Sunday, July 03, 2016

On the word "heresy"

As the current Trinitarian controversy continues, Liam Golligher has posted an article discussing the use of the word "heresy." This of course is interesting apart from the specific controversy we are discussing, and it is to this we want to look at now.

According to Golligher, the word "heresy" is a weighty term and to be used with caution. He however also tied the word with his doctrine of the church or ecclesiology, such that the word "heresy" is used for doctrines against the "heart" of the confession of faith of an ecclesiastical body. Furthermore, the word "heresy" does not declare someone an unbeliever or "immediately disqualify one from teaching," a rather strange thing to say if said error strikes at the "heart" of the creeds and confessions of faith of the church.

This tying of "heresy" to ecclesiology is rather common it seems, but is that proper? Of course it is ultimately the church that declares heresy, and that is not in dispute. But does the church declare an error a heresy, or does it declare an heresy an heresy? In other words, does the church make an error heresy, or merely declares that it was and is an heresy?

The opposite of "heresy" is "orthodoxy." A doctrine is true if the Scripture state it as being true. Scripture stands above the church, and thus whether a doctrine is true does not depend on what the church says. The Roman church at Trent for example anathemized the doctrine of justification by faith alone, but the veracity of the doctrine of justification by faith alone does not in any way depend on what Rome declares at Trent. Protestants especially, being heirs of the Reformation, must hold that orthodoxy is independent of the proclamation of any church body. Only Scripture, and the God of Scripture, determines what is truth and what is error, and thus orthodoxy is an objective fact independent of church deliberations, councils and judgments.

Similarly, if "orthodoxy" is objective and independent of the church, then "heresy" must be likewise objective and independent of the church. The church cannot create orthodoxy, so neither can it create heresy. Arianism, the teaching that Jesus is a lesser deity, is heresy before Nicea at 325AD. Arianism is not to be considered orthodox before Nicea, and heretical after Nicea, as if the church created a new criteria for truth and error by ecclesiastical fiat. We are not Romanists where the pope determine truth and error, but Reformed Protestants. The final authority for faith and life is Scripture, not the church; Sola Scriptura, not Sola Ecclesia.

If that is so, then Goligher's idea of "heresy" is troubling. According to Titus 3:9-10, from where we get the use of the word "heresy" in the KJV, the word "heresy" refers to a serious doctrinal error which leads to condemnation of the persons holding and teaching it. In other words, the word "heresy" has the connotation that a person willfully holding and teaching it is in dangers of the fires of hell. It is not, as Golligher puts it, merely striking "at the heart of the creeds and confessions of the church" but still might be done by a believer. Besides, if we actually believe that the creeds and confessions of the church are the summary of the Christian faith, what does it even mean to say that a person may strike at the heart of these creeds and confessions yet remain a believer? Can a believer attack the "heart" of the Christian faith and still be a believer? What does that even mean?

Golligher is right that the word "heresy" is not to be used lightly. Yet, if we look at what the word connotates, we should be wary of using it in places where what we just mean is "unbiblical." To charge someone of heresy is to charge the person as being an unbeliever, a wolf in sheep's clothing. That is why the rhetoric coming from Trueman et al is extremely intemperate, for in charging them of denying Nicea, they are essentially charging Ware and Grudem of being false teachers who are bringing their followers to hell. Goligher can think he is just saying that their teaching is not in line with the catholic Reformed faith, but he is actually saying more than that. And one does not really have the right to redefine the word "heresy," for we are not living in the land of Alice and Humpty Dumpty.

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