Why Heresy Matters

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 monophysitism (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.)

27 thoughts on “Why Heresy Matters

  1. I find Dr. Charlton grossly inconsistent on this point. On the one hand we are to follow the opinions of holy churchmen of the past, even to the point of absurdity (eg. the Pseudo-Dionysius actually was written by an associate of Paul). On the other hand these same holy men were extremely zealous in their defense of doctrine.

    I can only imagine what the response of Irenaeus or Athanasius would be to the Mormons. Hint: it wouldn’t be the same as Charlton’s.

  2. Isn’t it enough also to say that heresy matters to me because it mattered to greater men than me, with more authority to speak against it than I do? Because I don’t personally see the problem with “smaller” heresies, does it behoove me to conclude aloud that such heresies are not worth anyone’s getting worked up too much? I don’t understand how Dr. Charlton can on the one hand acknowledge that our present day is not capable of understanding a Christianity that is integrated into all aspects of life (I largely agree with him in this, BTW), but then on the other hand consider Church Fathers to be too heavy-handed in their approach to monophysitism and other such “trivial” heresies.

    It is true that the average Christian layman couldn’t then, and can’t today, probably even grasp the distinctions and nuances inherent in many of the heresies as compared to orthodox Christianity, or comprehend just exactly what Arius was getting at. For all I know, I probably hold some monophysitical or iconoclastic beliefs unwittingly. It is for this reason however – i.e., that the average layman cannot grasp the difference – that it was essential to tolerate not even the slightest of divergences from the orthodox Christian teaching. For while the arch-heretic proposes a lie with his eyes wide open, the mere heretic operates blind to the fact that he even is holding a lie, and has not sufficient help from his own intellect to rescue him from the lie.

    • >“Because I don’t personally see the problem with “smaller” heresies, does it behoove me to conclude aloud that such heresies are not worth anyone’s getting worked up too much?”
      Perhaps we can consider “small” heresies in a way similar to “small” concessions to Liberalism, with a variation of Robert Conquest’s Second Law (which Dr. Charlton just wrote about recently). So, instead of “Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left wing,” we have “Any person or organisation who does not explicitly reject heresy will sooner or later become heretical.”

      • To expand a bit on my above comment, a small concession may not seem like a big deal, but that one point may have implications that aren’t immediately obvious, and may cause larger problems later on. There’s also the difficulty, once we’ve allowed one concession, of determining which further concessions to allow and which not. It seems prudent, then, to simply insist on truth in all cases. My guess is that the Church Fathers, in addition to their zeal for the truth, had this in mind in condemning heresies so forcefully.

  3. @Alan

    “his assertion that some theological disputes do more harm than good.”

    Surely you do not deny that ‘assertion’? It was meant to be a platitude. Surely you would not assert the opposite: that all theological disputes do more good than harm (or good and harm in equal measure)?

    The problem is surely to discern when a dispute does more harm than good, not whether this can be the case.


    My post was about taking account of experience, over many generations, to distinguish between those heresies which were significant, and those which were not heresies but *inevitable* differences of opinion due to human limitations of one sort or another.

    “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.”

    Indeed. I am saying the Copts are Christians. Real Christians.

    You are apparently saying Copts are *not* Christians. Is this correct? If so, I think such an assertion is both incorrect and damaging to the spiritual unity of real Christians.

    *If* you agree that Copts are Christians, *then* you agree that the Monophysite dispute was actually not about heresy, but about a legitimate difference of opinion concerning the *expression* of a Holy Mystery (which is in reality inexpressible and incomprehensible).


    “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.”

    Words, words, words – but what about the centuries of suffering devotion to Christ by the Copts, who certainly seem to believe that Christ took away their sins?

    No Christian says Christ was exactly like us, No Christian says that Christ was only a projection of God (an avatar)

    – but there is (considerable) room for reasonable differences in opinion about *how to express* Christ’s difference from and similarity with Man, and how to express the aspects of God and Man – indeed not only is there room for difference, but most people (including myself) have no *real* idea what (if anything) these disputes about expression mean.

    Hence I defer to Holier and Wiser authorities – but I still must chose which authority to believe – and disagreeing authorities may bot be holier and wiser than me. Sometimes either choice would be arbitrary.


    “Jesus is God and man, he bears our sins in his very body, and his actual death removes them forever.”

    Yes indeed. But this is a form of words expressive (we hope) of a Mystery. People are supposed to ‘get’ what the words mean, and then as they embark on the Christian life, it should become clearer what they mean – indeed what they mean needs rediscovering every day.

    But as soon as anyone starts analyzing or explaining these words, to make the meaning clearer or more precise; or people try to explain how this works (i.e. the mechanism by which Christ bore our sins) then there is disagreement about exact validity, emphasis, further implications of the clarification etc.


    How do we sort this out? How do we know whether something is an imprecision or a heresy?

    Sometimes it is just impossible at the time of the dispute. Humans are corrupt, human reason is feeble, information is limited…

    Therefore, we know whether something is an imprecision or a heresy mostly by what happens *as a consequence*, by the ‘fruits’ of the belief.

    If the Christian fruits of a belief have been good over a long time, as with Coptic Christianity, then very probably it was not a heresy.

    *That* is my point.

  4. But here is the opinion of paul on this subject:
    Galations 1:8
    But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!

  5. I have to side with Bruce Charlton on this question. Important and pernicious heresies eventually lead to gross distortions in Christian life, and from there it’s not far to the exits out of Christianity. Trivial and benign heresies have no practical effect, and do not lead men into illicit practices. I understand that Alan Roebuck speaks from a tradition that places great weight on correct doctrine, but as he admits in this post, the essential doctrine that one must grasp to accept Christ is very simple.

    The general revelation of nature and history is relevant to our understanding of heresies and heretics. “By their fruit,” and all that. I don’t know much about Copts, but I have a horrible fascination with the Unitarian apostasy. It appeared officially in 1800, and within two generations was mutating into the monstrosities of Transcendentalism, Theodore Parker, Free Religion, Spiritism, and Theosophy. Whatever the Unitarians did, it scuppered the ship. And once the water of infidelity began gushing into the hold, the more orthodox Unitarians could not plug the hole or operate the bilge-pumps.

    The spiritualism craze that began in the 1840s is particularly interesting, since it spread most rapidly among Unitarians, Universalists, and Hicksite Quakers (by that point barely distinguishable). A heresy that causes one’s grandchildren to converse with evil spirits is, I’d say, one heck of a heresy.

  6. I also have the sense that heresy comes in different degrees. The Nestorians, Monophosites, Monothelitists, and Jansenists seemed like sincere Christians, and even their doctrines seem like good-faith attempts to understand the Gospel, while the Cathars, Unitarians, and Modernists were hardly Christian at all, so calling them “heretics” is actually too generous. One does wonder if the former schisms weren’t largely misunderstandings about language, since the heretics involved never drew the calamitous conclusions from their doctrines that we thought they were logically committed to. One might say the same thing about the “Filioque” controversy between the Eastern and Western Churches.

    If I were to rank heresies, I would say that Pelagianism and Modernism are the most noxious, because they directly attack the bases of religious life. My favorite dead heresy is Jansenism. If Pascal was a fellow traveler of it, it couldn’t be very wrong. Perhaps someday the Holy See could reconsider its condemnation. Then, although this probably says bad things about me as a Catholic, there are some living heresies I actually admire, Calvinism most of all. I actually get annoyed with Catholic writers for their disrespectful treatment of it. “Those mean Calvinists believe in predestination. Yuk!” Well, we believe in it too, darn it, it’s just that they’re more forthright about it. The Calvinists have the dogmatic spirit, a preference for truth over comfort or popularity, that Catholics of all people should recognize and respect.

    Against this ecumenical good feeling, though, is the example of the Church Fathers themselves. Bruce himself has said many times that when we find our instincts going against theirs, our first assumption should be that we’re the ones who are messed up. And the Fathers thought Christological heresies were a very big deal.

    • Then, although this probably says bad things about me as a Catholic, there are some living heresies I actually admire, Calvinism most of all. I actually get annoyed with Catholic writers for their disrespectful treatment of it. “Those mean Calvinists believe in predestination. Yuk!” Well, we believe in it too, darn it, it’s just that they’re more forthright about it.

      (I’m not a Roman Catholic, and) I, too, have noticed that Roman Catholicism is quite comfortable with Calvinism … when it wants to be. For instance, the official RCC reasoning/justification for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is an example of Calvinism in the RCC.

  7. Dear Bruce,

    I can see that you have a generous spirit. It hurts you to think of the Copts, or any other group that has been historically labeled Christian, as actually being nonbelievers. But remember that it is ultimately the faith of the individual that determines his salvation. If, despite any errors his church may teach, an individual has enough faith in Christ to be saved, then he is saved. When we judge churches or tradition, we are not (or at least I am not) passing judgment on the salvation of its members. We are judging whether this Christian body is, to the best of our knowledge, faithful to the tradition originated by Christ and the Apostles.

    [In this comment, I am speaking to everyone, not just you. This is why I have posted it rather than sent it to you as an email.]

    The sine qua non of Christianity is individuals saved from God’s wrath by repentance and faith in Christ. The Apostles make that clear. “Faith,” as defined by the Bible, is confidence, trust and reliance, and to be valid, faith must be based on accurate knowledge of a trustworthy object. This is why it is important to have accurate knowledge of Christ.

    Individuals (as well as groups and traditions) that are known as being Christian are always mixtures of accurate and inaccurate knowledge, of trust and lack of trust. But it is important to be as accurate as possible in what we believe about Christ and his teaching.

    As for the Copts, I do not know very much about their tradition. Monophytism is an error, but if an individual Copt has a generally accurate knowledge of and trust in Christ, then he is a Christian.

    Are Copts as a group Christians? The standard of judgment is different for churches and traditions than for individuals. I think the Copts are Christian in the sense that their teaching is generally accurate, but it contains at least one serious error.

    But even if we pronounce them non-Christian on account of this one heretical belief, this is not to denigrate them totally. They are Christian according to the standards of the world, and they hold (I think) mostly correct views about Christ.

    You responded to one of my assertions by saying

    Words, words, words – but what about the centuries of suffering devotion to Christ by the Copts, who certainly seem to believe that Christ took away their sins?

    Christ did take away the sins of those who knew and trusted in him. But words have meanings that we must honor. The Apostles believed it important to have accurate knowledge of Christ, and we should honor their belief.

    You also said

    But as soon as anyone starts analyzing or explaining these words, to make the meaning clearer or more precise; or people try to explain how this works (i.e. the mechanism by which Christ bore our sins) then there is disagreement about exact validity, emphasis, further implications of the clarification etc.

    In other words, you said, how can we know what Christianity really is?

    I’ll give it to you straight: the biblical authors [and the ultimate Author of Scripture is God] assumed that one can know the truth about religious matters by reading, studying, understanding and believing what the Bible says. It’s not that complicated. Nowadays, this truth is mostly taught just by Protestants, but it ought to be believed by all Christians: The Bible presents a system that can be understood, and that makes sense. Of course, there are limits to what we can know, beyond which is mystery. But what can be known, we can know.

    Of course, we need secondary authorities such as creeds and catechisms, theologians and teachers, priests and pastors. But to teach validly, they must justify themselves by referring to Scripture.

    I recommend that, if you have not done so already, you study one of the Protestant creeds or catechisms that contain copious references to Scripture. I recommend the Westminster Confession of Faith and Heidelberg Catechism. Observe how Christianity is presented as an understandable system, taught in the Bible. Yes, there are mysteries, such as the Trinity of God. But much of Christianity follows in a straightforward manner from Scripture. And observe that, regarding the Trinity, the mystery is how such a thing is possible. That God is one, and also three persons, is clearly taught in Scripture.

    Scripture is the only possible unifying force within Christendom. And note that all Christian bodies agree on the next of the New Testament, which contains the most crucial teachings on Christ.

    • You’ve raised several points that seem to me tangential to the question at hand, which is whether some heresies are relatively benign and others are relatively virulent. I think it hinges on what is meant by what you call “serious error.” Applied to errors, the adjective “serious” has two possible senses, so far as I can see. The phrase “serious error” can mean either “large or obvious intellectual blunder,” or “intellectual blunder with grave consequences.” There’s some overlap, of course, but the senses are nevertheless distinct.

      The monophysite question is useful for thinking about this, because most monophysite Christians eventually became Muslims, not Copts. The question is, did they become Muslims because they were monophysites, or because they had been declared heretics? The little I’ve read about this suggested it was a little of both.

      A theological error is like a tumor. If it’s benign, it’s better to leave it alone than run the risk of heresy.

      • @JSmith – Thanks, that’s what I was trying to say.

        I wasn’t intending to evoke an I-hate-heresy fest – esepcially not when each participant means something different by ‘heresy’.

        My point was about discernment.

        The reason that this is very very important just now is that there are so few Christians in the West. We need to decide who we can work with and who we should not work with.

        My suggestion is that it is probably safe to work with those who have had a broadly Christian (ie Christ-focused) theology which has been stable for several generations (i.e. without degenerating into atheist Leftism, as happened with Unitarianism).

        This is a simple and dichotomous decision – and it is not enough to say ‘yes-but’, nor is it enough to say ‘I’m not sure’, nor is it enough to say that somebody is mostly Christian but with such and such errors which you cannot accept, and therefore to keep your distance.

        I am not talking about shared communion or any formal church arrangments – I am talking about which *side* people are on in this war we are engaged in. This is an inner and mystical thing, primarily, but with worldly consequences.

        The tragedy of rejecting those who are *in reality* allies on the side of Christ on theological/ heretical grounds is not so much that we will be defeated (because we probably will be defeated in any case) – but the spiritual evil of rejecting those who are *in reality* allies – the breaking of the mystical unity of Christians.


        Like the Battle of the Five Armies in The Hobbit: we are confronted by a vast and ramshackle alliance of looters and destroyers (orcs, wargs, vampire bats) – we are like the dwarves lined-up against elves and men guarding every last piece of their treasure.

        Whatever happens in the battle (and even if fighting does nothing more to buy time and weaken the enemy until we are saved by Beorn and the Eagles) – it would be a greater evil to fight one another, and almost an equal evil simply to fight independently of each other and to refuse to acknowledge true allies.


        The benefit of the approaching enemy in the Hobbit is to bring the dwarves back into alliance with elves and men.

        Well, we are (in The West) in the midst of a battle which we are losing – very obviously, very fast.

        Of course there is significant danger fifth colums, and of treachery, and out leaders are falling into apostasy all the time.

        But real Christians (of the various types) must decide who are their allies, and we need as many allies as possible, but not enemies disguised as allies – and then act on our decisions (and prepare to revise them if they turn out to be mistaken).

        NOTE: when I talk about ‘acting’ I mean *primarily* in terms of prayer and personal devotions. Not in terms of ‘organization’. That is the real battleground. It is our spiritual weakness – and division – which is our real weakness.

  8. One man’s heresy is another man’s orthodoxy. Or if you prefer, one man’s orthodoxy is another man’s heresy.

    It is true that heresy is often defined as being at odds with a pope or council, but Luther and others held that Popes and councils can err. I agree. Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders.

    It was once widely held, with support from luminaries such as Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, that heresy was worthy of capital punishment. Now that is taking heresy seriously.

  9. If the assertion is merely that it is better to be a monophysite than an Arian, I can see the merit of that. But Charlton is clearly saying more than that, that the fruits of the descendents of the monophysites are good because of their monophysitism and not in spite of it.

    No doubt holy examples abound among the ancient history of the Copts, but of how many of these examples is it also proved that they insisted upon the correctness specifically of their monophysitic understandings? Do we have examples of holy monophysites opposing the assumed orthodox Christianity, similar to the examples we have of holy Augustine opposing the Pelagians or holy Athanasius opposing the Arians? Perhaps we do, and I could stand to learn a thing or two about this.

    My understanding right now, however, is that I see a great difficulty in accomplishing such a thing as judging the fruits of monophysitism, such that I don’t see how it is possible to conclude whether it was a dangerous heresy or a benign understanding this way. JMSmith raises the interesting question of whether the “[monophysites became] Muslims because they were monophysites, or because they had been declared heretics?” Does it show a callous glossing over of human nature on my part to wonder exactly how committed to Christianity the subject would be in either case? If I was an otherwise fervent orthodox Christian, but declared a heretic because of a slight and perhaps benign difference in understanding of Christ’s nature, it seems strange to me that my next logical step is that I might as well give in to these marauding Muslims because I find myself more at home in my understanding of Christ with them than with Christians.

    • @bi – “But Charlton is clearly saying more than that, that the fruits of the descendents of the monophysites are good because of their monophysitism and not in spite of it.”


      I never say anything of the sort, nor do I believe anything of the sort.

      Go back and re-read what I actually said, or JM Smith’s summary.

  10. I apologize for misrepresenting what you said. Indeed soon after I wrote it the very sentence you quoted of mine came back to haunt me making me wish I had been more cautious with my words. If to rescind that sentence were possible, I would.

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  12. Without delving into the question of whether there are acceptable heresies or destructive theological disputes (an issue where I largely agree with Dr. Charlton), it’s worth asking whether the Copts are being fairly characterized here. The following lengthy quote comes from A History of Eastern Christianity by Aziz S. Atiya, a Coptic Christian:

    The Copts consistently repudiate the Western identification of Alexandrine Christianity with the Eutychianism [i.e., Monophysitism] which originated in Constantinople, and which they have always regarded as a flagrant heresy, since it declared the complete absorption of Christ’s manhood in His single divine nature, whereas the Copts clearly upheld the doctrine of the two natures—divine and human—mystically united in one, without without confusion, corruption, or change. … Those who can read the Coptic sources, both in Coptic and in Arabic rather than study their doctrinal outlook through secondary works by members of the opposite camp, are left wondering whether political and ecclesiastical authority was not behind the unnatural exaggeration of existing differences between the two professions.

    • I just noticed this post, and although I’m not sure if I am feeding the fire or not (I have no intention of doing so), I felt like I needed to say something since I think I am the only Copt that reads these blogs.

      I second Utron. Most Copts reject that which is typically called monophytism. No Copt I have ever met, as well as myself, believes that Jesus was only divine and had no humanity, or that His humanity was somehow overridden or rendered inconsequential by His divinity, or that His humanity was some sort of illusion. And if that’s what you think we believe, well then, I don’t blame you for thinking of us as heretics!

      If you would like me to say it, I will: I believe Jesus had full divinity and full humanity. I also believe that Jesus was one Person, and not two different persons somehow fused together.

      The issue is that Copts feel as though we have been unjustly treated in this matter- we have been accused of holding to a belief which we do not hold, most likely because of interference from political authorities who placed an unnecessary amount of pressure on the bishops of both sides that led to confusions resulting from the terminology.

      For example: one person says humans have 2 eyes and another says they have 1 pair of eyes. So which is it? 2 or 1?

      There is a good article on this written from the Oriental Orthodox perspective here:

      (note: the above link is the second part of a four part series, the rest of series can be found on the links to the left)

      And as I heard more than one person say on this issue throughout the years: even if the majority of Copts did at one time hold to an incorrect belief, an idea for which a great deal of historical evidence is against but none-the-less, let’s just suppose it was true. Well it appears that they no longer do so, and haven’t for quite some time. So how are they still heretics?

      • FHL, I’m glad to hear that you, and all the Copts you have met, reject monophytism. My main point was not to accuse any particular Christian body of heresy, but instead to counter the common belief that heresy is an abstract philosophical question of secondary importance in Christian life. On the contrary, Christ and the Apostles wanted their disciples to know true doctrine and reject falsehoods.

  13. I don’t think Mr. Charlton is claiming that endurance *alone* qualifies a community as legitimate Christians, but rather that endurance *in a recognizably Christian form* does.

    Let’s use a different example than the Copts (who actually adhere to miaphysitism rather than to the heresy of monophysitism, and who have signed a common declaration of faith with the Catholic Church: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/anc-orient-ch-docs/rc_pc_christuni_doc_19840623_jp-ii-zakka-i_en.html.) Take instead the Assyrian Church of the East, which adheres to a form of Nestorianism. Unlike the Unitarians, the Assyrians haven’t embraced any practices blatantly contrary to the New Testament such as same-sex marriage. They profess the Nicene Creed and they use the same liturgy as the Chaldean Catholic Church. How exactly does their Christological error affect their salvation, and, in practical terms, how should it alter my own willingness to consider them brothers in Christ (Mark 9: 38-43)?

    • Heresy is dangerous not simply because it is erroneous, but because errors of thought can lead to moral and spiritual devolution, as may well enough be seen in the depravations of latter-day modernity. To the extent that heresy damages a Christian’s faith in the adequacy of Christ’s Atonement, it is lethal. An otherwise faithful Christian who doubts either the full humanity or the full divinity of Christ, or the complete involvement of both his divine and human natures in the Passion, must – to the extent that he is both thoughtful and consistent – necessarily suffer such doubts. These could lead in the worst case to a falling away from the faith, and a rejection of Christ’s salvation. This is why christology is so important.

      Now, obviously, christological hair-splitting does not form any significant part in the inner lives of almost any Christians. And this is probably a salutary situation. Indeed, as Dr. Charlton might argue, to the extent that you are interested in such hair-splitting, or worse, God help you, good at it, you are ipso facto in grave danger of losing your faith, and of falling into the sin of pride. Yet nevertheless it is important that the Fathers of the Church, however we designate and authorize them, promulgate an orthodox christological doctrine that steers clear of heretical teachings, so that pastors and presbyters and doctors working and fighting in the trenches, and charged with the spiritual development of the laymen under their care, do not lead them astray, and perhaps over the cliff.

      An otherwise faithful Christian who labors under the burden of christological heresy, such as a Nestorian or monophysite, does not thereby automatically endanger his salvation. None of us, after all, can say we understand all the mysteries of the faith without tinct of error. Everyone commits some theological error or other. Perfection of knowledge being impossible to our creaturely nature, it cannot form a bar to our salvation, any more than our inability to fly like birds would do. The essence of the Good News is that God does not expect us to be perfect, but simply (ha!) to love him, and our neighbours as ourselves. If we forgive our own theological errors, so should we forgive those of our fellows – even Unitarians (NB: this does *not* mean we should ever refrain from correcting error where we detect it; as we would not hesitate to correct our own errors, so should we never hesitate to correct those of our brothers, albeit with all due humility and respect for the dignity of their immortal lives). I conclude that Nestorians are our brothers in Christ, despite the errors they suffer.

      • ” An otherwise faithful Christian who doubts either the full humanity or the full divinity of Christ . . .”

        This, I think, is key. Anyone who doubts that Jesus was both god and man, and that He died on the cross for us, has committed a very serious error that I think *will* affect his faith at some point, though perhaps not to the point of compromising his salvation. However, not all heresies strike at this essential truth. As far as I can tell, the Monophysites do not deny the humanity and divinity of Jesus–they merely believe that the two natures, post-incarnation, become so fused as to become indistinguishable. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Nestorius seemed to believe that the two natures coexisted only by the will of God the Father and that we can continue to identify their separate activities after the Incarnation.

        Given that traditional Catholics and conservative Protestants have forged some sense of community despite their profound theological differences (and their tendency to regard each other as heretics), can we also form common causes with Nestorians and Monophysites? What about Mormons? What is the precise degree or kind of heresy that triggers an unbridgeable rupture in community and outward organization (though, of course, we will always continue to pray for our unfortunate brothers post-rupture)?

        Let me quickly clarify that by “outward organization” I do not necessarily mean inter-communion. As 1 Corinthians 11:29 implies, our standards for communion must be very high, since we do no man a favor by allowing him to commune without the proper disposition. When I speak of outward organization, I am speaking of extra-ecclesiastical organizations such as this blog, or 40 Days for Life, which are examples of non-denominational Christian cooperation. Do we invite the patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East (who actually lives in Chicago) to participate in, or write reflections for, 40 Days for Life? What about a Mormon elder? Obviously, we need standards for what Francis Schaeffer called “the ecumenism of the orthodox”, but it seems to me that these standards are only vaguely defined.

      • What is the precise degree or kind of heresy that triggers an unbridgeable rupture in community and outward organization?

        It depends on the heresy, and on the situation. We’d cooperate with anyone against invading aliens, right? Perhaps the test is this: would cooperation with x in situation y likely make it harder or easier for us to express in our daily lives the principles we consider indispensable? In the fight against abortion, for example, we might well ask whether we ought to invite Muslims to join our efforts. But we would have to ask then whether a joint success in that project would have the knock on effect of increasing Muslim political power, endangering our essentially Roman and English system of law.

      • If I were appointed Grand Inquisitor, I’d judge heresies on the basis of of their logical entailments–what they are likely to grow into. Abortion isn’t exactly a heresy (although it grows out of one), but it’s a good example of a doctrine that has “legs” (malign legs, to be sure, but legs nevertheless). Once it is established, no man is secure, since it presupposes that the right not to be arbitrarily murdered is entirely in the gift of the State. As the 17th century Christian philosopher Ralph Cudworth put it in his critique of Thomas Hobbs, in Hobbs’ ideal polity there would be “no other conscience . . . besides the law of the country,” and therefore “the Deity must of necessity be removed and displaced, to make room for the Leviathan to spread himself in.”

        I think we should view Muslims as “strange bedfellows” with whom we might join in temporary and limited alliances of convenience, but that we should absolutely reject all talk of deep “Abrahamic” concord. This is just the two-headed mongrel “Judeo-Christianity” with a third head stitched onto one shoulder.


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