Apologetics Index
A Biblical Guide To Orthodoxy And Heresy

A Biblical Guide To Orthodoxy And Heresy

Part Two: Guidelines For Doctrinal Discernment

Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6


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Continued from Page 2

How do we discern truth from error, sound doctrine from unsound doctrine, orthodoxy from heresy? How do we discern when a doctrine is fully heretical and when it is only aberrational?

In Part One of this two-part article I presented a case for doctrinal discernment as a necessary ongoing task of the church. In this concluding part I will suggest some guidelines for carrying out this task in a way that is faithful to Scripture.

Principles For Identifying Heresy

Discerning orthodoxy from heresy should be done on the basis of sound principles, each of which in turn must be based on the teaching of God's Word. I begin, then, by discussing four principles which the church ought to utilize as tools to identify and expose heresy. Although they are subject to misunderstanding and abuse, all four — properly interpreted — are valid and should be utilized together in doctrinal discernment.

bullet The protestant principle. Here I am not referring to an exclusively Protestant position, but rather to a principle that will be especially agreeable to Protestants (particularly evangelicals). According to this principle,

the Bible alone is the written Word of God, and as such is the infallible, definitive standard in matters of controversy in the church.

This principle follows from the teaching of Jesus Christ Himself, who taught that while human tradition and religious leaders are fallible, Scripture is the Word of God and never errs (Matt. 5:17-20; 15:3-9; 22:29; John 10:35). Since to be a Christian means, minimally, to be a follower of Jesus Christ, no person or group can claim to be truly Christian that does not at least acknowledge this special authority of the Bible.

I said that this teaching is not held exclusively by Protestants, though it is especially agreeable to them. Both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy (the other two main branches of Christianity) teach that the church's traditions are infallible and authoritative, a teaching with which Protestants cannot agree. Thus, these branches of Christianity do not adhere fully to the protestant principle as defined here. On the other hand, Catholicism and Orthodoxy do teach that the Bible is the norma normans — that is, the norm by which all other norms are to be judged. Thus, at least in some sense, the view of all major Christian traditions is that Scripture has the final word. But evangelical Protestants have upheld this principle more consistently than Christians in the Catholic or Orthodox traditions.

On the other hand, liberalism — which began in mainline Protestantism and has virtually engulfed it, and which has now made significant inroads in Roman Catholicism — completely denies the protestant principle. Liberalism presumes to judge the teachings of the Bible according to the canon of human reason. Accordingly, it should be rejected as apostate by true believers of all major Christian traditions.

The protestant principle has often been summarized by the Protestant Reformation motto sola scriptura ("only Scripture"). Taken in its true sense, this means that only Scripture is an unerring verbal expression of the mind of God for the church prior to Christ's return. But this should not be interpreted to mean that truth can be found only in Scripture or that all traditions are based on falsehood. Nor should it be interpreted to forbid using words not found in the Bible to express biblical doctrine. For example, the idea that the Bible is a "canon," or rule of faith, is biblical — even though the word "canon" is not found in the Bible. The idea that God is "self-existent," meaning that His existence depends on nothing other than Himself, is biblical — even though the word "self-existent" is not in the Bible. This is an important qualification to the protestant principle, violated by many heretical sects.

bullet The evangelical principle. In Europe, "evangelical" is virtually synonymous with "Lutheran," and the principle I enunciate here will be especially agreeable to that tradition, though certainly transcending it. According to this principle,

whatever is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ is to be rejected as heresy

This principle is based directly on such passages as Galatians 1:6-9 and 1 Corinthians 15:1-4. Here, "the gospel" refers not to the Bible in its entirety, but to its central message of reconciliation of human beings to God through the redemptive work of Christ.

This principle implies that not every misinterpretation of or departure from the Bible is equally damaging to authentic Christian faith. Misunderstanding the relationship between the Millennium and the Second Coming, for example, is not as serious an error as misunderstanding the relationship between faith and works. Denying that Jonah escaped alive after being inside a large fish for three days is not as bad an error as denying that Jesus rose from the grave after being dead for three days. Whether the errors are clear-cut or debatable from our perspective, it remains true that some errors are worse than others.

On the other hand, this principle can be misapplied by treating the gospel as a "canon within the canon" such that some parts of the Bible become more authoritative than others. While we may draw more directly on the Gospel of John or the Epistle to the Romans in our presentation of the gospel, our understanding of the gospel should be shaped by the entire Bible. Some extreme or aberrant groups have lost sight of this and have argued that only one part of the Bible — say, the Book of Acts — presents the gospel of salvation. Besides being contrary to the facts (e.g., Paul rehearses the basics of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8), such an argument undermines the unity of Scripture.

Moreover, even seemingly less important errors can be symptomatic of outright heretical beliefs. For example, while some variant views on the Millennium are tolerable among Christians, other views should be regarded as heretical, such as the view that the Millennium will be a period in which unbelievers will be raised and given a second chance to save themselves by doing good works. Clearly this view is heretical because of its bearing on the doctrine of salvation. The belief that Jonah was not swallowed by a fish and then set free three days later might be symptomatic of a prejudice against all miracles. On the other hand, some Christians who freely confess that God could have done such a miracle hold that the Book of Jonah is a parable and was simply not intended as history. The latter view may be wrong, but it is not anti-Christian in the way the former view clearly is.

Finally, it should be noted that in mainline denominations heavily influenced by liberalism, the "gospel" has typically been reinterpreted and watered down to the point of no longer being the biblical gospel at all. The evangelical principle must always be tied to the protestant principle and not pitted against it, as is the case in liberal Protestantism.

bullet The orthodox principle. I call this principle the "orthodox" principle because it will be especially agreeable to Christians in the Orthodox (Eastern) tradition. According to this principle,

the creeds of the undivided church should be regarded as reliable expressions of the essential truths on which they speak.

This principle follows from the biblical teaching that the Christian faith was delivered once for all to the saints (Jude 3) and that the gates of Hades would not prevail against the church (Matt. 16:18). These texts (see also Matt. 28:20; John 14:16; Eph. 4:11-16) make it inconceivable that the whole church could establish as normative what is in fact aberrant or heretical.

Thus, the creeds formulated by the early church before it split into Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism, and accepted by all three branches of Christianity, should be regarded as reliable standards by which heresies may be exposed. Such creeds as the Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds — which speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as one God (the Trinity), and of Jesus Christ as uniquely God and man (the Incarnation) — expressed the faith of all Christians when they were written, and have unified all Christians against heresy for centuries. They are therefore deserving of respect and should be honored as tools for identifying and exposing heresy.

Note that I am not saying that Christians cannot choose to disagree with some of the precise wording of these creeds. After all, they are not infallible, inspired documents. Nor am I saying that those churches which choose not to use the creeds, or which have little or no regard for creeds as such, are heretical. Rather, I am simply saying that a doctrine or belief should be regarded as heretical if it departs from the essential, substantial teachings of these creeds. I am therefore adopting a more flexible form of this principle than is actually held by Eastern Orthodox Christians themselves. I am also pleading with my anticreedal brothers and sisters in Christ to rethink their rejection of these fine expressions of orthodoxy.

bullet The catholic principle. By "catholic" I do not mean specifically Roman Catholic, but simply "universal" (which is what the Greek word katholikos means). The notion of "catholicity" has been much abused, but it has also been ignored; both are unfortunate. The catholic principle is that

any doctrine that contradicts what the church as a whole (in all times and places) has regarded as essential to the faith should be regarded as heretical.

This principle also follows from the biblical teaching mentioned above that God will keep the whole church from heresy.

It should be noted that this principle is a generalization, not an absolutely definitive test. I say this because by the "whole" church I do not mean every last individual in the church, as if the dissent of one or a few professing Christians could negate a doctrine's status as "catholic." The principle rather seeks to uphold what the vast majority of those who have participated in the church's worship, in all its various branches and denominations, and who have upheld the faith as defined by the orthodox principle, have regarded as essential or basic to their faith.

Moreover, the catholic principle — properly understood — presupposes the protestant principle. That is, when we speak of "the church" in all times and places, we are speaking of that community of faith which regards the Bible as the supreme norm of its faith. We are thus excluding from the outset those segments of Christendom that have abandoned faith in the Bible as the Word of God. It has only been in the last two centuries that large segments of Christendom within both Protestantism and Catholicism have denied absolute biblical authority. And in the vast majority of such cases, the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Atonement have been rejected as well. These segments of Christendom must be regarded as apostate, having fallen away from the faith.

These considerations are helpful in making more precise the notion of appealing to the position of the "historic Christian church" as a litmus test of orthodoxy. What we ought to mean by this expression is the Bible-believing community of faith as it has existed continuously throughout the centuries. Those segments of Christendom which have introduced new doctrinal revelations, or which have rejected biblical authority, are by this definition not part of the historic Christian church.

Finally, note that not everything that has been believed by most Christians falls under the catholic principle, but only those things that the church has held to be essential. For the first fifteen centuries of church history, virtually all Christians held that the earth was at the physical center of the universe. But by no means does this make that erroneous belief part of the "catholic" or universal Christian faith. Here the "evangelical principle" is a valuable corrective to a possible misapplication of the catholic principle.


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