Why You Shouldn’t Call That False Teaching a Heresy

Why You Shouldn’t Call That False Teaching a Heresy

This article originally appeared in Christianity Today (October 2016).

A group of bloggers seeking reform in Southern Baptist circles recently decried pastor Rick Warren for teaching that God communicates to believers via dreams. The bloggers named Warren and other speakers at a 2015 Hillsong conference “heretical preachers that claim extra-biblical revelation from God.” To be sure, the nature of God’s revelation has been debated throughout church history, and overemphasis on dream interpretation can be theologically dangerous.

Elsewhere, a UK Christian leader has devoted much of his writing and teaching to criticizing Christian Zionism—the belief that the founding of the State of Israel is foretold in Scripture. He and others have begun calling Zionism and its political implications “heresy” in online columns. And their views are not unique: Many Christians believe that Zionism is a misreading of God’s promises throughout the Old Testament.

But are these problems of heresy? Both complementarian and egalitarian leaders have taken to the Internet to call each other’s views on gender and leadership heresy. That, though their respective movements have officially existed for about 30 years.

Some say the Internet has democratized knowledge. Clearly, it has also democratized theologizing. Anyone with a computer and Wifi access can publish their thoughts and declarations onto a level pixelated playing field. Some blogs and Twitter accounts exist solely to cry foul whenever a well-known preacher makes a controversial statement.

Yet the frequency and volume of the proclamations from these sources—and from those who share and retweet them—suggest that some Christians don’t understand the significance of right doctrine, or the gravity of heresy charges. Worse, these disputes lead some to believe that doctrine isn’t worth the effort, since it seems only to breed division rather than promote Christlikeness.

Given our volatile online atmosphere, Christians in general and evangelicals in particular need a clearer definition of heresy. We need to know how to spot the difference between essential truths of the Christian faith and doctrines over which we can disagree and still remain faithful to Christian teaching. Even with a good definition, doctrinal assessment requires wisdom and discernment. It often involves two different ends: first, avoiding overuse of the heresy charge, which strips the word of its usefulness; and second, correcting Christians with beliefs that are false and that can undermine the integrity of the church.

Why Doctrine Is So Important

We may be tempted to think that since theology so easily divides, we are better off simply agreeing to disagree. After all, Jesus said that if we love God and others, we are fulfilling the law. “Why,” some ask, “does it matter that we believe the right things about God, so long as we love him?”

It is certainly true that loving God and others is at the heart of the gospel. But Jesus calls us to love God with our heart, soul, strength, and mind. Loving God involves thinking rightly about him, just as loving a friend or significant other involves rightly knowing their interests, beliefs, habits, and history.

When the Israelites taught their children about God, they recalled all he had done for them and their forebears. They worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the One who had delivered them out of Egypt. And they used specific phrases to describe him and what he had done. These specific phrases distinguished the God of the Israelites from the gods of their pagan neighbors.

Orthodox statements about the Trinity and Jesus Christ function similarly. They identify the God we worship and describe his saving relationship to us. Therefore, in order to love God aright, and to be assured of the salvation he offers, we must know who God is and what he has done for us in and through Jesus Christ.

The Bible reserves strong language for false teachers who promote beliefs that undermine or contradict the gospel. Bruce Demarest, a theologian at Denver Seminary, writes that the New Testament “expresses serious concern for ‘false doctrines’ and places the highest priority on maintaining ‘the pattern of sound teaching.’ Scripture urges Christians to be alert to doctrinal deception and to avoid heresy by carefully guarding the pure content of the gospel.” Again, orthodoxy is not just a matter of theological precision. It’s about making sure the church rightly grasps our God and his work for us in Christ.

That’s why Paul wrote so forcefully to the Galatians, “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” (1:9, NIV, used throughout). It’s why Peter warned against “false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves” (2 Pet. 2:1).

It’s also why early Christians wrestled for centuries over the nature and identity of Christ. The church held services and used prayers that worshiped Jesus. But wasn’t he a man in his earthly ministry? If so, did that mean they were practicing idolatry by worshiping a mere man? Or was Jesus in some way divine? Was he divine but only looked human? Or was he human but became divine, for instance, at his baptism? If he wasn’t fully human and fully divine, then could he accomplish salvation for us?

Such were the earliest doctrinal issues to be ironed out, and for very practical reasons: They affected how the church worshiped God and understood salvation. There were also pastoral concerns, to ensure believers living in a pagan world understood what they confessed together as one body. Doctrinal issues may require abstract language to explain, but they are not primarily academic. They have serious implications for how we live and talk about our faith.

A Word Worth Preserving

What is heresy? Literally the word means “choice”—that is, a choice to deviate from traditional teaching in favor of one’s own insights. The word can also mean “school of thought.” That seems to be Paul’s usage in 1 Corinthians 11:19, where he uses the Greek word haireseis (“faction”). Gradually, the term came to mean “party or sect,” and over time it took on negative connotations.

Some today cast the word heretic in a positive light: a courageous rebel who thinks outside the box and stands up to the “institutional” church. To be sure, some whom the church called heretics have turned out to be heroes; think of how the Catholic Church responded to Galileo when he asserted that the Earth revolves around the sun.

Then there is the almost flippant use of the word, as when others use it to refer to anyone who doesn’t agree with their denominational or theological distinctives.

But just because a word is misused doesn’t mean it is no longer helpful.

Traditionally a heretic is someone who has compromised an essential doctrine, usually by oversimplification, and has thus lost sight of who God truly is or what he has done for us. While most heretics throughout history were asking legitimate questions, they weren’t called heretics simply for asking questions. Their answers were the problem, as was their unwillingness to accept clear and detailed correction. In many cases, the heretics went too far, trying to mold the faith into the shape of unbiblical ideas they found appealing, especially those of pagan Greek philosophy. Or they began to emphasize certain ideas in Scripture to the exclusion of others.

In order to use heresy properly, we must understand that not all theological errors are equal or carry the same ramifications.

Our own tradition, Protestantism, has outlined three kinds of doctrinal error: (1) an error that directly contradicts a fundamental belief (heresy proper, like Arianism—keep reading); (2) an error that indirectly contradicts a fundamental belief (e.g., to teach that God causes suffering implies that God is not good); and (3) an error beyond a fundamental article (e.g., teaching that Christians must speak in tongues to have the Holy Spirit).

More simply, many Christian theologians distinguish heresy from heterodoxy. Heresy, as historian David Christie-Murray explains, is a belief that denies a doctrine “officially defined” as orthodoxy. Heterodoxy, however, is a Christian belief that diverges from a “commonly accepted teaching.” Heresy denies orthodoxy, while heterodoxy adds a questionable or problematic teaching to orthodoxy.

For example, according to Protestants, the Catholic teaching that Mary was born without original sin and remained a virgin for life is heterodox. It’s not heresy, because Catholics affirm orthodox Christology. But it’s heterodox because we Protestants believe only Jesus—the Word made flesh—was free of original sin, and that Catholic teaching adds something not taught in Scripture. However, Oneness Pentecostalism is an example of heresy, because it rejects historic orthodox Trinitarian theology.

The line between heterodoxy and heresy can be blurry, so we need wisdom, discernment, and humility before labeling a person a heretic. Additionally, we must remember that the sum of what Christians should believe is not identical to the essentials we must believe for salvation. We need to leave room for believers to grow in their understanding of the faith. We believe in justification by faith in Christ, not justification by accuracy of doctrine. No one comes into the family of God ready to pen a book on systematic theology. We are saved by grace, not by intellectual precision.

However, we must also remember that faith is not ignorant or naïve. It is informed, resting on a firm understanding of the Good News. Genuine trust requires a reasonable knowledge of what—and more important, who—is being trusted. And growing in knowledge of biblical truth is a vital component of the Christian life.

What Heresy Looks Like

The apostles were not afraid to denounce heresy. If a teaching or practice threatened the gospel’s integrity, they strongly condemned it—as when Paul denounces Peter and the circumcision party in Galatians 2. Yet heresy charges were not lobbed casually. Nor were they aimed at mere theological imprecision.

For instance, a couple named Priscilla and Aquila pulled aside an intelligent, competent teacher of Scripture named Apollos and “explained to him the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:26). We don’t read of them calling him at heretic. Rather, we see them lovingly correcting a theological error. They wanted him to know the truth and the joy that accompanied it, not to condemn him or stir division.

The early church combated heresy by reinforcing biblical doctrine with creeds. Arguably, the earliest creeds appear in the Bible. Many scholars believe Paul is reciting a creed when he summarizes the truths “of first importance”: that Christ died for our sins, was buried, was raised on the third day, and appeared to the apostles and many others (1 Cor. 15:3–7).

After the apostolic age, the early church possessed what was known as “the rule of faith,” which Bruce Demarest describes as “brief summaries of essential Christian truths.” Some teachers, however, began to lead movements that blatantly opposed the apostles’ teaching, and the church was compelled to articulate more clearly the essentials of Christianity. Core doctrines like the Trinity and the person of Christ were developed through the early church’s struggle against heresy. And the rule of faith birthed more precise statements like the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. Thus, heresies forced Christians to think more precisely and definitively about the truth of the gospel.

Three important heresies stand out.


Marcion was the son of the bishop of Sinope, Pontus (in modern-day Turkey). Around 140, he traveled to Rome, where he was welcomed by the church, but by 144, his views had gotten him into trouble, and he was excommunicated.

Among other troubling beliefs, Marcion taught that the God of the Old Testament was legalistic and wrathful, a fundamentally different being from the gracious and loving God of the New. He rejected the authority of the Old Testament, and also attempted to liberate the church from all law. He believed the only way to do this was to rid Christianity of all traces of Judaism. Marcion ended up creating his own Bible, which included only a shorter and earlier version of the Gospel of Luke and ten epistles of Paul. Marcion also edited these books. For example, he cut all Old Testament citations from Paul’s letters.

The early church concluded that Marcion’s divisions between law and gospel, Old and New Testaments, were foreign to the apostles’ teaching. Second-century theologian and bishop Irenaeus spoke forcefully against Marcion. He wrote that Marcion “mutilated the Gospel according to Luke, removing all the narratives of the Lord’s birth, and also removing much of the teaching of the discourses of the Lord wherein he is most manifestly described as acknowledging the maker of this universe to be his father.”


During the second and third centuries, Christians struggled to reconcile the oneness of God—“I am the Lord, and there is no other” (Isa. 45:5)—with the three divine names that appear at the end of Matthew: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (28:19).

If there is no God besides the God of Israel, who are the Son and the Holy Spirit? Are they newer gods who had just been revealed? Are they less divine than the Father? A third-century priest named Sabellius concluded that FatherSon, and HolySpirit were labels for the three different ways God had revealed himself.

His views became known as Sabellianism, better known today as Modalism. This heresy teaches that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not distinct persons but simply different modes or forms of God. Sabellians maintained that any Scripture passage suggesting that God is more than one person must be interpreted metaphorically.

But an African theologian named Tertullian argued that a metaphorical interpretation twisted the terms Father and Son, which were revealed to us to convey something real about God. “In order to be a husband, I must have a wife,” Tertullian wrote. “I can never myself be my own wife. In like manner, in order to be a father, I have a son, for I never can be a son to myself; and in order to be a son, I have a father, it being impossible for me ever to be my own father.” Further, he showed that Christ revealed his deity to the apostles by assuming attributes of the God of Israel (when he said, for example, “I am,” in John 8:58, harkening to “I Am Who I Am” in Exodus 3:14), and by calling on God the Father as a distinct witness to his own identity.


Theology doesn’t often cause urban uprisings, but it did in Alexandria, Egypt, in 318. That year, people streamed into the streets chanting, “There was a time when the Son was not!” The slogan expressed an idea that had become popular: that Christ was a created being. But that idea was opposed by another group of Christians, led by Bishop Alexander of Alexandria and his protégé, Athanasius. They insisted that Christ is eternally divine along with the Father.

This controversy had political ramifications, and eventually spread through the Roman Empire and threatened to fracture the church. What caused this crisis? The teachings of a Libyan priest in Alexandria named Arius.

Arius wasn’t trying to stir division. He thought that the relationship between the Father and Jesus was simple and needed to be freed from overly complicated explanations. Since the age of the apostles, Jesus had always been considered to be divine in some sense. But his precise relationship to the Father had not been settled on yet.

Arius argued that the Son was created before the rest of creation. As Arius put it, “Before he was begotten or created or appointed or established, he did not exist.” Further, Arius believed, the Son is not of one divine substance with the Father. He is rather of a similar substance (homoiousios in Greek) to the Father. The divine qualities of the Son are derivative—contingent, not essential—and given to the Son by the Father.

Arianism caught the attention of Emperor Constantine. Fearing that the church’s discord might fracture the empire, he called the Council of Nicaea (325), attended by 318 bishops, to resolve the situation. After dramatic debates, the majority stood with Alexander and condemned Arianism. (Only two other men were exiled with Arius. Thus, the outcome was virtually unanimous.) The bishops formulated a summary of the Christian faith that used precise wording to denounce Arianism: “We believe . . . in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance [homoousious] with the Father.”

Why the precise wording? Because, as Athanasius argued in On the Incarnation, salvation itself hung in the balance. The Bible’s teaching on Christ’s atonement requires a mediator who is fully God, with the holiness to make a perfect offering for sin, and also fully human, one who truly represents those to be reconciled to God.

As fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nazianzus famously put it, “That which was not assumed is not healed, but that which is united to God is saved.” Gregory understood that what we believe about Christ is directly connected to what we believe about salvation.

The orthodox bishops at the council struggled to gain popular approval. In fact, the council caused Arianism to grow more rapidly. It grew so much that Constantine—who was not concerned about fidelity to the strict wording of the Nicene Creed—restored Arius. He required Arius to submit in principle to the Creed. Arius did, but Athanasius, Alexander’s successor, and other bishops believed he was lying.

Athanasius was exiled five times for defending Nicene orthodoxy. In 46 years as bishop, he spent only 17 in Alexandria. But he remained faithful, even though he was up against what seemed like the entire world. Today he is recognized as the foremost defender of Nicene orthodoxy and the most prolific writer of Trinitarian theology in the fourth century.

A few years after Athanasius died, the Cappadocian Fathers—Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus—carried the torch to subdue Arianism and Semi-Arianism at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

How to Identify Heresy

This brief sketch shows that a mature definition of heresy draws on the rich biblical, theological, and historical teachings of Christianity. So we must recognize the various places and levels of theological authority.

Scripture is the highest authority, of course, followed by the great ecumenical creeds (Apostles’ and Nicene), and then by denominational confessions. Those include Anglicanism’s Thirty-Nine Articles, Lutheranism’s Augsburg Confession, the Westminster Confession, and Methodism’s Twenty-Five Articles of Religion. Many evangelical organizations use statements of faith to delineate their theological convictions. Creeds, confessions, and statements of faith can help us understand Scripture, but they should never be placed above Scripture.

That said, the creeds in particular are great summaries of biblical truth and are indispensable for pinpointing heresy. Accepted by Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians, the Nicene Creed—which should be called the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, since later debates led to an expansion of Nicaea’s formula at the Council in Constantinople (381)—wonderfully encapsulates the fundamental teachings of historic Christianity. If a believer genuinely accepts the Nicene Creed, they should not be dubbed a heretic. It’s worth asking: “Can they say the Nicene Creed without crossing their fingers?” If yes, they may still be wrong or heterodox on other matters, but we cannot call them heretics.

The creeds are bare-bones structures, the outlines of the sketch. Confessions and statements of faith color in the picture. They tie theology to everyday life and highlight denominational distinctives—how one Christian tradition differs from another. Confessions and statements of faith often define a particular group’s belief on secondary issues such as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, predestination, and the end times. They arise when particular theological issues are debated. For example, many evangelical statements of faith include affirmations of the authority and trustworthiness of Scripture. That’s because evangelicals have wanted to distinguish themselves from liberal Christianity, which often denied these teachings.

Today we rarely confront heresy as such, in part because those who adopt a heretical view frequently leave the church when they do so. But heresy is still alive and well. One practical example: The reason we don’t count Jehovah’s Witnesses as fellow Christians is because they espouse Arianism.

Even though heresy is rare, heterodoxy and false teachings are not.

In a pluralistic world, some sub-Christian or extra-biblical teachings—like the Immaculate Conception, that the only appropriate Bible translation is the King James Version, or that the Jewish laws are mandatory for Christians—find their way into otherwise orthodox churches. Most would not count as heresy, but that does not mean we can ignore them.

That said, we are called to confront with love, just as the early church confronted Apollos, patiently guiding people to a fuller understanding of the faith. Even this calls for discernment, because often we’re not dealing with theological error as much as different interpretations of Scripture. In those cases especially, we should eschew the word heresy. And in all cases, we should recall this saying: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things love.”

Free Leader’s Guides for Know the Creeds and Councils and Know the Heretics

Free Leader’s Guides for Know the Creeds and Councils and Know the Heretics

Here are two FREE Leaders’ Guides for Know the Creeds and Councils and Know the Heretics.


Many Christians don’t know about the history of their faith, but they want to learn more. That is why I wrote these two books: Know the Heretics and Know the Creeds and Councils.

These accessible overviews walk readers through the most important expressions (and denials!) of the Christian tradition–not with dry focus on dates and places, but with an emphasis on the living traditions of Christian belief and why it matters for our lives today. They are ideal for group uses and study.

Know the Heretics

Know the Heretics

There is a lot of talk about heresy these days. The frequency and volume of accusations suggest that some Christians have lost a sense of the gravity of the word. On the other hand, many believers have little to no familiarity with orthodox doctrine or the historic distortions of it. What’s needed is a strong dose of humility and restraint, and also a clear and informed definition of orthodoxy and heresy. Know the Heretics is an accessible “travel guide” to the key heresies of Christian history.

This book started as a series of blog posts, which are listed here:

Know the Creeds and Councils is the companion book to Know the Heretics.

Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church

Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church

Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the religious and political figure who founded the Unification Church, died early Monday in South Korea at the age of 92. His funeral will be held on September 15 after two weeks of mourning.

Unification Church Introduction and History

Commonly known as the Unification Church, the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity (HSA-UWC) was founded by Reverend Sun Myung Moon in South Korea in 1954. Moon was born January 5, 1920, in the small village of Kwangju Sangsa Ri in what is now North Korea. He was raised in the Presbyterian Church after his parents converted to it from Confucianism in 1930.

On Easter morning, at the age of 16, Moon claimed that Jesus visited him and asked him to complete the mission that Jesus had left unfinished on earth because of his untimely crucifixion, namely, establishing God’s kingdom on earth and bringing peace for all humanity. According to Moon, Jesus was unable to fulfill his mission of bringing salvation to the earth, and therefore a new Messiah had to come. Moon accepted this mission from Jesus and began developing his own doctrinal ideas based on Christianity and other religions.

In 1948 the Korean Presbyterian Church excommunicated Moon after deciding that his views were incompatible with orthodox Christianity. In 1954 he officially founded the Unification Church and began seeking converts, one of whom was Young Oon Kim. She became the first HSA-UWC missionary to the United States in 1959 and spent much of her time translating Moon’s major religious work, Divine Principle, into English. Missionary efforts in the United States, however, were rather unsuccessful, and the HSA-UWC had only several thousand members by the early 1970s.

According to Moon, Jesus failed in his mission to accomplish spiritual and physical salvation, he did not come to die on the cross, and his crucifixion was against the will of God.

In the mid-1970s, the HSA-UWC headquarters was moved to New York. Moon had built a multi-million-dollar empire in Korea and Japan through capitalistic efforts and gained notoriety for his support of President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal. The Unification Church was denied tax-exempt status in the United States in 1981 because the court said its purposes were political rather than religious. Shortly thereafter, in 1982, Moon was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to 18 months in U.S. prison.

In 1992, during a time of peace for the HSA-UWC, Moon officially claimed that he was the second coming of Jesus prophesied in the Bible. Moon said about himself, “I am the foremost one in the whole world. Out of all the saints sent by God, I think I am the most successful one. I have talked with many, many Masters, including Jesus, on questions of life and the universe…They have subjected themselves to me in terms of wisdom. After winning the victory, they surrendered.”

According to a recent statement by Unification Church spokesman Ahn Ho-yeul, the Unification Church has 3 million members, 100,000 of them in the United States. Some critics and ex-members, however, think that these numbers are highly inflated.

Unification Church Beliefs and Practices

The beliefs of the Unification Church are based upon Sun Myung Moon’s writings and speeches, which the Church views as divinely inspired and authoritative. The Church says that Moon’s work Divine Principle “is the result of divine inspiration, prayer, and the study of religious scriptures and of life itself.”

Because of Moon’s background in Christianity, many of the themes of the Divine Principle are also present in the Christian faith. For example, the Divine Principle is divided into three parts: God and creation, sin and evil, and redemption.

For the Unification Church, everything in the world, including God, is based upon a dualism: good and evil, male and female, cause and result, physical and spiritual. God’s purpose for creation was for Adam and Eve to achieve the “Three Blessings,” which included becoming perfect (spiritual), having an ideal and sexually pure marriage producing sinless children (spiritual and physical), and exercising dominion over creation (physical). All of these ideals could be achieved through rightly-ordered relationships with God, humans, and nature, and these perfected relationships would result in God’s kingdom coming to earth. However, Adam and Eve failed to achieve these ideals; Satan seduced Eve sexually, which led to the spiritual fall. Because Adam and Eve were ashamed, they had sexual relations to consummate their marriage. But because they participated in these relations before achieving perfection, the physical fall resulted.

Because God is a duality of cause and result, the fall caused God to suffer deeply. Humanity is responsible for fulfilling the three-step process by which the kingdom of God is established on earth. But before the process can be completed, there must be a restoration of the foundations broken by the fall of Adam and Eve. While many of the Old Testament saints (and John the Baptist) restored the spiritual faith that Adam and Eve had lost, they could not renew the obliterated physical role of humanity in God’s purposes. Jesus, through his death and resurrection, restored the spiritual foundation lost by Adam and Eve; however, because he did not marry, he was unable to complete the three-step process and failed to bring about physical salvation. His redemption was incomplete.

Reverend Moon believed that he was the second Messiah who came to bring physical salvation to the earth, thereby completing what Christ had begun.

Reverend Moon’s view of Jesus is very different from that of Christianity. Moon denied Jesus’ virgin birth, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the deity of Jesus, writing “We must understand that John 8:58 does not signify that Jesus was God himself. Jesus, on earth, was a man no different from us except for the fact that he was without original sin.”

According to Moon, Jesus failed in his mission to accomplish spiritual and physical salvation, he did not come to die on the cross, and his crucifixion was against the will of God. Moon says that Jesus was an imperfect image of God, who with the Holy Spirit brought about spiritual but not physical salvation. When Jesus knew that he would not accomplish his mission, he began to preach about his second coming. Moon says that Jesus’ resurrection was spiritual, not bodily.

Reverend Moon believed that he was the second Messiah who came to bring physical salvation to the earth, thereby completing what Christ had begun. Such salvation could be achieved by following the example of his ideal marriage. Because of this, the Unification Church became well-known for its mass-marriages, in which Moon would bless large gatherings of couples. The followers subsequently believed that their children would be free from original sin and be capable of bringing God’s kingdom to earth.

Because Moon taught that his followers can reach a level of sinless perfection through him, they have no need of turning to Jesus. Forgiveness of sins is not necessary for salvation. In fact, Moon claimed to be greater than Jesus: “The whole world is in my hand, and I will conquer and subjugate the world….Up until now, Jesus has appeared in the spirit world to his followers. From now on, I will appear.”

Moreover, Moon acknowledged that the Unification Church is a different religion from orthodox Christianity. Moon claimed, “Our group is of higher dimension than the established churches and naturally there must come vast difference between what we are and what the Christian people are…The Christianity which God has been fostering for 6,000 years is doomed. Up to the present God has been with Christianity. But in Christianity things are stalemated. God is now throwing Christianity away and is now establishing a new religion, and this new religion is Unification Church.”

A Christian Response to the Unification Church

Clearly, the Unification Church teachings on central doctrines are heretical. Christians believe in the Trinity, affirming the divinity and mission of all three persons of the Triune God.

Christians also believe Jesus is the God-man, who is fully God and fully human, and came to die and rise again for our salvation: The Nicene creed states about Jesus:

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who, for us and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end. 

There are a few elements of Unification Church doctrinal emphasis that can be affirmed by orthodox Christians. For instance their doctrines of sin and salvation embrace both the spiritual and the physical aspects of creation. When Adam and Even fell from grace, it was not just their relationship with God that was tarnished; rather, their sin had drastic effects on the physical creation as well, which now groans in expectation awaiting the ultimate restoration to be brought about by the consummation of Christ’s kingdom (Rom. 8:22).

Jesus himself claimed that his work on the cross was a finished one (John 19:30); his dying breath was not a sigh of defeat, but an exclamation of victory. He perfectly achieved the mission for which he was sent.

While much of the Unification Church’s teaching uses the language of Christianity, those familiar with biblical doctrine will see that Moon’s teaching sounds out of tune. First, it fails adequately to account for the redemptive significance of Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Though the Unification Church is right to assert that Jesus brought about perfect spiritual salvation through his victory over Satan and in his perfect relationship with God, they fail to recognize that Jesus’ work was a once-for-all sacrifice that achieved physical salvation alongside of spiritual salvation.

Jesus proclaimed good news for the poor and release for the captives (Luke 4:16-21); he built the new temple of God in his own resurrected body, in which believers now worship in Spirit and truth (John 4:21-26). Jesus himself claimed that his work on the cross was a finished one (John 19:30); his dying breath was not a sigh of defeat, but an exclamation of victory. He perfectly achieved the mission for which he was sent.

Second, the Unification Church’s doctrine of humanity is out of sync with the teaching of Scripture. According to their teaching, perfectly sinless children are the product of ideal and sexually pure marriages, but Scripture teaches that all humans have fallen short of God’s glory by participating in Adam’s sin and by continually sinning themselves (Rom. 3:23). Indeed, just as in Adam all have died, in Christ all will be made alive (1 Cor. 15:22). There are no perfectly righteous people; all human beings after Adam inherit his fallen human nature and are guilty of his sin—children included.

In addition, the Unification Church teaches that sinless children are the only ones who are able to help bring about the physical realm of the kingdom of God. But according to Scripture, the kingdom of God definitively dawned at the long-awaited coming of Jesus Christ. In Mark 1:15, Jesus declares that the kingdom of God is at hand. Through his signs, wonders, miracles, and healings, Jesus showed that God’s kingdom had come upon the earth. Yet, at the same time, the kingdom of God is still a coming reality—it is “already but not yet.” Jesus, who came in humility and weakness in his first coming, will return in power and glory finally to establish God’s reign. The kingdom of God is not a product of human action or achievement, but completely the result of God’s initiative and power.

The orthodox Christian faith does justice to the physical and the spiritual, the already and the not-yet, not by looking for a Messiah to come make it possible for us to finish the job, but by looking to the one true Messiah who finished what we could not finish: the one and only Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Heresy And A Call For Humility

Heresy And A Call For Humility

There has been a lot of talk about heresy thrown around on the Internet lately.

The frequency and volume of the accusations suggest that some Christians may have lost a sense of the gravity of the charge of heresy. The time has come to call for a strong dose of humility, restraint, and a clear and informed definition of orthodoxy and heresy.


What is needed is a clear definition of heresy that is capable of distinguishing between those Christians who hold doctrines we disagree with from those who deny central truths of the Christian faith. Such a definition will require wisdom and discernment in how to engage those whose beliefs or teachings are not helpful, but it will avoid a dangerous overuse of the heresy charge, which waters it down and strips it of its usefulness.


We care deeply about right doctrine because the Bible does. The Bible has strong language to use against false teachers who promote doctrines that undermine the gospel. As Bruce Demarest notes:

The New Testament expresses serious concern for “false doctrines” (1 Tim. 1:36:3) and places the highest priority on maintaining “the pattern of sound teaching” (2 Tim. 1:13; cf. 1 Tim. 6:3). Scripture urges Christians to be alert to doctrinal deception (Mt. 24:4) and to avoid heresy by carefully guarding the pure content of the gospel (1 Cor. 11:2Gal. 1:8). [1]

In Galatians 1:9, Paul uses the strongest words possible against those who distort the gospel, writing, “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” And the Apostle Peter warns against “false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Pet. 2:1).


As is clear from the New Testament, the apostles were not afraid to call out heresy when they saw it. If a teaching or practice threatened the integrity of the gospel, it was strongly condemned (as in the case of Peter and the circumcision party described in Galatians 2). However, the charge of heresy was a weighty one that was not made lightly, nor was it used whenever there was theological inaccuracy or imprecision (think of the response to Apollos in Acts 18:24–28).

In contrast to the easy accusations of heresy lobbed around the Internet today, historically both the Roman Catholic and Reformed traditions have been careful to specify different degrees of heretical or unhelpful teaching. In Catholicism, a blunt denial of an explicitly defined Church doctrine is heresy in the first degree. A doctrine that has not been explicitly defined by one of the Church’s articles of faith but diverges from the received majority view is considered an opinion approaching heresy (sententia haeresi proxima). One who holds a position that does not directly contradict received dogma but logically entails denial of an explicitly defined truth is said to be erroneous in theology (propositio theologice erronea). Finally, a belief that cannot be definitively shown to be in opposition to an article of faith of the Church is said to be suspected or savoring of heresy (sententia de haeresi suspecta, haeresim sapiens).[2]


Similarly, the Reformed tradition historically distinguished three kinds of doctrinal error related to fundamental articles of the faith:[3] 1) errors directly against a fundamental article (contra fundamentum); 2) errors around a fundamental or in indirect contradiction to it (circa fundamentum); 3) errors beyond a fundamental article (praeter fundamentum). Richard Muller explains them like this:

The first kind of error is a direct attack—such as those launched by the Socinians—against the divinity of Christ or the Trinity. The second is not a direct negation or an antithesis but rather an indirect or secondary error ultimately subversive of a fundamental—such as a belief in God that refuses to acknowledge his providence. The third category of error does not address fundamental articles directly or indirectly but rather involves faith in problematic and curious questions (quaestiones problematicas et curiosas) that do not arise out of the revealed Word—hay and stubble!—and that, because of their curiosity and vanity, constitute diversions from and impediments to salvation.[4]

The point is that historically both the Roman Catholic tradition and the Reformed tradition have understood that not all theological errors are equally serious. Theological historian David Christie-Murray distinguishes between orthodoxy, the body of Christian belief which has emerged as a consensus through time as the church reflects on Scripture; heterodoxy, Christian belief which differs from orthodoxy; and heresy, belief that diverges from orthodoxy beyond a certain (ill-defined) point.[5] We may agree that there exists a perfect orthodoxy in the mind of God, but the proliferation of schisms, disagreements, and divisions throughout church history points to the fact that we as fallible humans are imperfect at agreeing precisely on that orthodoxy. Consequently, we must fall back on a humble definition of orthodoxy by drawing on the consensus of our interpretation of Scripture, church history, and reason.


Because the line between heterodoxy and heresy is blurry, we need lots of wisdom, discernment, and humility before we declare that someone has departed into full-blown heresy. In addition, we must remember that the entirety of what we think Christians should believe is not identical to what a person must believe to be saved. We believe in justification by faith in Christ, not justification by accuracy of doctrine. We are saved by the grace of Jesus, not our intellectual precision.


Core Christian doctrines such as the Trinity, the nature of Christ, and the canon of Scripture were developed through the early church’s struggles with heresy.[6] When teachers arose and began to lead movements with teachings blatantly opposed to the apostolic tradition, the church was drawn by necessity to clarify and articulate the essential elements of the apostolic teaching.  The early church creeds were formulated to meet this need for clear definition of the essentials.

The earliest creeds of all are arguably to be found in Scripture itself. Many scholars believe that Paul recites an early creed in his letter to the Corinthians when he summarizes the facts that he taught as “of first importance”: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared [to the apostles and many others]” (1 Cor. 15:3–7).


After the apostolic age, the early church possessed what was known as “the rule of faith,” which Demarest describes as “brief summaries of essential Christian truths.”[7] In the second century, Irenaeus described the rule of faith in this way:

One God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendor, shall come in glory, the Savior of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent.[8]

As the early Christian community dealt with new heretical movements, the rule of faith gave birth to more precise statements of the essentials of the faith, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.[9] These widely accepted formulations of the essential “right doctrine” (orthodoxy) handed down from the apostles were crucial for combating heresy. Importantly, the early church did not consider every potential wrong belief heretical. Only those teachings that contradicted the essential elements of the faith were to be labeled heresy.


The current climate shows that we need to relearn the ability to care about right doctrine and have earnest doctrinal disagreements without proclaiming “Heresy!” over every point at which we disagree. We need a more restrained definition of heresy drawing on the early church creeds. The Nicene Creed is a historic, globally accepted ecumenical creed that encapsulates the good news of the gospel into a short and rich summary. It covers the basic essentials of 1) who God is, 2) what God is like, and 3) how God saves.

If a believer authentically holds to the Nicene Creed, we should not call them a heretic, no matter how strongly we believe they are gravely in error on the details or on other doctrines. A good shorthand for heresy, then, is to ask, “Can they say the Nicene Creed and mean it without their fingers crossed?” If the answer is yes, they may still be wrong, and they may be heterodox, but we cannot call them heretics, because they fit within the bounds of historic Christianity.


Even with this narrow and confined definition of heresy, we can still discuss and debate with those whose beliefs are unhelpful. We can still say that their teachings are not a good application of Scripture to life and doctrine. But we treat them not as heretics, but as brothers and sisters with whom we lovingly disagree. As the famous saying goes, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things love.”

Such an attitude of humble, charitable engagement stands in stark contrast to the spirit of the blogosphere today. Rather than being fundamentalists who turn disagreement into division, we should contend for the truth with humility and grace. That’s how Jesus treated us.



[1] Bruce Demarest, “Heresy,” New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1988), 293.

[2] J. Wilhelm, “Heresy,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company),

[3] Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1: Prolegomena to Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 422–3.

[4] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol 1: Prolegomena to Theology, 422–3.

[5] David Christie-Murray, A History of Heresy (Oxford: University Press, 1989), 20.

[6] See J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1978).

[7] Demarest, “Heresy,” 292.

[8] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.4.1-2

[9] Demarest, “Heresy,” 292.

The Athanasian Creed

The Athanasian Creed


The origin of the Athanasian Creed is unknown. As the name suggests, the Creed was originally ascribed to Athanasius—the great “father of Nicene orthodoxy”—as early as the ninth century. However, since the seventeenth century, the document has been regarded as conclusively non- Athanasian for several reasons:

  1. Athanasius never mentioned the Creed anywhere in his writings.
  2. The councils of Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451) do not refer to the document.
  3. Athanasius died in 373, so it is very likely that it would have been written before then.

Because it was original attributed to Athanasius, the Athanasian Creed had considerable influence. The Creed was used by the Lutheran Churches and and many of the Reformed Churches, and was mentioned in the Augsburg Confession, the Formula of Concord, the Thirty- nine Articles, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Belgic Confession, and the Bohemian Confession (Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom).

According to Martin Luther (Works), the Athanasian Creed was “the most important and glorious composition since the days of the apostles.” However, it must also be noted that this Creed never achieved ecumenical status as the Greek Church rejected its assertion of the double procession of the spirit (filioque).


The Athanasian Creed consists of forty-four articles, which are divided into three parts. The first part is about the doctrine of the Trinity, while the second defends a Chalcedonian Christology. The third part of the Creed consists of a set of damnatory clauses, asserting that any who will be saved must adhere to the teachings of the Creed.

The Athanasian Creed reads like a summary of the first four ecumenical councils (Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon).

This creed is an example of how the church, throughout history, has a concern for the great truths of the faith.

Regarding the Trinity, the Athanasian Creed sets out a strict metaphysical formula that leaves no room for any subordination of the Son to the Father or the Holy Spirit to either the Father or the Son. The Creed makes use of the language of “person” in a way that avoids Sabellianism on the one hand and Tritheism on the other.

The Athanasian Creed avoids Apollinarianism by stating that Christ has a rational soul, and sets forth the relationship between the human and divine nature of Christ in such a way as to avoid Nestorianism, Eutychianism, and Monophysitism.

It is likely that the Athanasian Creed was originally intended to be set to music, making it an impressive teaching tool for new converts. During the Middle Ages it is likely that this Creed was used almost daily in morning devotions among those in the Latin Church.

Contemporary Relevance

A statement like the Athanasian Creed should cause us to consider how robust our own denominational or church-based statements of faith are or are not. This creed is an example of how the church, throughout history, has a concern for the great truths of the faith. The Athanasian Creed was not merely an add-on to the appendix of a church constitution. Instead, the church connected the theology of the Creed to the daily life of faith. As such, the Athanasian Creed provides us with a beautiful example of the interplay between theology and worship.


The Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed


The Nicene Creed is the most famous and influential creed in the history of the church, as it was the product of a theological controversy concerning the deity of Jesus Christ. It is the first creed to obtain universal authority in the church, and, unlike the Apostles’ Creed, it included a specific statement regarding the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Like the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed began as a baptismal confession that was a teaching tool for new converts.

The form in which the Nicene Creed exists today is not the original form of the Creed. In fact, it has existed in three forms—the original Nicene, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan, and the later Latin Creed.


The Different Forms

The first was the product of the Council of Nicea (325 AD) in which the Arian heresy of the subordination of the Son was declared heretical. According to the Creed, the Son is homoousios (“of one substance”) with the Father, which means he is fully and entirely God.

The second form added to the section on the Holy Spirit and omitted a polemical anathema against the Arians. Its origins can be traced to the second ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 381.

The Nicene Creed encapsulates the entire good news of the gospel into a short and rich summary.

The final Latin (or Western) form of the Creed differs from the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed by only one word: filioque (“and the Son”). According to Philip Schaff, “next to the authority of the Pope, [this] is the chief source of the greatest schism in Christendom.” The Greek Church emphasized the Father as both the root and cause of deity, and argued for the single profession of the Spirit from the Father alone. In this way, the Eastern Church wanted to emphasize the eternal generation of both the Son and the Spirit by the Father.

This stood in contrast to the West, who argued that the Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son, a formulation that is to be understood as a procession of temporal missions. The Latin Church desired to maintain the equal divinity of the Son with the Father, so they added the word filioque (“and the Son”) to the Creed without consulting the East, thus inciting a conflict with the Eastern Church.



There are several important features in the Nicene Creed.

  • As a product of a polemical debate, it is more explicit than the Apostles’ Creed concerning the full divinity of the members of the Trinity.
  • It is Trinitarian in its structure, affirming the divinity and mission of all three persons of the Triune God.
  • Its Christology—while orthodox—is less developed than that of the Chalcedonian Creed. It describes the full deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit by asserting that each of the persons of the Trinity are to be worshipped. By insisting that the Son is “of one substance” with the Father, any sort of Trinitarian subordinationism is ruled out.
  • The full life and work of Christ is declared in several sentences, acknowledging that his mission was “for us and for our salvation.”
  • Like all of the ecumenical Creeds, the Nicene Creed does not set forth any specific theory or view of the atonement.
  • It gives the Holy Spirit a more significant place than the Apostles’ Creed.


Contemporary Relevance

As a creed recited in many churches every Sunday, many Christians are very familiar with its contents. While significant as an historical document, the Nicene Creed encapsulates the entire good news of the gospel into a short and rich summary. It describes the Triune God, who turns toward humanity in the person of Jesus, the God-man who suffered, died, rose again, and ascended. Additonally, the Creed goes on to express our future hope, which is a motivating factor in the Christian life.


The Nicene Creed

“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end. And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets. And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”


Nestorius: Know Your Heretics

Nestorius: Know Your Heretics

John Calvin said in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that Nestorius “devised a double Christ!”


The early church taught that Jesus Christ was one person with two natures: a divine nature and a human nature.

Nestorius (c. 381-451) was a monk from Antioch before he became the bishop of Constantinople in 428. He so emphasized the two natures that Nestorius basically turned Jesus Christ into two persons. Wanting to avoid any “mixing” of the divine and human natures of Christ (as Eutychesdid), Nestorius over-emphasized their distinctness.

He argued that there are places in the Gospels where the human nature of Jesus is being described, and others where his divine nature is the subject. In doing this, it seems as if Nestorius has made two persons exist in Christ—two acting subjects, two “he’s”. 

Christ is two natures in one person

Cyril of Alexandria was the main proponent of orthodox theology in response to Nestorius. Cyril condemned Nestorius’ stance of two subjects present in Christ because it meant there were also two persons—a human and a divine—present in Christ. In response to Nestorius’ position, Cyril wrote: “If any one distributes between two characters or persons the expressions used about Christ in the gospels, etc…applying some to the man, conceived of separately, apart from the Word, others exclusively to the Word, let him be anathema.” 

Nestorius’ under-emphasis of the unity between the two natures of Christ is dangerous because Jesus Christ is the one and only mediator between God and humanity.

Both the councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451) condemned Nestorius. He claimed later that he was simply misunderstood and he believed in Christ’s two natures in one person. 

Stephen Nichols notes of the Chalcedonian Creed, “In affirming Christ as two natures in one person, the Creed repudiates directly and explicitly the teachings of Apollinarius, Eutyches, and Nestorius…Against Nestorius, the Creed holds Christ to be two natures in one person without division or separation. It denies that Christ is two persons, two ‘he’s.’”[1]

Why the unity of Jesus matters

Nestorius’ under-emphasis of the unity between the two natures of Christ is dangerous because Jesus Christ is the one and only mediator between God and humanity.

This unity of the one person of Jesus Christ is called the hypostatic union. It is important that we get this union right—Jesus Christ is the God-man. It is precisely in the unity of the person of Jesus Christ and his sinless life, death, and resurrection that God reconciles lost humans with his perfect self.

Two natures, without separation

A disjoining of the two natures would result in a failure in the means of Christians’ salvation. This is why the Chalcedonian Creed says, “our Lord Jesus Christ…for us men and for our salvation…[is] recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated in two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God, the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.”[2]


Gnostics: Know Your Heretics

Gnostics: Know Your Heretics

Gnosticism is not a specific heretical movement in church history, but rather a broad umbrella term categorizing a loose collection of false beliefs.

Questions concerning the origins of Gnosticism are still unsolved. Some think Gnosticism originated as a heresy that diverted from orthodox Christian teaching, while others see the movement as an independent, non-Christian movement stemming from paganism.

What does it mean? 

Everett Ferguson breaks down the diverse teachings of Gnosticism into eight categories:

  • A preoccupation with the problem of evil
  • A sense of alienation from the world
  • A desire for special and intimate knowledge of the secrets of the universe
  • A psychological (body and soul) and ethical (good and evil) dualism
  •  A cosmology wherein all beings are derivative from the first, originating principle
  • A hierarchical anthropology of different classes of human beings with fixed destinies
  • A radically realized eschatology that denied the resurrection of the dead
  • A variety of ethical implications ranging from libertinism and asceticism

The Gnostic teaching on salvation was not based on Christ. Instead, “The content of the Gnostic gospel was an attempt to rouse the soul from its sleep-walking condition and to make it aware of the high destiny to which it is called.”

“The body is meaningless”

Some New Testament books contain corrective teachings to the Gnosticism that challenged Christianity. For instance, the spiritual elite at Corinth seemed to pride themselves on a special spiritual knowledge or mystical experience. They also questioned the resurrection and believed the body to be meaningless (which had profound moral consequences—such as promiscuous sexual behavior). 

At Colossae, believers observed special ascetic practices by keeping ceremonies from the Jewish calendar and worshipped intermediate angelic powers. These proclivities illustrate two of the main tenets of Gnostic thought. 

Jesus is above all

The Apostle Paul challenged the Gnostic heresies with a robust Christology. His solution to the false views of the body, the resurrection, and morality was to point them to the supremacy of Christ in his incarnation, life, death, and victorious resurrection.

The Gnostic teaching on salvation was not based on Christ.

Gnosticism was composed of such a broad variety of beliefs and teachings that it was challenged by many of the early church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Epiphanius, and others.

Gnosticism Today 

The broad teachings of the Gnostic movement comprise a surprising similarity with much of the New Age Movement today. But the best reason to be acquainted with Gnosticism is the popularity of Dan Brown’s best-selling novel, The DaVinci Code, in which much information from the Gnostic gospels is appealed to as factual truth. Some Christians, upon reading Brown’s book, find their faith shaken by the stories that oppose the teachings of Christianity. Those who find their faith weakened can look both to Scripture and church history for a refutation of the false teachings of Gnosticism