In a comment placed on my blog of November 15 on "How Postmodernity Serves Faith" a respondent (Martin Downes) asked me three specific questions that I wish to answer in the form of a new blog. I do this because the answer, I sincerely hope, is worthy of others reading it and responding to it as they wish. You can find the three questions on the comments section posted on the November 15 entry. Here are my answers:

1. My understanding of the deadliness and seriousness of heresy has actually deepened over the last ten years. What has changed even more profoundly is my unwillingness to apply the term to anyone who holds a view that differs from the conservative Reformed tradition, which is only four plus centuries old confessionally. (By the way I remain a Reformed thinker and I am comfortable with the tradition, being a Reformed minister. At the same time I am willing to question the system since it is human. I have challenged it at several points and come to new views about how to embrace the whole Christian Tradition more completely and faithfully. My approach is seen as "liberal" by some, an unfortunate use of the term liberal to say the least.) To say, as some do, that "heresy is a belief or teaching that contradicts Scripture and Christian theology" (Millard Erickson, Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology) is way too broad to be of meaningful use in the give and take of real church life. If you apply this view you will be treating every doctrinal error that you encounter as "heresy" and the results will be pretty grim in terms of healthy church life. The Greek term, as used in the NT, referred to a "different opinion." It took on specific content in early church formation and referred to "deviant opinions which were opposed to the normative teaching of the church." A person can hold some bad doctrine and not be a heretic. A person can also hold what appears to be a rather minor error, at least at first glance, and become a heretic if they become divisive and seek to draw people to their errors so as to oppose the Great Tradition of the Christian faith. This is the real battle in our day, as it was in other days too.

2. Galatians 1:6-9 refers to a "real" error and I do believe we can know such errors when we see them. I further believe that you have sadly misunderstood my comments about certainty. We can know error(s) but not infallibly. What we have done incorrectly with Galatians 1:6-9 is assure ourselves that we know exactly who is and is not "preaching another gospel." We then become quite sure that we are in the right and everyone else is in the wrong. We can then create a list of the bad guys and build an entire ministry on such opposition. Many groups do this and some conservative ministers are very good at it. I was one such person and I have said so only to be attacked for now attacking others, a charge I reject. In fact, what I am doing is confessing that I did this myself but few who remonstrate with my views seem to read me carefully on this point. (Several major public voices regularly use me as the prime example of how a person leaves the faith, sometimes citing my sympathy for Roman Catholics, while at other times seeing assorted heresies that they insist lead me to doubt about everything Christians ought to believe. I refuse to name these people or debate them since they have neither allowed me to answer any of their charges nor shown me simple civility.) Epistemic humility checks such assumptions without denying the reality of the actual problem of real damning errors.

Further, this business of determining heresy and heretics is a church matter to be properly decided on a communal basis. These issues are properly resolved in this context and not as a personal cut-and-slash strategy that uses blogs and pulpits to tell us who the bad guys are so we all are in the know. We have way too many folks running around with absolute certainty that they have every right to brand this person and that ministry as "heretical." We throw the phrase "preaching a false gospel" around at will and by this some do serious harm to the church in the process. My appeals are meant to urge a rethink of this whole approach.

3. I am accused of being hard on the leaders of my generation, in the third question, when it is suggested that I admit that I do not know with certainty who these people are or why they are wrong. This misses the points made in the blog and now cited above. First, I am not taking cheap shots at anyone in particular and I am not turning this into a personal diatribe. Second, I am speaking broadly of "my generation" and thus include myself, as I said above. Third, it is a simple matter of fact that my generation is deeply influenced by modernity and its interlocking system of ideas. Granted the rising younger generation is influenced by postmodernism and this presents real problems for them as well.

What I am really saying is that my generation is assured that it has things right and those who challenge our "certain" assumptions are simply wrong. There is little room for discussion and rethink among many of the conservative leaders in my generation and I can’t change that by counter attack but try to do so by urging openminded readers to rethink this approach. This is a pretty obvious conclusion that most readers of this blog understand or they would not be reading me in the first place. (Some seem to read me to find the errors that they can then use to warn others of my dangerous errors!) I have not found many evangelicals in my "boomer" age group terribly interested in dialogue with postmoderns, something I am deeply committed to personally without buying into every aspect of the postmodern critique of culture and religion.

It seems odd to have to keep saying this but I have clearly been wrong and I am sure I will be wrong again. But when I am shown my errors, and the Spirit makes them apparent to me (which happens far too often for my comfort level) I repent. This simply makes many people unhappy and it makes me look like an unsafe teacher of the faith. I see these blogs as a way to think aloud and teach. They then allow push-back and correction. I think if you read my blogs, or read them at least for a month or so, you will see this going on all the time.

When I was growing up as a younger minister I was told by influential conservatives that they had never changed their mind (at least not substantially) on any important doctrine. Wow, what strength I thought! Well, I have changed my mind and I admit it. This makes me weak I suppose. But this has freed me and it has brought some unusual pain at the same time. I do have real soul liberty and thus I live as a truly free man serving Christ with a clear conscience. I also love Christians wherever I meet them. If this is wrong then I plead guilty. I think this is the obvious meaning of Romans 14:4: "Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master they they stand or fall."

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  1. Martin Downes November 23, 2006 at 3:41 am

    Dear John
    Thank you for taking time to give a response to my questions. I appreciate the fact that you have done that. I’m short of time at the moment but wanted to fire off an acknowledgement before I get around to pondering your post.

  2. Martin Downes November 23, 2006 at 7:07 am

    I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments on the varying types of error. Heresy belongs to a specific type of error that overthrows the gospel.
    As Reformed ministers are we not under the anathema of the Council of Trent for our views on justification sola fide? Doesn’t that make us heretics in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church?
    On point (2) I’m not sure that I understand you. If we can know errors that fall into the condemnation of Gal. 1:6-9 then presumably we can know them exactly (by which I mean truly). We can see, and say, that they deviate from the objective standard of the apostolic gospel. That has nothing to do with our own sense of epistemic certainty or humility (not that they are opposites at all) and everything to do with seeing how particular theological positions are out of line with the apostolic gospel.
    I know that people can misuse the word “heresy”, but I don’t see that such misuse is a challenge to a right kind of recognition that some theologies are heretical and that we should say so. It wouldn’t necessarily follow, as you seem to suggest, that we then build a ministry on this kind of error recognition (I’m not a fan of that; the ministry of the gospel is essential positive and is negative/polemical when it needs to be). We simply cannot escape having lists of good guys and bad guys. Such lists are complex though are to be drawn up in the right way (has this person refused gentle correction? Are they aware of the issues involved? Are they being temporarily inconsistent? Are they fundamentally submissive to the apostolic gospel or are they rebelling against its content and authority?).
    In the end is it not a matter of saying that people have different lists of good and bad guys and that yours may have changed? Is that a fair reading of what you wrote?
    John I’m not up to speed on the changes in your thinking (even though from what you write I have a fair inkling). I’m not commenting on here to be critical of you or to be provocative. I have a particular interest in exploring the neglected concept of heresy and was interested in your comments.
    Best wishes

  3. Mike Clawson November 23, 2006 at 10:51 pm

    Never changing one’s mind on any doctrine does not make one “strong”, IMHO, only foolish and lacking in proper humility.
    Do such people believe in “total depravity”? If so, then how can they possibly assume that all of their doctrinal opinions are right all of the time? Don’t they think that sin has noetic affects as well?

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