Heresy and Humility — Lessons from a Current Controversy

By: Dr. Albert Mohler

I have spent my entire adult lifetime concerned with the danger of heresy. As a young theologian, I worked through the early centuries of church history and understood that knowing the difference between orthodox Christianity and heresy is really a matter of life and death for the church. A failure to recognize and refute heresy means disaster for the church and its witness to Christ.

At the same time, I saw that two dangers quickly emerged. The first, and most dangerous, is the unwillingness of many modern theologians to acknowledge the reality and danger of heresy. Liberal theology denied the possibility of heresy and then openly embraced it. The second danger is like the fable of the boy who cried wolf. Some genuine doctrinal disagreements have nothing at all to do with the line between orthodoxy and heresy. Furthermore, not every false doctrine or theological error is a heresy.

Heresy is a denial or deviation from a doctrine central and essential to Christianity. Thus, the Christian church has learned through sad experience that heresy is a necessary category and a constant concern. In the early centuries of Christianity, church leaders had to define the true faith against false gospels and to defend biblical teachings concerning the most essential doctrines of all — the triune nature of God and the full deity and humanity of Christ.

At the councils of Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451) the most fundamental biblical doctrines concerning Christ and the Trinity were defined, defended, and declared. The true faith, theologically identified as orthodoxy, was contrasted with heresies, rightly condemned as misrepresentations of Christianity. The stakes could not be higher. Heresies are not merely false doctrines; they are false doctrines that, left uncorrected, Christianity cannot survive.

The first heresy to call for a universal condemnation by the church was known as Arianism. Arius, a presbyter and priest in the church at Alexandria in Egypt, taught that the Son was a created being — even declaring “there once was a time when the Son was not.” Arius argued for an absolute ontological subordination of the Son to the Father and his teachings caused such division in the church that the Roman Emperor, Constantine, called for a council to resolve the theological crisis.

The Arians made a crucial mistake as the council began in Nicaea (modern Turkey) in the year 325. They presented their own proposed creed. Their creed was so openly contrary to Scripture and so contradictory to the church’s faith in Christ that it was easily rejected. Eventually, the Council of Nicaea adopted a creed that established orthodoxy, rejected heresy, and confessed essential teachings about the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

The creed confessed “the one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father.” Every word of the creed is important, but especially these specific words. The council repudiated the false teachings of the Arians and declared that the Son is equal with the Father in true deity.

But the council went further by condemning and anathematizing all “who say, there was when He was not, and before being born he was not, and that He came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance, or is subject to alteration or change.”

 

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