There are regrettably many examples of what I call heresy hunting in the history of Christianity. These instances have usually followed closely upon periods when Christian leaders had recently attempted to clarify some aspect of doctrine or practice of life. And they also occurred at times when it was considered normative for civil authority to enforce Church decrees against those condemned as heretics. We in the modern world find this particularly repugnant but that has not stopped Christians from justifying heresy hunting and the Gospel even in modern times.
Many instances could be listed from the history of Christianity, but here are some notable examples. Following the momentous Council of Nicaea (325) and follow-up gathering at Constantinople (381), open animosity between Nestorius the bishop of Antioch (381-451) and Cyril of Alexandria (375-444) in the 4th century regarding the boundaries of orthodox Christology broke out. The mutually shared zeal of Pelagius (354-420) and Augustine (354-430) as they faced off against each other’s theological views on human nature. The vehement condemnation of the use of icons in the churches by Emperor Leo III in 725/726 (an established practice which was staunchly defended by most in the churches). The condemnation at the synod of Dort of the “Remonstrants” (1618-1619), who rejected the “five-points” that had become Reformed orthodoxy under Beza’s leadership in Geneva—“Arminianism” as it became popularly known.
Some of my readers may object to either my listing these instances as “heresy hunting” or would insist on other types of examples. That critique reveals much about that person’s theological perspective in the same way that my list demonstrates much about my historical judgments about what is heresy hunting and what the Gospel requires from us. Having noted that, I would say that in each case I have listed above, there are various reasons for people’s motivation to search out heresy among their peers—some of which is reasonable and perhaps even defensible. However, I assert that, as a general rule, heresy hunting and the Gospel should not be counted as friends or allies.
In Scripture, there is definitely a call for God’s people to be watchful of themselves and their communities in order to guard against drifting into error—in regard to doctrine and how they live their lives together. This is not only necessary but required by God of the covenant community (for example, see Deuteronomy 18:9-22 and 1 Corinthians 5). To not hold one another accountable to the truth of God’s word is to be unfaithful to the Holy One who gave that word. To do this requires that we listen and obey the word of God and always be seeking God for discernment.
Christians have sometimes confused discernment and truth-telling with zeal for enforcing doctrinal purity and moral strictness regarding how people live. This is a difficult area to address because, I for one, do not want to excuse or intentionally overlook behavior that is clearly wrong and which God hates—and thus be partial to friends when they sin—for I will be held responsible too (see Leviticus 19:17; 1 Timothy 5:21). However, on the other hand, there has been on the part of some an overly strict and frankly legalistic emphasis to enforcing doctrinal affirmation and purity of life choices. And many have been deeply wounded by their fellow Christians who passed judgment on them without warrant or without extending love and grace as they spoke the truth about that person’s behavior and attitude. For to be the kind of person who can teach and reprove others requires practicing the Gospel oneself, as Paul exhorted Timothy to do (1 Timothy 4:11-16).
What then is the difference between heresy hunting and discernment? I think that Basil (330-379), one the justly famous “Cappadocian Fathers”, has left a remarkably helpful example of discerning error and appropriately responding. In a letter to the presbyters of Tarsus, written prior to the general Council of Constantinople (381), at which the writing of the third section of the text of the Nicene Creed was completed, he wrote:
“Altogether the state of the Church (if I may use a plain figure though it may seem too humble an one) is like an old coat, which is always being torn and can never be restored to its original strength. At such a time, then, there is need of great effort and diligence that the Churches may in some way be benefited. It is an advantage that parts hitherto severed should be united. Union would be effected if we were willing to accommodate ourselves to the weaker, where we can do so without injury to souls; since, then, many mouths are open against the Holy Ghost, and many tongues whetted to blasphemy against Him, we implore you, as far as in you lies, to reduce the blasphemers to a small number, and to receive into communion all who do not assert the Holy Ghost to be a creature, that the blasphemers may be left alone, and may either be ashamed and return to the truth, or if they abide in their error, may cease to have any importance from the smallness of their numbers. Let us then seek no more than this, but propose to all the brethren, who are willing to join us, the Nicene Creed [to require people to affirm]. If they assent to that, let us further require that the Holy Ghost ought not to be called a creature, nor any of those who say so be received into communion. I do not think that we ought to insist upon anything beyond this. For I am convinced that by longer communication and mutual experience without strife, if anything more requires to be added by way of explanation, the Lord Who worketh all things together for good for them that love Him, will grant it.” (Basil; cited from The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8, Second Series [Eerdmans Reprint:1996], Letter CXIII, pp.189-190; italics added)
I realize that this is a long quote but it is worth citing in full. The context of his letter appears to be a conflict that was brewing in the cities and towns over which (and nearby) Basil was serving as bishop at the time. Specifically, there were some who taught that the Holy Spirit was not fully God with God the Father and the Son; rather the Spirit was a creature that God uses to do his will. This teaching clearly contradicts the plain affirmations of Scripture and the traditional understanding of the Church at Basil’s time.
What I find to be most instructive is how Basil suggests that these people are to be dealt with. First the language here assumed that they have been spoken to regarding their error and called upon to turn from it. Second, if they will not do so then they are to be formally told that they cannot receive communion in the gathering of God’s people. Third, the Nicene Creed, and the simple requirement to affirm the full deity of the Spirit, are all that will be required for participation in the common worship and thus receiving of the Lord’s Supper. Fourth and finally, those who will not forsake this erroneous teaching about the Holy Spirit being a creature are to be simply “left alone”—not to be embraced as Christians but neither to be harassed.
This approach, it seems to me, is quite congruent with the teaching of the Lord (Matthew 18:15-20), that of Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian churches (1 Corinthians 5) and the principle of fidelity to Gospel teaching as a means to establish the norm for the Christian community (1 John 2:18-28). This, I would suggest, is the opposite of heresy hunting and it affirms the positive purpose for which believers have been placed upon the earth—to proclaim, to teach, and call people to obedience that is consistent with the Gospel message.
I do think that there is a time and place for the study of and understanding of heresy but only in order to instruct people in the ways people of past generations have swerved away from biblical truth. To use a metaphor, the purpose is to help immunize those who believe the Gospel so they will be strengthened in the faith and encouraged to be faithful to the living God. To use people’s erroneous notions about God and Christ to pound them on the head (even if they are indeed in error!) will not convince them to renounce those beliefs and turn to trust God as he is described in Scripture. Rather, such a response from Christians will only harden their resolve to hold onto the false notions they have embraced even more tenaciously.
The best way to approach and talk about erroneous teaching about God is to appeal to the truth, as taught in Scripture and the Christian tradition and reality as we find that in the world. The confident but respectful expression of our convictions will win many more people over to give us a hearing—especially given the intellectually and morally timid cultural we in the Western world encounter. We Christians are surrounded by people who not only have rejected orthodox Christian faith, but are also in revolt from all levels of reality in human experience. Yet, it should be noted that this has not stopped them from binding themselves to other theologies or ideologies and then seek to impose those upon their neighbors.
How do we then respond—given that Christianity no longer holds any authority over people’s minds in the Western world? G.K. Chesterton, in his usual witty and winsome manner, described how the witness of the Church could effectively speak into the modern confusion of ideas about God and even the very nature of reality.
“Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, ‘Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good—” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. Some of the people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.” (Chesterton, Heretics, “Introductory Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy”; cited from G.K. Chesterton Collected Works, Volume 1 [Ignatius Press:1986], p.46)
Chesterton obviously meant to poke fun at modern people and their general ignorance of reality because of their rejection of Christianity. However, his approach was not merely to point out the folly of his contemporaries’ perspectives on spirituality, morality, metaphysics, truth, etc. Rather, his consistent approach was to accurately and fairly critique the ideas of others and then attempt to commend Christianity in the most winsome and often amusing way he could imagine.
I think that he would strongly assert that heresy hunting and the Gospel are not only incongruent but hinder the ability of the Church to faithfully bear witness to the Gospel. If I have rightly interpreted Chesterton and Basil then I think I am in good company in arguing the main point of this essay. For the sake of the Gospel, let us avoid heresy hunting and seek to discern truth of the Gospel and how to best engage the people and the ideas of our time with the truth.