In an important post titled “The significance, or non-significance, of theological heresy: the Coptic example,” Ortho blogger Bruce Charlton raises a number of important issues. Chief among them, in my view, is his assertion that some theological disputes do more harm than good.
Dr. Charlton points out, for example, that although monophytism (the view that Christ has only one nature, rather than both human and divine natures) was declared a heresy by the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451, the (monophysite) Copts have continued in existence since the Fourth Century. In contrast, Charlton asserts that unitarianism, which denies the orthodox Christian understanding of God as three Persons, rapidly led to the collapse of Christianity in New England. This is one possible way of assessing the validity of a religious sect or movement: by its durability.
But the continued existence of a religious tradition or organization over time is not sufficient to define something as “Christian,” unless we are content to say that any phenomenon calling itself Christian really is Christian.
And we must acknowledge that the Bible refers to “false Christs” and “false gospels.” For example, 2 Corinthians 11:13 reads
For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.
[In this post, all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version, one of the most accurate expressions of the ancient texts in contemporary English.]
And Galatians 1:6,7 says
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.
Verses such as these show, at the very least, that there will be individuals and organizations that claim to be Christian, but are not. And note that these passages also assume that we are capable of distinguishing between true and false expressions of Christianity, if we trust in God and his Word and apply ourselves diligently.
And yet in the presence of so many differing and contradictory beliefs about Christianity, it is to be expected that some will be confused. How, then, can we distinguish real Christianity from counterfeits?
When confused, go back to basic principles. What, according to Scripture, is the indispensible element, the sine qua non, of Christianity? The Bible is clear about this indispensible element, and it does not require theological sophistication. Read the Acts of the Apostles, and note the evangelistic sermons it records.
In an evangelistic sermon, the speaker has limited time. He must communicate only the essentials of Christianity. And in Acts, we read the Apostles describing Jesus as Messiah and God, as dying and being resurrected from the dead. And then they urge unbelievers to repent of their sins, to be baptized, and have faith in Christ.
Consider, for example, the Apostle Peter speaking in Acts 10:38—43:
…how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
And in Acts 26, the Apostle Paul gives his defense before King Agrippa. He concludes in verses 19 and 20:
So, King Agrippa, I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision, but kept declaring both to those of Damascus first, and also at Jerusalem and then throughout all the region of Judea, and even to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.
The sine qua non of Christianity is this: individuals repenting of their sins and having faith in Christ for the forgiveness of their sins.
What then about theological dispute? Theology is like philosophy: a certain amount of it is required to defend ourselves from error, but bad theology can be deadly.
Good theology is subservient to the Word of God, both in the sense that it acknowledges the Bible as the highest authority, and in the sense that it does not think of itself as an end, but only as a means of faith and holiness. Good theology increases our faith in Jesus Christ, and without faith, it is impossible to please God. (See Hebrews 11:6)
Let’s consider two examples: Arianism and monophytism.
Arianism denies that Jesus is God, claiming instead that he is a lesser divine being, a being who has not always existed, and therefore was created. It was formally condemned at the First Council of Nicaea, was “rehabilitated” in subsequent decades, and then was definitively rejected at the First Council of Constantinople. And it must be pointed out that Arianism was rejected, not because the councils that condemned it had the authority to decide the matter, but because it is clearly rejected by Scripture, which maintains that Jesus is God.
But Arianism is not just an abstract error: If Jesus is not God, then he is not strong enough to bear the weight of the sins of the world. How Jesus saves is expressed most succinctly in 2 Corinthians 5:21:
For our sake he [God the Father] made him to be sin who knew no sin [Jesus], so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Our sin debt was paid at the Cross when God the Father placed our sins on Jesus (“He made Him…to be sin on our behalf…”) and then Jesus took the punishment that these sins deserved by suffering and dying in our place. The debt he paid was the entire sin debt for all Christians (not all mankind, for then all would be saved, which obviously does not occur), and so only a man who was also God could have stood up to the tremendous force of all this punishment. In the words of Nahum 1:6:
Who can stand before His indignation? Who can endure the burning of His anger? His wrath is poured out like fire and the rocks are broken up by Him.
And the basic problem with monophytism is that if Christ is not like us, then he cannot serve as our substitute, taking away our sins on the Cross. In the words of Hebrews 2:17:
Therefore he [Jesus] had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
This is, of course, just a brief introduction to these topics. But observe that Christianity is a very concrete religion. Jesus is God and man, he bears our sins in his very body, and his actual death removes them forever. Heresy damages Christianity, rendering it nonfunctional, by throwing an intellectual “monkey wrench” (“spanner,” to you Englishmen) into the system
The most fundamental problem of heresy is that the heretic is not trusting God and His Word. Christian heresies arise because people don’t want to acknowledge some point that the Bible teaches.
(A useful summary of the most important heresies, and why they matter, can be found here: “Know your heretics.” These summaries, designed for non-theologians, are brief but accurate.)