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What’s Your Favorite Heresy?


There’s something attractive about every heresy. Otherwise, no one would had bothered with it in the first place. People didn’t come up with the ideas that eventually came to be labeled as heresies because they were bored and wanted to rile the “powers that be.” No, heresy comes from an earnest attempt to answer life’s most difficult questions. Although the answers heresy offers were eventually found to be inadequate and/or unacceptable, that doesn’t change the fact that they were honest attempts at good theology – attempts that many people found compelling for some reason.

So every heresy has some attraction. For example, consider the following. (These are over-simplifications, but you get the point.)

  • Adoptionism: The belief that Jesus was born as a regular human, and was adopted into the divine life at some specific point (e.g. baptism, resurrection). With this one, we get an obviously human Jesus. He can empathize with our weaknesses, because he lived a frail human life just like ours, untainted by some divine nature lurking behind the scenes. And we also get the image of a relationship with God that can be achieved through faithful living. If Jesus did it, so can we.
  • Docetism: The belief that Christ’s physical body was an illusion and that he didn’t really die on the cross. In one fell swoop you eliminate all the difficult questions surrounding the incarnation (since it never happened) and how the divine nature can suffer (it didn’t). 
  • Marcionism: The belief that the god of the OT is a separate (and rather nasty) being from the loving God of the NT; so, Christians shouldn’t have anything to do with OT scriptures or those aspects of the NT that have been corrupted by OT influences. Forget about all those troubling OT passages about wrath and violence, and get rid of some difficult NT passages at the same time. And you get a God who is all about love and forgiveness. Sounds good to me.
  • Modalism: The belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit are simply three “aspects” of the one God (kind of like the idea that I am one person who is a father, a husband, and a teacher). The Trinity is confusing. So forget about notions of God somehow being both three and one. Let’s just go with oneness. That’s much easier to understand.
  • Arianism: The belief that the Son was the first of all the created beings and the one who serves as the intermediary between the infinitely transcendent Creator and the rest of creation. This one is particularly helpful because it does away with so many problems at once. The incarnation isn’t an issue because the Son is a created being to begin with. There are no trinitarian problems because there’s no real Trinity. And you get to keep your completely transcendent Creator without worrying about how he can be involved in the suffering of a fallen world (he’s not). 
  • Apollinarianism: The belief that in the incarnation the Son only assumed a physical, human body and not a truly human soul (i.e. the Son puts on a human body kind of like I might put on a costume). With this view, offers a more readily understandable view of the incarnation. It’s not that you really have a union of two natures (divine and human), but you have a divine person simply clothing himself in human form for a time. That’s a picture I can wrap my mind around.
  • Nestorianism: The belief that the incarnation involves the union of two complete persons: the eternal Logos and the human Jesus. This one is basically the inverse of Apollinarianism. Instead of solving the problems of the incarnation by basically denying that there’s a fully human person involved, Nestorianism solves the problem by making the “union” more of a partnership. You’ve got two full person who just work really closely together. I can get on board with that.
  • Pelagianism: The belief that God has already graced us with everything that we need to achieve salvation; we simply need to be disciplined and use these God-given gifts to walk the path laid out for us. This one is great because it so clearly teaches the goodness of God’s creation (especially humans), avoids the difficulties associated with the concepts of total depravity, original sin, and predestination (by denying or significantly redefining them), emphasizes the importance of discipline and godly living, and decries any form of “easy-believism.

I could go on: Adoptionism, Gnosticism, Montanism, Monarchianism, Donatism, and more. Every one of them offered something compelling: an approach that made difficult questions understandable. And they all thought they were defending Christianity against ideas that would ultimately undermine Christian faith, life, and ministry. Although they all went on to be condemned, that doesn’t change the fact that they each have their attraction.

What’s your favorite heresy? Which of these, or some other, do you find most compelling? 

I have to admit that I can see the attraction of several of these heresies. But, if I were to pick my favorite, it would have to be Adoptionism (though Pelagianism is a close second). I think I just grew up on so many stories of the human Jesus, and so much emphasis on how important it is that he was truly human. So, I don’t find myself gravitating toward heresies like Docetism or Gnosticism. Their Jesus is too transcendent and otherworldly to tempt me much. But the earthy, faithful Jesus of Adoptionism is someone I can get behind. And I suppose that Adoptionism and Pelagianism both tempt because they both play to my own achievement mentality. At its core, the Christian life is about disciplined faithfulness. Just follow Christ’s example: be disciplined, work hard, and live faithfully. That’s all it takes.

I like that. Of course, that’s because deep down I really want the story of salvation to be about me and what I can achieve.

What about you? What’s your favorite heresy?

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Augustine and the Problem of Free Will

Picture in your mind something that you think is a really bad idea. (I’m picturing a cat.) Now imagine someone using something that you wrote many years ago to defend this heinously awful idea. How would you feel?

That’s exactly what happened to Augustine. By the latter part of his life, Augustine had developed a clear reputation for defending divine sovereignty, predestination, original sin, and the “bondage” of the will. But when he was younger, Augustine had written some things, particularly in De Libero Arbitrio (On Free Will), that sounded to many like he used to believe something very different. Indeed, some of statements sound very libertarian. And, much to Augustine’s chagrin, his critics used these earlier works against him, contending that they were just saying what himself he used to teach.

That had to have been annoying.

And, it raises a key question: Did Augustine have a consistent position on free will throughout his life, or were his opponents correct that his later position was a dramatic departure from what he wrote in his earlier works?

Those are the issues that Billy Cash dealt with in the paper that he presented to the NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society last month, “Augustine and the Consistent Trajectory of Compatibilism“. (Billy is a Th.M. student at Western Seminary and a regular contributor to this blog.) And in the paper, Billy contends that Augustine’s early writings are consistent with his later writings, and that we should understand Augustine to be a consistent compatibilist throughout his life.

Billy starts things off by arguing that although Augustine does sound libertarian at times in De Libero Arbitrio, he is still operating from a largely compatibilist framework. Two arguments in particular ground this conclusion:

First, in book three of On Free Choice of the Will, Augustine asserts that the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden consigned all men to a life of “ignorance and difficulty,” a life in which they would find themselves unable to choose the good….

Secondly, although the grace of God is not center-stage in this particular treatise, it is not absent.  In his Retractions, Augustine reminds his readers that he does in fact claim in On the Free Choice of the Will, “that anything good in a human person, including any goodness in the will, is a gift of God.”

So, although there are some differences between Augustine’s early and mature writings – differences that can be partially accounted for by the Manichean controversy that Augustine was addressing in his earlier writings – there is enough continuity to conclude that there is a clear and consistent “trajectory” leading from the one to the other, rather than a marked “departure” in the later writings.

In the last part of the paper, Billy turns his attention to an interesting argument presented by Eleonore Stump, which she calls “modified libertarianism.” I won’t go into the details of the argument here, but the essence is that Stump is looking for a way to understand even the later Augustine within the broader framework of a libertarian view of free will. And, although she presents a creative argument, Billy contends that her position is ultimately incoherent (or at least inconsistent).

So, at the end of the day, Billy concludes:

Development in theology does not necessarily imply change, as seen in the early church’s development of doctrines concerning the divinity of Christ.  That Jesus was the divine Son of God was never denied by the Orthodox Church.  There was development, however, in how that divinity was to be understood, and this development led to a distinction between what was to be considered true or heretical.  Likewise, in Augustine’s mature theology he believed that the will of man was free to choose what it desired, but the desire of will to choose the good was enabled by the grace of God, prior to any choice or merit found within the individual.  Although his early theology was not as developed and Augustine did not give grace as prominent a position in influencing the will in On Free Choice of the Will, Augustine himself says that the grace of God was not absent, just not the focal point of his argument.  In light of the affirmations of the will found in his early writing, On Free Choice of the Will, it may be stated with surety that the trajectory of his argument was compatibilist in nature, and was not altered from early to later works, just more thoroughly developed.  Since this is the case, any attempt at construing a libertarian view of the will in Augustine is misleading.

(This is part of a series highlighting papers presented by several faculty and students from Western Seminary at the 2011 NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. You can see the rest of the posts in this series here.)

Synergism is not semi-Pelagianism

During the interaction with N.T. Wright at the last ETS plenary session, Tom Schreiner casually tossed out the all-too-common assertion that synergism is semi-Pelagian. Implicit behind the claim  seems to be the  idea that anything other than pure monergism is borderline heresy – it’s not quite rampant heresy (Pelagianism), but it’s really close (semi-Pelagianism).

There are both historical and theological reasons for rejecting this claim. Historically, we should at least recognize that semi-Pelagianism was a movement that arose after the time of Pelagius, primarily associated with certain monastic groups in the 5th and early-6th centuries, and condemned as heretical at the Second Council of Orange  (529). So, historically speaking, if you call someone a semi-Pelagian, you actually are calling him/her a heretic – not just a near-heretic.

Theologically, it is not true that synergists are necessarily semi-Pelagian. Here it is important that we define our terms. I understand the terms as follows

Pelagian: any system in which the human person is capable of achieving salvation entirely on his/her own with no divine assistance other than common grace (i.e. the grace necessary for any being to exist).

Semi-Pelagian: any system in which the process of salvation is initiated by the human person apart from any grace other than common grace, but in which the process of salvation is synergistically completed by the cooperative interaction of both divine and human.

Synergism: any system that affirms some kind of cooperative interaction between the divine and the human in the process of salvation

Based on these definitions, we can draw the following conclusions:

  1. Pelagians are not synergists since salvation is achievable by the human person alone.
  2. Semi-Pelagians are synergists since the salvation process requires the cooperative interaction of both divine and human.
  3. Synergists are not Pelagians and are not necessarily semi-Pelagian since it is entirely possible for one to affirm the cooperative interaction of both divine and human while still affirming that the process of salvation begins entirely with God’s salvific (not common) grace.

So, using these (admittedly cursory) definitions, we can say that a number of very prominent soteriologies are synergistic but not semi-Pelagian (e.g., Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Wesleyan, etc.). When theologians make blanket statements to the effect that all synergists are semi-Pelagian, they (hopefully unwittingly) question the orthodoxy of vast swaths of Christianity, including nearly all of the Church Fathers.

So, please take this as a plea to all monergists – please stop making the claim that synergism simply is semi-Pelagian. That claim is neither historically nor theologically correct.