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What constitutes heresy?

You see this term tossed around in Christian circles all the time. It’s surprisingly common, actually. But what does it really mean? To me, it has grave undertones of danger and of…well, being a heretic, a religious loony on the fringe of rational thinking.

The reason I bring this topic up is that I realize that I’ve been writing about some ideas that are in the minority view. I don’t claim to have the whole truth or to know anything with 100% certainty, but I think it’s foolish to accept views blindly on authority. It’d also be foolish if I discarded the opinions of other informed people without first considering their explanations carefully. My opinion firmly remains that the only infallible, wholly reliable source is the Bible itself. I don’t find myself agreeing with any person on every single point, no matter how highly I respect him or her.

Speaking of someone I regard highly, William Lane Craig likes to say in his lectures that he believes that probably no living person has gotten every point of theology right. I wondered why this is, and I think it’s because there are simply too many factors that prohibit a full understanding of God. Some of these roadblocks to understanding include: sin (which also dampens the voice of the Holy Spirit), biases, limited life/spiritual experience, lack of intelligence, lack of research, poor critical thinking, youth, old age, and especially spiritual pride. Every single person on earth is susceptible to at least some of these. It’s only by the grace of God and the hearts and minds He’s given us that allows us to find any truth at all.

That being said, what are some possible ways to define “heresy”? Let’s take a look.

1) Breaking away from the prevalent or majority views.

2) Distorting the word of God or inserting meaning that’s not really there.

3) Believing in dogma that will possibly lead to spiritual apostasy and away from salvation.

They are purposely ordered in increasing degrees of “heretical” severity, in my opinion, and they will often overlap. I don’t think it’s as clear-cut as some believe.

1) Breaking away from the prevalent or majority views.

A simple definition of heresy might be that it is a belief that contradicts the established dogma of a religion. If that was the extent of it, I don’t think it’d be all that bad. After all, as Protestants, aren’t a lot of us heretics that broke away from the established Catholic church? If this is the whole meaning of the word, then it becomes purely a matter of perspective and personal opinions. It becomes relative, and I think the word loses its importance and meaning. Dogma in itself holds no power or authority.

Majority agreement also does very little to confirm the veracity of a claim. I say this with some reservation because I do think it’s worth trying to understand why most people believe things a certain way. Often times, there is a good reason for the prevalence of a view, even if it’s not immediately obvious to us.

In the interest of full disclosure, I think this is more or less how I go about trying to figure out the truth in Christian doctrine:

Step 1: What does the Bible appear to say? If it’s obvious, accept it and move onto the next topic. If there are some apparent conflicts or difficulty in understanding, then proceed to Step 2.

Step 2: What does the majority (or respected authorities) think? Read good commentaries and if it sounds plausible and rational, stick with it. This is kind of a safe starting position to hold by default. If the explanations sound contrived or inadequate, think on it further, then proceed to Step 3.

Step 3: Consult other opinions and read into other views. Before considering the truth of these views too deeply, make sure it squares away with the Bible directly. Try to tune out ungrounded assumptions and interpretations.

Step 4: Pray and reflect further. Read both sides of the argument. Often, you’ll see that proponents of both the traditional view and the unorthodox view know the other side’s points. It’s important not to bias yourself in one direction before deciding for yourself.

Step 5: Decide where you stand on the issue for now. Never feel completely settled and be open to opposing thoughts. If good reasons are given for consideration, be flexible. Throughout your spiritual walk, you may change back and forth a few times and that’s OK.

Now, I didn’t expect to go into all of that when I started this entry, but you’ll notice that I don’t fully appeal to the majority or authority. I think that’s naive and also very dangerous. What happens when the wrong view takes over because it’s attractive in some other way (other than being true)? What happens when Muslims start to outnumber Christians?

If you’re the only one who believes in the theological equivalent of the the moon landing being faked, question your beliefs. Deep deeper. But don’t let popular opinion overpower the word of God and good reasoning. Our logical capacities may be limited, and some things cannot be fully understood. But there’s a difference between logical limitations and logical incoherence. The latter points to a problem in a truth claim, the former points to a problem in us.

So no, I don’t think this first requirement of breaking away from widely held views constitutes true heresy with all the connotations attached to the word.

2) Distorting the word of God or inserting meaning that’s not really there.

Rather than hold you in any suspense, I’ll say upfront that now we’re entering 50/50 territory.

The safer side might look like this: two Christians interpret “perish” in John 3:16 in different ways. One thinks that it means what it literally says, and happens to hold the conditionalist view. The second thinks that hell is eternal for unbelievers, so thinks that the word means a figurative kind of perishing or death.

The reason I say this example is “the safer side” is because there are ways to interpret verses differently, and more importantly, nowhere in the Bible does it say you must believe in eternal burning in hell. Someone is wrong, but it’s an honest mistake that was not motivated by intense pride or deception. I think legalism—while annoying and misguided—also falls in the safer end, unless one explicitly states that salvation is earned through works.

In the more “dangerous” end of the spectrum, interpretations start to overtake scripture and directly contradict even the clearest verses. Often, this will come through some kind of “messenger” who “heard the voice of God” telling him some inside information that must now be told to others. The problem is, God would never tell them anything that directly goes against what was already stated in the Bible.

An obvious example of this would be Harold Camping. His interpretations and convictions of knowing the end of the world directly contradict one of the most straightforward verses you could possibly find in the Bible, Matthew 24:36 (NLT): “”However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows.” Going directly against God’s word is certainly heretical, and in Camping’s case we see an extraordinary amount of denial and stubbornness. Perhaps his 50 years of studying the Bible were devoid of accountability—the voices of other informed, caring theologians to keep him in check. Perhaps his pride got the best of him. No one is immune to this great, original sin. (See how one pastor, Rick Warren, continues to battle pride in an admirably honest manner.)

3) Believing in dogma that will possibly lead to spiritual apostasy and away from salvation.

There are certain distortions that may or may not lead away from true faith. It’s impossible for us to say or judge with finality, and only God knows what’s really in a person’s heart.

But this section deals with beliefs that cannot be reconciled with the heart of a true believer. This is unequivocally Christian “heresy” in every sense of the word. These beliefs not only directly contradict the Bible, but cast serious doubt on their proponents.

For instance, as a Christian, you must believe that Jesus was not a mere man or messenger, but that he is the living Son of God. You must also believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation—not Buddha, Allah, Zeus—and that relativism is a logical mess. This is why I’m harsh with certain popular pastors who waffle on this question when asked, “Is Jesus the ONLY way?”

There are foundational tenets that are not up for interpretation unless a person wants to leave the Christian faith. Some have chosen to do so, like the Mormons.


All in all, many people are trying to do the best they can to learn about God, but no one has all the answers. Before we call each other heretics, consider whether other people’s views are different but plausible, or if they’re in danger of losing their souls. Everyone has a natural tendency to think that they’re right, others are wrong, because people know their own thoughts and of course they make the most immediate sense. But logically, not everyone can be right on opposing views (relativists, I’m looking at you).

Wrong doesn’t always equate to heresy, however.

Maybe it’s due to past experiences where I was turned off greatly by certain ministries and leaders, but I find myself taking everything with a grain of salt. I highly encourage people to consult God’s word and not become overly zealous “fans” of any theologian to the point where his or her word substitutes for the truth. While I admire great spiritual servants like Lee Strobel, Timothy Keller, William Lane Craig, C.S. Lewis, and others, I find myself disagreeing with every one of them on at least one point. From what I’ve read, they disagree with each other as well, but only on non-central issues.

Let’s support each other in the search for truth and also keep each other accountable. If there are any errors in reasoning or factual oversights in my posts, I HIGHLY encourage (or even plead) that you point them out to me. But please don’t assume I’m misled simply because you heard so-and-so say something else or you just don’t like the idea. It’s equally invalid, for example, to say that annihilationism is wrong because that’s what the Seventh-Day Adventists believe. Even denominations that have gotten certain points of theology wrong can be right in other aspects. It’s not always all-or-nothing. (Incidentally, this is also why I like the fact that the church I attend is nondenominational.)

Also, it’s unreliable to regard ideas so highly just because they resonate with you on a personal level. Sometimes it’s the Holy Spirit, sometimes it’s not.

What “feels right” can change through the years, so let’s all place our beliefs on firmer ground. I hope that I will be humble and honest enough with myself to know when I’m going astray. I promise that if I do spot an error in my blog, I will unabashedly fix it and make it known to people.

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