Heresies, Heretics, & Heterodox: My Interview with Justin Holcomb

Below is an interview with my friend and colleague via Docent Research Group, Justin Holcomb, on his forthcoming book Know Your Heretics (April 28th). Justin is an Episcopal priest, (serving as the Canon for Vocations in the Diocese of Central Florida) and teaches theology, philosophy, and Christian thought at Gordon-Conwell-Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary. He is married to Lindsey and has two daughters. He and Lindsey wrote Rid of My Disgrace, a book on gospel hope and healing for sexual assault victims, which I highly recommend and have reviewed here. Recently they co-authored a similar book on domestic violence titled Is it My Fault?: Hope and Healing for those Suffering Domestic ViolenceYou can follow him on Twitter here

If you share this interview on some sort of social networking site and let me know in the comments I’ll draw your name out of the others who do the same and send the winner a copy of the book. 

A heretic is someone who has compromised an essential doctrine and lost sight of who God really is, usually by oversimplification.

1. First off, what makes someone a heretic?

A heretic is someone who has compromised an essential doctrine and lost sight of who God really is, usually by oversimplification. Literally, heresy means “choice”—that is, a choice to deviate from traditional teaching in favor of one’s own insights. The Nicene Creed is a historic, globally accepted ecumenical creed that encapsulates the good news of the gospel into a short and rich summary. It covers the basic essentials of 1) who God is, 2) what God is like, and 3) how God saves. If a believer authentically holds to the Nicene Creed, we should not call them a heretic, no matter how strongly we believe they are gravely in error on the details or on other doctrines. A good shorthand for heresy, then, is to ask, “Can they say the Nicene Creed and mean it without their fingers crossed?” If the answer is yes, they may still be wrong, and they may be heterodox, but we cannot call them heretics, because they fit within the bounds of historic Christianity.

2. Why is it important for Christians to know about heresies?

There are two major reasons. The first is that while there is certainly ambiguity in the Bible, the Creator of the world has decided to reveal himself to us and even to live with us. It is important to honor that revelation. When we find this revelation distasteful and try to reshape God according to our preferences, we are beginning to drift away from God as he really is. Imagine a friend who ignores the parts of you that he or she doesn’t like. Is that a deep relationship? Ambiguity or not, uncomfortable or not, it is vital that we are obedient to what we can know about God.

The second reason is related to the first. When we have a flawed image of God, we no longer relate to him in the same way. Think of the way that you might have related to your parents when you were growing up. Even if you didn’t necessarily understand the reasons behind boundaries they set for you in childhood, they look a lot different when you are confident in your parents’ love than when you fear or resent your parents. It is surprising how much our beliefs about God impact our daily lives, which is partly what makes theology such a rewarding (although difficult and dangerous) discipline.

As is clear from the New Testament, the apostles were not afraid to call out heresy when they saw it.

3. If you believe a heresy, say that Jesus isn’t God, does this mean you are going to hell?

The Bible seems to presuppose a right and a wrong interpretation of Jesus’ coming and the nature and character of God, as it uses strong language against false teachers who promote doctrines that undermine the gospel.

As historical theologian Bruce Demarest notes, “the NT expresses serious concern for ‘false doctrines’ (1 Tim. 1:3; 6:3) and places the highest priority on maintaining ‘the pattern of sound teaching’ (2 Tim. 1:13; cf. 1 Tim. 6:3). Scripture urges Christians to be alert to doctrinal deception (Mt. 24:4) and to avoid heresy by carefully guarding the pure content of the gospel (1 Cor. 11:2; Gal. 1:8).” [Bruce Demarest, “Heresy,” New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1988), 293.]

In Galatians 1:9, Paul uses the strongest words possible against those who distort the gospel, writing, “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” And the apostle Peter warns against “false teachers among you [who] will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves” (2 Peter 2:1).

As is clear from the New Testament, the apostles were not afraid to call out heresy when they saw it. If a teaching or practice threatened the integrity of the gospel, it was strongly condemned (as in the case of Peter and the circumcision party described in Galatians 2). However, heresy was a weighty charge that was not made lightly, nor was it used whenever there was theological inaccuracy or imprecision. (Think of the response to Apollos in Acts 18:24 – 28.)

4. What’s the difference between a heresy and a bad doctrine? For instance, between believing that Jesus was not God compared to believing that the initial evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit is speaking in tongues.

Historically both the Roman Catholic tradition and the Reformed tradition have understood that not all theological errors are equally serious. There is a difference between heterodoxy (Christian belief which differs from orthodoxy) and heresy (belief that diverges from orthodoxy beyond a certain point).

When everything is central, nothing is.

There are those who think that heresy is anything that does not agree with their own interpretation of Holy Scripture. These people fail to differentiate between the primary and secondary elements of the Christian faith and make every belief they have into a pillar of Christianity. So, on this view, if someone disagrees with them about the millennium, about infant baptism, about the role of women in ministry, or about the nature of the atonement, they are quickly labeled a heretic. While such impulses can be well intentioned, the church of the New Testament walked the line between holding fast to some convictions and being flexible about others.

Though this group of heresy-hunters often say they’re motivated by concern for the faith once for all delivered to the saints, their practice of labeling every diverging belief as heresy has the opposite effect. Rather than making much of right belief, they minimize its importance by making, for example, the mode of baptism to be as important as the divinity of Christ. When everything is central, nothing is.

5. What two or three ancient heresies do you think are challenging the church right now?

I think the repackaged heresies from Pelagius and Socinus challenge the church the most now.

My summary of Pelagius’ heresy is “God has already given us the tools we need.” Pelagius developed an ascetic form of Christianity with an overly optimistic theology of human nature. My summary of Socinus’ heresy is “The Trinity is irrelevant and Jesus’ death is only an example.”

Pelagius correctly saw human nature as something good created by God. It is the result of the fall upon humanity (original sin), however, that Pelagius ignores, causing his theology to fall into error. First, Pelagius argued that there is no such thing as original sin. In no way were humans after Adam guilty of or implicated in his first sin. Adam’s sin in no way makes humans guilty or corrupt. Instead, as Pelagius claims, “over the years [our own sin] gradually corrupts us, building an addiction and then holding us bound with what seems like the force of nature itself.” Humans by nature have a clean slate — a state of neutrality — according to Pelagius, and it is only through voluntary sin through the exercise of an unhampered human free will that humans are made wicked. Potentially, then, one could live a sinless life and merit heaven, for there is nothing intrinsically sinful about humans even after Adam and Eve’s sin. Pelagius didn’t consider humans to be intrinsically damnable after the fall.

I think the repackaged heresies from Pelagius and Socinus challenge the church the most now.

In short, Pelagius rejected the doctrines of original sin, substitutionary atonement (the idea that Christ’s death in our place is a supernatural intervention to save us), and justification by faith (the idea that believing and trusting in Christ is the way to salvation).

Socinus held a unitarian view of God: only God the Father is truly and fully divine. Jesus, “the Son of God,” received a unique divinely appointed office as the Logos, an office which deserves respect and even worship. However, for Jesus, that respect and worship were limited to his office and did not extend to his person, which Socinus argued was not divine. Socinus argued that the ecumenically accepted doctrine of the Trinity could not be defended.

Given his understanding of the radical unity of God and, consequently, Jesus’ merely human existence, Socinus’s view of the atonement logically differed from commonly accepted views. Socinus argued that because Jesus was not divine, his death could not have been intended to make satisfaction (as Anselm argued) or to pay a penalty on behalf of other humans (as the Calvinists argued). Instead, Socinus understood Christ’s death to serve as a way for God to model true love and devotion and to demonstrate the way of salvation. Jesus, then, provided the unique and divinely anointed model for humans to imitate.

6. Is it important to call out present-day heretics? Aside from bloggers (just kidding), who in the church has the responsibility to do this?

It is very important. I think just bloggers and people who write books on heresy (and orthodoxy) should have such authority. Let’s make a committee.

Seriously, because the line between heterodoxy and heresy is blurry, we need lots of wisdom, discernment, and humility before we declare that someone has departed into full-blown heresy. In addition, we must remember that the entirety of what we think Christians should believe is not identical to what a person must believe to be saved. We believe in justification by faith in Christ, not justification by accuracy of doctrine. We are saved by the grace of Jesus, not our intellectual precision.

 

Doctrinal Discernment: We Do Not Give Scalpels to Angry Children

Doctrinal discernment in the church is lacking. For many Christians, tradition and/or experience trump doctrine. This is harmful to the church and rampant in the church.

But so are the kind of Christians and bloggers that are always looking to be against something instead of for something. Cynicism is not a spiritual fruit or spiritual gift.

Richard Lovelace has a great phrase in this regard. He states,

Considering the capacity of variant orthodoxies to divide the church, we might also question how much doctrinal discernment God can safely entrust to the church. We do not give scalpels to angry children. [Dynamics of Spiritual Life, 286. Emphasis added.]

Scalpels are ultimately to be instruments of healing for the whole body. An angry surgeon is a horrifying thought for anyone suffering from a chronic disease looking for wholeness. The same is true for the church, the body and bride of the Lord Jesus.

There are few things more frightening than those self-proclaimed doctrine police who wield there “discernment” scalpels like machetes. According to the apostle Paul, the man of God must not be quarrelsome, kind, and correct those in error with gentleness (2 Ti. 2:24-25).

Scalpels are needed. It’s the angry surgeons we could use a lot less of.

7 Characteristics of False Teachers

Seven characteristics of false teachers from the ole’ Puritan Thomas Brooks:

False teachers make merchandise of their followers.

1. False teachers are men-pleasers.
2. False teachers are notable in casting dirt, scorn, and reproach upon the persons, names, and credits of Christ’s most faithful ambassadors.
3. False teachers are venters of the devices and visions of their own head and hearts.
4. False teachers easily pass over the great and weighty things both of law and gospel, and stand most upon those things that are of the least moment an concernment to the souls of men.
5. False teachers cover and colour their dangerous principles and soul-impostures with very fair speeches and plausible pretences, with high notions and golden expressions.
6. False teachers strive more to win over men to their opinions, than to better them in their conversations.
7. False teachers make merchandise of their followers.

Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices
, 230-233

The Christian’s Relationship with God is Better than Sinless Adam.

Abraham Kuyper, in The Work of the Holy Spirit, shows how the position of a Christian now is far better than the position of Adam before he fell. He writes,

“Therefore, the ungodly, when justified by grace, has nothing to do with Adam’s state before the fall, but occupies the position of Jesus after the resurrection. He possesses a good that can not be lost. He works no more for wages, but the inheritance is his own. His works, zeal, love, and praise flow not from his own poverty, but from the overflowing fulness of life that was obtained for him…

The work of re-creation has this peculiarity, that it places the elect at once at the end of the road. They are not like the traveler still half way from home, but like one who has finished his journey; the long, dreary, and dangerous road is entirely behind him. Of course, he did not run that road; he could never have reached his goal. His Mediator and Daysman traveled it for him and in his stead. And by mystic union with his Savior it is as tho [sic] he had traveled the whole distance; not as we reckon, but as God reckons. (49, 50)

The relationship of the Christian with God is less like the relationship of sinless Adam with God in the garden, and more like the relationship of Jesus with God. By grace, we have been unified with Christ not with sinful or even sinless Adam.

False Teaching Is Chrome

False teaching in the church is subtle. It sneaks in all shiny-like. As the rock bank Wilco put it in their song Hell is Chrome

When the Devil came

He was not red

He was chrome

And He said

Come with me

Satan doesn’t look like the Devil. Nor do his teachings. They both come in chrome.

Eugene Peterson, when commenting on the false teachings that Jesus mentions in his letters to the churches in the book of Revelation, writes,

It is unlikely that the terms “Satan” (four times), “Nicolaitans” (twice), “Balaam,” and “Jezebel” refer to any conspicuously outrageous sin or teaching that was taking place in John’s churches. Church, the head and body of Christ, is rarely defied and challenged outright from within. Sin and lies within the church work at a more subtle level. They almost always show up as a promised improvement or an extension of what has been already definitively revealed in Jesus Christ. [Practice Resurrection (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 153]

You can’t improve upon Jesus and you can’t extend him. That word, “extension”, that Peterson uses, is meant to, I believe, make us think of something like a fake hair extension. We don’t get to take the work of Jesus and attach something to it.

False teaching is anything that improves upon or adds to the person and work of Jesus. It takes what is peripheral and makes it central. It seeks to dilute or enhance the message of the crucified and resurrected Jesus and all that he accomplished at the cross.

False teaching doesn’t come with horns nor do its proponents carry pitchforks. They smile and slither from within the body of Christ slowly adding to and/or subtracting from the person and work of Jesus.

Jesus didn’t come in chrome and he didn’t offer a flashy message. He came as a servant, was crucified on a Roman cross, and has risen from the dead in victory over Satan and his minions. The message of the gospel will always be tweaked by charlatans to offer something better than or in addition to Jesus, but the robust once-for-all accomplishment of Jesus is always the best news in the whole world. It is not chrome, but it is blood-red purifying the worst of sinners by the one-and-only Savior.

5 Encouragements from Predestination

I preached on predestination recently at our local church (audio here) because Pastor Bob Hapgood has been scaling the Kilimanjaro that is Romans 9, and one of the things I tried to do was show how encouraging this doctrine is to those who trust Jesus. Often predestination and election get treated as something meant for controversy and debate or as a mystery to be pretty much left alone and avoided. This is a sad, and, in my opinion, weakens the church because of the tendency to either dodge or debate this glorious aspect of its identity.

Predestination should enhance your joy not disturb it.

I’m convinced that if you ignore or just argue about the doctrine of predestination you will miss out on one of God’s ways of blessing you (Eph. 1:3). The first several verses of Ephesians 1 unpack predestination in order to show that it is a part of the multifaceted ways that God has blessed you in Jesus Christ. Therefore predestination should enhance your joy not disturb it. What follows are a few of the many encouragements for Christians to draw from the reality that God predestines:

1. God chose you because he loved you. Ephesians 1:4-5, in the ESV translation, says, “in love God predestined”. Therefore predestination is motivated by love. This means that God’s choice of you derives from his love for you. Sovereign choice doesn’t detract from God’s love it is the fountainhead of God’s love. We don’t go deeper into love by sidestepping predestination. We go deeper into love by diving into its deeps. We are familiar with the fact that God so loved the world that he gave his Beloved Son, but need to become more familiar with the fact that God so loved the world that he predestined adopted sons in the Beloved from all eternity (Eph. 1:5).

2. You are a gift of love from the Father to the Son. John 17 reveals that your salvation was planned in the heart and mind of the Triune God before there ever was a you (17:2, 24). This means that God’s love for you is bigger than you. It is tied to the love for which the Father has for his Son. And the reason this is encouraging is because the size of God’s love for you is not to be gauged by his love for you but by his love for Jesus. From his very own mouth, Jesus said, “[Father] you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (17:23). The astonishment that we should feel at being loved by God becomes even more mind-blowing because God’s love for us flows in the same stream as God’s love for God.

3. Your present sins may be many but your future sinlessness is certain. Romans 8:29 tells us that we have been “predestined to be conformed to the image of [Jesus].” As a son of God, you are guaranteed one day to look like the Son of God. Therefore you fight sin in hope not in defeated depression. Your Christlikeness is not dependent upon your performance but upon God’s predestination.

Your Christlikeness is not dependent upon your performance but upon God’s predestination.

4. Your very identity is “elect” because God has named you that. The apostle Peter begins his letter to those in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, and Bithynia by calling them “God’s elect” (1 Pe. 1:1). Contemporary Christians don’t normally go around calling each other “predestined” or “elect” or “chosen” or “called”, but there is no reason why we shouldn’t. In fact, if we were named this by God, what stops us from calling each other that? What kind of massive encouragement would it bring to believers to have spoken over their lives the fact that God has picked them? Psychologically we see in various social situations that many times a person lives up to what they are called to. If you are called “loser”, “failure”, even “sinner”, and the like over and over again you will probably live up to it. If you trust Jesus, you can be confident that God has given you a new name. You have been chosen. God has called you something that you are not in and of yourself to make you something that you are in him. So act like it. Be who you are. Be what you have been called to be. Live up to your name.

The little phrase “to the praise of the glory of God’s grace” helps us see that one of the best ways to do everything to the glory of God is to do everything celebrating and enjoying God’s grace.

5. God’s predestination of you enables you to live life to the highest purpose of your existence, namely, “to praise of the glory of [God’s] grace” (1:6). All of us have heard the phrase “do everything to the glory of God” and too often it becomes a cliché that means nothing in practice. The little phrase “to the praise of the glory of God’s grace” helps us see that one of the best ways to do everything to the glory of God is to do everything celebrating and enjoying God’s grace. Predestination has a unique way of drawing this out of us because it drowns out our propensity toward boasting and relying upon works and establishes the fact that it flows from the sovereign heart of God uninfluenced by human decision and work. Election strips us from taking one ounce of salvation and putting it in our portfolio and propels us into praising God exclusively for everything. Predestination is exceptional at displaying that every piece of salvation is gift, and one’s who have been given such a great gift will joyfully praise and glorify the Giver. We live “to the praise of the glory of the grace of God” when we recognize that predestination is all of grace and for God’s glory.

Be encouraged! Predestination is meant to bedazzle your heart not just boggle your mind.

Is Jesus After Depth or Breadth?

Late nineteenth century pastor and Scottish theologian PT Forsyth answers:

A gospel deep enough has all the breadth of the world in its heart

…while Christ and Christianity did come to make us broad men, it did not come to do that in the first instance. It came to make us deep men. The living interest of Christ and of the Holy Spirit is not breadth, but it is depth. Christ said little that was wide compared with what He said piercing and searching…A gospel deep enough has all the breadth of the world in its heart. If we are only deep enough the breadth will take care of itself. I would…rather have one man who was burning deep, even though he wanted to burn me for my modern theology, than I would have a broad, hospitable, and thin theologian who was willing to take me in and a nondescript crowd of others in a sheet let down from heaven, but who had no depth, no fire, no skill to search, and no power to break. For the deep Christianity is that which not only searches us, but breaks us. And a Christianity which would exclude none has no power to include the world.” [The Work of Christ, 61-62. Accessed online: http://www.newcreation.org.au/books/pdf/277_WorkOfChrist.pdf (July 26, 2012).]