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.

Smart Aleck Theological Questions

Wisdom from Marilynne Robinson’s masterpiece, Gilead, through the voice of the Reverend John Ames:

Nine-tenths of the time when some smart aleck starts in on theological questions he’s only trying to put me in a false position, and I’m just too old to see the joke in it anymore. [p. 152]

Clearly there is a difference between smart aleck theological questions and genuine theological questions.

If you’re the one being asked, learn to spot the difference between the two and then respond with the necessary sarcasm or seriousness.

And if you are the smart aleck, quit it. (Especially if you are a blogger or a blog commenter.)

 

“Son Of A..!”: Thoughts on Softening the Bible

Earlier this morn, in 1 Samuel 20:30, I came across King Saul calling his son, Jonathan, a “stupid, son of a bitch!” Not your average morning devotional reading, eh?

This got me thinking: How can this kind of language be in the Bible?

The Bible is full of tenderness and toughness and translators have been known to take the tough edges off a bit.

Well, actually it is not. I found it in the notes in my Bible. The translation I have been reading from lately is the NET Bible which has over 60,000 translation notes within it, and they translated Saul’s angry outburst toward his son: “You stupid traitor!” Yet in the notes they make the following admission:

A better English approximation of the sentiments expressed here by the Hebrew phrase would be “You stupid son of a bitch!” However, sensitivity to the various public formats in which the Bible is read aloud has led to a less startling English rendering which focuses on the semantic value of Saul’s utterance (i.e, the behavior of his own son Jonathan, which he viewed as both a personal and a political behavior [= “traitor”]). But this concession should not obscure the fact that Saul is full of bitterness and frustration. That he would address his son Jonathan with such language, not to mention his apparent readiness even to kill his own son over this friendship with David (v. 33), indicates something of the extreme depth of Saul’s jealousy and hatred of David.

So, the translators, of the NET Bible and many others, decided to soften the blow of the Hebrew to make it more sensitive to various listeners even though the Hebrew itself wasn’t nearly as sensitive. Now, I am sure they had good reasons for doing so, but I think it brings up an important point. We love to soften the hard edges of the Bible.

Now in no way am I trying to give everyone who wanted to have an excuse to cuss a biblical reason for doing so. Clearly Saul’s statement was the result of sinful anger. Nevertheless, the Bible is full of tenderness and toughness and translators have been known to take the tough edges off a bit.

Holiness is humble but it is not always nice.

For instance, in Philippians, Paul compares all of his religious accolades to “rubbish” or “dung” in comparison to knowing Christ. Yet in all probability he wasn’t just saying “rubbish” with a British accent over tea; instead, as the NET Bible puts it,

The word here translated “dung” was often used in Greek as a vulgar term for fecal matter. As such it would most likely have had a certain shock value for the readers.

Obviously, “dung” isn’t very shocking or vulgar. I could say that to my (almost) three-year-old and not blush. However, I can think of other words I could say that would be more alarming about fecal matter that I would not say in front of my three-year-old. That is what the Holy Spirit inspired apostle is after here.

I am not pretending to be a Bible translator. I am nothing of the sort and don’t even know the Greek or Hebrew alphabet. But I think there is a desire here by translators to temper the Bible a bit that carries over to the pulpit and to the daily lives of Christians.

We want to be able to read our Bible’s without being provoked with foul language. We want to hear sermons with the offensiveness drained out. We want to be good, nice Christian people that say nice Christian things. The problem is the original languages of our God-breathed book sometimes says “son of a bitch” and calls idolaters whores and even our Savior, Jesus, calls the Pharisees names.

Bible-reading, you can call it devotions, is meant to kick us in the gut sometimes and not just massage our nice-and-neat hyper-spiritual sensibilities. It is meant to awaken us to the reality of sin and the beauty of scandalous grace in Jesus.

This isn’t about cussing. This is about our sinful tendency to soften God’s word to us and his call to us.

I think there are a few things to take away from this:

1) The Bible isn’t a cutesy story full of butterflies and rainbows. It is the story of men and women who were created in God’s image being broken by sin and redeemed by the gracious plan of the Triune God. We should expect scandal and uncouthness in the Bible.

2) Preachers aren’t supposed to preach sermons to make you feel good and Christian books aren’t supposed to be written to entertain you or improve you. They should awaken you.

3) Godly communication is tough and tender. The way you communicate differs depending on who you are talking to, what the circumstances are, and what you are talking to them about. For instance, sarcasm can be a biblical means of communication when used in rebuke.

4) We, like translators, have a propensity to soften God’s word to us in the Bible. We naturally want to weaken the offensiveness of the cross, tone down the exclusivity and sufficiency of the work of Jesus, soften our Bible-translations, only experience encouraging encouragement and avoid encouraging rebuke, have devotions and listen to preaching that massages what we already know and doesn’t call us higher, etc.

This isn’t about cussing. This is about our sinful tendency to soften God’s word to us and his call to us. Jesus laughed and played with little children, wept with Lazarus’ family, and he also made a whip to drive out salesman in his house.

Let’s not soften the Bible and lets not repackage holiness into niceness. Holiness is humble but it is not always nice.

Mosaic Liberalism: Returning to Our Beginnings

Pulitzer Prize winning Novelist Marilynne Robinson:

“The law of Moses puts liberation theology to shame in its passionate loyalty to the poor.”[When I Was a Child I Read Books, Location 1479]

“At present, here in what is still sometimes called our Calvinist civilization, the controversies of liberalism and conservatism come down, as always, to economics…There is clearly a feeling abroad that God smiled on our beginnings, and that we should return to them as we can. If we really did attempt to return to them, we would find Moses as well as Christ, Calvin, and his legions of intellectual heirs. And we would find a recurrent, passionate insistence on bounty or liberality, mercy and liberality, on being kind and liberal, liberal and bountiful, and enjoying the great blessings God has promised to liberality to the poor.” [Ibid., Location 1227]

Yahweh’s prophet Moses:

“If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that theLord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother,but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be…10 You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 11 For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’” (Deut. 15:7-8, 10-11)

“You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)

 

6 Reasons Not to Be Discouraged & Depressed Over Your Sins

William Bridge, a seventeenth century Puritan minister, and author of A Lifting Up for the Downcast, fills his book with ways to be encouraged when you are under discouragement or depression. In one particular chapter titled “A Lifting Up in the Case of Great Sins” he outlines several ways to be lifted up even after committing great sins.

One of the reasons he recommends for not being discouraged over your sins is that discouragement itself is a sin against the gospel. Countering the question, “Shouldn’t I be discouraged because of such and such a sin?” He answers, “No! for discouragement itself is a sin, another sin, a gospel sin.” (68). The biggest problem with discouragement is that it doubts the gospel. Depression over sin believes that sins power is greater than gospel power. Consequently, we must fight proneness toward discouragement and depression with all our might.

The biggest problem with discouragement is that it doubts the gospel. Depression over sin believes that sins power is greater than gospel power.

In the following I summarize and elaborate on some of Bridge’s reasons for Christians not to be depressed and discouraged over their besetting sins:

1. You will never be condemned for your sin because Christ was condemned for you. Since Christ was made sin for his saints, Bridge argues, “…sin shall not hurt them” (69). He quotes Luther, who wrote, “‘Christ is made sin-damning, our sin is sin damned: I confess, indeed…that I have sinned, but sin-damning is stronger than sin-damned, and Christ was made sin-damning for me'” (69).

2. You will never be forsaken by God for your sins even though you may lose a sense of the presence of God because of your sins. Your “sins may hide God’s face…but shall never turn God’s back” (70).  God’s covenant of mercy with his people is unalterable, and as a part of the people of God mercy is yours forever. You will be disciplined for sin, but never experience God’s wrath for your sin. The comforts of God’s presence may be felt as lost, but the privileges of the believer remain. “This sin of mine, indeed, it is a pest, and the plague of my soul, and a leprosy…[and] although I cannot come to the use of Him as I did before, yet I have right unto Jesus Christ now, as I had before” (73).

3. Your abundant sins are overruled by God’s superabundant grace. Paul, in Romans 11:32, says that God “shut up all to disobedience” in order to have mercy on all. Therefore “God never permits His people to fall into any sin but He intends to make that sin an inlet unto further grace and comfort to them” (71). Furthermore, “He never permits any of His people to fall into any sin, but He hath a design by that fall to break the back of that sin they do fall into” (72).

4. Your power for great sin is not as strong as God’s greater power to forgive. Bridge asks, “Is your sin as big as God, as big as Christ? Is Jesus Christ only a Mediator for small sins? Will you bring down the satisfaction of Christ, and the mercy of God, to your own model?” (74). David sinned greatly and confessed it in Psalm 25:11, and if David’s great sins can be forgiven so can yours.

Discouragement sees only God as Judge, while humility sees God as a just Judge and loving Father.

5. The commandment you have broken by sinning always has a promise attached to it. He states,

God has joined commandment and promise together; the promise and the commandment are born twins. There is never a commandment that you read of but has a promise annexed to it, a promise of assistance, a promise of acceptance, and a promise of reward. If you look upon the commandment itself without a promise, then you will despair; if you look upon the promise without the commandment, then you will presume: but look upon the promise and the commandment…together, then you will be humbled if you have sinned, but you will not be discouraged (83-84).

6. You should be humbled by your sins but not be depressed by them because God is a forgiving Father. The author continues,

God is not pleased with grief for grief, God is not pleased with sorrow for sorrow. The purpose of all our sorrow and grief is, to embitter our sin to us, to make us prize Jesus Christ, to wean us from the delights and pleasures of the creature, to reveal the deceitfulness and naughtiness of our own hearts (79).

The difference between humility over sin and depression over sin is the difference between a God-centered view of sin and a man-centered one. Man-centered views of sin bring massive discourgament because one is primarily focused one their own condition and says, “I have sinned; I have thus and thus sinned, and therefore my condition is bad, and if my condition be bad now, it will never be better; Lord what will become of my soul? (81). On the other hand, God-centered views of your sin are primarily focused on sin as an offense against God. Since sin is an offense against the God who is revealed also as a forgiving God, one can be forgiven and humbled for sin instead of discouraged and proud. Discouragement sees only God as Judge, while humility sees God as a just Judge and loving Father. Humility and discouragement have an inverse relationship. Bridge states, “…the more you are discouraged, the less you will be humbled; and the more humbled you are, the less discouraged you will be” (83). Therefore labor to seek true humility by focusing on the God-centered nature of your sin and seeking to know your Father more.

 

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.