We might not realize it, but church history is incredibly valuable to our lives today. Here are 3 reasons why and tips to help us learn more.
The other day, I read a Fox News story about a “Christian numerologist”[1. For the record, there’s no such thing.] who claims to have figured out when the world will end, with Luke 21:25-26 as the basis for his doomsday prophesying:
Then there will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars; and there will be anguish on the earth among nations bewildered by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and expectation of the things that are coming on the world, because the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
So what’s the day this time? September 23, 2017. Next Saturday.
These doomsday false prophets always remind me of those John warned of in his first epistle, who he called antichrists:
“They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. However, they went out so that it might be made clear that none of them belongs to us” (1 John 2:19).
They come in the name of Christ. They claim secret knowledge (secret codes), and attempt to sway people from the truth (distracting them with fear over the end of the world instead of hope in the return of Christ). But don’t believe it, not even for a second. What they all say is nonsense. The only thing they get right is reminding us that we are, indeed, in the last days, and the last hour, as John wrote.
The world’s probably not going end next Saturday. It probably won’t end the next time the end of the world is predicted either.[2. If it the next one says September 22 or 29, you owe me a Coke.] Jesus will come back when he comes back. In the meantime, let’s keep living like he’s coming back when we least expect it, and focus on the mission he’s given us.
On any given day, someone is going to say something theologically stupid on Twitter. And by theologically stupid, I mean so nonsensically heretical that I get tempted to “can’t even,” or whatever it is the kids say these days.[1. I’m 38. Therefore I am no longer with it and hip.]
Yesterday, someone’s theologically stupid comments about the Trinity and the Bible blew up my timeline for a few minutes before everyone continued doing whatever it is they’re usually doing. I made one comment, mostly as a joke, then went on with my day. But aside from acknowledging (or not) the silly things people say, what should we do? Five things:
- Read it.
- Or don’t. This is probably better, actually. Yeah. This is actually number one.[2. So, ignore it.]
- Shut off Twitter.
- Pray the Holy Spirit corrects such nonsense.
- Go to bed.
That’s pretty much it.
Certain words have the destructive rhetorical power of lobbing a grenade into a crowded room. Why is “fundamentalist” one of them?
“Heretic” is one of those words we struggle to use well. Often times, you see it used in one of two ways—either liberally or ironically. One equates all disagreement with apostasy, the other pretends disagreement doesn’t matter at all.
Both rob the word of its power.
Justin Holcomb understands the seriousness of heresy and what it means to call someone a heretic—it is “a weighty charge that [is] not made lightly, nor [is] it used whenever there [is] theological inaccuracy or impression” (14).
So how do we learn to use this word wisely? By knowing what heresy really is. And so, we have Holcomb’s newly released Know the Heretics. This short book introduces readers to several heresies that have threatened the church throughout history, and how the controversies surrounding each—whether it be the requirement to obey the Law, the existence of original sin, or the Trinity itself—helped shape the church as it is today.
Learning from the past to understand the present
It’s tempting to pretend that ancient heresies don’t matter anymore because, well, they’re ancient. But this tendency is our chronological snobbery at work. We like to think we’re beyond the problems of the ancient world; that because we are so much more advanced, we couldn’t possibly fall prey to the same errors our spiritual forbearers did.
You know what they say about those who ignore the past, right?
That’s why we need a book like this one. “This book is a case study of fourteen major events when the church made the right call—not for political or status reasons… but because orthodox teaching preserved Jesus’ message in the best sense, and the new teaching distorted it,” Holcomb writes (12).
These case studies confront readers with our core problem: apathy. Take Sabellianism—a form of Modalism—for example. The reason this error gained ground so easily wasn’t because it was intellectually sound or vigorously defended. It gained ground simply because we have a tendency to be apathetic. The idea of the Trinity as best we understand it from Scripture—that there is one God who exists in three persons (Father, Son, Spirit)—is one of the chief areas in which our apathy reigns.
It’s not that we don’t care, though. It’s just that the idea of the Trinity is too hard for us to comprehend fully. “Compared with the idea that God is merely one, the orthodox answer might seem overly complex and philosophical, or an unnecessary later addition to the authentic Christian faith” (85).
So we wind up not thinking about it too much, and use really bad analogies to describe it—often ones that themselves find their roots in Sabellianism. But, as Holcomb notes, “Trinitarian theology…takes seriously the idea that God has revealed himself in Scripture and wants to be known, and that he has revealed himself in a certain way” (85). And so, the Bible forces us to answer the question of whether or not God is one or three.
Just as practically, having a sense of the Trinity better helps us respond to the claims of other religious groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, who actually view biblical Christianity as Sabellian:
Since many of the errors that these groups ascribe to mainstream Christianity are actually Sabellian in nature, it is useful to know the middle road that orthodox doctrine strikes between unity and distinction. Being able to articulate concisely what the Trinity is, how it makes the best sense of Scripture and how it affects our salvation and the worship of God can be valuable in witnessing to others as well as developing our own relationship with God. (86)
The Trinity also helps us see the power of the gospel at work—in fact, it’s safe to argue that without the Trinity, there is no atonement. Only if Christ is God as well as man could He pay for the sins of the world. Without the three persons of the Godhead agreeing from before the foundations of the world to redeem and rescue sinners, we’re left with a deficient view of the gospel that sees it as some sort of back-up plan.
These are the truths we ignore at our peril.
Understanding God’s purposes in heresy
Reading Know the Heretics is equally disheartening and encouraging. It’s disheartening simply because it’s easy to see the heresies of the past still making the rounds in our day, in one form or another, as (mostly) sincere people ask sincere questions, but accept wrong answers. These lies continue to be propagated, and men and women continue to be lead astray, thinking they know God when they are in fact rejecting Him.
But it’s also encouraging because, in learning more about the heretics of the past, readers gain greater insights into God’s purposes in allowing these aberrant teachings to exist—to strengthen the Church’s understanding of the truth about—and love for—God. “In order to love God, one must know who God is… right belief about God—orthodoxy—matters quite a bit” (156).
- Without the Marcionites, we may never have formally developed the canon of Scripture.
- Without the many heresies surrounding the nature of God and Christ, we might never have had the doctrine of the Trinity clarified.
- Without the Pelagian error, we might not have as significant an understanding of the grace of God in saving sinners.
In that sense—and in that sense alone—we should be thankful the events and teachings Holcomb describes, not because falsehood is praiseworthy, but because the truth about God is.
Particularly valuable for those taking their first steps into studying church history, Know the Heretics offers powerful insights into the past and practical relevance for today. Read it carefully, learn from the past, and be encouraged for the future.
Title: Know the Heretics
Author: Justin Holcomb
Publisher: Zondervan (2014)
Buy it at: Amazon
There once was a man named Seth. Seth was a popular author, especially among creative and “non-traditional” leadership types. He wrote with an unusual buzzwordiness while sharing many truths and many half-truths about tribes, lynchpins and meatballs on top of sundaes.
He wrote of our desperate need for people unafraid to challenge the establishment and chart their own course for the good of the many.
He called them “heretics.” But we should not.
This week I was reading a very good book on social media that embraced Seth’s “heretic” ideal. Not theological heresy, the author stressed, but ideological—being willing to push the boundaries of comfort in order to reach as many as possible.
But I’ve got to be honest, whenever I see Christian authors use the term “heretic” in this way, I get a little nervous. It’s not because I disagree with the sentiment (I generally don’t)—it’s the danger of cheapening the word “heretic.”
Imagine you’re in a room with no windows and only one door, which is at the farthest point from you. The door opens a little bit and someone throws a grenade in, which promptly explodes (as it is intended to do). This is what calling someone a heretic is like. Or at least, it should be. Churches have split over heresy. Ministries have been destroyed because of it. It’s a big word, and just like a grenade, once you pull the pin, there’s no going back.
So why do we treat it so flippantly?
Why, following along with a popular book, are we redefining a word that carries such weight and power—transforming a profanity into a virtue? Truthfully, I don’t believe it’s of malicious intent. I think it’s simply that we’re careless with words. We don’t give them enough weight; we don’t consider carefully what they mean.
Seth used the word “heretic” intentionally. He knew the power it holds, otherwise he wouldn’t have used it. We, on the other hand, have simply poured ourselves a nice, tall glass of his Kool-Aid.
When we assign foreign meanings to familiar words, we wind up cheapening the concepts they represent as a result. When it comes to a word like “heretic,” we must avoid this at all costs. And this is but one example. We’ve transformed tolerance into something wholly intolerant. We’ve desecrated love, turning it into a mere feeling flitting about with no depth or power. So love becomes preference, disagreement becomes prejudice, truth becomes error… Careless words cheapen powerful truths.
Maybe it’s me, but the idea of naming “names”—calling out a specific pastor, teacher or author as promoting false doctrine and heresy—has increasingly felt awkward to me. Part of the reason, I suspect, is that I’ve seen very few examples of it done well. Generally, those naming names seem to be folks that Paul warns about in the pastoral epistles—men who love to stir up controversy and division who we should have nothing to do with (1 Tim. 6:4; Titus 3:10). They appear to jump on a video clip, a poor choice of words, or a seven year old blog post and go to town. This is why on any given day, you can find just about anyone—whether J.I. Packer, John MacArthur, Augustine, or Jesus himself—declared a heretic by someone on the Internets. Frankly, it gets so ridiculous at times that I can completely understand why people would never want to say anything that would even suggest that someone might be a false teacher.
Yet, as I study the Scriptures, I find that I cannot easily go there. The authors of Scripture take false teaching very seriously and so must we. Indeed, throughout the New Testament, we see numerous examples of specific men named as false teachers—as traitors to the gospel.
Paul tells Timothy that Hymenaeus, Alexander and Philetus are among those who have made a shipwreck of their faith and swerved from the truth (1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 2:17-18). Their “irreverent babble,” he says, will spread like gangrene among God’s people. Their false teaching is like an infection that must be treated with the utmost seriousness and efficiency. Failure to do so will result in the infection spreading. The apostle John warned his readers of Diotrephes, “who likes to put himself first, [and] does not acknowledge our authority” (3 John 9). This man, who was apparently influential among John’s audience, refused to acknowledge the authority of apostolic teaching, becoming an authority unto himself (sounds familiar, doesn’t it). And Jesus himself warned of the Nicolaitans and their presence in Ephesus and Pergamum. He hated their works and commands those who hold to their teachings to repent or be caught on the wrong side when he would come to make war against them (Rev. 2:6; 15-16).
So if we look at these New Testament examples, we can say with reasonable confidence that the answer is yes—it is right and biblical for a pastor to warn against a specific teacher. But also notice that the answer isn’t quite as simple as we’d like it to be.
First, we must be careful to not declare a particular individual a false teacher unless the body of evidence warrants such a charge. Paul commanded Timothy that he should not “admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (1 Tim. 5:19). This is good advice. In our context, that means that an out-of-context quote from six years ago cannot qualify as confirmation of a teacher being a heretic. However, if the body of evidence strongly points in a particular direction, then it may be prudent to openly condemn that teacher’s doctrine.
Second, while the biblical authors clearly treat false teaching and teachers with dreadful earnestness, it is always addressed within the context of a specific local church. When Paul warned Timothy of Hymenaeus, Alexander and Philetus, he was giving him warning of men who would impact Timothy’s ministry in Ephesus. He didn’t warn Titus of these men. John, likewise, wrote specifically to Gaius. And Jesus said nothing of the Nicolaitans in his messages to the church in Smyrna, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia or Laodicea. Their error didn’t directly affect these churches in the way that it did Ephesus (with their positive rejection) and Pergamum (with their foolish acceptance).
This is instructive for our own day. While there might be a very real threat to the gospel, it may not actually be relevant to our particular local church. If we know that a particular author is widely read among our congregations and we know that he or she holds views that are opposed to the gospel, then it is right to warn the congregation of their teaching. But to name a particular individual who has no influence within our churches may have more in common with gossip than contending for the faith.
Finally, we should always remember the goal of “naming names”. You’ll notice that I repeatedly advise condemning a person’s teaching, rather than the person. This is intentional and, I hope, biblical. While Paul names names, even saying he has handed them over to Satan, it is to that “they may learn not to blaspheme.” Jude likewise commands us to show “mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (Jude 23). Simply, the goal is to bring those who promote false doctrine to repentance, and not simply say “They’re traitors and blasphemers, may they burn in hell.”
While we must always be willing to call false teaching what it is—heresy—we ought to be thoughtful about how we express it in relation to the person propagating that teaching. Hate their teaching, hate the lies they spread, hate the mockery they make of the gospel—but do not transfer that hatred to the person. Rather, pray for them to come to repentance and if you have the means, plead with them personally to return to sound teaching.
So, is it appropriate for Christians to name names? Yes, if it is to the benefit of our congregations and that our desire is to see those false teachers return the fold as faithful followers of Jesus Christ.
As postmodern ideas have taken root in our culture, exclusive truth claims have increasingly come under attack. Jesus is the only way. The Bible is the inerrant, infallible, inspired Word of God. Orthodoxy and heresy exist.
These are not popular ideas. And in academic circles, the desire to debunk these beliefs has been making the rounds for some time—most notably with the publication of German academic Walter Bauer’s work Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (1934). In this volume, Bauer puts forth the idea that, rather than Christianity being characterized from its earliest days as unified in the preaching of Jesus’ apostles, the earliest Christians were marked by radical diversity. Today, Bauer has found an impassioned advocate in scholar Bart Ehrman, whose books such as Misquoting Truth and Jesus Interrupted, have brought Bauer’s thesis to the popular level—to the point that today, the only heresy is orthodoxy.
That’s why Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger wrote The Heresy of Orthodoxy. In this book, the authors carefully examine the Bauer-Ehrman thesis and seek to show readers why we can trust the Bible and rest in the knowledge that the faith we have is what was taught by Jesus and His Apostles.
Unity or Pluralism: Which Came First?
Divided into three parts, The Heresy of Orthodoxy first deals with pluralism and the origins of the New Testament. How did the Bauer-Ehrman thesis come about? How diverse was early Christianity? And when did heresy first arise?
While the Bauer thesis asserts that different “Christianities” developed in geographical regions and that “the Church Fathers overstated their case that Christianity emerged from a single, doctrinally unified movement” (p. 40), the authors’ brief survey of the available data suggests otherwise. Starting as Bauer did with late first/early second century sources, they reveal a Christianity that is marked by remarkable consistency, particularly when dealing with the person of Jesus Christ. The authors write:
Although the late first and early second century gave birth to a variety of heretical movements, the set of (Christological) core beliefs known as orthodoxy was considerably earlier, more widespread, and more prevalent than Ehrman and other proponents of the Bauer-Ehrman thesis suggest. . . . [W]hen orthodoxy and heresy are compared in terms of genesis and chronology, it is evident that orthodoxy did not emerge from a heretical morass . . . heresy grew parasitically out of an already established orthodoxy. (pp 66-67)
But rather than relying on comparatively late extrabiblical sources as did Bauer, Kostenberger and Kruger investigate the earliest sources we have: The New Testament itself. Their study reveals that, contrary to Bauer and Ehrman, orthodoxy even at that stage was far more widespread and the prevalence of heresy was far too narrow to suggest that there was an even playing field. Read More about The Heresy of Orthodoxy by Kostenberger and Kruger