The well educated
reader must be offered an apology: this is by no means a solid theology course
session on heresies. It in fact can offer little more than a survey of
heresies ancient and modern, with but the following justification:
- We hope to dispel
the notion that “it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re
sincere.” It does matter. There is a right answer.
- We also plan to
show that what you believe does in fact affect the life of the ordinary
Christian on a daily basis.
- Finally, to the
extent possible, we intend to demonstrate that heresy is not some ancient
problem, but a modern one.
the Divinity of Christ
A couple of ancient
(somewhat like the Arians, below) believed that Jesus Christ had two separate natures:
- One was the gentle
Jesus, friend of the sinner – a human nature.
- The other was
Christ – the stern God of the Old Testament.
Their prime question
was, “How could God be a three day old baby?” But see the consequences of this
belief: if this is so, how can God (the Christ part) understand my human
deficiencies? Jesus might, but God can’t – and therefore I need to appease the
Christ while I applaud the Jesus. I’m still dealing with God at arms length.
What does that do to your prayer life?
This heresy holds
that Christ is separate and less than
God. He is not an eternal being, but the highest of created beings. (This is a
central belief in Mormonism). Jesus had a human soul, but this was replaced by
the Logos when Christ entered into him.
If this is so, how
can Christ connect us with God? How can he forgive – if he is not God, he is
not the one morally offended when we sin?
The truth is simple:
Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, is, always was, and always will be God. I may
not be able to explain how, but I know it’s the truth.
the Humanity of Christ
OK, if his divinity
pleases you, what about his humanity? Was he really human like us?
This heresy holds
that Christ’s humanity is somehow different from our humanity. It’s therefore
held that he couldn’t really suffer the way we do; in fact, his actions just
before the Cross are held to be some sort of “example only.” But this has its
- If he’s really not
like us, how could we possibly be expected to follow his example?
- If he didn’t really
suffer, is the atonement real? And are we really saved?
Didn’t like that last
one? This variant holds that he really did have a human body like ours, and
emotions like ours, but his mind was purely divine. In other words, he wasn’t
really tempted like we are – for how could anyone tempt God? So any record of his
being tempted was simply play-acting for our benefit, then. Which, of course,
means that he is again not to be used as an example for withstanding
temptation. (Which quickly degenerates into the only response to temptation is
giving in to it.)
You have to have a
little help to fall for this one. It’s a Gnostic heresy – the kind that comes
with a special revelation only to the chosen few, those in the know (hence
Gnostic). This one says that Christ only appeared to have a human body – it
was really just an illusion. Which means:
- There’s no sense
imitating an illusion.
- Illusions don’t
suffer and die; therefore there is no atonement.
- There is therefore
- There is thus no
way that those of us who aren’t illusory bodies could ever be resurrected
from the dead.
The Nature of Sin
Sometimes the error
isn’t about Christ, but about the fundamental nature of man, or sin, or
judgment, or matter. Here are three that concern the nature of sin:
Sin and grace: Antinomianism
(Anti = against; noma
= law). This is one which is commonly thrown around as an accusation against
other denominations. It can be argued that the Christian is not under the law,
but grace. Therefore, the Christian need not obey any laws of morality – everything’s
permissible, right? But hear the common form:
- “When I sin, God
increases his grace and forgives me.”
- “Therefore, by
sinning, I cause God’s grace to increase.”
- “More of God’s
grace is a good thing.”
- “Therefore, as long
as I believe, it’s better to do what I please than to try to follow God’s
You can see this can
go both ways. Augustine put it, “Love God – and do as you please.” That’s the
correct view; you don’t follow laws once your heart follows God. But often we
have heard this as justification!
(This is sometimes
summed up by “God will forgive me; it’s his hobby, you know.”)
Pelagianism is a
happy view. It holds that there is no original sin, or, more commonly put,
that people are basically good. Therefore, moral perfection is obtainable in
this life by man’s efforts alone. Adam was nothing more than a bad example –
which implies that Christ is nothing more than a good example. Thus, the
existence of free will implies that we are capable of leading a sinless life –
if we could only be properly coached. So the church’s job is to coach us in
how to lead a sinless life.
This particular view
– which acknowledges the existence of the concept of original sin – is not
found very much today. But its offshoot, Semi-Pelagianism, is very much with
Sin – Semi-Pelagianism
This view ignores
original sin in the abstract, but starts with the idea that man, unaided by
God, makes the first step toward salvation. Thus, salvation is not really the
work of God, but of man and God working together. God’s role is simply to
increase man’s faith and guard it; man does the real work (“work out your
salvation in fear and trembling.”)
This view is rather
fuzzy to start with, and it keeps coming back in various forms. It’s
particularly popular now because it justifies the emergent church movement’s
penchant for self-help sermons. Unfortunately, it’s rather hard to nail down
because its proponents don’t really think in these terms. They see it as
determining what the church’s target market wants, and giving it to them. This
means that Semi-Pelagianism is very popular right now – but its proponents
would not recognize themselves as such.
label has been used frequently to call the other denomination a bunch of
that split the church today
May I point out,
please, a few of the modern heresies?
Gospel. This is
the idea that God wants you to be rich; all you need to do to get rich is
do good works. The best work is giving money to the church. The potential
for abuse is clear, but consider also that this is a form of salvation by
works. For if you consider God’s approval best expressed in the fatness of
your wallet, then buying God’s approval is really a good investment. (A
form of Semi-Pelagianism, sort of.)
Righteousness must be upheld in the political arena, therefore the good
Christian is a Republican (if righteousness means mostly sexual
righteousness) or a Democrat (if righteousness means mostly charitable –
if forced – giving to the poor.) This is a disease that particularly
afflicts democracies. The heresy comes in presuming that the state, which
is temporal, is the primary agent of things eternal. Render unto Caesar,
heresy holds that people outside of Christianity will be saved if they are
righteous enough. The argument is that Christ will judge them fairly; some
will be righteous and therefore saved, even though they didn’t accept or
never heard the Gospel. Can you see the concept of earning salvation in
this? Or do you think that all have sinned and thus deserve hell? Perhaps
salvation is by grace!
form of Semi-Pelagianism, this holds that what people really need to hear
from the church is the way to get better. The prime focus of the church is
now in pop psychology, fixing your relationships, finances, etc. By doing
this, Christians will lead happy, fulfilled lives. Note the difference: no
one claims this technique will make you sinless. Just happy and fulfilled.
Christ is just a happy addition to the really important stuff; the
Scripture, a handy source of quotations to make the really important
why heresy abounds
So why does this
stuff sound so familiar? Why is it that the evangelical churches have this
problem today? I submit the following reasons:
- We no longer teach
or preach exegetically, but topically. The Scripture is now a secondary
source of teaching. Our students, therefore, have come to see the
Scriptures as mere footnotes.
- Consequently, the
Scriptures are no longer honored in the church. Those of sufficient
antiquity will recall a time when most churches had two pulpits, so that
when the Scripture was read, the listener understood its solemn import. In
some churches one pulpit was reserved for the Scriptures alone.
anti-intellectual bias of our time (in the churches) means that age and
scholarship have been discarded in favor of the “bold new idea.”
Interestingly, that idea is often brought forward with the idea that we
should believe it not because it is true, but because it’s the only way
the church can survive. (No sense of history, either.)
- We now have
Christians who no longer consciously follow Christ, or try to grow in him –
but rather follow their feelings.
The first defense
against heresy is a church full of Christians who are growing in the knowledge
of Christ. And that is the first thing the heretics attack.
 But see Philippians