The word ‘heretic’ or ‘heresy’ always sends shivers down my spine. It is one thing to read about Marcion the heretic of eighteen and a half centuries ago. It’s quite another when someone uses it in conversation in all seriousness.
A few days ago I read on Emergent No a discussion on what does and does not constitute heresy. You can read about it here, including the 69 comments (at the last count). The list that the good people on that blog produced contained some pretty fundamental issues, and some not so fundamental.
The latter not-so-fundamental classification troubled me. I too am concerned about the ’emergent church’ and the effect it is having on souls before God. I am concerned that it seems to be culture and experience driven, with biblical truth taken for granted. However, I also believe that it is a many-headed animal which will take time to master and get the better of. Therefore I will reserve final judgment for the moment.
However, it does no good, in my view, start throwing the term ‘heresy’ around, and then having been challenged, to hurriedly lash together a quick definition. Unfortunately, the Emergent No list has sticky tape and bits of badly knotted string all over it.
Now, my own definition of heresy not well formed. I am still working it out, and writing this post helps. Heresy is certainly deviation from those beliefs which, if not believed, would result in damnation. However, it would seem to be more. ‘Heresy’ derives from the Greek word hairesis meaning ‘choice’. The word was originally used in connection with the choice of a philosophical school an individual may follow. However, it may also occur within the Christian church and is characterised by factionalism. The factions may form around both fundamental and non-fundamental doctrines.
George Gillespie, a Scottish Commissioner to the Westminster Assembly in the 17th century, has written helpfully on this matter though his language is a little opaque. Having reviewed the Scriptures he gives six helpful marks of true heresy, which I summarise with my own words and comments:
- It arises amongst members of the church, or an assembly professing to be a church. In other words, it is an irrelevant term to apply to adherents to non-Christian religions such as Buddhism or Islam. However, it would apply to Mormons or J.W.s
- It is an error voluntarily and freely chosen, both when initially proposing it, and in the maintaining of it or adhering to it. This in contrast to those who are compelled, say, under persecution to accept an error.
- When it chooses an error, it is accompanied with a rejecting of truth. Something which is already accepted as truth is kicked out in order to accommodate the error
- It is an error which is professed and maintained, as a result, becomes a ‘scandal and snare’ to others. In view here is the effect the profession has on others in the fellowship, drawing them into sinful behaviour. Views that are privately held are not the concern at this point.
- It is an error which contradicts some primary and substantial truth which is grounded upon, or, by necessary consequence, drawn from, the Bible. The subtlety here is that, historically, heretics have always appealed to Scripture, but they have always failed to agree with some primary truth that follows from Scripture.
- Heretics are schismatics and draw others away to their heresy. Their tendency to factionalism always leads to separation.
These points raise a few challenges to the modern church:
- Heresy fits nicely with our Western trend to individualism and freedom of choice. As the church accepts individualism, we should see more heresy.
- It shows the need for a fully worked out confession of faith in order to be able to identify what are primary truths, and therefore what are heresy (note that adherence to the Scriptures is not enough!)
- Teachings which lie outside the confessions may not in themselves be heretical. It may take a considerable amount of time and effort to work out whether such teachings really do undermine what has been commonly accepted. But then, if they do, what is to be done about it?
There may be more which I have not thought of. But it leaves me with problems regarding the Emergent No people – by what standard are they defining heresy? Frankly some of the issues they raise have not appeared in any confession, creed or basis of faith I have ever seen. They need to work a bit harder, IMHO.