Friday, May 13, 2011

Who is a Heretic?

Who is a heretic?

That’s a great question. It is a question far too infrequently asked and far too quickly answered. Of course, one’s answer will depend upon his theological tradition: if one is a Catholic, then she will answer a heretic is one who disagrees with the approved teachings of the Church. In that case papal edicts and the early and late councils will be consulted. If one is a Protestant (especially an evangelical), however, there will be more at her disposal. Perhaps it is to be in conformity with a denominational doctrinal statement or creed; perhaps it is merely to be in line with a particular church.

Lately I have noticed a trend among biblically-minded people to say a heresy is anything that is contrary to Scripture. Hence, any doctrine that is actually untrue is a heresy. This sounds good at first. However there are serious ramifications which must be discussed.

1. The entire body of Scripture is made up of many smaller propositional beliefs (that are all true).

2. Denying any one of these beliefs, or holding anything found to be in conflict with any one of these beliefs, is heresy (by definition above).

3. Any heresy makes the proponent of that heresy a heretic.

4. Any person X believes what they believe to be true about the Scriptures is true in each of the individual propositional parts.

5. Therefore, anyone who disagrees with X about any propositional truth in or relating to Scripture should epistemologically be regarded as a heretic.

6. Any heretic H should be rejected after two admonitions (Titus ).

7. Therefore, any H who disagrees with X about any propositional truth in or relating to Scripture should be rejected after two admonitions.

But something surely seems wrong here! Essentially, this argument (which is logically valid and sound if this idea of heresy is true) requires us at the very least to view every person who disagrees with us about anything in the Bible as a heretic. What follows is cookie-cutter Christianity. Either everyone must be identical to me in every doctrine, or I must be identical to them. Since there are quite literally no two non-cultic believers who believe all things alike, this means any person should regard literally every other person as a heretic. Sure, some doctrines the Scripture teaches are not easily understood. Yes, our strong intuition is that even the truths of Scripture are not accurately and fully possessed by any one person; that is, each of us, while believing our beliefs are true, nonetheless also embrace as true the belief that I am flawed in some part of my doctrine or theology (we just don’t know which part that is, obviously).

If the argument is wrong what premise do we reject? (4) cannot be, for it is logically incoherent to say “I believe that my belief X is wrong.” (1) is true for any evangelical or orthodox Christian. (3) may be a good candidate for rejection. In this case, then, the person would say simply because a heresy is held by a person it does not follow that person is a heretic. This, however, seems quite arbitrary. At what point does one become a heretic? After two heresies? Three? Virtually all definitions of “heretic” agree that it is “holding” such a belief (that is, it is known by someone that X holds a heretical belief). It seems just as obvious a heretic is one who holds a heresy as it is one who stole something is a thief.[1]

Since (5) and (7) are conclusions they cannot be rejected. (6) is a restatement of Titus 3:10, so it also should not be rejected. That leaves us only with (2). We should reject that if a belief held turns out to be wrong then it is heresy. Indeed, since the commonly-held belief is that each of us is wrong in theological concerns somewhere, it thus follows we are all heretics!

Then what is a biblical heretic? We don’t have many Scriptures dealing with the issue. In fact, we only have Titus 3. In an interesting discourse, it seems Paul is actually speaking here of those who would either deny grace-based salvation or deny the need for good works after salvation (I encourage you to read the entire book in one sitting; you will come away with much the same sense I think).

In Titus 3:10, the word for heretic is αιρετικον. It is the only time in the New Testament the word is used. So perhaps a clue is to be found in v. 11 in the word “subverted.” That word is εξεστραπται, also used only once in the NT. However, those words can also be translated as “divisive” and “perverted.” Interestingly enough, in Pauline theology these concepts can be shown to deal with those who are not even saved! Romans 16:17-18 speaks of those who cause divisions in doctrine who “serve not our Lord Jesus Christ.” See the emphasis on “our”? There should be no doubt these people causing doctrinal divisions were not saved. Further, the idea of “perversion” found in Titus 3 is suggested hereby to be linked to the idea of those people who demanded justification came by a measure of the law (cf. Galatians 5:12). The entire book of Galatians is in fact against the perverting of the true Gospel (cf. Gal. 1:7). The idea correlating to Titus is that the man’s sin (active voice) and self-condemnation are causing his perversion (passive voice).

I think Paul is saying a heretic is a person (unsaved, more often than not) who perverts the truth of the Gospel by either denying grace-salvation and embracing works salvation or avoiding any good works whatsoever (i.e., the idea that I can come to Christ but sin may abound—chances are good such a person is unsaved anyway). Not everyone is a heretic. Not everyone should be viewed as a heretic. I am open to any correction anyone feels is necessary. Comment below!

                [1] It’s worth noting that there are different “levels” of thievery, and likely different levels of heresy then under this definition. Some are clearly worse than others, some left it back in the past and no longer do it, etc. However, this distinction has no bearing on the analogy or the argument.

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