Witch trials in Salem. The Council of Toulouse in the 13th century, employing men whose sole purpose was to hunt out human kindling for the flames of the Inquisition.
These are images evoked by that word, “heresy.” A nasty word, it suggests more about the accuser, who is considered intolerant, bigoted, and ignorant, than about the accused. But while there have been historical events in Christian history to remind us of the dangers of heresy-hunting, very few Christians today realize the debt they owe to those who had the courage of their convictions to call heresy by its proper name, in spite of the repercussions.
What is heresy?
The first question proposed is, “What is heresy?” The answer is, “Any teaching that directly contradicts the clear and direct witness of the Scriptures on a point of salvific importance.”
In other words, there may be teachings that are strange, such as Benny Hinn’s suggestion that before the Fall, Adam could fly and remain for hours underwater, or teachings that we may regard as clearly contrary to the biblical texts. But since they do not touch upon a key doctrine of God, human nature, Christ’s person and work, the Holy Spirit, or salvation, they may be erroneous, but they are not heretical.
For centuries, theologians have distinguished between formal heresy, which is the persistent and stubborn denial of a fundamental doctrine, even though one has been instructed in the truth, and material heresy, in which one embraces a doctrine that is itself heretical, but embraces it in ignorance.
Heresy brings with it not only error, but a particular spirit or attitude: arrogance, a rejection of all authority, and self-will. These have always been considered the vices of heresy, but in modern liberalism and evangelicalism, they are often regarded as signs of special enlightenment or novel insights that have escaped the darkened wits of past generations.
Anyone who denies the existence of such a thing as heresy denies the possibility of a religion having any boundaries. If a religion does not have any boundaries, distinguishing Christianity from Hinduism or atheism is meaningless.
To the second question proposed, “Who decides?”, the answer is certain: the Scriptures. This topic requires serious reflection.
We must realize that the Bible itself contains creeds that were used in weekly worship. In the Old Testament, we find the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Monotheism, that is, belief in one Almighty God, lies at the heart of both testaments. In the New Testament, we find passages that were used in the liturgy of the early church. Sometimes, these creeds were sung. (Compare Col 1:15, 20.)
Once we are convinced that the Bible is, in fact, the Word of God, it follows that it is the source and judge of all truth that it addresses. When Paul warned Timothy about heresy in the last days, his charge was to “continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus”(2 Tim. 3:15). And then the familiar passage:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Because of this, “I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage-with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. (2 Tim. 3:16-4:4)
There are a few things to note in this passage.
1) Paul reminds Timothy of his catechetical training.
In other words, children were brought up just as they had been in the synagogue, with regular doctrinal instruction in the home and in the church. Paul saw this rigorous catechetical instruction not as a damper on spiritual zeal-as many Christians today seem to view doctrinal instruction-but as the very thing that in later life Timothy is to rely on in refuting heresy as a minister of God.
2) Paul mentions that part of Timothy’s confidence is that he realizes the authority of those from whom he learned this message (2 Tim. 3:14).
Many modern Christians, especially in America, have a deep-seated distrust of authority and they assume that they go directly to the Bible, while “traditional religionists” refer to the wisdom and research of those who have gone before them. But the fact is, no one goes directly to the Bible if by that one means that it is possible to read any literary text without ignorance, bias, or presuppositional stubbornness.
Heretics often go “directly to the Bible.” If Christians are not familiar with the systematic teaching of the Scriptures on the essentials, from Genesis to Revelation (for which catechetical instruction is designed), they will be prey to a clever communicator who can isolate verses from their context and force them to say something that, in context and in relationship to the whole teaching of Scripture, they cannot be saying. So Paul says that the Bible, being God-breathed, is the only infallible authority for determining truth, and yet he adds that Timothy ought to remember his catechism and his teachers.
Adapted from Michael S. Horton, “All About Heresy” Modern Reformation, Jan/Feb 1994.