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.”
Nicaea was a necessary victory for orthodox Christianity, and the formula affirmed in the Nicene Creed is foundational for all genuine Christianity. Any deviation from Nicene orthodoxy is a matter of grave consequence. The Bible alone is our final authority in matters of doctrine, but creeds and confessions serve the necessary purpose of defining what the Bible teaches and condemning error on basic doctrines.
The great accomplishment of Nicaea was the refutation of the Arian heresy and the insistence that Christianity requires belief in the full and eternal deity of the Son as “begotten not made, of one substance with the Father.”
As J. N. D. Kelly explained so well, the church fathers at Nicaea were “content to affirm the Son’s full divinity and equality with the Father, out of whose being He was derived and Whose nature he consequently shared.” Speaking of the council, Kelly then stated: “It did not attempt to tackle the closely related problem of the divine unity, although the discussion of it was inevitably brought nearer.”
This points to the great theological challenge presented by the doctrine of the Trinity. Potential heresies lay at every side. Modalism and tritheism result, in turn, from over-stressing the unity of the Trinity, on the one hand, and over-stressing the diversity of the Trinity of three divine persons, on the other hand. Harold O. J. Brown described the challenge well: “How is it possible to express the distinction between the Persons clearly without destroying the fact that God is one divine substance or being, not three beings?”
All of our attempts to answer this question fall short of God’s glorious reality, but we dare not say less than the Scripture clearly reveals. We ought also to be very cautious in trying to say more.
Orthodoxy is, in part, an act of humility. Faithful Christianity in this generation means believing and teaching what faithful Christians have always affirmed as taught in Scripture. G. K. Chesterton captured this spirit when he quipped: “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
Recently a bit of controversy has emerged with charges that some complementarians (those who hold to a biblical pattern of different roles for men and women) are flirting with a denial of the Nicene Creed (or of violating the classic pro-Nicene Trinitarian formulations rooted in the fourth century controversies) by arguing that the Son is eternally obedient to the Father. The trinitarian debate is quite complicated, but the challenges defined by Harold O. J. Brown and J. N. D. Kelly are very much to the point. Nicaea is foundational, but the creed does not answer all of our questions.
Clearly, there can be no eternal subordination in terms of being. That would deny what the Nicene Creed affirms and affirm what it denies. But describing the social dimensions of the Trinity is far more difficult. I decline to speculate where I am not authorized by Scripture to go, but there is something important to the fact that the Father is eternally the Father and the Son is eternally the Son. Affirming separate wills within the Trinity would be heresy, but we lack adequate human categories for understanding how exactly to define these doctrines comprehensively. God has not revealed some answers to us, and our finite minds cannot fully comprehend the infinite divine reality.
Based on the Nicene Creed, theologians have affirmed the eternal generation of the Son, making clear that there never was a time when the Son was not. Similarly, we would speak of the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit. There never was a time when the Spirit was not.
Recent charges of violating the Nicene Creed made against respected evangelical theologians like Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware are not just nonsense — they are precisely the kind of nonsense that undermines orthodoxy and obscures real heresy. Their teachings do not in any way contradict the words of the Nicene Creed, and both theologians eagerly affirm it. I do not share their proposals concerning the eternal submission of the Son to the Father, but I am well aware that nothing they have taught even resembles the heresy of the Arians. To the contrary, both theologians affirm the full scope of orthodox Christianity and have proved themselves faithful teachers of the church. These charges are baseless, reckless, and unworthy of those who have made them.
Theologians almost never agree on every issue, nor is such agreement possible. What is required is absolute fidelity to Scripture and valid affirmation of the fundamental creeds of the Church, along with specific denominational and institutional confessions. Complementarianism need not be linked doctrinally to eternal submission, and it is in no way required by the Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Clearly, for some of these current critics, complementarianism appears to be the real issue. For others, a rejection of modern evangelicalism seems to be the underlying concern. Whatever the case, they endanger the very orthodoxy they claim to champion by making reckless charges they cannot possibly sustain.
The real danger here is that this kind of controversy confuses the church about the real danger of heresy. That is what is at stake when claims are made that Nicene orthodoxy or pro-Nicene developments have been denied, even if the word heresy is not used. The danger of heresy is ever present. As Harold O. J. Brown warned, the gates of hell often come very close to the church. Confusing the questions endangers the church, and no faithful theologian would willingly risk that danger. There are serious theological issues and historical questions at issue in this debate. Evangelicals have often lacked an appreciation (or even a serious consideration) of the Trinitarian and Christological developments that began with Nicaea, but continued well through Chalcedon. This is a time for cool heads, fraternal kindness, and clear thinking — and for all of us, a good dose of both historical theology and theological humility.
J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (Harper and Row, 1960).
Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church (Hendrickson, 1984, 1988).
The Danvers Statement (on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood).
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Publication date: June 29, 2016