While there have been historical events in Christian history to remind us of the dangers of heresy-hunting, very few Christians today realize the debt they owe to those who had the courage of their convictions to call heresy by its proper name, in spite of the repercussions.
Witch trials in Salem. The Council of Toulouse in the 13th century, employing men whose sole purpose was to hunt out human kindling for the flames of the Inquisition.
These are images evoked by that word, “heresy.” A nasty word, it suggests more about the accuser, who is considered intolerant, bigoted, and ignorant, than about the accused. But while there have been historical events in Christian history to remind us of the dangers of heresy-hunting, very few Christians today realize the debt they owe to those who had the courage of their convictions to call heresy by its proper name, in spite of the repercussions.
What is heresy?
The first question proposed is, “What is heresy?” The answer is, “Any teaching that directly contradicts the clear and direct witness of the Scriptures on a point of salvific importance.”
In other words, there may be teachings that are strange, such as Benny Hinn’s suggestion that before the Fall, Adam could fly and remain for hours underwater, or teachings that we may regard as clearly contrary to the biblical texts. But since they do not touch upon a key doctrine of God, human nature, Christ’s person and work, the Holy Spirit, or salvation, they may be erroneous, but they are not heretical.
For centuries, theologians have distinguished between formal heresy, which is the persistent and stubborn denial of a fundamental doctrine, even though one has been instructed in the truth, and material heresy, in which one embraces a doctrine that is itself heretical, but embraces it in ignorance.
Heresy brings with it not only error, but a particular spirit or attitude: arrogance, a rejection of all authority, and self-will. These have always been considered the vices of heresy, but in modern liberalism and evangelicalism, they are often regarded as signs of special enlightenment or novel insights that have escaped the darkened wits of past generations.
Anyone who denies the existence of such a thing as heresy denies the possibility of a religion having any boundaries. If a religion does not have any boundaries, distinguishing Christianity from Hinduism or atheism is meaningless.
To the second question proposed, “Who decides?”, the answer is certain: the Scriptures. This topic requires serious reflection.