Warning: Heresy contains biohazardous materials

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Jason has recently written a couple of posts on heresy, one of which was inspired by the site of Martin Downes. Martin has kindly agreed to write an post that introduces us to the subject in a bit more detail. [Warning long post!]...

Heresy! What do you associate that word with? Torches and pitchforks? Burning someone at the stake? The incessant barking of theological watchdogs? “Health and wealth” preachers? Unbelieving bishops who deny the gospel but stay on the payroll of the church?

What is heresy?

One writer defines it as “any teaching that directly contradicts the clear and direct witness of the Scriptures on a point of salvific importance.” Heresy is the kind of doctrinal error that is so serious that it redefines the gospel. Error is always costly. It dishonours God and damages the Church. But not all errors are heresies. A heretic is not someone who fails to explain adequately the doctrine of the Trinity, or that Jesus is both fully God and fully man, the nature of the atonement, or justification by faith alone. No, a heretic denies these truths and is fundamentally unsubmissive to apostolic doctrine and authority as it is given in Scripture.

Heresy is not a matter of opinion. We have an objective standard when we want to find out which theological view is correct or orthodox (meaning “right belief”), as Paul shows in 1 Corinthians 15, and which ones are wrong. In the end, the fight against heresy is always won by the clear, patient, and thorough exposition of Scripture. Perversely, successful heretics themselves often claim to be truly orthodox and biblical.

Heresy is a matter of choice. It is the choice to believe a different gospel. Augustine said that heretics are men “who were altogether broken off and alienated in matters relating to the actual faith.” A heretic chooses to tell lies about the God of the Bible because he doesn't want to tell the truth. And a heretic is someone who refuses admonition and is divisive (Titus 3:10-11). Putting it mathematically, heretics take away from the truth of the gospel (and adding to the truth always takes away from it), they divide true churches and aim to multiply new disciples.

Where do heresies come from?

It is vitally important to realise that heresies do not originate in the minds of men and women. Ultimately heresy originates with the devil. When the apostle Paul takes the Corinthian church to task for tolerating false teachers he compares their approach to the deception of Eve by the serpent (2 Cor. 11:3). But the deception in the Garden is more than a useful illustration for Paul. The super-apostles at Corinth are the servants of the devil disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.

Similarly Paul warned Timothy about “deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1), and of false teachers who are caught in the snare of the devil (2 Tim. 2:24-25). After all the devil is the father of lies (John 8:44). The connection between other gospels and the demonic, which is integral to a biblical world view, has been largely lost. If it were regained it would keep us from ever thinking that heresies are interesting, intellectually stimulating, tolerable, or in any way benign. Cyprian of Carthage, in the third century, made this insightful comment about heresy and the devil:

“There is more need to fear and beware of the Enemy when he creeps up secretly, when he beguiles us by a show of peace and steals forward by those hidden approaches which have earned him the name of the 'Serpent'...He invented heresies and schisms so as to undermine the faith, to corrupt the truth, to sunder our unity. Those whom he failed to keep in the blindness of their old ways he beguiles, and leads them up a new road of illusion.”

Or as one writer put it “renouncing the devil means denouncing heresy.”

Secondly, it is vitally important to understand that heresy is the takeover of Christianity by an alien worldview. Paul warned the Colossians about “plausible arguments” and those who were trying to take them captive by “philosophy and empty deceit according to human tradition,” (Col. 2:4, 8). Heretics often use the words of the Bible, change their meaning, and hide false ideas under them. The label may still say “Christ,” “salvation,” or “atonement,” but the meaning of these words have been radically altered. The early church fathers were alert to this danger. They wrote books to expose the fact that heretics were really saying the same thing as pagan philosophers, only the heretics were dressing up these ideas in Christian language. This deceitfulness makes heresy morally as well as doctrinally wrong.

Why would anyone embrace heresy?

You would think that someone would have to be out of their right mind to believe heresy. Who, after all, wants to believe something that isn't true? But, to quote Lucifer in Milton's Paradise Lost, the anthem of heresy is that “it is better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” Every heresy appeals to our sinful wishes and desires, the “way that we want things to be” and not the way that God has provided in the gospel, “which is infinitely better for us” as Bishop Allison put it. Consider all the major heresies and you will find that they appeal, directly or indirectly, to our sinful reason, affections, and will. Heresy appears to be beneficial, posing as good news and proclaiming Jesus (2 Cor. 11:4), but in reality like gangrene it destroys spiritual life (2 Tim. 2:17).

Of course there will be people who believe things that are heretical without realising it. It may well be the case that they simply believe what they have been taught from a young age, or what their respected teachers have always led them to believe was the truth.

Heresy always presents itself as an improvement on the biblical gospel. For the Colossians it promised to overcome their struggle with sin and bring them closer to God. For the Galatians it would keep them from persecution and fuel their desire to justify themselves before God by their works.

Heresy never appears in its true colours. In his monumental work Against Heresies Irenaeus wrote that “error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than the truth itself.”

What are the effects of heresy?

Heresy brings confusion for unbelievers since they hear several different and contradictory voices all claiming to be telling them the authentic good news.

Heresy also brings trouble for the Church. Unless false teachers are silenced, as Paul tells Titus that they should be, they will ruin households and upset the faith of some (Titus 1:11). Genuine believers can be unsettled by the teaching of these men (2 Tim. 2:18). In addition to this damage, false teachers also drain the time, energy, and resources of churches when they are not dealt with. Drawn out conflicts with false teachers can divert and distract churches from evangelism and the planting and nurturing of new congregations.

Heresy places those who embrace it, and refuse to be corrected, in danger of eternal condemnation. At the very least the salvation of those who are deceived by gospel denying error cannot be affirmed. There is hope that God may grant such people repentance. But the apostles did not shrink back from spelling out the danger of turning to a “different gospel.” Paul makes it clear that whether the “false brothers,” an angel from heaven, or even the apostles themselves preached another gospel than the one that Paul had preached then they should be accursed (Gal. 1:6-9).

Harold Brown summed up the consequences of truth and error by saying that “just as there are doctrines that are true, and that can bring salvation, there are those that are false, so false that they can spell eternal damnation for those who have the misfortune to be entrapped by them.”

Why do heresies persist?

Church history tells the story of the battle between truth and error. Heresies arise, gain a following, are opposed and refuted from Scripture, and then the Church moves on and advances in the truth. Because of this we have great statements like the Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon. But if these errors have been dealt with in the past why do they come back again and again? Why do people today believe old heresies? There are three reasons.

The devil still deceives people into believing heresies by using human instruments to promote attractive and plausible teaching. He will continue to do this until Christ returns in glory.

The warnings and lessons from history are ignored or unknown. If we are ignorant of the past we will fail to see that heresies that today appear new, innovative, and interesting are as old as dirt. Many of the errors finding a home in evangelicalism today were tried and found wanting by our great-great-grandfathers in the faith at the bar of Scripture.

Throughout history those who deny the truth and choose a different gospel are limited in the options available to them. In his study of heresies Harold Brown concluded that “over and over again, in widely separated cultures, in different centuries, the same basic misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the person and work of Christ and his message reappear. The persistence of the same stimulus, so to speak, repeatedly produces the same or similar reactions.”

Martin Downes