Heresy & Concession - by Dr. Benjamin B. Warfield

Historical Theology Articles

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The following article explains the nature of heresy.

In Dr. G. P. Fisher’s recently issued History of Christian Doctrine there is a very suggestive passage in which he tells us how heresies usually originate, and gives us an insight into their nature. He says:

When Christianity is brought into contact with modes of thought and tenets originating elsewhere, either of two effects may follow. It may assimilate them, discarding whatever is at variance with the gospel, or the tables may be turned and the foreign elements may prevail. In the latter case there ensues a perversion of Christianity, an amalgamation with it of ideas discordant with its nature. The product then is a heresy. But to fill out the conception, it seems necessary that error should be aggressive and should give rise to an effort to build up a party, and thus to divide the Church. In the Apostles’ use of the term, “heresy” contains a factious element.

He then proceeds to remark that “‘heresy’ meant originally ‘choice’; then an opinion that is the product of choice or of the will, instead of being drawn from the divine Word”; that it is, in a word, “a man-made opinion” as distinguished from a divinely taught doctrine.

It does not require the wide and detailed acquaintance with the history of religious thought which Dr. Fisher has at his command to enable the reader to appreciate the aptness of this generalization. Possibly Dr. Fisher would not himself present it as the formula by which every heresy has been compounded. It obviously fairly describes, however, the origin of most of the greater heresies which have vexed the Church. The early gnostic systems were but varied attempts to baptize oriental pantheistic and dualistic speculations. Each of the christological constructions of the ante- Chalcedonian Church was but an effort to pour the teachings of the Scriptures as to the person of the Redeemer into the molds of some human philosophy. The Pelagian exaltation of human ability and consequent denial of the necessity of the inner work of the Holy Ghost was but (as Hefele says) “the rehabilitation of that heathen view of the world,” in accordance with which Cicero declared that men do indeed thank God for gold and lands, but never for their virtues; and Jerome accordingly speaks of it accurately as “the heresy of Pythagoras and Zeno.” The subsequent semi-Pelagianism which has stained the thought of the whole Latin Church, and the Arminianism which has sapped the purity of so large a section of Protestant thought, are but less acute forms of the same exaggeration of human rights and powers as over against the sovereign right and absolute power of the Ruler of the universe. And just as the pagan considers his idol as his property, and requires of it the services which he asks of it-beating it when it fails to give according to his desires, and destroying it when it no longer fulfils his expectations-so modern “thinkers,” still considering themselves Christians, look upon their God as the product of their intellection, keep him strictly to the activities for which they have invented him, and require at his hands all that they have made him for. So poor Heine was sure of forgiveness, for, as he said, “that is what God is for”; and so our new Kantians acknowledge God only so far as they have need of him to harmonize their intellectual difficulties or solve their moral doubts. Like the idols of the heathen, he is the work of their hands, and exists only to serve their ends. They never imagine that they are the work of his hands and exist only to serve his ends.

Let us look a little more closely, however, at Dr. Fisher’s fruitful description of how heresy arises.

True Christian doctrine is the pure teaching of the divine Word. Whatsoever is revealed in that Word the Christian believes to be true for the authority of God himself speaking in it. There may be other sources of knowledge from which he may learn what is true, but there is no source of knowledge which will rank with him in authority above the written Word of God, or to which he can appeal with superior confidence. It is a mark of the Christian man that the Word is his source and norm of truth, and wherever it has spoken he asks no further evidence, nor can he admit any modification whatever of its deliverances, no matter from what quarter they may be drawn.

But Christianity is immersed in the world. And the world has its own modes of thought and its own teachings, which are their products. And the Christian man necessarily comes into contact with them. What attitude shall he assume with reference to them? What welcome shall he accord them? Of one thing certainly he is sure-that all truth is God’s. All truth comes forth from him; all truth leads back to him. No one should greet truth from whatever source with more readiness and more enthusiasm than he. And it is only simple justice to say that in all the history of thought no one has ever shown himself more hospitable to truth in every sphere, more eager to seek and embrace it, than the Christian man. Zeal in investigation, success in wresting nature’s secrets from her, unwearied diligence in the study of the past-these are marked characteristics of Christian civilization.

An attitude of eager hospitality toward the researches of the world is becoming in the Christian man; he serves the God of truth. Such an attitude is safe for him; he has in his hands the norm of truth, in the Word of God. This is the Ariadne clue by means of which he can thread his way through the labyrinths of the world’s thought; this is the touchstone by the art of which he may choose the good and refuse the evil. So long as he clings to it he will build up the temple of truth, whencesoever he quarries the stones. When he loses hold of it, however, he descends into the arena and takes his hap with other men; and going his own way, it is not strange that he is often found with his back turned to God. The condition of right thinking—or “orthodoxy”—is, therefore, that the Christian man should look out upon the seething thought of the world from the safe standpoint of the sure Word of God. The fertile source of wilful thinking—or “heresy”—is that, on the contrary, he is often found looking at the teachings of God’s Word from the standpoint of the world’s speculations.

It is to be observed that it is to the very prevalent habit of “concession” to the world’s thinking, that Dr. Fisher’s words point us, as the fruitful mother of heresy. And it must be admitted that the temptation to “concession” is often very strong.

For one thing, the world is very confident of its own conclusions, and it is very sure of the infallibility of its own methods of research. It does not call its tenets “opinions,” “views,” “conjectures.” It dignifies them in the mass by the abstract names of “philosophy,” “science,” “learning,” “scholarship.” It does not offer them to the Christian for testing and trial; it thrusts them upon him as the perfect expression of final knowledge. He is not requested to subject them to his touchstone, the Word of God, or sift from them the good and reject the bad. He is required to substitute them for the teachings of the Word of God as the only really solid basis of all his thinking.

For another thing, the Christian teacher is very anxious to conciliate the world. His primary interest is in the souls of men. May he not smooth the passage of many to the ark of safety by clothing himself in the garments of their thought? And, after all, why should he distrust either their methods or their conclusions? Would it not be better to take up a position shoulder to shoulder with them, stand on their platform, and concede to their demand everything which can be conceded while yet the central citadel be held? Has not the minimum of assertion after all its own strength? and is it not better to claim no more than we must? In any event, what is the use of flinging into the face of an unbelieving world as truth that which the consensus of scholarship or of scientific investigation proclaims impossible? Let Tertullian, if he will, “believe because it is impossible,” and such paradoxists as Sir Thomas Browne train their faith by posing it with incredible things. We cannot expect men of common sense to look upon such procedure with allowance. Nay, as men of common sense ourselves, we cannot profess to nourish a faith strong enough to believe to be true what all science or all philosophy or all criticism pronounces unbelievable.

For still another thing-let us confess it with what shame we may-the Christian man is often painfully aware that he himself, that the Christian community, is no match for the world in varied knowledge, in power of dialectic, in diligence of literary production; and so feels too weak to hold his position in the face of the world’s assaults. Had not an apostle foretold to us that not many wise would be called, and warned us that the wisdom of men would be arrayed against the truth of the gospel, we might indeed be often dismayed, if not beaten down, by the superior vigor, brightness, acumen, force of the world’s thinking. As it is, we are often puzzled; and good men have sometimes thought it necessary, as they account for the unapproachable majesty and calm security of the apostolic writings by the inspiration of God, so to call in an evil inspiration to account for the brilliancy of the world’s attack on the religion of Christ. Thus good John Newton suggests that evil men must be credited with what he calls a “black inspiration.”

“After making the best allowance I can,” he writes, “both for the extent of human genius and the deplorable evil of the human heart, I cannot suppose that one-half of the wicked wit, of which some persons are so proud, is properly their own. Perhaps such a one as Voltaire would neither have written, or have been read or admired so much, if he had not been the amanuensis of another hand in his own way.”

Whatever account we may give, however, of the power of the world’s thought over Christian men, it seems pretty clear that the “concessive” attitude which leads men to accept the tenets which have originated elsewhere than in the Scriptures as the foundation of their thinking, and to bend Scripture into some sort of conciliation with them, is the ruling spirit of our time, which may, therefore, be said to be dominated by the very spirit of “heresy.” “Modern discovery” and “modern thought” are erected into the norm of truth, and we are told that the whole sphere of theological teaching must be conformed to it. This is the principle of that reconstruction of religious thinking which we are now constantly told is going on resistlessly about us, and which is to transform all theology. What is demanded of us is just to adjust our religious views to the latest pronouncements of philosophy or science or criticism. And this is demanded with entire unconsciousness of the fundamental fact of Christianity-that we have a firmer ground of confidence for our religious views than any science or philosophy or criticism can provide for any of their pronouncements. It is very plain that he who modifies the teachings of the Word of God in the smallest particular at the dictation of any “man-made opinion” has already deserted the Christian ground, and is already, in principle, a “heretic.” The very essence of “heresy” is that the modes of thought and tenets originating elsewhere than in the Scriptures of God are given decisive weight when they clash with the teachings of God’s Word, and those are followed to the neglect or modification or rejection of these.

It probably requires to be confessed that the form which has been taken by much recent apologetics has played into the hands of this “concessive” habit, and may therefore be held. responsible for some of the “heresy” in the Church of the day. Apologetics is in its nature a conciliatory science, and it is often the best apologetics to find and stand on the minimum. This is often the best apologetics, we say, but not always; and it can never be good apologetics to lead men to suppose that the minimum is all, or all that is worth defending, or all that is capable of defense. Yet it is undeniable that some recent apologetics has left on the minds of men some such impression. Perhaps we may even say that some recent apologists have been emphatic in proclaiming that this minimum is the entirety of defensible Christianity. At its best, however, this method of apologetics needs to be warily used; when it becomes a fixed habit of mind, it is very liable not only to be abused but to prove the prolific parent of many evils.

For one thing, it is found, in practice, that he who is accustomed to defend only the minimum is singularly apt to come to undervalue the undefended maximum. A truth not worth defending very soon comes to seem to him not worth professing. For another thing, the maximum left undefended is very apt to be also forgotten, and the defended minimum pieced out into some sort of apparent completeness, with scraps borrowed from the tenets elsewhere originating than in the Word of God; and so “a perversion of Christianity” arises, “an amalgamation with it of ideas discordant with its nature.” For still another thing, he who only defends the minimum renounces the strongest and best of all the evidences of Christianity. That great demonstration of the truth of Christianity which springs at once from an apprehension of it as a whole, as a perfect and perfectly consistent system of truth: the evidence of the gospel itself as the grandest scheme of thought ever propounded to the world, is entirely lost. So that it may not unnaturally happen sometime that the defense of the minimum alone will turn out to be the minimum defense of the gospel. Finally and above all, there may easily enter into the habit of defending a minimum of the gospel alone a certain unfaithfulness to the truth committed to us, which may go far to forfeit the testimony of the Holy Spirit, which needs to attend all defense of the gospel if it is to prevail with men. After all, God wishes a large trust in him and in his power, and will honor those who are not afraid to make great drafts upon him. In this sphere, too, it may well prove true that he who speaks boldly in God’s name all the truth that has been entrusted to him will have cause to admire God’s power. Here too, mayhap, he is saying to us:

O, that my people would hearken unto me; That Israel would walk in my ways! I should soon subdue their enemies, and turn my hands against their adversaries. The haters of the Lord should submit themselves unto him.

In a time deeply marked by “concession,” at all events, it is worth our while to remember on the one hand that “concession” is the high road to “heresy,” and that “heresy” is “willfulness in doctrine”; and on the other, that God has revealed his truth to us to be held, confessed, and defended, and that, after all, he is able to defend and give due force to the whole circle of revealed truth. And surely it is worth our while to recognize the most outstanding fact in the conflicts of our age-this, namely, that the line of demarcation between the right-thinking and the wilfully-thinking lies just here-whether a declaration of God is esteemed as authoritative over against all the conjectural explanations of phenomena by men, or whether, on the contrary, it is upon the conjectural explanations of phenomena by men that we take our stand as over against the declaration of God. In the sphere of science, philosophy, and criticism alike, it is the conjectural explanations of phenomena which are put forward as the principles of knowledge. It is as depending on these that men proclaim science, philosophy, and criticism as the norm of truth. We are “orthodox” when we account God’s declaration in his Word superior in point of authority to them, their interpreter, and their corrector. We are “heretical” when we make them superior in point of authority to God’s Word, its interpreter, and its corrector. By this test we may each of us try our inmost thought and see where we stand-on God’s side or on the world’s.

(The short essay was originally published in The Presbyterian Messenger, May 7, 1896, p. 672.)

Bible Verse:

“Peace to you all who are in Christ Jesus,” (1 Peter 5:14).

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