Don’t Be a Heretic: Why Heresy Maybe Doesn’t Matter

My brother is a heretic. So is my friend Colby Wallis. Fortunately, I think neither of them need to be afraid for the destination of their immortal souls—which is convenient for me, because I’m a heretic too.

Heresy is a belief contrary to the ordained, orthodox teaching of the church, and so there are a lot of beliefs that fall under that label. And some of them may even seem right to us.

My brother Michael identifies as a Pelagian, or maybe a Semi-Pelagian—I’d have to ask him. The heresy takes its name from Pelagius, a British monk who journeyed to Rome around the year 400 A.D. and was appalled by the sinful behavior he found in the churches. To combat this sinful living, he preached a Gospel of faith alone that was completed through human effort and righteous living. Pelagius was declared a heretic by the Council of Carthage in 418.

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His main opponent, a contemporary, was St. Augustine who adopted a theology of original sin and predestination. Their debate, which was mirrored to some degree by Calvin and Arminius 1000 years later, was essentially over the potential of human beings and the role of grace: Pelagius said that humans had to choose on their own to accept God’s grace and to live accordingly, while Augustine said that humans were completely reliant on the grace of God and that He must be the one to choose to save individuals. Semipelagianism quickly arose in place of the original, and taught that while we choose grace and faith on our own, God is the one who increases our faith—though this too was condemned as heresy.

This issue can be extremely tricky as Scripture overwhelmingly uses the language of Augustine and Calvin, yet for most (particularly Americans), these ideas don’t seem logical or just, and the free-will imperative of Pelagius and Arminius are needed. I definitely sympathize with the latter position—in my head I cannot justify predestination and original sin and the like—but I also want to stay in line with church teachings; in that way, I am torn.

On account of these tensions, thousands of pages have been written and the debate is just as hotly pursued as it was 500 years ago. Personally, I have learned to live with these difficulties through a compatabilist understanding of God’s hand in our salvation which relieves much of the interpretive strain.

Yet much more important than a solution to this particular issue is the attitude that is at stake when teetering on heresy. It is only natural that we desire answers to every issue in our own minds, but that inclination leads to continuous uncertainty, fear, and social hostility. When we so casually forsake tradition to the devices of our own thoughts, we quickly find ourselves lost in a  sea of ideas.

For this reason, the Christian ought to build in themselves a strong sense of orthodoxy, a posture of humility and deference toward God, Scripture, and the Church, which is charged with holding orthodoxy. We begin with God’s revelation through Scripture, and where it is ambiguous, we look to the church—that must be where we start.

That’s what this series has been about; understanding the pervasiveness of heresy and the simplicity of heresy, we have aimed ourselves toward an orthodox mind. And once we are there, only after much prayer and meditation and study, and only for the betterment of the Lord’s church, can we bravely contest the status quo and say, No, what you’ve named heresy, God has deemed orthodoxy.

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