culture

How God Can Use Heresy for Our Good

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Survey the evangelical landscape, and you’ll find a lot to be depressed about. Self-professed Christians are compromising on moral convictions for political expediency. Some are denying essentials of the faith to embrace political correctness. And then others are pandering a kind of theological ambiguity that speaks much and says nothing.

I recently heard someone say, “What a depressing time to be a Christian!” Well, I guess that’s true — especially with so many megachurch pastors wearing the ironically large hipster glasses. But it’s also entirely untrue. This particular Christian was lamenting what they classified as the rush toward heresy among once faithful evangelicals. In their estimation, these trends must mean the end of the church in America is drawing near. Two things are worth noting.

First, we ought to be careful in what we classify as heresy. In a social media age, far too many Christians are willing to hand out heresy labels to those who are not, in fact, heretics. Heretics are not those whom you disagree with politically, methodologically or even theologically. Historically speaking, heretics are those who have abandoned the faith. Their theology and doctrine falls outside the bounds of historic, creedal orthodoxy and would violate the core essentials of the Christian faith.[1]

For example, a heretic is someone who denies the nature of the Godhead (teaching, instead, polytheism or unitarianism in denial of historic trinitarianism), who denies salvation by grace alone (that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone), who twists the deity of Christ or who rejects the authority of Scripture.

Therefore, heresy is a real problem. But the church down the street from you is not full of heretics simply because the pastor preaches in a robe, or a rock band leads the singing or their discipleship strategy differs from yours. We must be very careful in how we speak to and speak about one another. Words have real meaning and real consequences.

Second, there is legitimacy to the concerns raised by some regarding the number of self-identified evangelicals who, for instance, are abandoning Scripture’s clear teaching on sexual ethics and the nature of marriage. This is very disheartening because Ephesians 5 makes is clear that marriage and sexual ethics are defined by the gospel. These are, therefore, gospel issues.

Does the cultural tide (and those evangelicals who ride its wave) on these matters indicate trouble for the church? Will this particular heresy doom the church? From the perspective of church history, the answer is emphatically no.

To be clear, people of the gospel pray for and lovingly engage heretics not to win arguments (or culture wars), but to call those in heresy back to orthodoxy. Our aim is saving faith in the hearts of former heretics and words of adoration on lips of orthodox believers.

Nevertheless, the Bible makes it clear that God regularly takes what is meant for evil and turns it for our good (Gen. 50:20). History demonstrates that to be true. God has used the heresy of heretics to strengthen the orthodoxy of the orthodox.

God has used the heresy of heretics to strengthen the orthodoxy of the orthodox.

Examples from History

The Canon of the New Testament
In the early church, a man named Marcion (c. 80-144) began teaching that the God of the Old Testament was a distinct god from the Lord of the New Testament. As result, Marcion began cobbling together his own canon of sorts with edited books of the New Testament and theologically unorthodox prologues to his highly-edited texts. In short, Marcion was setting himself up to establish a formal canon of books which reflected his heretical system.

The presence of Marcion’s canon served as an accelerant to the process already at work in the orthodox church to establish which New Testament books were authoritative. Orthodox leaders asked questions regarding a book or letter’s authorship (Was it written by an apostle?), theology (Does this fit with the rest of the Bible theologically?) and catholicity (What do the churches tied to the apostles say about these books?). Marcion did not establish the orthodox canon of Scripture, but the presence of his heretical canon sped up the process by which the orthodox canon of Scripture was recognized.

In a strange way, God used Marcion’s heresy for our good.

The Council of Nicaea
Not long after Marcion arose another popular heretic named Arius (c. 256-336). He began teaching that Jesus was not the eternal Son of God but was a creature. As his doctrine began to spread, there was a need to formally confront this heresy in an official fashion. Therefore, the Council of Nicaea was convened in 325 A.D. to reaffirm the historic position that Christians believe in the eternality and full deity of Jesus Christ.

The end result of that council was what we know today as the Nicene Creed. This creed proposed nothing new in the realm of Christian orthodoxy; it merely memorably summarized what orthodox Christians already believed. The heresy of Arius did not result in the formulation of Nicene orthodoxy, but it served as an impetus to convey biblical theology in as brief and as clear of a statement as possible.

Again, God used Arius’ heresy for our good.

The Reformation
On October 31st, Christians celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Under the leadership of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others, there was a reclamation of scandalous grace in the church. While this was brewing for some time with the work of John Huss (c. 1369-1415) and others, the Reformation officially became a revolution when Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses were published.

Who do we have to thank for raising the ire of Luther? Among a few notable figures stands John Tetzel (c.1465-1519), a man who sold indulgences — get-out-of-purgatory-early passes — to enrich the Vatican. Luther witnessed both the spiritual and financial abuses of the people and this sent him over the edge. As children of the Reformation, we have benefitted from the acceleration of the Reformation by the evil work of Tetzel and others.

Once again, God used Tetzel’s heresy, ultimately, for our good.

Applying History

Heresy is not a good thing. At all. God does not condone heresy, nor does he encourage it. We ought to pray for and lovingly engage those in error in the hopes that they profess orthodox, saving faith.

But the presence of heresy does not always threaten orthodoxy. Instead, our sovereign, wise God can take an evil and bring about good. He can use heresy as a fuel or accelerant to reinvigorate, strengthen and clarify orthodox doctrine.

Thus, as some Christians bend their understanding of Scripture to the pressures of culture, we need not become panicked. We ought to be confident that our God will do what he has done throughout the history of his people: Use the presence of heresy to distinguish historic orthodoxy from what is not orthodoxy.

Just as he has in the past, God can use today’s heresies for our good.

[1] See Heresy by Alister McGrath and Heresies by Harold O.J. Brown

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Dayton Hartman

Dayton Hartman is lead pastor at Redeemer Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. He has a PhD in church and dogma history from North-West University (South Africa), and serves as an adjunct professor at both Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Columbia International University. He is the author of Church History for Modern Ministry: Why Our Past Matters for Everything We Do. Learn more at daytonhartman.com.

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