Questions I ponder
Can a Christian be a heretic? If so just how much heresy is ok?
Why do so few people use the term heresy today?
Charles Spurgeon called dispensationalism a heresy. Saying “An error of an opposite kind has attained some notoriety in our day”, dispensationalism was new. He tested it and said, “So we thought at first, as our spiritual instincts revolted at the heresy.” A solid argument can be made that he was correct and out of dispensationalism was born an ideology that in a real sense drove geopolitics and wars and loss of life.
Spurgeon was writing, reluctantly as he states, amongst a fervor surrounding this new teaching. He seems to indicate an answer to the first question about, whether a Christian can be a heretic, and seems to say “yes” at least for a short time. He states “If he be a penitent who has stumbled on the very threshold of revelation, or if he be a believer who has fallen into the hands of unsafe guides, and become embarrassed in the effort to find his way into the deeper mysteries of its inner courts, we would offer our prayer to God for the Spirit of wisdom that shall enable us to direct him aright.” He continues, “from the tenor of the correspondence we have received, we infer that there are not a few such sincere believers in Christ, who have had their minds unhinged by the various tracts and publications which have been, for the most part, anonymously put into circulation.” He is acknowledging that he believes among those being enthralled by this new teaching there are genuine Christians in the number. But he chastises them “who hath bewitched you, ye simple-hearted Christians, that ye should depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits?” Departed from the faith implies Spurgeon saw this as heresy and if adopted would equate to something other than authentic Christianity, 1 Tim. 4:1. (from “The Sword and The Trowel”, Volume 1 pp. 345-350, 1865)
It would be hard to find a person in 2023 that would call dispensationalism a heresy. Most Protestantism is dispensationalism or a derivative of it. The only people that will use the two terms in a sentence nowadays are what might be called fringe. Was Spurgeon wrong? Have we become wiser? Is that the central question or is the core issue that Spurgeon tested new teaching against Scripture and judged it heresy and was not afraid to call it that? Tom Ascol and others came fairly close to calling it heresy in The Late Great Planet Church, but modern sensibilities demand if you want to be spoken to at conferences prudence demands a less Spurgeon-like approach. But dispensationalism is not the issue here, calling things heresy is the issue.
There was a time, not so long ago when most reformed denominations would agree that Catholicism was heresy and would say so. It is written in confessions. In this the reformed agreed with dispensationalists, Jack Chick of Chick Tracts was dispensationalist and a KJV-only adherent. Few in the reformed community would utter the words of the reformers and some of the things written in confessions out loud today about the Catholic church. Perhaps being associated with heretics that nobody will call a heretic was too unseemly.
The Gospel Coalition, an organization that could be argued harbors heretics of its own, published a piece titled, Be Careful about Calling Somebody a Heretic. The article begins by stating “Heresy exists. You don’t have to look hard to find it” and then lists apostasy as heresy, there is a difference. We are provided a flawed definition of heresy, TGC calls it “a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design”. It is true, most heretical things most real Christians say are by accident, a result of listening to wrong things and ideas. But there is real heresy, and it is often by design that clearly fits the second part of the definition TGC provided; “[heresy] ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing, or even destroying the core of Christian faith.” The writer is correct, mere disagreement is not a justification to call someone a heretic, but by the definition, the article itself provides, it seems there is more call to use the term than is presently in fashion.
The TGC article got one thing correct about authentic, historical Christianity, “A person who embraces heresy is not a Christian according to Christian tradition…If a person knowingly teaches heresy and as such is a heretic, then, by the way Christianity has defined ‘heresy,’ this person cannot be a Christian.” Tom Ascol in a commentary on 1 Timothy 4 that Spurgeon referenced above agrees that no Christian can be a heretic, and once a person becomes a heretic it is sufficient proof that they were never a Christian to begin with. (Some will Apostatize) The nuance of it all can be found in both Spurgeon’s and Ascol’s articles. Spurgeon is writing to simple-hearted folks that he is warning will depart from the faith if they close their ears and persist. There is a difference between one that is a false teacher and a deceiver and one that is deceived. At least Spurgeon seems to indicate the deceived have time to rebuke error and heresy. Ascol says if they were ever justified, they will.
It seems rather perplexing to me that more men are not speaking with the bold humility that Spurgeon spoke in his day. Maybe the last awakening broke our spines with all the cults and heresies and aberrations coming out of the burnt-over region and then Azula street later. Maybe we are just not the sort of men to call unrighteousness what it is during this our current neo-gnostic awakening. Perhaps men are afraid to lose friends and invitations to conferences. I do not know a lot but I see heresy in spades, and not just in the usual places.