Results tagged “Augustine” from Reformation21 Blog

When Calling Someone A Heretic...

What makes someone a heretic? 

This topic may be more important than we might think, especially in the world of online discourse. There is a distinction between willfully committing a soul-destroying heresy and committing a theological error. To call someone a "false teacher" is to say they are unsaved (see 2 Peter 2:1). To call someone a "moralist" is no different than calling someone a "false teacher." 

A heretic usually has no problem in affirming the Scriptures as the Word of God. Their problem almost always arises from a perversion of the meaning of God's Word. One only needs to look at the Racovian Catechism, which is filled with Scripture, but puts forth a Socinian manifesto that involves several heresies. 

All heresies are errors, but not all errors are heresies. As Augustine said, "I may err, but I shall not be a heretic" (Errare potero, haereticus non ero). 

I understand heresy in the way described by George Gillespie, a Scottish commissioner to the Westminster Assembly: 

Heresy is a gross and dangerous error, voluntarily held and factiously maintained by some person or persons within the visible church, in opposition to some chief or substantial truth or truths grounded upon and drawn from the Holy Scripture by necessary consequence.

The key words above are "voluntarily" (not ignorantly) and "factiously" (not quietly, but "stubbornly" [see Ames]) in terms of the manner in which a heretic promotes his or her view(s).

Conversely, we may hold to an error, but (thankfully) that error is not sufficiently severe enough that it overthrows the fundamental articles of the Christian faith. 

As a result, I would argue that Pelagianism is a heresy, but Arminianism is not. Pelagianism overthrows several fundamental articles. I would argue that Arminianism is a serious error, but it is not a heresy. (My Arminian friends would likely say the same about my Reformed views.) Holding to Arminian doctrine does not consign one to hell. Most of the Early Modern Reformed divines I have studied on this issue appear to take this view. 

Alexander Henderson, at the time of the 1638 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, is said to have argued:

That all the Controversies (especially if they exceed not the limits of the five controverted Articles) between the Arminians and Anti-Arminians or Calvinists, neither were nor are about Fundamental Doctrines; that indeed the Arminians erred grievously, but that he and the Synod were not yet persuaded that all Heterodoxies, that is, that all Erroneous Doctrines are Heresies

Earlier in the seventeenth century, John Ball made the point that through ignorance a Christian may misunderstand many things in God's word, but not be in danger of damnation. He says, "All error and misbelief does not destroy the truth of faith, no more than every imperfection does the truth of righteousness. A man may misunderstand diverse places of Scripture, and thereupon hold that to be true which is false, and yet be saved for all this error."

I admit that is isn't always easy to distinguish between error and heresy. John Owen said that for Protestants "it is a most difficult thing to determine of heresy." If you believe that you can easily identify heresy, I would be interested in the rules that would infallibly settle what constitutes heresy. 

In the matter of justification by faith, William Bradshaw, in his work, "A Treatise of Justification" (1615), makes some points that I think we need to carefully consider:

You cannot be ignorant (good Reader) what special differences have been, (and yet are) among ourselves (Reformed theologians) in some points, about the justification of a sinner before God. When many weak minds have been somewhat perplexed, and some strong ones (at least in their own conceits) exceedingly distempered; as though there were among us which overturned foundations, teaching blasphemous heresies about this matter: whereas all of us with one mouth profess this, that a sinner is justified, not by any formal inherent righteousness in himself, but only by the free and mere grace and mercy of God, through the meritorious satisfaction of our Savior Christ, the only Mediator between God and a sinner. Wherein we all give all the glory of our justification and salvation to God in Christ Jesus, and therein hold the main foundation. We differ only in certain circumstances, wherein nothing is derogated, either from the mercy of God, or merits of Christ, or arrogated to our own works

Let that paragraph sink in, especially for the sake of the peace and purity of the church. 

Denying that the active obedience of Christ is imputed to believers is an error, but not a heresy. 

You should be careful - very careful, indeed - when you hurl around, as one of those "exceedingly distempered" individuals, the words "moralist", "false teacher", and "heretic" on matters that do not rise to the level of soul-damning doctrine. 

We do not need to shrink back from lively, vigorous theological debate. Paedocommunion, premillennialism, amyraldianism, closed communion, and episcopacy are all errors, in my view. But, these errors are not heresies. A wall exists between my brothers who hold to any one of these views, but the wall is not so high that we cannot "shake hands" as brothers.

As I have said before, we are not justified by precision alone. We are justified by faith alone. That doesn't just include the fact that we've done bad things, but it also includes the fact that we have believed - and still do believe - some bad things. 

There is, of course, a higher standard for teachers compared to lay Christians who do not hold office. One only has to glance at  a few books in the NT to see this. A lay Christian may, quite unintentionally, hold to a view that could be deemed heretical, but I would treat such a person very differently than a teacher who willingly and obstinately espouses heretical doctrine. I teach a lot of students who believe some pretty weird things, e.g., Jesus was God, became man, and then after the resurrection went back to being God. Sure, I freak out at first. But then after (sometimes) patient instruction they usually come around. 

A false teacher, however, as Gillespie noted above, "voluntarily" holds and "factiously" maintains a view that opposes a chief truth of doctrine. Almost all of what I see going on in broadly Reformed circles, where there is lively debate, is not heresy but error - errors that God forgives. We can debate these errors, but I get the impression that the language used to describe an error can be overly harsh, i.e., *[those in error are basically heretical]. 

We should also be careful about those who are always crying foul (i.e., "internet policemen") regarding theological positions. There is a time to confront error and heresy, but those who do so should generally not have a reputation for doing so on a weekly basis on twitter and blogs. Books, which take time to write - and pass by the desks of many editors - generally prevent hasty reactions and regrettable words (assuming the book is not a self-published endeavour). Our posts here at Reformation21 are edited for content and style by someone with a PhD in theology. They do not go up as soon as they are written. 

Personally, I have always been more persuaded about the error of a particular theology when the person I have read has not given the impression to me that he simply lives for the debate or that he is always vexed by this or that, or that he sees the error everywhere. Dropping the "H-bomb" too easily - or using the word "moralist" to describe anyone who slightly departs from your own impressive understanding of Reformed doctrine - quickly hinders your critique. 

When calling someone a heretic, false teacher, or moralist (Pelagian), one had better have really good grounds. And if you've done that more than a handful of times online, then you've probably done it too often. 

* Note the full title:

'Pelagianism' calmly considered: A Response to Lee Gatiss

I.  Introduction

I have always found Lee Gatiss to be a fine historian, so I was disappointed to see his claims in the recent "Wesley and Pelagius". He points out that Pelagius has been universally reviled and rejected in orthodox (Western) Christian theology, and then he also points out that John Wesley was openly sympathetic to the heretic.  Indeed, he says that he "was actually a fan of Pelagius." But Gatiss goes much further. For Gatiss concludes that Pelagius "taught - well, what do you know! - the same things as John Wesley himself, regarding free will and perfectionism."  This latter claim - that Wesley and Pelagius taught the "same things" about "free will and perfectionism" - is problematic indeed; it is deeply mistaken and very misleading.  

More on that shortly. But first, what are we to make of Wesley's sympathetic tone and posture toward Pelagius? Gatiss is entirely right to observe this; Wesley really is sympathetic to the heretic, and he clearly employs a kind of "hermeneutic of suspicion" about the entire affair (indeed, enough so to strangely warm the heart of a modern or postmodern liberation theologian). But what should we conclude about this? In the absence of further evidence, maybe we would be well advised to conclude that they were in theological cahoots or at least were very close. In other words, maybe Wesley was a "Pelagian" who "taught the same things." 

The problem with this reading is that in fact we do have evidence to the contrary. In fact, we have a lot of evidence to the contrary, and this evidence makes it plain that he is nowhere close to Pelagius. So what should we make of his sympathy?  Well, here is a suggestion. Maybe Wesley was merely showing a charitable spirit toward Pelagius. One can be sympathetic (even deeply sympathetic) to, say, some protestors who stand against police oppression while also thinking that these protesters are mistaken in some of their conclusions and misguided and indeed wrong in some of their actions (similarly, one can be sympathetic to the law enforcement officers and yet be convinced that they acted wrongly). In short, showing genuine sympathy to another viewpoint or person does not equate to agreement with their beliefs or with allegiance to them. To suggest that it does is misleading. 

II.  Wesley on Original Sin

But while Gatiss's discussion of Wesley's sympathy might be misleading, there are bigger problems with Gatiss's essay. For he is simply mistaken when he says that Wesley and Pelagius "taught the same things."  They didn't. Consider what Wesley says about the doctrine of original sin. The Methodist Articles of Religion clearly affirm the doctrine, with Article II affirming that Christ's sacrifice atones for "original guilt" as well as actual sins. But Wesley himself goes further. His treatise on original sin is the longest and densest work in his theological corpus; it is written soon before the more famous work of Jonathan Edwards, it engages in sharp polemics against many of the same debate partners (especially John Taylor), and it employs many similar arguments. In light of Gatiss's claim that Pelagius and Wesley taught "the same things," the fact that Wesley defends the Westminster Confession of Faith - including its federalist account of our relation to Adam - line-by-line is very interesting.[1] Original sin includes, for Wesley, both original corruption and original guilt: Adam's sin is "imputed to all men, that they are born 'children of wrath' and liable to death" ("Original Sin," p. 427). Indeed, all of Adam's descendants "must come into the world both guilty and unclean" ("Original Sin," p. 428). In both his preaching and his theology, Wesley insists not only that the doctrine of original sin is true but also that it is very important.  For instance, he asks 
Is man by nature filled with all manner of evil? Is he void of all good? Is he wholly fallen?  Is his soul totally corrupted? Is... 'every imagination of the thoughts of his heart evil continually?' Allow this, and you are so far a Christian. Deny it, and you are but a heathen still ("Original Sin," p. 456).
Wesley is convinced that any denial of the doctrine of original sin "saps the very foundation of all revealed religion" ("Original Sin," p. 194). Thus such a denial "contradicts the main design of the Gospel, which is to humble vain man, and to ascribe to God's free grace, not man's free will, the whole of his salvation" ("Original Sin," p. 429). Subsequent Methodist theologians follow Wesley in resolute affirmation of the doctrine of original sin; they may disagree among themselves about the details of the doctrine (some are federalists like Wesley, some hold to a mediate view, and others hold to corruption-only versions of the doctrine that are much like those of many patristic theologians and of the famous Reformer Huldrych Zwingli), but they insist that we are "totally depraved." I cannot see how anyone might view this evidence - which flows from Wesley's most sustained theological treatment of any issue through his sermons into the major confessional documents and indeed through the major nineteenth-century Methodist theologians - and conclude that Wesley and Pelagius taught "the same things."  

III.  Wesley on "Free Will" and the prevenience of grace

As we have seen, Wesley is absolutely certain that we must "ascribe to God's free grace, not man's free will, the whole of his salvation." His doctrine of human sinfulness is not, he insists, even a "hairs-breadth" different than that of John Calvin. If that amounts to Pelagianism, then one might be excused for thinking that this is pretty good company in which to be Pelagian. Wesley does, of course, disagree with many Reformed theologians about the doctrine of grace. This is not the place for a thorough defense of the doctrine of prevenient grace. But it is found throughout the Christian tradition (in some form or other; I do not wish to leave the impression that there is only one version of the doctrine). Augustine clearly believes in prevenient grace.[2] 

Some interpreters take Augustine (at least the 'late Augustine' of the Pelagian controversy) to be a theological determinist, and they may argue that his doctrine holds that prevenient grace is always successful. But this isn't part of the rejection of Pelagianism. Moreover, Augustine - in his anti-Pelagian works - insists that while no one can come to God without God's prevenient grace, whether we yield our consent to God's grace or withhold that consent is the function of the human will. So while Augustine's view of human freedom will remain controversial, it is hard indeed to deny that Wesley would have a claim to being truly "Augustinian" on this matter.  And it is even harder to deny that his view coheres well indeed - at least as well as Augustine's own doctrine - with the official denouncement of Pelagianism and "Semi-Pelagianism" at Orange (529).
IV.  Wesley on "Christian Perfection"

Gatiss also claims that Wesley and Pelagius teach "the same things" about "perfectionism."  Wesley is justly famous (or perhaps infamous) for his teaching about sanctification and "Christian perfection."  Unfortunately, there is a lot that is less than crystal-clear about his doctrine.  But this much, at least, is clear: while he never shares testimonies (of himself or anyone else) who has experienced it, he does think that Christian perfection is not impossible before death.  And he insists that Christians should be growing in grace as they "press on" toward the fullness of what God has provided and promised. 
Consider these statements:
(A) God, therefore, heals us not only that he may blot out the sin which we have committed, but, furthermore, that he may enable us to avoid sinning.
(B) We do not deny that human nature can be without sin; nor ought we by any means to refuse to it the capacity to become perfect, since we admit its capacity for progress - by God's grace, however, through our Lord Jesus Christ.  By his assistance we aver that it becomes happy and holy...
(C) Now whether there ever has been, or is, or ever can be, a man living so righteous a life in this world as to have no sin at all, may be an open question among true and pious Christians...
(D) Who denies such possibility [of being pure in heart]?  Only it must be by the grace of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord, and not merely by our freedom of will.
(E) But in what place and at what time it shall reach that state of absolute perfection... it is certainly not 'shed abroad in our hearts' by any energies either of the nature or the volition that are within us, but by [the Holy Spirit who] both helps our infirmity and cooperates with our strength.  For it is itself indeed the grace of God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit...
But (A) - (E) are not the statements of Wesley. Instead, they are the conclusions of the mature Augustine (all drawn from De Natura et gratia)! To be sure, Wesley and Augustine differ in some important ways on the doctrine of sanctification (or "perfectionism): Wesley's interpretation of Romans 7 is very different from Augustine's reading, his understanding of what "perfection" actually is seems more akin to, say, Gregory of Nyssa's view than it does to Augustine's account, Wesley seems more guardedly optimistic about what we can expect God to do in this life, and Wesley seems to emphasize "cooperation" less than Augustine. But what they do hold in common is both plain and important: Christian perfection is not impossible (before death), and all growth in Christlikeness and progress in holiness is always by grace. So Wesley can be considered a Pelagian on this point only if Augustine can be considered Pelagian - and, again, that seems pretty good company in which to be considered Pelagian.  

V.  Conclusion

Professor Gatiss claims that Wesley and Pelagius "taught the same things" with respect to "free will and perfectionism." But this simply isn't so. There are enough genuine areas of difference between Wesley and the Reformed tradition that draws from Augustine as it is; we don't need to imagine or invent others. More importantly, there are very substantial areas of important agreement between us. Surely we can celebrate these. 

Thomas H. McCall is Associate Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he is also Director of the Carl F.H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding. 


[1] "The Doctrine of Original Sin," Works IX, pp. 192-465.

[2] (e.g., De Spirtu et Lettera 60 in NPNR V:110/PL 44:240; De Natura et gratia xxxi:35 in NPNF V:133/PL 44:264; Contra dua epistolas Pelagianorum in PL 44:620; Sermones ad populum omnes CLXXIV.iv.4 in PL 38:942-943)

Augustine's second homily on the Gospel of John offers one of the richest commentaries on John 1.12 that I have read. His explanation of what it means for God to give us "the right to become children of God" is worth quoting in full:

What did he bestow on them? Great kindness; great mercy. Singly born, he did not wish to remain one and only. Many couples who have had no children adopt some when advanced in years and realize by choice what nature was unable to provide; that is what human beings do. But someone who has an only son rejoices in him all the more, because he alone will take possession of the whole inheritance and not have anyone else to divide it with and thus turn out the poorer. Not so God; he sent the very same one and only Son he had begotten, through whom he had created everything, into this world so that he should not be alone but should have adopted brothers and sisters. You see, we were not born of God in the same way as the only-begotten Son of his, but we were adopted through the Son's grace. For the only-begotten Son came to forgive sins, those sins which had us so tied up that they were an impediment to his adopting us; he forgave those he wished to make his brothers and sisters and made them co-heirs... No, he was not afraid of having co-heirs, because his inheritance is not whittled down if many possess it. They themselves, in fact, become the inheritance which he possesses, and he in turn becomes their inheritance (Homilies on the Gospel of John [New City Press, 2009], pp. 64-65).

The beauty of Augustine's description of adoption speaks for itself. A few observations are nevertheless worth making.

(1) Augustine's homily is a helpful reminder that faithful biblical exposition did not begin in the modern era. Patristic sermons and biblical commentaries will inevitably strike evangelicals as strange territory. Nonetheless, it is territory that repays patient exploration.  

(2) Much of the power of the doctrine of adoption lies in the disanalogy that obtains between human adoption and divine adoption. Human couples often adopt because they lack natural offspring. Human couples with an only child (at least in Augustine's day) often rejoice in the fact that their offspring can be the sole heir of their inheritance (and thus can avoid the poverty that might accompany dividing their inheritance). "Not so God": He sacrificed what he had--his eternally begotten, eternally beloved Son--to enrich his enemies by making them joint-heirs with Christ. 

(3) We cannot appreciate the full depths of the gospel apart from the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us about the kind of love that is on display in the gospel. The Father eternally loves the Son, and this love is the measure of what the gospel cost: the Father loved us by sacrificing his beloved Son to forgive those sins that "were an impediment to his adopting us." Moreover, the Father's love for the Son is the measure of what the gospel bought: the Father loved us by bequeathing to us an inexhaustible inheritance, which is nothing other than the right to become an heir of the Father's love in and with Jesus Christ, his beloved Son. Truly this is "great kindness; great mercy."