Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Throughout the history of the church of our Lord Jesus Christ, heretics have been present to trouble the church, attempt to lead her astray, and attempt to destroy the church by robbing her of her dearest treasure and her most important reason for existence.
The lives and teachings of these heretics are so closely interwoven in the life of the church that it is impossible to know anything about the church without knowing something of the heretics that periodically appeared and the false doctrines they proposed.
We intend to write a series of biographical sketches of some of the church’s most influential heretics, describe the heresies they taught, and give some idea of what their role was in the larger picture of the history of the church.
But before we actually get into the matter of writing about these heretics, it is well, I think, to say something about them in general, about the heresies they tried to pass on to the church, and about the importance of writing concerning them.
I suppose that it seems a bit superfluous to ask what heresy in the church is; everyone knows that. Everyone knows that a heresy is a teaching in the church which is contrary to the Scriptures.
Though in a way that is true, it is not quite accurate enough to serve our purposes.
The church has always made it her business to study the Scriptures. This studying has been done by all the members of the church, although especially by those who are in the offices of minister, elder, and deacon. But the members of the church are, after all, though saints in Jesus Christ, also sinners as long as they are in this world. Sometimes in their study of Scripture, especially in the early history of the church, they made mistakes in their understanding of God’s Word and began to teach ideas that were not in harmony with Scripture.
There are several instances of such mistakes which various men made. Indeed, sometimes men taught wrong ideas which were even generally accepted in the church, but which were proved wrong by later men of God who understood the Scriptures more perfectly. These mistakes are not really heresies.
An instance of this latter is Augustine’s view of the sacraments. While Augustine was completely in harmony with Scripture in most of his teachings, especially when it came to his teachings on the doctrines of sovereign grace, he erred in viewing the sacraments, especially the sacrament of baptism, as having themselves the power of regeneration. This view was accepted by the church until the time of the Reformation.
But a heresy is different. One does not necessarily teach heresy when he sets forth a view which is a mistake born out of a less than full understanding of the truth. But once the church of which he is a part has shown him that his view is wrong, that it is not in harmony with the teaching of Scripture, and that he should not, therefore, teach it—if he continues to teach it nonetheless, at that point he becomes a heretic.
Or if the church has already established a certain doctrine as being the teaching of Scripture, and some man comes along and begins to teach something contrary to what the church has established as the truth of God’s Word, that man teaches heresy.
How is it to be explained that heresy continually raises its head in the church?
If one would look at that question from the viewpoint of the man who himself teaches heresy, the question is somewhat difficult to answer. It is always possible for a man to make a mistake with respect to the truth and to teach something that is quite clearly heresy. Every man is sinful and the imperfection of our natures makesheresy a distinct possibility.
But when a man makes a mistake, and the church points out to him that mistake, then his obligation before God and the church is to confess that wrong, admit his error, and get clear in his own mind what the truth of Scripture is. This does not often happen. Man is too proud, as a general rule, to admit his wrong. So he defends vigorously the error that he made, so that what was at first a mistake now becomes stubborn support of a wrong position. This happens repeatedly in the church.
Oftentimes men who are ministers of the gospel, professors in one of the church’s schools or seminaries, or leaders in a certain area of the church’s life deliberately begin to teach something which they know is wrong. They may do so in a very subtle way so that the heresy sounds as much like the truth as possible. But they make a conscious choice to teach something contrary to Scripture and the teachings of the church.
Why do they do this?
The reasons, I suppose, are legion. Perhaps they want to appear before men to be original theologians who come with new and amazing insights into the truth so that men will marvel at their intellectual prowess. Maybe they want to make a name for themselves as scholars whose masterful writings will appear in prestigious theological journals. Maybe they simply want the preeminence within a congregation and choose to teach heresy as a way to gain a following.
But in every case, obviously, they consider themselves more important than the truth of God’s Word. They set themselves above the truth. Their own name, fame, reputation, honor which they acquire for themselves—all these are more important than God’s truth and God’s glory.
But we must look at this matter of heresy from another point of view as well. Behind every heresy which lurks in the minds and hearts of men and which raises its ugly head in the church is Satan and his host of devils. They are the ones who sow the seeds of heresy and nourish these seeds until they become thorns and thistles in the life of the church.
Satan has his own reasons for bringing heresy into the church. He does so because he knows, better than men, that the surest and quickest way to destroy the church of Jesus Christ is through the introduction of heresy into her faith. The church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:20-22). That is, the truth, as it is centrally in Christ and as it is revealed through the apostles and prophets, is the foundation of the church. Take away the foundation, and the church collapses into a pile of rubble. The devil knows this.
It was to this idea that Jesus referred when, in speaking of Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, He said that this was the rock on which He would build His church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. The gates of hell batter that rock on which the church stands.
The struggle within the church between the truth and the lie, between heresy and the confession of the faith of Scripture, is never an intellectual battle only; it is profoundly and intensely a spiritual struggle. The very existence of the church is at stake. On the outcome rests the continued presence of the church in the world. And it must never be forgotten that the devil will not consider himself to have accomplished his sordid purpose in this world until he has obliterated the church.
The church is, after all, the pillar and ground of the truth. That is, the church shouts as loudly as it can the truth which is found in the Holy Scriptures, for that truth is the truth of God. As long as the church is here, there is sharp witness to God and Christ, something intolerable to Satan in his nefarious purposes.
But that the battle for the truth is a battle for the very existence of the church means also that it is a spiritual battle. The greatest issues are always at stake. The eternal destinies of men are being decided. For in the confession and defense of the truth lies everlasting salvation; while in heresy and its promotion lie spiritual destruction and everlasting damnation. No battles in any war ever fought are as important as the battles fought in the defense of the faith on the battlefields of the church.
But we must carry the point one step further along.
We believe that God is sovereign in everything and that, therefore, no heresy can trouble the church without the will of God. Even Satan is under God’s control and can do nothing without God’s will.
Why does God so rule that heresy comes into the church and brings all the pain and suffering which church struggles involve?
There are also several answers to this question. We need only be brief, for the themes involved in this question are going to be the chief themes in the series of articles we hope to write.
The history of the church is the history of a church which has always in it carnal and wicked seed. These come into the church from the outside, or they are in the church because even among the children of believers not all that are of Israel are true Israel.
If they were permitted to continue to fly deceptively under the colors of the faith, they would so weaken the church that her position would become increasingly precarious. But heresy comes into the church that the carnal element may reveal itself as such by joining with the forces of heresy. In this way the church undergoes purification and reformation.
But more importantly, it is always over against heresy that the truth of the Word of God is developed in a positive way.
There are, I think, two sides to this matter.
Generally speaking, the people of God are too spiritually lazy to be busy with developing the truth for its own sake. If no heresy ever appeared as a cloud on the ecclesiastical horizon, the church would bask in the sunshine of peace and quiet and the truth of God’s Word would go undeveloped.
Heresy acts as a goad to push the church out of complacency and spiritual lethargy. When the truth is threatened, God uses the very threat of heresy to show His people that the existence of the church itself is in danger and that the church had better get to work to search the Scriptures so that the attacks of heresy may be fought off with the weapons of God’s truth.
But we are also called to live antithetically in the world. God has so ordained that our life in all respects is always a certain “No” to that which is wrong, and an emphatic “Yes” to that which is right. We cannot live any differently than that. We cannot serve God in any other way.
And so, when it comes to matters of the truth, we cannot say our “Yes” to the truth without first saying “No” to heresy. That is the way we serve God. It has been so ordained by God Himself.
And so heresy is always the spur to the development of the rich and glorious truth of Scripture. The weapons of our spiritual warfare are not manufactured in the ivory towers of theological speculation; they are hammered out on hastily prepared forges set up right on the battlefield, where the din and noise of the conflict can be heard on every side.
To study the heretics is no virtue in itself. To study them with a view to seeing how in every case their heresies resulted in a church stronger in the faith because it became more knowledgeable in the truth is to participate in an exciting and worthwhile endeavor.
So we intend to do. So we shall be marking Zion’s bulwarks in order to glory in the strength of Zion against the relentless attacks of her enemies.