A prominent pastor this month encouraged us to ‘unhitch’ ourselves from the Old Testament and many Christians became familiar with the term Marcionism, an ancient heresy that claims the God of the Old Testament is different than the God of the New Testament. Plenty has been written on that situation, but it made me think a bit more about how we identify heresy. How can we intelligently identify a heresy better than, say, “it just smells funny” or “it just feels off” without reading every systematic theology out there? At what point is a belief so deficient that it is no longer Christian and where do those beliefs come from? Most importantly, how do we protect ourselves from believing heresy?
Christianity may have as many off shooting streams as the Amazon River, but we are all connected to the same source. You and I can disagree on baptism, church governance, gifts of the Holy Spirit and end times and still affirm each others’ status as Christian. Heresy is a belief so errant that it can no longer be called Christianity. A message so divergent from the gospel of Jesus Christ that it offers no real hope of salvation from our sin and into the Kingdom to come.
The Root of Heresy
There is a common root to all Christian heresy: the paradox. When you have two truths that seem to contradict each other, that is called a paradox. We have paradoxes in mathematics, physics, biology and chemistry, so it should come as no surprise that we have them in theology as well. A paradox doesn’t mean that both statements aren’t true, it simply means that our brains can’t yet understand how they co-exist. When we try and explain the mystery instead of embrace the mystery, heresy is born. So what are the Christian paradoxes?
In Christianity, we are confronted with four paradoxes. The Trinity is the first. One God in three persons. Trying to rationalize this mystery has birthed numerous heretical movements. The Monarchianists, Sabellians and Adoptionists all emphasized the unity of the Godhead at the expense of the diversity of His three persons. Other movements have done the opposite by taking one or more of the persons out of the Godhead (Marcionism and Arianism). In either case a person of the Trinity is being minimized, mortalized or eliminated and what you have left cannot be called Christianity because it loses either a Sovereign God, an Emmanent Spirit or a Substitutionary Sacrifice.
The second paradox is Jesus: fully God and fully man. How can that be? Maybe Jesus just ‘seemed’ like a man, but really wasn’t (Docetism). Maybe Jesus was only a man and later ‘adopted’ by God through the Holy Spirit (Adoptionism). Maybe Jesus had a human body, but a divine brain (Apollinarism). Or maybe Jesus just wasn’t divine at all (Arianism, Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witness).
If Jesus isn’t divine, He has no real power to save us. If Jesus isn’t human, enduring all the trials we do, but without sin, He can’t be our substitute on the cross. The humanity and deity of Jesus is foundational to Christianity. Like the Trinity, we had to come up with a new word for it: Hypostatic Union.
God’s Sovereignty And Man’s Responsibility
The third paradox is God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. The Bible teaches us that God is sovereign over every aspect of our life including our salvation, yet, we are not robots. We have real decisions to make and we are really responsible for those decisions. Our prayers matter, our evangelism matters and our personal holiness matters. If we embrace God’s sovereignty at the expense of man’s responsibility we become Antinomians or Hyper-Calvinists. If we embrace man’s responsibility at the expense of God’s sovereignty, we become Pelagians. Modern Universalists, as they deny both God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, reject both truths in this paradox. A sovereign God and a responsible humanity are foundational to the Christian faith.
Last, we have the already/not yet. Jesus has already accomplished our salvation, but He has not yet come back to give us our new heavens, new earth and new bodies free of sin and strife. We live in this age in between Jesus’ two comings called the already/not yet. Some have tried to apply the ‘not yet’ now by saying we should expect in this life to be completely rid of sin (Montanism and Perfectionism). Much of the prosperity gospel movement is simply trying to apply God’s promises in the ‘not yet,’ now in the ‘already’. Any theology that places our ultimate hope in something before Jesus’ return, ceases to be Christian.
Embrace The Mystery
I went through a list of Christian heresies in church history today and every one of them were guilty of neglecting one or more of these paradoxes. Gnosticism actually neglected all four in various ways.
So, does that mean, as Christians, we shouldn’t study these paradoxes? Not at all! The more clearly we see paradox, the more clearly we see God. Explain the mystery and you lose Christianity, embrace the mystery and you gain Christ.