Results tagged “heresy” from Reformation21 Blog

Reciting the Creed


Why do we recite the historic creeds of the church in our worship services? There are a few ways to answer this question. First, we believe these creeds are really just recitations of the content of Scripture. All we are doing is reading a summary of what the Bible says. Second, we believe recitation leads to memorization. It is very important that we understand the basics of Christianity, and there are just some things that we ought to have memorized. And third, when we recite the creeds, we are affirming that what we believe about the teaching of Scripture is the same as what the Church has believed throughout history.

In October our church will begin reciting the Nicene Creed. The council of Nicaea was the first of what we know as the ecumenical councils of the church, meaning that it was attended by representatives of the global church at that time. The purpose of the council was to deal with one of the greatest threats to the Gospel that had existed up until that point: The heretical teachings of Arius. Arius taught that there was a time when Jesus did not exist. Jesus was not God, but rather a created being. Alexander, a bishop in Alexandria, first took up the challenge of debating Arius, a responsibility that was eventually carried on by Athanasius.

In order to keep the church unified, the Emperor Constantine held the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. The result of this council was, of course, known as the Creed of Nicaea, or The Nicene Creed (and also an agreement on when the church should celebrate Easter).

That's all fine, but why should we recite the Nicene Creed today? After all, this creed sounds pretty academic. Doesn't it make it seem as though the Christian faith is just a series of doctrinal affirmations? Isn't Christianity more about a relationship and experience with God? 

It's important to remember--as the Nicene Creed shows us--that orthodoxy and doxology were not always seen as at odds with one another. There was a time when Christians saw the truths we profess as being a source of worship and a reason to rejoice! When we recite and share together in the creeds of the church in a corporate way, we don't just affirm our unity with the universal church that came before; we're also saying aloud that these truths are a cause for worship, and should give rise to joyful songs!

There is another reason we should share in these creeds corporately, and it is a very practical reason: It helps us remember. I believe and hope that we have recited the Apostles' Creed for so long that many of us could recite it in our sleep. Now, if you were to memorize the Nicene Creed, you would be better prepared to help others understand the faith, or to face serious error the next time the Jehovah's Witnesses come to your door.

Perhaps you might ask, "Why would we recite the Nicene Creed when we already have the Apostles' Creed?" The Apostles' Creed has much to commend it. It is shorter, simpler, and easier to remember than some later creeds (the Athanasian Creed, for example). It is also truthful and accurate to Scripture.

But the Apostles' Creed is really the bare minimum of Christian teaching. It doesn't get very specific about the deity of Christ. It doesn't speak to the nature of God beyond the fact that he is the creator. It doesn't speak of the deity of the Holy Spirit. In fact, the Apostles' Creed is so general that even a Mormon could affirm it. That doesn't mean the Apostles' Creed is a bad creed, but it does mean that more development was needed that made clearer what the Bible teaches.

I'd like to higlight just a few ways that the Nicene Creed more clearly presents the Bible's teaching. First, the Nicene Creed has a doctrine of the Holy Spirit! The Apostles' Creed simply says, "I believe in the Holy Spirit." The Nicene Creed, on the other hand, has more to say:

"[I believe] in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Creator of Life, Who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who together with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, Who spoke through the prophets."

Nicaea makes us aware that the Holy Spirit really is a person of the Godhead, not merely a tacked on formality or affirmation. All three persons are co-eternal and co-equal as God; it is proper that the Spirit receive a greater place of prominence than the Apostles' Creed ascribes to Him. In Nicaea we see the centrality of the Spirit to creation, to Christian worship, and to special revelation. 

Second, perhaps the most important passage in the Nicene Creed is this statement that the Son was of the "same substance" with the Father: 

"[We believe in] one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father."

At first glance this might sound like abstract theological jockeying, but it was actually profoundly important for the Christian faith. How is the Son related to the Father? The answer changes how you see all of the universe, how you understand salvation, and how you think about your own relationship to God when you trust in Jesus. When Jesus died was he able to bear the full penalty of sin against the Holy God? If we are united to Christ by faith are we fully united to God? Is it appropriate to worship Jesus just like we do the Father? If you get these questions wrong, you get the Christian faith wrong. 

Yet as Carl Trueman reminds us, this creed does not only help us to remember, affirm, and speak propositional truths; it unites us as well:

"In reciting the creeds, the purpose is not simply to declare a set of propositional truths. Rather, the action is somewhat richer than that: to state the obvious, in reciting the words of the creeds together, each member of the congregation publicly identifies with every other member in expressing a corporate unity of belief in a common gospel. They are also expressing their common belief with every other Christian throughout history who has used these words to witness to Christ. Further, they are reminding themselves and each other of who God is and what he has done. In other words, the creeds, in liturgical context, become a means of fulfilling the public declaration that Romans 10 demands of believers: the confession (a document) becomes a confession (an act of pointing toward Christ before the church and the world)" [The Creedal Imperative, p. 144].

Adam Parker is the pastor of Pearl Presbyterian Church (PCA), a regular contributor to Reformation 21, an adjunct professor at Belhaven University, and most importantly husband to Arryn and father of four.

Related Links

Our Glorious Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download  ]

Knowing the Trinity by Ryan McGraw

Retrieving Eternal Generation, ed. by Fred Sanders and Scott Swain

Athanasius (Christian Biographies For Young Readers) by Simonetta Carr

Origins of the Creed


If you were a Christian living in the great port city of Alexandria, Egypt in the year 320, your life would likely be full of excitement. Less than 10 years before, the great Emperor Constantine had defeated his enemies, ended Roman persecution of Christians, and granted Christianity the status of a favored religion. You no longer needed to fear arrest, torture or imprisonment simply for being a believer in Christ.

All across the city, the churches and the believers were emerging from the only life they had ever known--fear of opposition--and enjoying the fresh air of freedom. Alexandria was famous for its rich tradition of Christian thinkers; now more than ever, men were considering and expressing their faith. And so even if you were the humblest disciple in the city, you'd know something of the debates that soon began to swirl around the believing community. A highly-respected Presbyter--a mature, seasoned man who was an able preacher and popular pastor--was beginning to have a serious conflict with the city's Bishop.

The disagreement was doctrinal, and had everything to do with the person and work of Jesus Christ. The presbyter, Arius, used his popularity and abilities to spread his doctrine through the Christian population. One of the methods used among the people was a series of short choruses, sung or chanted by young and old, expressing Arius's particular doctrine. It was a brilliant method! The Scripture says that we are to teach one another in Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs--and this is what the followers of Arius did.

One of their choruses is strikingly illustrative of their doctrine and method. Being a Greek speaking city, the chorus was in Greek, and consisted of only five words, only 7 total syllables (a perfect chorus). The first word and the last are the same, while the second and third words rhyme: "ην ποτε ὁτε ουχ ην" (ēn pote hote oukh ēn). You can hear that it is lyrical and simple. One author says that it was chanted over and over, in church and daily in the streets of the city by those who believed its doctrine.

What does it mean? It's somewhat difficult to render exactly into English, but it goes something like this: "There was when he was not." Repeatedly, in church and in the city, the huge community of the followers of Arius chanted this and similar choruses to teach, promote and strengthen their view.

The "he" is Jesus Christ--"There was when Christ was not." This small change in wording makes the chorus a little more startling, and perhaps easier for us to understand. In the doctrinal system of Arius and his followers, Jesus Christ, as great as he may be, is a created being, brought into existence by the power of the one true God. He is the firstborn of all creation--greater than all the rest for sure, but still--a created being--not deity. At some point in eternity, God created Jesus Christ. The chorus was a teaching tool, a piece of propaganda for Arius's doctrine.

As this teaching grew and spread, it was opposed by the bishop of Alexandria--Alexander (!). He understood the seriousness of the teaching and its implications, and so he held a public inquiry into the matter. This resulted in the suspension of Arius from his ministry. But that was only the beginning of the trouble... a trouble which would last for another 70 years!

Arius had powerful friends outside of Alexandria. In 324, when Constantine became sole ruler of West and East, he sought to develop favorable relationships with Christian leaders from the east. Among them were Arius's greatest supporters, who appealed to the Emperor to intervene and restore Arius to his position in the Alexandrian church. Feelings throughout the empire ran high. There was great debate, political maneuvering, and ecclesiastical disorder.

Seeing this, Constantine called a council, which would held at Nicaea in 325 under his personal control. With about 220 bishops in attendance, this has been called the first great council of the church. Through much debate, 218 of the bishops adopted a thoroughly orthodox creed, and Arianism--at least for the time--seemed to have been defeated.

There are two versions of this creed, a shorter and a longer. The Nicene Creed (proper) comes from the Council of Nicea in AD 325 and is the shorter version; a revised and expanded version (which is the more common creed today) comes from the Council of Constantinople in 381. The original form of the creed was intended to guard the deity to Christ; the second and expanded version speaks more directly to the person and work of the Holy Spirit.

This creed is deeply rooted in the text of Scripture. The authors were committed to the authority of Scripture, and sought to mine its depths and express its doctrine carefully. Here is the revised Creed as found in Schaff, Creeds of Christendom:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; from thence he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spake by the prophets. In one holy catholic and apostolic Church; we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The Nicene Creed is accepted by all branches of orthodox Christianity, and its doctrines are considered definitive. If any seemed to introduce a new doctrine, they were examined according to Scripture and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed, and urged to conform to it.

James Renihan (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is President and Professor of Historical Theology at IRBS Theological Seminary, Mansfield, TX. His academic work has focused on the Second London Baptist Confession and its broader Puritan theological context. He has been published in many journals, and is the author of multiple books including Edification and Beauty, A Toolkit for Confessions, True Love, and Faith and Life for Baptists.

Related Links

Our Glorious Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download  ]

Knowing the Trinity by Ryan McGraw

Retrieving Eternal Generation, ed. by Fred Sanders and Scott Swain

Athanasius (Christian Biographies For Young Readers) by Simonetta Carr

The Statement on SJ&G Explained: Article 9, Heresy


[Editorial Note: This is the ninth post in a series of posts in which we have invited the authors of "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" to expound upon the statement's affirmations and denials. We encourage our readers to take the time to read through our prefatory editorial note at the beginning of the first post prior to reading through subsequent posts in the series.]

Article 9:


WE AFFIRM that heresy is a denial of or departure from a doctrine that is essential to the Christian faith. We further affirm that heresy often involves the replacement of key, essential truths with variant concepts, or the elevation of non-essentials to the status of essentials. To embrace heresy is to depart from the faith once delivered to the saints and thus to be on a path toward spiritual destruction. We affirm that the accusation of heresy should be reserved for those departures from Christian truth that destroy the weight-bearing doctrines of the redemptive core of Scripture. We affirm that accusations of heresy should be accompanied with clear evidence of such destructive beliefs.

WE DENY that the charge of heresy can be legitimately brought against every failure to achieve perfect conformity to all that is implied in sincere faith in the gospel.

Heresy. The word itself likely conjures up images of the Inquisition, medieval torture devices and angry torch wielding mobs. Though such un-pleasantries are now in the past (hopefully), heresy remains a very serious theological reality and poses an eternal danger to countless souls.

The Greek word for heresy, hairesis (αἵρεσις), carries the basic meaning of division. Titus 3:10 which states, "Reject a factious (divisive) man after a first and second warning" employs this term. In fact, the King James version renders it quite literally, "A man that is a heretic after the first and second admonition reject."

Though division often carries a negative connotation, not all division is bad. Some division is absolutely necessary. As Christians we are to be wholly devoted to the authority of God's inerrant, infallible, all sufficient word. That devotion necessitates that we divide from those who are not so devoted. Jesus himself will one day separate the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:32). Division can be a good thing.

There is nothing good, however, about heresy. Heresy constitutes a willful departure from Christian orthodoxy and has been a problem in the church practically since its inception. Jesus and the New Testament writers repeatedly warned about the rise of false prophets (Matthew 7:15-20; Acts 20:29-31; 1 Timothy 4:1; 2 Timothy 4:3-4). In fact, almost every book in the New Testament directly warns of false doctrine.

There are many different categories of heresy. There are heresies regarding the godhead such as Modalism[1] which denies the trinity and Open Theism which denies God's knowledge of the future. There are Christological heresies such as Arianism and Kenosis theology, both of which denigrate the deity of Christ.[2] There are soteriological heresies such as Universalism and the Roman Catholic doctrine of Infused Righteousness that deny salvation by faith alone in Christ alone. This brief list is barely the tip of the heretical theological iceberg. To imbibe one or more of these heresies is to depart from the "faith once delivered to the saints" (Jude 3) and to put one's soul in eternal peril.

It is important to understand that all heresy is error but not all theological error is heresy. There are a number of secondary or tertiary biblical and theological issues about which genuine Christians can disagree and still have fellowship in Christ. For example, who wrote the book of Hebrews? Some say Paul, others say Luke or Barnabas or someone else. The fact of the matter is that we do not know who wrote it; only that the author was inspired by the Holy Spirit. If one person believes Paul wrote Hebrews and another person believes Luke wrote it, at least one of them is wrong - and possibly both are - but neither is in heresy.

Drs. John MacArthur and the late R.C. Sproul differed on at least two theological issues: eschatology and the ordinance of baptism. MacArthur is a "leaky dispensationalist" in his eschatology and holds to believer's baptism whereas Sproul was amillennial and affirmed paedobaptism. It is not that eschatology and baptism are unimportant issues. They are both quite important - but they are not essential components in and of themselves to the gospel. They differed with one another on these issues and yet they respected each other greatly. They spoke at each other's conferences. They spoke highly of one another. MacArthur preached at Sproul's funeral. They loved one another. They were friends. Despite differences on these non-essential issues, these two men were absolutely united in the gospel. How MacArthur and Sproul interacted with one another serves as an inspiring model for me and many, many other believers around the world.

This having been said, some points of error even though they may not be intrinsically heretical may, and often do, lead to heresy. The Apostle Paul warned that false teaching "spreads like gangrene" (2 Timothy 2:16-17). Error almost always begets more error.

Methodism, founded upon the teachings of John and Charles Wesley in the 18th century, was once committed to the authority of scripture and the preaching of the gospel. Then, in the early 1920s, the denomination began to ordain women as "local preachers" and later granted women "full clergy rights" in 1956.[3] Today the Methodist denomination is hopelessly liberal. It holds that practicing homosexuals can be Christians and even permits their ordination to ministry provided that they take vows of celibacy. The other mainline denominations (Presbyterian Church USA, Episcopal Church and United Church of Christ) have already embraced homosexual marriage and homosexual ordination. The United Methodist Church, and all the mainline protestant denominations, are far more concerned with social and environmental issues than they are the gospel. Their dwindling numbers reflect this sad truth. John and Charles Wesley would not recognize Methodism today. The doctrinal slide into heresy began with allowing women to preach.

One of the things that most alarms us as the initial signatories of the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel (and the nearly 10,000 others who have signed as of this writing) is that within the evangelical social justice movement (heretofore ESJ) we are seeing and hearing some of the same arguments that swayed once theologically conservative denominations that are now in spiritual ruin. For many years Beth Moore has publicly preached to men[4] but now within the Southern Baptist Convention there exists serious talk of her actually becoming its president. There can be no credible doubt that the ESJ movement is promoting egalitarianism.

Even more ominously, within the ESJ movement we are seeing a push for the acceptance of celibate "gay Christians." The stated purpose of the Revoice Conference held in July of 2018 is:

Supporting, encouraging, and empowering gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other gender and sexual minority Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.[5]

That purpose statement alone should have brought swift, decisive and universal condemnation of Revoice for it flies in the face of clear biblical teaching that God saves people out of homosexuality (1 Corinthians 6:9-11), not that it permits them to hold onto a "LGBTQ-lite" identity.

Notice the pernicious nature of false teaching as described by the Apostle Peter:

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. - 2 Peter 2:1

Heresy is never advertised as such to God's people. It is not introduced to the church with fanfare and clearly marked labels. It is introduced secretly and in camouflage. It is always intermingled with the truth. To adapt a phrase from Mary Poppins, 'Just a spoonful of theological sugar helps the heresy go down.'

The charge of heresy is a serious one to levy and the label of heretic is not one to be carelessly applied. Sadly, such aspersions are coming from some in the ESJ camp. Dr. Eric Mason, Pastor of Epiphany Fellowship in Philadelphia, PA, and author of the newly released book entitled Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice[6] tweeted the following:

We need a modern day ecumenical council on race and justice! We need canons and synods and creeds on this! Come to Philly and we can call it the Council of Philadelphia! Limit it to 300 key men and women pastors and scholarly secretaries. Rebuke the heretics and affirm the sound.[7]

Thabiti Anyabwile immediately responded to Dr. Mason's tweet with an enthusiastic, "I'm in!"[8]

The charges of heresy and racism are not coming from those of us who signed the SJ&G, they are coming from those who oppose it. This is wrong and it is sinful. And, ironically, by levying false accusations it foments the very ethnic division that those in the ESJ movement claim to oppose.

In conclusion, we are not seeking to divide from anyone unnecessarily. We see this as a fraternal debate but one with extremely serious consequences. As the introduction to the SJ&G statement says, "we grieve that...we are taking a stand against the positions of some teachers whom we have long regarded as faithful and trustworthy spiritual guides. It is our earnest prayer that our brothers and sisters will stand firm on the gospel and avoid being blown to and fro by every cultural trend that seeks to move the Church of Christ off course."

It is not that those in the ESJ movement are denying the exclusivity or deity of Christ. It is not that they are denying salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It is not that they are denying the authority of scripture - at least not directly. In other words, they (at least most of them) are not necessarily heretical in what they teach, but we do believe them to be in serious theological error; error which, left unchecked, will inexorably lead to heresy. The error we are seeing today in the ESJ movement is the error that seemed benign to Methodists a century ago. Out of love for God and concern for His sheep we are trying to sound the alarm.

We have seen this movie before.

[1] Modalism is a heresy that denies that there is one God who eternally exists in three Persons, as the Bible teaches. Rather it holds that there is one God in three manifestations. One notable adherent is T.D. Jakes, pastor of The Potter's House in Dallas, TX. See

[2] Both Arianism and Kenosis theology are alive and well in the Word-Faith/New Apostolic Reformation movements.

[3] Source:

[4] Beth Moore has preached to men in numerous venues including but certainly not limited to a Sunday morning sermon July 1, 2012 at Passion City Church pastored by Louis Giglio and has preached to thousands of men at multiple Passion Conferences, just one example of which can be seen here. Josh Buice, one of the initial signatories of the SJ&G statement has written about the many concerns regarding Beth Moore as has Elizabeth Prata and Michelle Lesley.

[5] Source:

[6]  Woke Church was released October 2, 2018.

[7] Tweet dated May 13, 2018. Source:

[8] Ibid.

Unorthodox Christology

Recently, it has come to light that William Lane Craig, professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, propagates an unorthodox view of Christology. Craig has explicitly stated that "the soul of the human nature of Christ is the second person of the Trinity, the Logos. The human nature of Christ is composed of the Logos and a human body." Craig states, 

"If you have a rational soul and a humanoid body, you have a human person. That is all it takes. So if you say that Christ had a merely human soul and a human body then why wasn't there a human person, Jesus? Yet orthodoxy denies that. Orthodoxy says there is only one person in Christ (or who is Christ), and that person is divine. There is no human person, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is a divine person with two natures. I can't make sense of that if we say that Christ had, in addition to his divine person, a merely human soul conjoined with a human body. That seems to me to be sufficient for another person in which case you have two Sons - one the divine Son and the other a human Son."1

Craig's proposal opposes the orthodox Chalcedonian statements about Christology-- including that later doctrinal articulation of the Westminster Shorter Catechism that "Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to himself a true body and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost in the womb of the virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin."

Rather than avoiding the Appolinarian heresy, Craig embraces a form of it which he personally calls, "Neo-Appolinarianism." How very sad that we are re-living the early church heresies in our own day. Instead of staying with the orthodox notion that Christ is fully God and fully man--two natures in one person, "without confusion, without change, without division, without separation"--Craig amalgamates into the human nature of Christ a divine soul. With regard to how easily men may fall into unorthodox errors in Christology, Geerhardus Vos has aptly noted:

"Church doctrine holds to the middle between extremes, because here it is also true that there is no effective heresy that does not derive its strength for exercising influence from an element of the truth, which it attempts to develop one-sidedly and elevate at the cost of all other truths. Especially in a doctrine like this, where the middle way is so narrow and one is continually in danger of slipping to the right or to the left, it is not sufficient to know the truth positively."2

2. Geerhardus Vos. (2012-2016). Reformed Dogmatics. (R. B. Gaffin, Ed., A. Godbehere, R. van Ijken, D. van der Kraan, H. Boonstra, J. Pater, A. Janssen, ... K. Batteau, Trans.) (Vol. 3, p. 30). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Refuting Theological Error

There is a profoundly important section titled, "On the Preaching of the Word," in The Directory for the Public Worship of God, in which we find a very short and very wise statement about the minister's responsibility to refute false teaching in the church. What is most captivating about the brief statement found therein is that it instructs concerning, first, the dangers of talking about false teaching, and, second, the necessity of refuting false teaching in the church. 

As the Divines unfolded their beliefs about how ministers should approach the aspect of refuting theological error in their preaching, they wrote:

In confutation of false doctrines, he [i.e. the minister] is neither to raise an old heresy from the grave, nor to mention a blasphemous opinion unnecessarily: but, if the people be in danger of an error, he is to confute it soundly, and endeavor to satisfy their judgments and consciences against all objections.

The rationale for this statement is dependent on understanding the nature of false teaching itself. In short, ideas can and often do have massive spiritual consequences. J. Gresham Machen made the important statement about the implications of false teachings and ideologies when he wrote:

False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel...What is today a matter of academic speculation begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires. In that second stage, it has gone too far to be combated; the time to stop it was when it was still a matter of impassioned debate.1

Since beliefs inevitably have consequences on our lives and actions, the Divines first warn against our "raising an old heresy from the grave, nor to mention a blasphemous opinion unnecessarily." They do not say this to be necessarily or fearfully censorious, or to bury their heads in the sand rather than deal with difficult theological matters. Rather, they raise this warning because of the nature of false teaching. 

When I was a young Christian, a friend taught me that "whenever false teaching is taught in a nuanced fashion there is always the danger that some who hear it will be drawn into it." He went on to explain that this is true within the realm of relationships, as well. Whenever we start to enter into debate with those with whom we disagree we are in danger of becoming more like them--as well as becoming more susceptible to being influenced by their beliefs. It is not guaranteed that this will happen, but it is certainly a very real and ever present danger. Tragically, years after sharing this thought with me, my friend went on to embrace a sinful lifestyle due in part to the public discussions about, and approval of, that particular sin. Additionally, I have watched--with great heaviness of heart--as a minister of the Gospel walked away from Protestantism in the midst of engaging, on church court levels, with men who were being tried for holding to aberrant theological views on the sacraments and soteriology. Whether engagement with sacramentalist views were the cause of his departing from the truth or not, I cannot help but wonder what impact interacting with aberrant teaching had on this particular individual.

This danger must be highlighted within the realm of pastoral ministry in the church. There are some who thrive on debating theological issues. This can be harmful to the members of a church because some members already have misguided beliefs, and some have a very small knowledge of doctrine. In the case of the first group, introducing old heresies can encourage more confusion. I have, time and again, seen individuals start to dabble with heresy because they already had misguided beliefs based on their erroneous knowledge of Scripture. In the case of the latter group, introducing theological error--even in the name of "discernment"--can end in filling the minds of God's people with falsehood when they ought to be filling their minds with the truth. Far better to teach them the nuances of the truth of Scripture so that they will be able to discern falsehood when confronted with it. You don't study a counterfeit dollar bill to spot a counterfeit; you study the real dollar currency so that you will be better suited to spot the counterfeit.

Additionally, pastors may inadvertently encourage a hyper-critical spirit among church members. We have all seen churches that are full of theological "heresy-hunters." While I don't like to bandy about that term--since there is a "heresy spotting" and "heresy rejecting" to which all believers are called--the love of seeking out error can be a highly toxic thing. The Divines were certainly warning against these two dangers when they insisted that ministers should be slow to raise an old heresy, or an unnecessary blasphemous opinion, among the members of a church.

In a day when most professing believers would be more than happy to emphasize the first half of the statement about heresy in the Directory, it is important for us to understand the significance of what they say in the latter part. There are three parts to what is said about confuting error in the church. The first is that it is incumbent on the minister(s) of the church to refute error "if the people be in danger of an error." The shepherds are appointed by God to feed the sheep, to go after them when they stray and to guard them against all dangers that threaten to harm them. Certainly, if theological error is creeping into our churches or denominations, we must confute it out of love for, and protection of, the sheep. Years ago, when theological error started creeping into some of our Reformed denominations, prominent voices were insinuating that we have Mormonism, atheism, Islam, paganism, etc. to deal with--attacking Christians from outside the church--and that we should not be squabbling over theological nuances within. While this sounds pious, it actually does not stand the test of what the Apostle Paul demonstrated in Galatia with the Judaizers who were coming into the church stealthily. In fact, it has been said that we wouldn't have a New Testament if it weren't for all the internal theological and moral errors that needed to be refuted.Out of love for God and the truth of the Gospel, as well as for the salvation His people, ministers are called to refute error.

The second thing that the Divines noted was that the minister is "to confute [false doctrine] soundly." There should be an appropriate force with which error is confuted. The intensity of the confutation must fit the doctrinal error being propagated. This takes great wisdom. It is possible for a minister to tackle a theological error that surfaces in the church, but not to do it with the intensity with which it ought to be confuted. If justification by faith alone, the nature of soteriology, the necessity of holiness in the Christian life, the Person and work of Christ, the Trinity, etc. are under attack, the minister must confute these with the strongest intensity and with the most comprehensive treatment. If the error be some thing of lesser significance, it should be confuted with less intensity and perhaps less comprehensiveness.

The third thing that the Divines say is that the minister is to "endeavor to satisfy their [i.e. the congregants] judgments and consciences against all objections." We have all seen or heard of ministers who give the sense that, when they are seeking to refute error, they just want people to agree with their warnings without doing the hard work of studying theological nuances and taking the time to walk their people through the issues involved with care and patience. It will be impossible to satisfy all the judgments and consciences of all involved against all objections; nevertheless, that should be the goal and desire of the minister. This means that ministers should not simply parrot a criticism of a theological error. Too many have heard a respected professor, theologian or pastor raise warnings about a pressing theological danger only to go and parrot what they have heard. When objections fall within the "razor's edge" of the erroneous doctrines, such ministers fail to satisfy the consciences of their hearers against all objections. We must (with prayerful caution) engage with first sources and with specialized volumes that take on the oftentimes highly academic and theologically nuanced errors that arise so that we will be prepared to "endeavor to satisfy their [i.e. the congregants] judgments and consciences against all objections."

One final warning needs to be raised. The minister must guard his own heart and mind from theological error as well. We do this by keeping ourselves in the Scriptures and in the love of God. We do this by putting sin to death in our lives. We do this by crying out to God to keep us from falling. Somehow, many convince themselves that drugs, sexual immorality, etc.--but not reading theological error--will most certainly have a negative effect on them. Ideas have consequences. All theological error originates from the evil one. He is more cunningly skillful than we could ever know at leading people astray through academic and highly nuanced theological error. As is true with every other danger that we face, when we come to study theological error we must remember the words of the Apostle Paul: "Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall."

1. J. Gresham Machen, "Christianity and Culture," Princeton Theological Review 11 (1913)

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: