Debunking the Protestant “T” word part II: How to spot a heresy

Statue de Constantin Ier, Musée du Capitole, Rome

Constantine, looking imperial

This article is continued from “Debunking the Protestant ‘T’ word: An edifying tale, part I” and continues in “Debunking the Protestant ‘T’ word part III: What was the beef at Nicea?

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. When the debate about Jesus’ divinity first hit the streets of Alexandria, the Emperor Constantine saw the handwriting on the wall (perhaps literally, if he came across some of that theological graffiti!). He said to himself, “This empire isn’t going to fall apart on my watch!” And so he called together a giant council of the church at his summer palace in Nicea (Nicea is now a town called Iznik, in Turkey—and sadly for us historians, there’s nothing left of that palace). Constantine was doing, on a larger scale, what the church had always done in its first three hundred years when a crucial matter like this came up. He called on the bishops—that is, the teaching pastors of key churches—to come together.

The point was not to have these top pastors get all creative and brilliant and make up some new doctrine that everyone would have to follow from then on. No, since the beginning, the bishops in the church had had only one main function, and everyone understood it. The job of each bishop—and especially of all the bishops together—was simple: they were expected to faithfully pass on the teachings of the Apostles.

How did this work in practice? First, of course, it meant that each bishop preached faithfully to his own congregation out of the testimony of the apostles—passed down both orally and through the circulating documents attributed to apostles and to those who knew apostles.

Second, the teaching function of the bishops meant that if someone in a bishop’s church or the area around his church started to teach something obviously off-base, the bishop could command them to stop, with the full authority of the church backing him up.

Now, what if that person kept on teaching that heresy? Then the bishops from the whole region could meet together and excommunicate that person.

Why meet in council? Why not just have the local bishop take care of the problems in his own backyard? Because the early Christians believed that the Holy Spirit was more likely to work in his church when many pastors took counsel together than when a single “Lone Ranger” pastor acted by himself.

Now, one more bit of background—and this is important enough to spend a few minutes on: What do you suppose a heresy was? That is, how could the bishops tell what was and what wasn’t a heresy? You’re all good Protestants. So you’ll probably say: Well, it’s obvious how you tell what a heresy is! You compare whatever this person is teaching, to Scripture. And if it doesn’t match up, then that’s a heresy.

This solution is a very good one—ultimately it is probably the only one—and it is in fact something like what the bishops of the early church did. But there are two problems with this sort of simple comparison of a teaching with the Bible text.

First, during the first three centuries of the church, there wasn’t a fully formed “canon” of New Testament books yet—that is, a final, closed list of which books were understood as inspired and authoritative for the whole church. Sure, the gospels and certain letters of Paul were almost universally accepted as authoritative and binding. But there were a number of “borderline cases.” These were documents that were still up in the air. Some of them eventually ended up in the canon, like the letters of John, and some ended up out of the canon, like the Shepherd of Hermas. So the “New Testament” as we now know it did not yet exist—the edges were still somewhat blurry. (By the way, if you’ve read the Da Vinci Code’s picture of how the new Testament canon was fixed, then ask me afterwards about it and I’ll clear that up for you. Despite what Dan Brown wrote in that story, it was absolutely not a case of the Emperor Constantine gathering everyone together in 325 at Nicea and pronouncing which documents were in and which ones out of the New Testament—and then burning the ones that were “out.”)

But back to our question about why the early church couldn’t just take a suspected heretic’s teachings in one hand, and the authoritative documents in the other hand, and compare them and toss out the heretic’s teachings. There was a second problem with this procedure, beyond the fact that the canon had not been finalized by Constantine’s day. This was the same problem we run into today when trying to discern who is teaching true to the Bible and who is not. This is the problem: without exception, all the teachers who were eventually declared heretics shared one thing in common: They taught something that was easily supported by the Scriptural documents!

You may at this point be mentally composing a letter to my bosses at Bethel Seminary, informing them that their church history professor is a heretic. But hang on a moment.

I said that every identified heretic in the early church—and indeed also most heretics since that time—taught something that was easily supported by Scripture. This is perfectly true. The problem was, that when the church reviewed these heretics’ teachings, they always discovered the same thing. They discovered that, although those teachings matched up with parts of the gospels and other apostolic documents, they did not in fact square with the whole, unified testimony of those documents. The heretics, most of whom were well-meaning and convinced they were helping the church rather than harming it, had grabbed hold of some truth from some part of the apostolic teachings, and had concluded that this was the whole truth. In doing so, they had ignored the contrary witness of other parts of the accepted, inspired tradition! And that’s why their teachings were declared heretical.

But here’s the thing: it’s not always obvious what the whole testimony of Scripture is on any given matter! It is not usually a matter of holding up a teaching from a suspected heretic next to the Scriptural documents and saying, “Hmm, here we go. This verse here says the opposite of what this guy is teaching. So we’d better excommunicate him.” That option isn’t open to you, because, again, the heretic usually had pretty good scriptural support for what he taught. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have gotten away with it, and started gathering followers! Early Christians, like ancient Jews, belonged to a text-based tradition. And even in an age of low literacy, lots of rank-and-file folks had a pretty good basic idea of what their sacred texts said. Over a lifetime of churchgoing, they’d heard lots of Scripture passages and memorized them.

So if your heretic has fooled enough people so they’re hanging around the dockyards singing songs about how the Son of God is not fully divine, then you’re going to have to do more than point to a couple of Bible passages. You get into that kind of contest with a heretic, and you could be there all day . . . as you may know if you’ve ever invited a Jehovah’s Witness into your house for a brief Bible-thumping. Even the Devil can quote Scripture with the best of ‘em.

No, when you get to a popular heresy like Arianism (and I’ll fill in the details of Arianism in a moment), you’ve got to do some careful reading—not just of one or two verses, but of a whole bunch of parts of the Bible. But in fact, if you’re a rank-and-file church member, you’re not going to do that reading at all. You’re just not equipped to do it. You’re only a common baker or butcher or wine merchant. Even though you’ve got a pretty good storehouse of Scripture in your memory, you’re probably illiterate and have no access to an expensive, rare copy of the documents themselves. So you need help from a wise, competent teacher of Scripture who is in a position of authority and has access to the documents. In fact, you need a whole group of teachers like that—the people you’ve entrusted this sort of job to. In other words, you need a council of bishops.

. . . continues in This article is continued in “Debunking the Protestant ‘T’ Word part III: What was the beef at Nicea?,” “,” and “.”

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