching which leads people away from God's revelation."2 But in keeping with john15.net tradition, we also consult Harvey's A Handbook of Theological Terms, and we find an additional insight. Harvey notes, "Heresy in its loose sense refers to the conscious and willful rejection of any doctrine or belief held to be normative by the authorities of a group or an institution."3
So what can we glean from these? (1) For one, it is presupposed that there is a revealed truth, which God's people are not to deviate from. (2) Also, heresy is not a matter of differing opinions, but a conflict against the revealed truth between two parties which claim the same tradition (in our scope, that is the Christian tradition). There are some issues we may differ on, but there are others which we must hold in unity on. (3) Furthermore, the church (for right or wrong) ends up being the usual authority on what is heresy and what is revealed truth. (4) And finally, heresy involves a conscious, intentional denial of revealed truth... those commit "heresy" out of ignorance are not to be considered heretics.
These four points seem to mesh well with what we know about the history of the use of the term, "heresy." And in fact, there have been so many of controversies in Church history, that we have plenty of material with which to work with. In fact, some suggest that some of the false teachings which were later condemned as heresy were even addressed by the Apostles themselves.4
One of the earliest evidences for this usage of "heresy" is in a text written by Irenaeus, a bishop in the second century who studied under Polyarp, who himself was a disciple of John the Apostle. The common name for the book is aptly, Against Heresies. In it, we read,
I intend, then, to the best of my ability, with brevity and clearness to set forth the opinions of those who are now promulgating heresy. I refer especially to the disciples of Ptolemaeus, whose school may be described as a bud from that of Valentinus. I shall also endeavour, according to my moderate ability, to furnish the means of overthrowing them, by showing how absurd and inconsistent with the truth are their statements.5
The view which Irenaeus addressed was a variation of Gnosticism, which he and his contemporaries regarded "as the product of the combination of Greek philosophy and Christianity."6 So, what we observe is a very early example of a condemnation of heresy, which satisfies 3 of our 4 points (adherence to a Christian truth, denial of said truth by the supposedly "Christian" party, and it is a willful denial of such). Though one could consider Ireneaus and his contemporaries authorities (which is legitimate, in my opinion; and this would satisfy the 4th point), later the church typically used councils as arbitrators who determined whether a view should be officially considered heresy or not.
There is another set of examples which I'd like to highlight... especially since I am already somewhat familiar with the topics from my research for my Arminianism series: Pelagianism and Semipelagianism. I already defined both of these views in my introduction to the Classic Arminianism series (link).
In the early fifth century, a teacher named Pelagius started to gain a following. However, a bishop by the name of Augustine of Hippo examined these teachings and concluded that they directly contradicted critical tenets of Christianity. "Augustine sent his own disciple Orosius to the East in an attempt to gain the condemnation of Pelagius. But in the East churchmen were unable to see anything more than an obstinate quarrel about trivialities."7 But nevertheless, Pope Innocent I soon condemned Pelagianism as a heresy.
But what is interesting is that towards the end of Augustine's life, he also contended with a view we often call Semipelagianism. (Though, technically it wasn't called that until the 1500's, but the label was apt, since the position was a compromise between Pelagianism and Augustine's hard predestinarian stance.) What is interesting about this interaction, however, is that Augustine never sought to have the Semipelagians condemned as heretics. Not only that, "In refuting their errors, Augustine treats his opponents as erring friends, not as heretics, and humbly adds that, before his episcopal consecration (about 396), he himself had been caught in a 'similar error'..."8 What I found significant about this is that Augustine seems to have viewed these Semipelagians as believers who are mistaken, but in a way that didn't warrent condemnation as heresy. In other words, though they may be in error, they did not err (at least in Augustine's view) in any tenet that is critical to Biblical Christianity. Thus, we do have a precedent in Christian history for a doctrinal dispute where both parties saw no need to consider each other heretics. While this reflects the opinions of the individual parties (and not the official statement of a council), still it is very significant to the analysis used in this series.
Now, all this historical information is helpful to our understanding of core Christian views and heresy, is it not more important to go to Scripture? After all, the church has got it wrong in the past. (After all, Arminianism itself has been called a heresy. Heck! It was mentioned earlier how the Roman Catholic Church considered Protestantism a heresy for quite a long time!) Also, the church at one point did the unthinkable: it started torturing and killing the people it condemned as heretics. This is all true, and the modern understanding of heresy has been shaped a lot by the history behind the term. Ultimately we want to go back to Scripture, but it also helps to observe how this played out practically in the past.
That said, what does the Bible say? Unfortunately, we don't find very much, but what we do find is very applicable to our survey here.
Jesus, during the Sermon on the Mount, warned about the coming of false "prophets":
"Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves. You will recognize them by their fruit. Grapes are not gathered from thorns or figs from thistles, are they? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree is not able to bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree to bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will recognize them by their fruit." Matthew 7:15-20.
Before we jump right in, a bit of clarification is in order. We often just think of a "prophet" as one who tells the future and that's it. However, one should understand that there is more to prophecy than just "fortune telling" in the Bible. While it is true that prophets-- both in the Old Testament and the New-- often foresaw the future, they are better understood as those who God directly speaks through. We see this a lot in the OT, where prophecies often start with the phrase, "The Lord says, ..." (cf. Is 7:7, Jer. 2:2, Jon. 3:2). Prophets often taught, warned, or rebuked the people, and even when they fortold the future, it was often for the purpose of warning people of imminent judgement (see, for example, Jonah 3) or to instill hope of a better future (Jer. 31:31-34).
So with that in mind, we see that Jesus himself warned their would be people who presume falsely to speak for God, and expected his followers to be wary of them. This is especially important as there are some who doubt that there are any grounds to condemn anything as heresy. However, this with the statement that Jesus himself is the only true way to God (cf. John 14:6), it is evident that Jesus took a very strong stance against anyone who presumes to be a mouthpiece of God and yet proclaims false teachings. We also see later that Paul cautions about false teachers in general in Acts 20:30-31.
Interestingly, the Greek word for "heretic" does make an appearance in the New Testament, albeit once. But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, quarrels, and fights about the law, because they are useless and empty. Reject a divisive person after one or two warnings. You know that such a person is twisted by sin and is conscious of it himself. Titus 3:9-11, emph. me. The underlined term is the word hairetikos, where we derive are word "heretic." However we must keep in mind that the term did not originally have the strong connotation we are used to; "heresy," originally, simply meant a belief chosen from several options.9 Hence, while the KJV does render it "heretick," in context the NET translation (which is shared by other modern translations as well) is the most apt.
But that aside, this is still a very noteworthy passage for our study. Even though it is not so clear Paul was using the word for "heresy" the same way Christians later do, the alternative only makes the passage more broad in application. Heresy, quite arguably, is very divisive, and thus is one of the many issues of divisiveness which this passage is applicable to. Hence, we see here a Biblical exhortation to reject (the NIV translates, "have nothing to do with ...") someone who is teaching heresy, after attempting to admonish them. But not only that, we also ought to follow the same route with any Christian who is being unnecessarily divisive. This fits well with the initial activity of the primitive church as it rejected those who where condemned as heretics (though again, when people started murdering heretics, things went too far).
This is similar to Jesus' recommendation: "If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, so that at the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector. Again, we see that this is a broad teaching, dealing with any issue inside the church. However, it is certainly applicable to heresy. Since heresy is blatantly rejecting some fundamental, revealed truth, anyone who teaches heresy is in sin. Therefore, Jesus' prescription to us would be to try to win the wayward brother over (this is especially a good idea, since many people teach error simply out of ignorance). If that fails, we have a due process of first bringing other Christians in to mediate, and then bring it before the church. If all else fails, break fellowship with him (which would be similar to "treat them like a Gentile or a tax collector;" Gentiles and tax collectors were detested by the Jews in Jesus' day).
Paul was no stranger to heretical movements in the early church, and in fact his earliest epistle (which in fact could very well be the first text of the New Testament to be written)10 was written largely to deal with the fallout in Galatia due to certain false teachers. Apparently, what happened was that some Jewish teachers who professed to be Christians came, and they persuaded many that Gentile Christians there that the needed to be circumcised and must adhere to the Law. It's needless to say that Paul wasn't thrilled: instead of going into an extensive introduction, he jumps immediately into dealing with the error, I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are following a different gospel- not that there really is another gospel, but there are some who are disturbing you and wanting to distort the gospel of Christ. Galatians 1:6-7. We will look more closely at this idea of teaching another gospel in a later article; however, what is key here is how Paul deals with the issue. He comes down rather strong on those these "Judaizers" led astray (Gal. 3:1-5, 5:4). And if that wasn't enough, this is what he says of those who insisted the Gentile believers needed to be circumcised: I wish those agitators would go so far as to castrate themselves! Galatians 5:12.
Blomberg gives us some insight on Paul's language in this letter:
(1) This language is no stronger than and even milder than much other Jewish and Greco-Roman rhetoric promoting religious truth; it would not have jarred the ancient audience as much as it does a modern one. (2) Paul is not necessarily addressing the false teachers directly with this rhetoric, but warning his own converts about their insidious influence. (3) These are alleged Christians and Christian leaders promoting the heresy, who have every reason to know better. (4) Most importantly of all, this is an issue in which people's very salvation is at stake. Paul never vilifies his opponents with such harsh language except where people's eternal destinies clearly hang in the balance.11
Each of these points is noteworthy, but for our purposes note Paul's response to the heresy. He was very strong to oppose teachings which were heretical and sharply contrary to the Gospel.
In fact, Paul probably called the churches in Galatia to disassociate with the people teaching the heresy. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed! Galatians 1:8-9, NASB. Now, here I selected the NASB rendering, because the NET (as well as other versions) translates the word for "accursed," here, as "eternally condemned." However, the original word in the Greek is anathema (from which we derive our word, ... anathema!). It literally means to curse or be accursed (hence the NASB translation). ZIBBC notes, "The Greek anathema ... is the usual translation in the LXX [The Septuagint, an early Greek translation of the Old Testament] for the Hebrew herem, 'ban, outside of the covenant,' a sentence meted out to Achan (Josh. 7:1-26)."12 Paul may very well have considered these individuals as being doomed to hell. However, the background of this term strongly suggests that this isn't just some exclaimation. Rather, Paul seems to be excommunicating them-.
The last section we will look at is in John's first epistle. Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses Jesus as the Christ who has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God, and this is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming, and now is already in the world. 1 John 4:1-3. John warns that, even in his day, there were false teachers (prophets; recall what that entailed). We are warned not to just blindly trust any "spirit," but to discern. Folks influenced by the Left Behind books or other similar texts may already have a preconception of what the "antichrist" is, but recall that this word simply denotes something that is antithetical to Jesus Christ and his ministry. Ealier, John comments on there being many antichrists (1Jn. 2:18). The point is, we need to be prepared to look closely, as Christians, at what our leaders are saying, and make sure it is consistent with, among other things, Jesus coming in bodily form and from God.
At this point, it is clear that heresy is a very serious problem. The Apostles themselves dealt with heresy in their day, as did the ealry church. So, there is no reason to suppose we don't today. Heresy entails a teaching that blatantly rejects what is revealed as important to Christianity, in favor of something that is antithetical to the teachings of Christ and the Apostles, and thus ought to be dealt with as appropriate. This, of course, requires discernment, which requires knowledge of the Bible and what it teaches. Sadly, that is more than what most Christians today have in terms of Bible knowledge, but we are without excuse. Let us, the church as a whole, get back to the brass tacks of what we believe, so when Heretics emerge, we can follow the prescription of Peter, But set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess. Yet do it with courtesy and respect, keeping a good conscience, so that those who slander your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame when they accuse you. 1 Peter 3:15.
That said, for the rest of this series, I hope to present what I have been convinced are the core fundamentals of Christianity, without which one does not have one half a Christianity, or even a quarter: It is something that is foreign to the revealed, written word of God.
Notes and Citations:
1. Elwell, Walter A. ed. "Heresy." Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 551. Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, MI. 2001
2. ibid., 550.
3. Harvey, Van A. "Heresy." A Handbook of Theological Terms. 116. Touchstone: New York. 1997.
4. For one possible example, a variation of Gnosticism (link) may have been what John addressed in writing 1 John 4:1-3 (link)
5. Irenaeus. Against Heresies. Feb. 17, 2005: <http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/irenaeus/advhaer1.txt>
6. Elwell, Walter A. ed. "Gnosticism." Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 485. Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, MI. 2001
7. ibid. "Pelagius, Pelagianism." 897.
8. Pohle, J. "Semipelagianism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Nov. 3, 2004. Feb. 17, 2005: <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13703a.htm>
9. Elwell, Walter A. ed. "Heresy." Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 550. Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, MI. 2001
10. Slick, Matt. "When was the Bible written and who wrote it?" CARM. March 23, 2005. <http://www.carm.org/bible/biblewhen.htm>
11. Craig L. Blomberg. "The New Testament Definition of Heresy (Or When Do Jesus and the Apostles Really Get Mad?)" The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. vol. 45, no. 1. p. 66. March 2002. [side note: This article is available online at: http://www.etsjets.org/jets/journal...9-072_JETS.pdf]
12. Arnold, Clinton E. ed. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. vol. 3. pp. 270-1. Zondervan. Grand Rapids, MI. 2002.
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December 11th 2005, 11:06 PM #2
Re: OUR FEATURED MEMBER ARTICLE: The other "H" word, Heresy by Justin Moser aka Sheepdog
heh, that was pretty quick :)Living so free is a tragedy
When you can't be what you want to be
Living so free is a tragedy
When you can't see what you need to see
-- Powerman 5000, "Free"
December 11th 2005, 11:06 PM #3
Re: OUR FEATURED MEMBER ARTICLE: The other "H" word, Heresy by Justin Moser aka Sheepdog
Nice! I'll be sure to check this one out tomorrow.If there is anything I’ve learned from both conservatives and liberals, it’s that we can have all the “right” answers and still be mean. And when you’re mean, it’s hard for people to listen to, much less desire, your truth.
December 12th 2005, 12:33 AM #4
Re: OUR FEATURED MEMBER ARTICLE: The other "H" word, Heresy by Justin Moser aka SheepdogLet's start with the fundamental framework through which we will deal with subsequent issues. What is heresy, and how do we deal with it? One must be a tad cautious here... lest we forget, the Roman Catholic Church condemned Protestantism as a heresy until the 1960's.1
December 29th 2005, 08:50 PM #5
Re: OUR FEATURED MEMBER ARTICLE: The other "H" word, Heresy by Justin Moser aka Sheep
"Still do." Yea?
The summary "Still do" is in itself illustrative of the nature of heresy.
An over emphasis of a point.
Heresy is often, in effect, the over-emphasis of one element of the gospel, so as to cause that element or point, to no longer be true.
Then, to make matters worse, there is the refusal to allow other aspects to shine forth more light, thereby adjusting, and correcting, and calling for a restatement of the over-emphasis.
For example, the Arians have a point in saying that the Son is subordinate to the Father. Indeed, it is true of Jesus, as he says: 'I delight to do thy will' and 'The Father is greater than I'. However, he also says: 'I and the Father are One'. And this not merely in action, but in being. Further, there is no teaching that can sustain the idea of the Son of God, the "I am" of John's Gospel, ever being created. For all things were created through him. The Word, was God.
To the idea of 'still do', is it not true, that in recent years, the Roman Catholic church and the Lutheran church have indeed reached an agreement on the teaching of 'Justification'?
Hardly antagonistic heretics, working together on such a topic!
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