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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Heretics and Coffee

her·e·tic, noun, one who dissents from an accepted belief or doctrine
“Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same …”
—The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2089)
What is a heretic, really, for practical purposes?

We sling the word around casually in Christian circles when someone says something a little off the spiritually-beaten track, but mostly we mean it frivolously.

But a heretic is probably not your neighbour (at least not mine) or anybody you work with. It’s not someone who is merely unsaved or unconvinced of spiritual truth. It’s not someone from a different denomination or (usually) someone who simply interprets one of the Lord’s parables differently than I do.

Whether you’re looking at a current dictionary definition or the Catechism, heresy involves something more than disagreement about spiritual things. Implicit in any definition is that the person dissenting professes to be a believer and is teaching falsely, not just quietly holding a wrong opinion.

The penalty for heresy can be severe, depending on whom you’ve offended. The whole Baha’i religion is considered an Islamic heresy in Iran. Muslims historically referred to heretics as zindiqs and punished them with execution.

Even by the more moderate current standards of Catholicism, I and most serious Christians I know are heretics.

According to Catholic dogma, the belief in scripture alone as the source of all understanding of God and his purposes (rather than the teachings of the infallible leaders of one World Church), and the belief in the sufficiency of faith in Jesus Christ alone as a means of salvation — beliefs that have characterized pretty much all of Protestantism for the last half-millennium — are “heresies”, or so at least says the Bishop of San Diego.

I guess that makes me not just heretical, but enthusiastically heretical.

Catholics, too, have executed people for heresy, though not since 1826 if my information is accurate. But since I’m not planning on changing my convictions anytime soon, we should probably look to the Bible itself for what constitutes legitimate reason to part ways with other professing Christians:
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.” (1 John 4:1-3)
“For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.” (2 John 1:7)
John’s standard for ongoing fellowship with any teacher who claims to be Christian is this: The confession that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh”. It’s such a critical formulation that he repeats it.

That confession, as I read it, has four parts:

1.    “Jesus” — son of Mary and adopted son of Joseph, crucified outside Jerusalem two millennia ago, a legitimate part of human history. Firstly, confession of “Jesus” is a confession of his reality; that he is no mere myth, symbol or pleasing story. Secondly, confession of “Jesus” is a confession of the exclusivity of his role; if Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, then there is no other way to God. There has never been and will never be another. Thirdly, confession of “Jesus” is a confession of the finality of his work. It is done, and nothing remains to be accomplished with respect to sin other than our eventual removal from its sphere of operation entirely.

2.    “Christ” — Messiah, the fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecies of a redeemer and king of Israel who would be “God with us”, a son of David whom David calls “Lord” — a confession of his Godhood.

3.    “has come” — from heaven to earth on behalf of his Father — a confession of his work of redemption and the implicit confession that there is nothing more that God needs to do to make himself known. He has spoken in his Son.

4.    “in the flesh” — as genuine man and rightful representative of the human race, so that his death could be lawfully acceptable to God in the place of yours and mine, and his subsequent resurrection, ascension and glorification could give eternal hope to his entire race — a confession of his identification with every genuine believer in human history.

Or, as William MacDonald accurately and pithily puts it, “Did God really become Man in the person of Jesus Christ? Yes!”

As far as the word of God is concerned, if you claim to be a Christian but teach things contrary to any of the above … sorry, but, well, you’re a heretic. And a real heretic, not just a Protestant.

If you teach that Jesus was just a good man and example, or was God for only part of his time on earth, or was partly God or partly Man, but not entirely; if you teach there’s anything you can do to add to his work or anything that remains to be done to deal with your sin in the eyes of God; if you teach that he was not a genuine historical figure at all but merely a story written to communicate spiritual truth; if you teach anything else contrary to the many profound implications of that little seven-word statement, well then, what you are teaching is heresy.

Fortunately, we Bible-believing Christians, contrary to our portrayal in the media, are actually a pretty peaceful bunch. Genuine heresy will not get you decapitated, stoned, hanged, burned, crusaded against, hated or buried in the wrong part of the graveyard.

At least not by me or anybody I know who loves the Lord.

John says, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting.” That seems to me like pretty tame stuff, all things considered.

Still, don’t plan on discussing your views with me over coffee. Most definitely not at my place.

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