I remember in seminary, sitting under Dr. John Hannah. He was out of this world (although some would say, “No, Michael, you mean ‘out to lunch’!”). Students would purchase a special “Hannah quote book” just to write down the “Hannahisms.” There were so many. The things he would say… The paradigms he would cause you to question… The language he would use! Let’s just say this: everything was unexpected. One day during class, we were talking about a certain heretic in church history. As a green student of theology, all I knew was that I hated heretics. Whoever was the “heretic” of the day, he was the anti-hero. The self-righteous theologian in me was glad that he was burning in hell. However, Hannah said something that did not fit in my puzzle. He suggested (even implied?) that this certain heretic would be in heaven. A heretic in heaven? He said that this heretic was “just doing the best he could.” He said he loved Jesus! What? Quickly, the students raised their hands. “Ummm…do you mean that this heretic was saved?”
Believe it or not, I have been called a heretic many times. The charges vary. One time it was simply because I did not believe someone else was a heretic! (In this case, I think it was Rick Warren). Don’t worry too much. I have about twelve more layers of skin than I used to have. Whether it has been my view of Bible, the Trinity, my stance on Roman Catholics and their eternal destiny, or my understanding of Christian freedom, I get in trouble with someone. To someone, I am always a heretic. Don’t get smug. So are you! Sometimes it will be because people think you are too liberal. Sometimes they will think you are too conservative. I have even had my orthodoxy questioned because of my sympathy for those who doubt their faith. There are always going to be people to the left of you and to the right of you. There are always going to be those people who think your beliefs and teachings are destructive. There are always going to be people who believe you are doing more harm than good. There are always going to be people who think you are a heretic.
But here is my question today: How does one determine if someone is a heretic? What is a heretic anyway? And, most importantly, can a heretic be saved?
The word “heretic” comes from the Greek hairetikos. It speaks of causing divisions. It is used in Titus 3:10 for those who divisively fracture the church. Throughout church history, it became a word used to describe those who divided the church due to doctrinal departures.
Here is a definition of heretic/heresy that I have used elsewhere: “A taught opinion, belief, or doctrine that is in variance to an established cardinal Christian belief. In Christianity, a heresy can have a historic value (more serious) or traditional value (less serious). In other words, a belief can be considered heretical to Baptists (e.g. paedeobaptism), but it is not heretical in the historic sense. To be a historic heresy, it would have to be in variance to that which has been believed by the majority of Christians of all places and all times and touch on a cardinal issue (e.g. the deity of Christ).”
And a heresy is not just an error. It is more serious than that. The puritan writer Thomas Adams distinguishes between mere error and heresy:
“There is difference between error, schism, and heresy. Error is when one holds a strong opinion alone; schism, when many consent in their opinion; heresy runs further, and contends to root out the truth. Error offends, but separates not; schism offends and separates; heresy offends, separates, and rageth… . . . Error is weak, schism strong, heresy obstinate. Error goes out, and often comes in again; schism comes not in, but makes a new church; heresy makes not a new church, but no church. . . . Error is reproved and pitied, schism is reproved and punished, heresy is reproved and excommunicated. Schism is in the same faith, heresy makes another faith. Though they be thus distinguished, yet without God’s preventing grace, one will run into another.”
Because many use the words heresy and heretic in a cavalier way, they have begun to lose their value. At least once a day, it seems, I hear someone calling someone else a heretic for something that is not really deserving of the designation. These will say someone is a heretic for being too strong of a Calvinist, for believing theistic evolution, for saying that drinking alcohol is not a sin, for denying inerrancy, or for being charismatic.
Calling a person the “h” word should be done with great fear and deliberateness. I don’t think we should call a moratorium on the word just because it can be very offensive or because it is so often misused. I think it can carry with it an important rebuke with the implications of grave consequences. However, here are the qualifications I suggest:
Distinguish between two types of heresy which people reference
Traditional heretic: those who depart to some degree from the faith of a particular tradition (e.g., Catholic, Protestant, Reformed, Dispensationalist, etc.) or denomination (Baptist, Anglican, Methodist, etc.). Actually, this type of departure should never be labeled “heresy.”
Historic heretic: Those who depart from the faith with regard to a belief that has been held by Christianity from the beginning (i.e., an orthodox belief). There can be two different types of historic heresy:
1) Departure from an essential belief (which should be limited to the person and work of Christ);
2) Departure from a non-essential belief.
In this case, we may do as some and say that only a historic departure from an essential or cardinal belief qualifies as a “heresy.” A “heretic” is one who not only believes in the heresy, but actively and progressively teaches the heresy.
If this is the case, then a departure from a non-essential historic belief might be labeled “heterodoxy” (“different teaching”) rather than “heresy.” Heterodoxy, while bad, is not as bad as heresy.
Here is how I would designate some common errors:
Modalism (denies the distinction between persons in the Trinity): Heresy – any departure from the basic historic definition of the Trinity would make it into my heresy book.
Open Theism (denies that God is transcendent to time and, therefore, does not know the future): Heterodoxy – to deny God’s transcendence in favor of immanence is a departure from the church’s understanding about God, but I don’t see a belief in God’s timeless transcendence as being central to the faith.
Preterism: (believes that the second coming already happened and that we are living in the New Heaven and New Earth): Heterodoxy – definitely outside of any accepted historic eschatology and borders very close to dismantling the Gospel (i.e. what’s the good news if redemption is not complete?). Many would think it goes beyond heterodoxy because of this. They may be right. I am not sure here.
Universalism: (believes that all will eventually be saved): Heresy – denies the need for the proclamation of the Gospel, thereby completely replacing its hope with a false hope.
Annihilationism: (believes that hell will eventually be vacated with all those who reject God ceasing to exist): Heterodoxy – outside of what the church has generally always accepted about the duration of hell, but I don’t think it is destructive to the essence of the Gospel.
People can advocate heresy in a few ways:
1. Ignorance – some people have simply never been exposed to the orthodox teaching about a particular issue. They need to be educated.
2. Misguidance – some people have been taught wrongly their whole life. They need to be corrected.
3. Obstinance- some people have been taught the truth, but still refuse to conform their thinking accordingly. They need to be rebuked.
When one obstinately believes and teaches something contrary to the essence of Christian orthodoxy, he is a heretic. Someone who is ignorant or misguided is not.
Can heretics be saved?
I don’t know if I want to always connect salvation with orthodoxy. I don’t know how to always disconnect it either! Many people ask this question: What heresy is damnable, evidencing that the person is not saved? I don’t really like that question. Dwight Pentecost used to say that we are all entitled to just one pet heresy. That is Dwight Pentecost from Dallas Theological Seminary saying that! I do believe that one can be a saved heretic. I think we all are saved heretics to some degree. But we need to understand that our “pet heresy” cannot come in an area that is central to the core Gospel message…so be careful which pet heresy you choose! A denial of personal sinfulness, for example, necessarily and completely makes the Gospel ineffective in one’s life. A denial of salvation through Christ necessarily and completely makes the Gospel ineffective in one’s life. In the end, it is the act of unrepentance and unbelief in Christ (who he is and what he did) that keeps us from God, not whether or not our doctrine is perfect. However, I don’t have all this worked out by any means. I have never met anyone who does. Ironically, I don’t know of an historically “orthodox” position on what makes a heresy and which heresies are ultimately damnable.
All heresies are terrible. All need rebuke. While I think that all Christians are, to some degree, saved heretics, we dare not find our heresy in those areas in or around the heart of the Gospel.