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: