In Essentials Unity, In Nonessentials Liberty, and In All Things Love — An Excerpt from "Know the Heretics"
When you read through Justin Holcomb's new book Know the Heretics you almost get the sense that the contemporary church is just as hopelessly lost in controversies as the ancient one.
Sit long enough and you'll end up with a list of theological disagreements on par with the 14 heresies he addresses in his book.
So what are we to do?
“[W]e need lots of wisdom, discernment, and humility before we declare that someone has departed into full-blown heresy. At the same time, we should be clear in our minds on the nonnegotiables of Christian doctrine and belief.” (157)
In his concluding remarks in the excerpt below, Holcomb reminds us we need as much wisdom and clarity as the ancient church needed. Ultimately he beckons us to treat our brothers and sisters in a way that incarnates that famous saying, “In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, and in all things love.”
What are we to make of all these controversies? It is tempting to see the history of orthodoxy and heresy as proof that no one knows very much about God, and that any opinions work. If the church can become deeply divided over so basic a doctrine as whether Jesus is God, then it might be better to agree just to get along with one another and do the best we can. After all, Jesus did say that if a person loves God and loves others, then they are fulfilling all of the commandments. “Why,” you may ask, “does it even matter if we believe the right things about God as long as we love God and other people?” Two brief responses to this objection are worth noting.
First, while it is certainly true that living doctrine out in love for God and others is important, Jesus also said that part of loving God is loving him with all of our minds, souls, and strength — that is, with our entire person. Believing right things about God is part of loving him, in the same way that it matters to you whether someone knows your interests, likes and dislikes, occupation, and past. And second, in order to love God we have to know who he is. When the Israelites were training their children, they referred to God by recalling the things he had done for them in the past. The God they worshiped was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the one who had brought them out of Egypt in the exodus. They used specific phrases to specify who it was that they were worshiping. The orthodox understanding of the Trinity and of Jesus Christ does something similar — it identifies who the God Christians worship actually is. Therefore, in order to love God, one must know who God is. In this way, right belief about God — orthodoxy — matters quite a bit.
Christians should agree that there exists a perfect orthodoxy in the mind of God; however, the proliferation of schisms, disagreements, and divisions throughout church history points to the fact that we as sinful and fallible humans are imperfect at agreeing precisely on that orthodoxy. The general overview of the heresies and the church’s orthodox responses in this book should make clear how messy the pursuit for theological truth can be.
However, there is room for mystery in Christian belief. 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 not saved by our intellectual precision; we are saved by the grace of Jesus. That does not diminish the importance of correct doctrine, but rather allows it its proper place in glorifying the triune God, who graciously saves sinners because of the person and work of Christ.
As I hope has been clear in this book, the line between orthodoxy and heresy has developed over time and through theological conflict, and the line between heterodoxy and heresy is blurry. That means we need lots of wisdom, discernment, and humility before we declare that someone has departed into full-blown heresy. At the same time, we should be clear in our minds on the nonnegotiables of Christian doctrine and belief.
The current climate of the church shows that Christians need to relearn the ability to care about right doctrine and have earnest doctrinal disagreements without shouting “heresy!” when we disagree. We need a more restrained definition of heresy drawing on the early church creeds. 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.
Even with this narrow and confined definition of heresy, we should still discuss and debate with those whose beliefs are unhelpful. We can still say that their teachings are not a good application of Scripture to life and doctrine. But don’t treat them as heretics. Treat them as brothers and sisters with whom we lovingly disagree. As the famous saying goes, “In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, and in all things love.” (pgs. 155-157)
Know the Heretics
By Justin S. Holcomb
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