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On the "Usefulness" of Heresy

November 3, 2016 | by: Mike Law | 0 Comments

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Reflections

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

You may be surprised to hear me say that heresy has been useful to the Church. Now, let me explain what I mean. Throughout the history of the Church, heresy has certainly damaged the Church, that cannot be denied, but heresy has also been useful to the church in that it shaped the faith of the Church in at least three ways – doctrine, discipline, and duty.
First, it was through the arrival of a number of heresies that the church arrived at its orthodox doctrine of Christ. With respect to Christology, heresy effectively served to box the Early Church and today’s Church into a biblical formulation concerning Christ’s person:

  • It took Arianism (which asserted that Jesus was created and fully human but that he was less than fully God) to press the church in making a clear declaration that he was indeed fully God (Nicea, 325AD).
  • It took Docetism (which suggested that Jesus was fully God but that he only appeared to be a man) to lead the church to assert that Jesus was fully man.
  • With respect to the relationship of these two natures, it took Nestorianism (which claimed that Jesus had two natures and two persons) and Monophysitism (which argued that Jesus’ human nature was absorbed by his divine nature thus having only one nature) to urge the church to declare that in the one person of Jesus there were/are two distinct natures (God and man) “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation” (Chalcedon, 451AD).

Secondly, while heresy was boxing the Early Church into its orthodox doctrine of Christ, what the Church was discovering is that her doctrine had to come from the Scriptures. The Early Church was thus forced to discipline herself to return to the Scriptures again and again to see if these things were so. This discipline of going back to the source of divine truth formed an instinct within the church which it would need in the days ahead, and continues to need today.

Finally, the church took matters of heresy seriously. Heresy forced the Early Church to recognize its duty in “passing on sound doctrine” (2 Timothy 1:13) and entrusting it to “reliable men” (2 Timothy 2:2). If the Early Church was going to pass down the apostolic witness, then it needed to recognize and take up the duty of contending for “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

It is my sense that we see very few “new” heresies today. Very often they are remakes of the old heresies, which means that we ought to appreciate what the Early Church has done for us, and keep walking in their way. We need to keep rehearsing the doctrine of Christ as given to us in the Scriptures. We need to keep disciplining ourselves to return to the Scriptures when faced with new theological challenges, and we need to see it as our duty to pass on sound doctrine for the generations to come. May God give us grace to pursue these endeavors.

Warmly in Christ,

Mike

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