One of the banes of my existence is trying to recall exactly where I read something. My memory for quotes is good, but my memory for sources is poor. Maybe I read too much, so that I quickly forget where I read things. So it is with a particular John Calvin quote. I once read that no theologian is ever more than 80 percent correct in this his theology. Now, I’m more than 80 percent sure that Calvin wrote that, but I am zero￼percent sure of where he wrote it.
In making this statement, Calvin was saying that even the best and most careful of Christian thinkers is prone to error. And errors tend to multiply if they are systemic. Not only do different theological views abound on particular issues, but widely divergent systems of thought clash with one another. The more incorrect the system is, the higher the likelihood that it will contain a multitude of errors. If my system is correct, then my errors will fall among the particulars or details within the system. If my system is wrong, then the places where I am accurate will tend to fall among the particulars or details.
We also must acknowledge that multiple systems may function in our thinking, systems that exist within systems. For example, there is a large system of thought that we call orthodox or “catholic” Christianity. This system includes those macro-truths that are shared historically by virtually all groups claiming the name of Jesus. These truths include such affirmations as the Trinity, the resurrection of Christ, the fall of man, and others. Historic Protestant groups, such as the Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian churches, affirm the core doctrines I mentioned above, as does Roman Catholicism. They may disagree on questions such as the extent of the Fall, but all agree on the reality of the Fall.
There are three major systems of theology that have claimed to be Christian—Pelagianism, Augustinianism, and Semi-Pelagianism. Pelagianism was declared heretical by the ancient church and is outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. It reappeared substantially in sixteenth-century Socinianism, in nineteenth-century liberalism (which extends to our day), and in the quasi-evangelicalism of Charles Finney.
For the most part, historic Christianity can be seen in systems that are either Augustinian or Semi-Pelagian. These systems hold to the essentials of historic Christianity while differing in other, often important matters. The Roman Church falls into the Semi-Pelagian group but differs from Protestant Semi-Pelagianism in that it denies the crucial doctrine of justification by faith alone, which historic Protestantism sees as an essential doctrine of orthodox Christianity.
Within the systems of Augustinianism and Semi-Pelagianism, there are a host of specialized systems, such as Calvinism, Arminianism, dispensationalism, and so forth. Where these systems clash, there must be error. For example, Calvinism and Arminianism cannot both be systemically true. At least one of the systems, if not both, is in error. But where these differences and errors appear, they usually have not been deemed to be heretical. Though all heresies are errors, not all errors rise to the level of heresy. Usually a heresy is an error so severe that it denies or threatens an essential tenet of Christianity.
Throughout history, the church has faced not just errors of greater or lesser severity, but heresy. But heresy has had a “left-handed,” or indirect, benefit for the church—it has forced the church to define orthodoxy. The history of the church councils is largely the history of the church in conflict with heresy. For instance, when the heretic Marcion produced his fake canon of Scripture, the church countered by defining the books of the Bible as we now have them. The heresy of Arius led to the Council of Nicea, which produced the Nicene Creed and the church’s confession of the Trinity. Likewise, in response to the heresies of Nestorius and Eutyches, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 defined the dual nature of Christ in terms of His true deity and true humanity.
In every era, heresy pushes the church to greater precision of her confession of faith. This salutary “benefit” of heresy, however, does not make the heresies themselves less odious. Heresies are damnable precisely because they lead people into damnation. They expose people to the anathema of God Himself.
We live in an era that rejects the very idea of heresy. It seems that the only heresy is to accuse someone else of heresy. Heresy trials are as rare as politicians who ignore lobby groups. The mindset of relativism and pluralism has so penetrated the church that truth itself is sacrificed on the altar of relational expediency. We are willing to affirm what we believe but unwilling to deny its antithesis. When Francis A. Schaeffer spoke of “true truth,” he meant truth that can be distinguished from its antithesis, or falsehood. But in a pluralistic environment, truth itself is “plural.” There are as many “truths” as there are advocates of views. Pluralism is the twin of relativism. Truth is subjective, so there can be no antithesis between what a person professes and its opposite.
Thus, when from within the confines of “evangelicalism” a view of God is propounded that self-consciously departs from orthodox theism, it is treated as a minor dispute among true evangelicals. But open theism is not simply a point of dispute between Arminians and Calvinists. Though it comes out of the Arminian camp, open theism is as antithetical to historic Arminianism as it is to Calvinism. Neither must it be viewed as one more error on the contemporary theological landscape. Open theism so attacks the Biblical and orthodox doctrine of God that it passes the border between error and heresy. As politically incorrect as the idea of heresy may be, the church must be willing to use this term in this debate. Open theism must be rejected not only as sub-Christian, but as anti-Christian.
Our understanding of God determines our entire theology. When the orthodox doctrine of God goes, nothing can be more systemic. If our doctrine of God is heretical, then our entire belief system will be ground into dust by this heresy.