[The following is adapted from a blogpost that I originally published on 2/23/06
On the definition of heresy.
Looking up the meaning of the word "heresy" in most English dictionaries, one is likely to find a definition such as the following:
Heresy: 1 a) a religious belief opposed to the orthodox doctrines of a church, esp., such a belief specifically denounced by the church b) the rejection of a belief that is a part of church dogma [from "Heresy," Webster's New World College Dictionary, Victoria Neufeldt, ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1997), 631.]
This definition of "heresy" is defined primarily in terms of church decisions and is far more applicable in a Roman Catholic setting, which would emphasize the authority of the church, than in a Protestant setting, which would emphasize that Scripture alone is the "sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience" (1689 London Baptist Confession, Chapter One: "Of the Holy Scriptures"
). The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge
, however, contains an article on "heresy" that is far more helpful, reading as follows:
Heresy: A view or opinion not in accord with the prevalent standards. The Greek word hairesis, meaning originally a choice, then a self-chosen belief, is applied by the Fathers as early as the third century to a deviation from the fundamental Christian faith, which was punished by exclusion from the Church.
From this article, I would like to focus on the idea of "heresy" as "a deviation from the fundamental Christian faith". This idea naturally gives rise to the question of how we should define "the fundamental Christian faith". What truths of the Christian faith are so foundational to our beliefs that they cannot even be up for debate, so that any deviation from these truths is considered heresy?
Pastor John MacArthur
of Grace Community Church
has done an excellent job in helping to answer the above question in a chapter titled, "What Are the Fundamentals of Christianity?" found in his book, Truth Matters
. In this chapter, MacArthur writes,
All who call themselves Christian should agree that there is a body of doctrine that is nonnegotiable. The articles of faith that make up this constitutional body of truth are the very essence of "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). These are the real fundamentals of the faith. They are so indispensible to true Christianity that we ought to break fellowship with any professing Christian who denies them.
MacArthur explores the fundamentals of Christianity under five chapter sub-headings, three of which I would like to call our attention to in this post. These sub-headings are titled "Everything Essential to Saving Faith is Fundamental", "Every Doctrine We Are Forbidden to Deny is Fundamental", and "The Fundamental Doctrines Are All Summed Up in the Person and Work of Christ".
Everything Essential to Saving Faith is Fundamental
From the Fall of Man into sin recorded in Genesis chapter 3, the Bible reveals God's work in restoring Man into a right relationship with Him. In fact, it may be rightly stated that the entire purpose of the Bible is to give sinful people the message of how they may be reconciled to God. This message of reconciliation is the Good News message of Christianity. This Good News- or gospel- message is the message of faith, which grants eternal life. So, as John MacArthur explains,
A doctrine must be considered fundamental if eternal life depends on it. Scripture is full of statements that identify the terms of salvation and the marks of genuine faith. "Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him" (Heb. 11:6). That verse makes faith itself essential to a right relationship with God.
Every Doctrine We Are Forbidden to Deny is Fundamental
This sub-heading should be so obvious that it would not need to be mentioned, but people in general all too often overlook the fact that Scripture forbids us to deny certain doctrines. MacArthur's teaching is helpful in this area as well. Focusing on certain aspects of the doctrine of sin that we are explicitly forbidden to deny, MacArthur writes,
The apostle John began his first epistle with a series of statements that establish key points of the doctrine of sin (hamartiology) as fundamental articles of faith. "If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth." (I John 1:6). That condemns wanton antinomianism and makes some degree of doctrinal and moral enlightenment essential to true Christianity.
The Fundamental Doctrines Are All Summed Up in the Person and Work of Christ
Finally and, in a sense, most importantly, the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ truly sums up all fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. Christianity by its very name is manifestly focused on Christ. It is Christ alone who establishes our reconciliation with God, as mentioned above. For this reason, we can confidently affirm with MacArthur that,
Christ Himself embodied or established every doctrine that is essential to genuine Christianity. Those who rejectany of the cardinal doctrines of the faith worship a christ who is not the Christ of Scripture.
The fundamentals of the faith are so closely identified with Christ that the apostle John used the expression "the teaching of Christ" as a kind of shorthand for the set of doctrines he regarded as fundamental. To him, these doctrines represented the difference between true Christianity and false religion.
This is why he wrote, "Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son" (II John 9). Far from encouraging union with those who denied the fundamental truths of the faith, John forbade any form of spiritual fellowship with or encouragement of such false religion (vv. 10-11).
Why This Matters
Avoiding heresy and holding fast to the true Faith is a matter of life and death: a matter of eternal joy or eternal torment. A heretical message cannot lead anyone into a right relationship with God. God- through his written Word- forbids us to deny certain doctrines; when sinners contradict Scripture and deny these doctrines, this denial confirms them in a state of rebellion against God, hardening their hearts to the Truth. The good news message of the Christian Faith- the gospel- leads sinners to Christ so that by trusting in Him- in who He is and what He has done through His perfect life, sin-bearing death, justifying resurrection, and victorious ascension to Heaven- those under the conviction of sin may take hold of Jesus by faith and enjoy the salvation that He has secured. A heretical message contradicts the gospel, leading sinners away from Christ so that they trust in their own works and satanically-inspired religious ideas, which can never save.