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ANALYSIS Godsey book revives question of heresy in church history

ATLANTA (BP)–The word “heresy” certainly isn’t on the lips of the average Baptist these days, even though the issue has been dealt with throughout much of church history.
Baptists in Georgia, however, have faced the subject during their past two annual meetings as a result of Mercer University President Kirby Godsey’s 1996 book, “When We Talk About God … Let’s Be Honest,” which was deemed “heretical” by a special Georgia Baptist Convention committee of seven pastors earlier this year. Charges against Godsey include denials of Scripture’s authority and of Jesus Christ’s deity and unique role in salvation.
“A charge of heresy is one of the most important issues to face the Christian church,” said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky and former editor of Georgia Baptists’ newsjournal, The Christian Index.
The Georgia committee’s conclusion regarding Godsey’s book “is nearly without precedent in modern Baptist life,” Mohler said. “The word heresy has been considered off-limits for too long,” he said. “Those who love the truth must oppose error.” And in this case, he noted, “The theological error is addressed to the very heart of the gospel.
“Baptists must not underestimate the magnitude of this issue,” Mohler stated. “The New Testament tells us that destructive heresies must be opposed by the people of God. Those who promote heretical teachings in the church sow not only discord but destruction.”
Even if the word may seem quaint and out of place in popular culture, concerns over heresy are alive and well beyond the church. Take an example from science: If heresy is “the contradiction of a received orthodox position,” as one definition puts it, then what could be more “heretical” than challenging Darwinian evolution in a public forum? Darwinism is entrenched as scientific orthodoxy not only in the academic world but at most other secular and some religious levels of society. Any deviation from evolutionary thinking is viewed by the scientific establishment as the modern-day equivalent of heresy. This is true even if the challenge comes from credentialed scientists who simply point out evidence in contradiction to the official understanding of evolution as an undesigned natural process.
Christian orthodoxy, it should be noted, is not vulnerable to the same criticism as Darwinian orthodoxy. Darwinism, since it excludes God, is necessarily of merely human origin while Christianity is not.
Knowing what is not heresy is important in determining what it actually is. Heresy in the theological sense is usually associated with the early church and the historic councils held to clarify who Jesus is and what he did, said Tom Nettles, church history professor at Southern Seminary.
By definition, heresy should be distinguished from four other categories of doctrine: orthodoxy, adiaphora, heterodoxy and idiosyncrasy.
“Orthodoxy is basically defined as that believed by all everywhere, at all times, usually referred to as the ‘Vincentian formula,'” for the fifth-century Vincent of Lerins, Nettles said. The areas of concern for orthodoxy, Nettles said, are traditionally theology proper, or the doctrine of God, and Christology, or the doctrine of Christ, as defined by the first four ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, and the necessity of grace for salvation, as confirmed at the Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.) and the Synod of Orange (529).
“Adiaphora are doctrinal positions which have been differed on by the orthodox and usually have no tendency to produce heresy,” Nettles continued.
“Heterodoxy consists of an ‘unapproved’ way of explaining a doctrine or relating it to other doctrines which does not actually question orthodoxy or affirm heresy,” Nettles said, while “an idiosyncrasy is a personal doctrinal slant or interpretation of Scripture that is characteristic of one person or one school of thought, which highlights a doctrine in a way that it has not been highlighted before or applies a classical text of Scripture in a doctrinal context that is largely without precedence in the church.” Heterodoxy and idiosyncrasy “may tend toward heresy if one draws out all the inferences of the respective positions,” Nettles added.
Nettles defined heresy as “the contradiction of a received orthodox position, such as denying the true humanity of Christ, the true deity of Christ or the sinfulness of humanity and its need for divine redemption.”
The history of heresy in the church, by some accounts, began with the denial of the resurrection at Corinth, Nettles recounted, or a denial of the atonement at Galatia. Still others think the first instance of heresy was the implicit dualism that suggested the material world was inherently evil and which was dealt with in Colossians, 1 Timothy and 1 John, Nettles said.
“Beyond the apostolic age, the earliest heresy probably was a denial of the humanity of Christ by the gnostics, a denial arising out of a philosophical commitment to dualism,” Nettles said.
“Next was a denial of the deity of Christ by Arius,” Nettles recounted. Arius, a priest of fourth-century Egypt who considered Christ a created being, was answered by the Council at Nicea (325 A.D.). Other heresies concerned the denial of the unity of Christ’s person as both God and man and the denial of creation or of human sinfulness, Nettles said.
Punishment of heresy has varied throughout church history. “Heresy was punished by excommunication in the early church, calling for the need of repentance and restoration through a process determined by the church,” Nettles said. “When Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman state, the manner of punishment for heresy became much more physically coercive, with the death penalty being established for certain types of heresy.”
Baptist responses to heresy historically have involved excommunication as punishment, Nettles said. “Baptists have sought to practice the New Testament method of excommunication, both at the local church level and the associational level,” he said. “Heresy has been taken very seriously by Baptists.”
A lesser offense than heresy in Baptist history is departure from confessional standards, which has also resulted in the disfellowshipping of people from churches and churches from associations.
The famous Crawford Toy controversy at Southern Seminary during the 19th century initially involved not heresy but departure from confessional standards, Nettles said. Toy was an Old Testament professor at Southern from 1869 until his resignation in 1879. “(Toy’s) views of Scripture interpretation implied a view of inspiration that was not in compliance with the seminary’s confessional standard or the views of the Baptist constituency in general,” Nettles said. “Eventually, after moving to Harvard, he became Unitarian in his theology, which of course involves the heresy of denying the deity of Christ.”
When it comes to heresy, it seems that the mistakes of the past are simply repeated time and again. Kirby Godsey’s stated beliefs in his book are apparently no exception to this. Said Nettles, “His denials (of orthodox doctrine such as the deity of Christ) amounted to out-and-out heresy of the sort that historically and biblically raise the question of whether his views can fall within the parameters of Christianity.”
Couric is a freelance writer and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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  • Dave Couric