What is Heresy?

“Heresy” is a word that has gone out of fashion. Most churches in our time have all but dropped it from their vocabulary. In our churches too the term is rarely used unless to refer to an occasional ‘“heresy-hunter” who threatens to disturb the routine course of church machinery. In contrast with this current view, the Bible repeatedly urges the church to be alert and to be prepared to meet and take countermeasures against the heresies that will certainly arise to threaten it.

We need to ask, therefore, just what these unpleasant but unavoidable things called “heresies” really are. The dictionary definition of heresy is: “religious opinion opposed to the authorized doctrinal standards of any particular church, and tending to promote schism” R. C. H. Lenski, the Lutheran commentator, makes the interesting comment on II Peter 2:1 that the word “heresy” (which comes from a Greek verb meaning “to choose”) means “a view, an opinion, a doctrine that one chooses for oneself . . .”

It is significant that the Apostle Peter’s warning against such self-chosen doctrines follows immediately and is contrasted with the way he has just characterized the Scriptures: “And we have the word of prophecy made more sure; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a lamp shining in a dark place knowing this first, that no prophecy of scripture is of private interpretation. For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Peter 1:19–21).

In other words, in this biblical perspective, “heresy” is really just a self-chosen opinion which one holds in contrast or opposition to the inspired scriptures. Although, happily, not all self-chosen opinions are as serious as those Peter describes as “destructive heresies, denying the Master that bought them,” this should not lead us to overlook the principle that a “heresy” is essentially just a personal opinion or idea, or (as now popularly called) “interpretation” which one holds in opposition to God’s teaching in the Bible. Bearing in mind this biblical definition of “heresy” may be helpful to us in evaluating many of our present church problems.

The Report on Biblical Authority

The recently much-discussed Report Number 36 on Biblical Authority was occasioned by: (1) church overtures expressing concern about heresies invading our sister churches and spilling over into our own; and (2) an opposite reaction of those sister churches which have been moving toward allowing room for them (provided they do not go “too far”).

The trouble with Report 36 and the real reason why so many find it difficult to understand is that it tries to go along with these two opposite trends, both of which are expressed in its mandate and grounds. On the one hand it warns against letting the Bible be made subject to man’s scientific or historical prejudices; on the other hand it attempts to leave some room for men’s “private opinions” to diverge from and deny the details of accounts which the Bible gives us in such places as Genesis 1–11.

We must face the fact that the Bible really leaves us no room for such compromises. What the church teaches must be simply the Word of God, not our private opinions, which, as soon as they diverge from the Word of God, whether the creeds have gotten around to condemn the particular divergence or not, already have the essential character of “heresies.”

AACS Misinterpretations of the Bible

The biblical viewpoint in II Peter also helps us to evaluate the current effort of AACS [Association for Advancement of Christian Scholarship) leaders to make the expression “word of God” refer not only to the Bible, but especially to other things that they like to call “forms of the word” such as the creation and preaching.

This device, which finds virtually no grounds in Scripture, in practice lets one put current “scientific” views of the creation or his own philosophical ideas or personal opinions he may hold as an, in his opinion, inspired Christian beside or ahead of the Bible. It permits one to call such self-chosen opinions, which, as we have already observed, are the essence of heresy, the “word of God.” The divisive and destructive results of that fundamental “heresy” are beginning to appear in a number of places as the movement develops.

New Trends in Worship

Seen from this perspective, some of the popular experiments with new forms of worship also appear more serious than the unimportant variations from old customs which they are sometimes assumed to be. The introduction of personal accounts of experiences, dialog, find discussion into worship usually appears to be not so much an effort to present God’s Word more forcibly as it does a way to let popular opinions and entertaining novelties displace it.

We recall that the Apostle Paul warned us that, as history moved on its course, “the time will come when they will not endure the sound doctrine; but, having itching ears, will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts and will turn away their ears from the truth, and tum aside unto fables” (II Tim. 4:3, 4). Heresy in our time often seems to be masquerading as a movement to “make worship more relevant!”

Heresy in Evangelism

The desire to reach others with the gospel is often advanced as a good reason for trying to make our presentation of it more appealing and attractive to non-Christians.  The trouble is that this proper concern to reach others with the gospel, today as in the past, has often been made the basis or excuse for compromising the very gospel that was to be brought.

It seems to me that the temptation to make such compromises faces om churches in our current Evangelism Thrust program. We should all be concerned about getting every member of our churches to realize that as a confessing Christian he has a missionary responsibility toward his non-Christian neighbor. When as a preparation to try to reach such neighbors it is being suggested that we begin canvassing opinion in our churches, beginning with children of thirteen and up, as to what they think of or desire in the churches, our preparation for evangelism, it seems to me, is taking an unhealthy direction. What we believe for our ourselves and tell others should not be what we like or think but what God has said. As soon as we begin to let popular appeal replace God’s revelation in an evangelism program we will be bringing not the gospel but “heresy.”

Child Centered “Christian” Education

The same kind of pressure to adjust ourselves to personal and popular opinion is also being brought to hear upon our efforts to educate our children. Public education in the United States has long been under the destructive and demoralizing influence of the “Progressive Education” theories promoted by John Dewey and his followers. This movement has favored making the whole educational process “child-centered,” at the expense of the content to be learned, with the discarding of standards of educational performance as well as standards of conduct and discipline. The whole system must be adapted to the needs and desires of the child, who must “learn by doing” and must experiment and decide for himself what he will do and how he will do it. The spirit of this movement is in principle anti-Christian since it rejects all Divine revelation and authority and any human authority derived from or based upon them.

Our Christian schools, set up to give an education based on God’s authority and revelation and conforming to them, are under pressure on every level to conform to the opposite principles which have captured the public system. Deluged by educational materials that reflect principles opposite to their own, they are tempted to use the same methods as the public system in an effort to be “up-to-date,” often unaware of the way in which those methods can undermine and contradict what as Christian schools they are supposed to teach.

Recently I was asked to look over some of the new guides for teaching Bible which are being published and distributed by our National Union of Christian Schools. While I could appreciate the emphasis on the Bible’s speaking to children, I was startled by the evidences at many points that this, what is being hailed as a new and exciting approach to teaching Bible, is in many ways just an application of the more than thirty-year old child-centered education fad that has dominated the public system. Called the “Revelation-Response Series,” the series seems to devote considerably more concern to the “response” than to the “revelation.” Although it is supposed to be a Bible study guide, it informs the teacher (Teacher’s Manual, Number 4, p. 12): “Since this unit is meant to function as a model for the next three years and be a demonstration of the revelation-response structure, Bible knowledge objectives have not been emphasized. If, however, your school demands a Bible grade for each child based on his or her knowledge of the Bible, such objectives may be added.”

How promising must one consider a Bible manual to be which is avowedly not going to stress knowledge of the Bible? Accordingly one finds many other things which get away from the Bible. “An attempt will be made to relive the Jewish history and understand today’s Judaism by studying and celebrating the Jewish holidays . . . This is consistent with our intent for students to study the Judeo-Christian tradition to gain an appreciation for religious traditions today other than those which are Christian” (p. v). Fourth grade students will engage in “composing and singing new psalms” (p. vi). The use of “role playing” and “creative drama” are recommended (xv, xvi) and making of poems (xvii).

It is repeatedly advised that children act out stories to learn by “direct experience.” After a lesson on Jesus words, “I am the bread of life” this is even carried to the length of suggesting: “End this lesson with an informal service of bread-breaking and prayer. A bakery in your area may be willing to donate a couple unsliced loaves of bread. If not, purchase or bake them. Each child may break off a piece and then recite the ‘I am’ together. Follow this with a prayer of thanksgiving. Each student will then eat his bread, symbolic of his acceptance of Christ as his bread of life. The child may make a clay figure expressing trust, belief, or thankfulness. This could be a kneeling figure, or praying hands, or any related idea the child wants to express. Some may want to mold a loaf of bread” (p. 17). A little further along (p. 25) it is advised, “The children will plan a service of worship and praise.” “Each class ought to devise its own pattern of worship (and devotions).” “Times of worship are times for actually praising, confessing, thanking . . . not times for learning how to do these things. Children learn to worship by worshiping.” “The test of worthy worship is in the changes it effects in the lives of student worshipers” (p. 26). “When planning for worship, whenever possible the children should use responses they have made.” “Allow the children freedom to be fresh and creative in the ways they respond” (p. 28).

Are more quotations needed to show how the desires and inclinations of the sovereign child begin to overshadow the Word of God in this “new” and “exciting” approach to teaching Bible? Is this new shift of emphasis not essentially what we have seen the Bible call heresy?

The Questionnaire Epidemic

Deserving the same kind of critical look is the recent practice of our church committees and boards who when they have to study a current issue begin by sending out a questionnaire to poll the sentiments of church members. Formerly such reports seemed to be mainly devoted to careful exegesis of appropriate Bible passages, but the current trend seems to be to give much more attention to what a sampling of church members think. We need an alert and responsible church membership which will have and express Christian convictions, but those convictions need to be rooted (like those of the Berean believers) in their search of the Scriptures. And there too the evaluations of committees and other church bodies need to be rooted if the church is to remain healthy. If public opinion polls become decisive, heresy is already in principle ruling the church.

Few recent writers have exposed this catering to popular personal opinion as pointedly as Harry Blamires in his book The Christian Mind. He wrote: “Secularism asserts the opinionated self as the only judge of truth. Christianity imposes the given divine revelation as the final touchstone of truth. The marks of truth then are: that it is supernaturally grounded. not developed within nature; that it is objective and not subjective; that it is revelation and not a construction; that it is discovered by inquiry and not elected by a majority vote; that it is authoritative and not a matter of personal choice.” Blamires goes on to say: “Ours is an age in which ‘conclusions’ are arrived at by distributing questionnaires . . . . The sense of an objective truth existing within the sphere of religion has been lost. Religions conviction is, for the secular mind, a matter of individual preference related, not to objective truth, but to personal need and predilection. Christian truth is objective, foursquare, unshakable. It is not built of men’s opinions. It is not something fabricated either by scholars or by men in the street, still less something assembled from a million answers, Yes, No, and Don’t know, obtained from a cross-section of the human race. Christian truth is something given, revealed. . You do not make the truth. You reside in the truth. A suitable image of truth would be that of lighthouse lashed by the elemental fury of undisciplined error. Those who have come to reside in the truth must stay there. It is not their business to go back into error for the purpose of joining their drowning fellows with the pretence that, inside or outside, the conditions are pretty much the same. It is their duty to draw others within the shelter of the truth. For truth is most certainly a shelter. And it is inviolable. If we start to dismantle it and give it away in bits and pieces to those outside, there will be nothing left to protect our own heads—and no refuge in which to receive others, should they at length grow weary of error” (pp. 107–114).

Where to Start

This article will, likely be criticized as “heresy hunting.” The Bible teaches us, however that the conflict between self-chosen opinions and the Word of God is one of our most intimate and persistent problems. Far from being something that emerges first and only rarely in the church, it has to be faced first by each one of us within ourselves. Remember what our Lord said about our first having to “cast out . . . the beam out of thine own eye” if we are ever to “see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye” (Matt. H).

Remember how Peter who made the great confession with which the church must be built needed the Lord’s sharp rebuke, “Get thee behind me Satan . . . for thou mindest not the things of God, but the things of men.” In the light of that sharp warning of Christ, must we not wake up and realize that we cannot expect to accomplish anything in the cause of Christ’s church, in our use of the Bible, in our worship, evangelism, Christian education, church decisions, or anywhere else if we persist in following the current fad of letting “the things of men” rather than the Word of the Lord decide our mode of operation”? And in facing that problem each will have to begin with himself. “If any man would come after me,” Jesus added, “let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:23, 24).

Similarly, the Apostle Paul saw himself as engaged primarily in a spiritual conflict of “casting down imaginations, and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God, and bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (II Cor. 10:5). In that spiritual battle in the heart, in the church, and in the world, the Lord will give victories to those who obediently engage in it. We can expect only defeat as long as we pretend that this problem of “heresy,” of self-chosen error, does not exist. Left to spread unchecked (or even welcomed as “progress”) heresy destroys churches; only the Word of God can build them.

*The original Report Number 36 does this. Whether or not the revised report will promote the same error will have to be seen when it is published subsequent to date of this writing.

Peter De Jong is pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of Dutton, Michigan.