In the previous two articles we learned that the two best ways to combat heresy is to study orthodox doctrines and live rightly according to those doctrines. These are two aspects of combating heresy that all Christians need to follow. However, if this is where Christians stayed for the rest of their lives, then Christianity would lack the ability to go against heresy.
When we think of a bank teller, we think of someone who knows currency so well that they can know just by looking at the currency if it’s a counterfeit or not. By understanding currency, anything that is counterfeit will stick out. But what if we look at the Secret Service? Their job, aside from protecting the President, is to investigate counterfeiters. Would an agent be qualified to hunt down counterfeiters if he only knew what real currency looked like? The answer is no. In order to be a good agent, he would need to know how counterfeits are made, who is most likely to make those counterfeits, and what are the most common types of counterfeits.
In Christianity, everyone is called to right thinking and right living, but only a few are called to study the heresies themselves in order to better understand what is taught, how the heresies are formulated, and where they error. For instance, a Christian who just studies right doctrine can look at Mormonism and know it’s wrong because it teaches someone preceded the existence of God and that God is created. Orthodoxy teaches that God is eternal and uncreated, preceded in time by none. The average Christian who studies orthodox doctrine, however, could only go so far as to say that Mormonism doesn’t match what is orthodox and therefore must be wrong. The Christian who has studies these heresies, however, could look to Mormonism and show it is wrong without appealing to orthodox doctrine. Such a Christian could point to the infinite regress within Mormonism and explain that such a regress makes Mormonism’s belief in someone pre-existing God quite impossible.
The problem our modern world faces is that theologians and pastors hardly put forth an adequate effort in understanding heresies. They do their best to nail down the first two solutions, but rarely study heresy. They will read the Church Fathers, John Piper, Rick Warren, or whoever the flavor of the day is in order to understand proper doctrine. But how many have read the heresies? How many have looked at the letters of Arius? How many have taken the time to read Tony Jones or John Caputo? When I say “read,” I mean to have actually sat down, analyzed the book, and come to understand what is taught before offerring a judgment on the material inside the book. Sadly, few theologians and pastors have done this.
When we read, it is within our nature to desire to make immediate judgments and categorize what we read into a specific group. While we are sometimes correct in our immediate judgments, placing someone in a group – especially when an espouser of heresy does not see themselves in that group – can do more harm than good in coming to an understanding of what is taught. Instead, when we read or listen we must do the following:
1) Take the time to understand what is being said – if you can’t explain to the espouser of the teaching (or followers of the teaching) what is being said in a way they’ll accept as true, then you’re not understanding what is being said. This, obviously, requires dialoguing with people who embrace such a view. It also means asking questions rather than offerring arguments.
2) Take the time to explain why people believe what is being said – some people will attempt to understand a doctrine, but will not understand why such a doctrine is coming about. For instance, we look at Nietzsche’s claim “God is dead,” and people immediately respond with, “Nietzsche is dead.” They look at Nietzsche’s claim as Nietzsche boldly bragging about killing God. Instead, if we look at why he said this, we see that German culture used God only as a figure-head and did not really rely on Him. Thus, God was “dead” to culture. Likewise, we must understand why something is being taught. Is there a problem in the modern world? Is this supposed to be a solution to that problem? The list goes on.
3) Take the time to see the big picture of the argument – we often fail to see if the argument fits within the big picture. What I mean is, is this teaching simply a new way of looking at an old theology? Is this teaching mutually exclusive to all other theologies, or could it be a case of both/and? For instance, if John says that we must study rightly in order to avoid heresy and Peter says we must live rightly, which one is right? By evaluating what they mean and why they are saying it, we look to see if the two doctrines are mutually exclusive. Neither one is contradictory to the other and in fact compliment each other, thus we look to John and Peter and say, “Both of you are right.” When contradictions do arise, we must evaluate which is true, the new teaching or the old teaching.
4) Take our time in judging – at some point we must judge what we have read as true or false. Though there will be nuggets of truth in all things, we must determine whether or not what we are reading is mostly true or mostly false. Only after we have followed the previous steps where we understand to our opponents satisfaction what is being said, we understand why it is being said, and we know that it contradicts orthodox teachings, can we begin to make a judgment on whether or not it’s true.
Once we understand a teaching to be heretical, we must then explore how such a teaching is false without appealing to orthodoxy. If we cannot do so, then orthodoxy becomes an arbitrary standard. Thus, in order to combat heresy at the higher level, we must be able to show that something is heretical without actually appealing to orthodox teachings. Such a level is not necessary for all Christians, but it is necessary for all Christians who desire to be in leadership or be pastors.