When we talk about heresy, we usually refer to a denial of one of the core Christian claims. But sometimes overzealous Christians will extend the concept a little too far. They will refer to anybody who disagrees with them as a heretic. Any dissidence from their traditional values is thought to be heresy. When I explain why I am a heretic and you should be too, I am using the word in this latter sense. I am certainly not saying that we should deny the trinity or compromise the gospel. In this sense, the usage is more rhetorical and colloquial.
This sort of heretic has been pretty influential in the history of science and the history of the Christian church. Many of us follow the traditions set down by those who were heretics in their day. These heretics transcended the echo chamber, thought outside of the box and started movements that many believe were directed by the Almighty. My greatest inspirations were heretics, and I aspire to be as good of a heretic as they were.
Jesus Christ Was A Heretic
Rabbinical Judaism defined the religion of the day. When the God-man came on the scene, he confronted piety that exceeded the Scripture. If these practices and beliefs were challenged, it was thought to be heresy. A good example is the conversation that Jesus had with the Sadducees in Matthew 22. Jesus cited Psalm 110:1, which reads “The Lord said to my Lord: sit at my right hand.” Jesus posed the question, “If David then calls Him ‘Lord,’ how is He his son?” In other words, how could YHWH be David’s son? We know that the answer is that the son of David is the God-man. It is a reference to the incarnation. But that was regarded as heresy.
Similarly, in John 8:58, we know that Jesus harked back to the story of the Burning Bush in Exodus 3:14. God says that his name is I Am or YHWH. In his conversation with the Pharisees, Jesus told them, “Before Abraham was, I Am,” which is a clear identification with the one who spoke from the Burning Bush. Jesus forgave sins, claimed to be the Messiah, the God-man and broke the Pharisee’s conception of the Sabbath. By all accounts, Jesus Christ was a heretic. Perhaps the most obvious indication is his death by crucifixion. At his trial recorded in Luke 22:66-71, he applied messianic verses to himself and claimed to be Son of God. The Pharisees condemned him to death for blasphemy and heresy.
As Christians, we are being “conformed to the image of the Son” (Romans 8:29). The Son challenged rigid fundamentalism and went against the stream of religious thought. That is not to say that we should constantly be contentious or condemn our brethren. But it does mean that we do not have to be constrained by fundamentalism. If Jesus was called a heretic, then we should expect that some may call us heretics in overzealous piety. That should not be taken as a license to engage in true heresy (denying the trinity or the death and resurrection of Christ). But it does mean that we do not have to live in an echo chamber. Jesus certainly did not. He was a heretic.
Martin Luther Was A Heretic
As a Protestant and a Calvinist, I regard Martin Luther as a hero of the faith. He was the great trailblazer, creating unprecedented opportunity for the spread of the gospel. He was flawed like all human beings, but nonetheless was a faithful and zealous scholar. Yet in Luther’s day, Roman Catholic theology was pervasive. His primary concern was the sale of indulgences. He also believed that the true gospel was nowhere to be found in Rome since they denied justification by faith alone.
In fact, the Council of Trent was a counter-reformation assembly that anathematized Luther’s teachings. According to the religion that he believed, he was a heretic. Yet we all know those famous words: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” If it were not for Martin Luther, many of us would not believe the fullest expression of the gospel. God providentially guided Luther into heresy so that he might infect centuries of church history with his heresy.
In response to the rise of the Theory of Evolution, some churches include Neo-Ussherianism (the young earth model) in their doctrinal statements. It is not the first time in church history that we have seen dogmatism about science. There were heretics such as Issac Newton (as an aside, he was an actual heretic for denying the trinity), Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei who went against the stream of the theological science of the day.
But doctrinal science can create a sort of anti-intellectualism that repels unbelievers and creates apostasy. Many young people hear conflicting stories in church and in school. That leaves them with a choice between their Christian education and their secular education. Many tend toward secular education because it comes with physical evidence and is better credentialed. We see a similar theme in church history. Martin Luther and John Calvin both rejected the discoveries of Nicolaus Copernicus. Copernicus is famous for the heliocentric model which states that the earth and planets in the solar system revolve around the sun.
Luther wrote of Copernicus, “There was mention of a certain new astrologer who wanted to prove that the earth moves and not the sky, the sun, and the moon… I believe the Holy Scriptures, for Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth [Josh. 10:12].” That is strikingly similar to the dogmatic literalism that we see in Neo-Ussherian circles. Centuries later, Copernicus is a pioneer of science and the church just got in the way. We would have been better off if there were more heretics like Copernicus. Similarly, we will be better off today if there are more heretics who reject the Neo-Ussherian model.
Philosophers Defending Biblical Christology
Critics sometimes suggest that the concept of the God-man is incoherent. God has attributes that man absolutely cannot have. This would overthrow the core of Christian theology. But if we can form a model of the incarnation wherein the proposition that “Jesus is truly God and truly man” obtains, we will have successfully deflected the objection by showing that there is no internal contradiction. Philosophers such as Dr. William Lane Craig have created models like that.
But this model is not precisely in accord with confessional thought. This has led Reformed theologians to call Dr. Craig a heretic. The problem is that by undermining his model, they also undermine the answer to the challenge of incoherence. (That is why I wrote a response to them). These theologians demand that Christians just believe the confessions without worrying about the logical problems that arise.
The benefit of being a heretic in this situation is that you will be more equipped to preach the gospel and answer thoughtful objections. Insisting the one return to the confessions is not an answer. It is guilty of what I call the fallacy of piety. This fallacy occurs when you wrap a bad argument in pious language to gain an edge over your opponent. But overzealous piety will not help when you are answering objections. It is precisely this sort of piety that Jesus, Luther and Copernicus all confronted. Dr. Craig and philosophers like him who are willing to go against the stream of confessional thought for the sake of the gospel enjoy the company of the Lord himself and these other heroes of history.
A Better Cultural Perception
Branding is integral to anybody who wants to spread a message. The apostle Paul did what he could to avoid negative connotations. He rebuked another apostle for refusing to dine with the Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-13). Similarly, he said, “I have become all things to all people so that by all means, I might save some” (1st Corinthians 9:19-23). He was willing to change his disposition based on his audience.
The same principle can be applied today. Christianity is often associated with rigid dogmatism and unwavering fundamentalism. Unfortunately, there are many Christian circles that do very little to counter this meme. As heretics, we can counter it. If somebody says that Christians believe that the earth is 6000 years old, we can explain that we accept the stream of scientific evidence and believe it is compatible with the Bible’s teaching. Heresy creates a more suitable standing with the academy and a seat at the table of intellectual discourse. Christianity then becomes a more reasonable option for thinking men and women to freely choose.
Further, our heresies will show apostates that there are other legitimate expressions of the Christian faith. If somebody left because she believed in a Neo-Ussherian model, she might be taken aback when she learns that Christianity has a long intellectual history and one can believe without these burdens. Heresy is a useful resource for preaching the gospel.
History Remembers Heretics Fondly
We sometimes see people who take a controversial stance just so they would be remembered. This is certainly not a reason to become a heretic, but it should compel us to ask why history remembers heretics. If you are living in an echo chamber, it takes a critical thinker to hear outside voices and take them seriously. If an individual was raised in a KJV Only church, he will probably be a KJV Onlyist throughout his entire life. But it takes a very thoughtful person to flout the church tradition and adopt a more thoughtful articulation of the faith.
Generations after their death, we remember men like Copernicus, Newton and Luther. We may well remember William Lane Craig in a few generations. But stale dogmatists are forgotten as quickly as they depart. History rewards open-minded critical thinkers. It rewards heretics.
Why I Am A Heretic And You Should Be Too
The great confessions of the faith should be useful guides. But I do not know that they should be authoritative. As a Calvinist, I believe in sola scriptura (2nd Timothy 3:16-17). The Scripture defines what a Christian is. We need more people who rigid dogmatists would refer to as heretics. That is how we will shift the cultural perception of the faith. We should follow the path of heretics like the Lord Jesus Christ, Martin Luther, Copernicus, and William Lane Craig.
In closing, I would like to remind you of our shared faith. We should unite under this core teaching. In other matters, we should be at liberty. Christianity could be known for thoughtful, open-minded reflection rather than overzealous piety.
The apostle Paul wrote in 1st Corinthians 15:3-8, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.”
The Nicene Creed expresses the biblical teaching as it reads:
We believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father.
Let’s unite under the Christian banner represented by 1st Corinthians 15:3-8 and the Nicene Creed.