Takeaway: Knowing theology is more than just knowing the positive (creeds and beliefs) it is also understanding the negative (the Heresies).
We are all acquainted with the mantra, ‘Christians should be known more for what they are for than what they are against.’ It is simplistic, but I generally agree with the concept.
However, that does not mean that we should ignore the concept of Heresy. Justin Holcomb has a very helpful, easy to read, good for small group discussion, book on the basic heresies of the church.
Marc Cortez, a theology professor at Wheaton College had a recent helpful post on the positives of ‘Becoming a Heretic’. Cortez talks about how when he was teaching a class on the church fathers he temporarily became an Arianist, using the best arguments and historical documents to prove his case. (Arianism is an ancient heresy that suggests that Jesus is eternally subordinate to the Father and was not eternal but created later.)
Cortez made his case to his students that because they didn’t really understand the reasoning behind the heresies, they did not really understand how to defend against them.
Holcomb makes a similar argument throughout the book, that the heretics of the early church were not primarily trying to create a non-orthodox heresy but instead mostly trying to ‘clarify’ or ‘simplify’ the theology of the trinity. (A great illustration of the problems of simplifying the concept of the trinity is the short cartoon below).
And for the most part the heresies in this book are about the Trinity, in large part because Holcolm is concentrating on Heresy as those beliefs that had a council organized against them.
Part of the purpose of the book is to focus differences of opinion within Christianity away from the flippant use of the word heresy and retain the meaning of heresy (similar to the idea in the movie Increadibles, ‘if everyone is special then no one is really special.’) So Holcomb says, ”
Though this group of heresy-hunters often say they’re motivated by concern for the faith once for all delivered to the saints, their practice of labeling every diverging belief as heresy has the opposite effect. Rather than making much of right belief, they minimize its importance by making, for example, the mode of baptism to be as important as the divinity of Christ. When everything is central, nothing is.
So instead Holcolm asks that we concentrate on the Nicene Creed as the defining orthodoxy of the Christian faith:
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.
For all the differences of opinion within Christianity, I think that Holcomb’s proposal is a sound one. One of the reasons I have stepped away from describing myself as Baptist is that I no longer want a statement of faith that is outside of the Nicene Creed. I think we as Christians need to submit to the historic Christian statements of faith and quit trying to reinvent the wheel.