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Authority, Heresy, and Protestantism

In a recent article for Conciliar Post, Eastern Orthodox Ben Cabe hinted (though did not explicitly argue) that Protestantism as a whole is a heretical movement. Cabe argued that Protestantism is divorced from Apostolic Succession and is thus separated from the faith passed down by Christ. In order to make his case, his analysis of what is heretical hinges on Church history, tradition, and liturgy.

In this past month’s issue, Christianity Today ran a cover story entitled “Why You Shouldn’t Call That False Teaching a Heresy,” written by Justin S. Holcomb, an Episcopal priest. The article’s central purpose is to combat the trigger-happy heresy hunting that occurs within Evangelicalism, citing a hullabaloo resulting from Rick Warren’s teaching that God communicates to Christians through dreams. To combat this, Holcomb laid down a framework for identifying true heresy. In this article, I want to first outline Holcomb’s distinctly Evangelical framework for identifying heresy and second to contrast these first principles with Ben Cabe’s Orthodox framework.

Holcomb begins his article with the simple statement (that has become a mantra here at Conciliar Post) that doctrine is important. Doctrine informs the believer of who God is and what He has done through Christ and thereby affects how the Church worships, understands salvation, and lives in this world. Heresy, the flip-side of this true doctrine, is defined by Holcomb as a “choice to deviate from traditional teaching in favor of one’s own insights.”1 Holcomb helpfully characterizes three different types of doctrinal error that distinguishes between serious heretical teaching and simply problematic teaching, “(1) an error that contradicts a fundamental belief (heresy proper); (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 Christians must speak in tongues to have the Holy Spirit.”2 Not all of these doctrinal errors are created equal says Holcomb, and we must recognize that salvation is not identical with “intellectual precision.”

So far, so good. It seems that most Christians—Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic—would have few quibbles with Holcomb’s insights thus far. Holcomb’s analysis, however, becomes increasingly more controversial toward the end of the article, particularly in the section “How to Identify Heresy.” The controversy of his statements, I believe, hinges on what is deemed authoritative for the identification of heresy.

First in the chain of authority is “of course,” Scripture, second are the creeds (interestingly Holcomb only recognizes the Apostles and Nicene creeds as the “great ecumenical creeds”), and third are denominational confessions such as the Augsburg and Westminster Confession. Scripture is not usurped in authority by the creeds or confessions, for they help us to understand Scripture, but do not stand in authority over Scripture. The creeds are thus “great summaries of biblical truth” that are “indispensable for pinpointing heresy.”3 After this brief sketch of the authorities Christians can appeal to in order to identify heresy, the article abruptly ends with the common saying, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things love.”4

Ben Cabe’s authoritative analysis, in contrast to Holcomb’s, consists not of a three-rung ladder but of a three-legged stool. He uses the insights of the 5th century St. Vincent of Lerins that true doctrine, and thus the identification of heresy, relies on three rules—Authority, Universality, and Consensus. With this structure to sit on, Cabe ponders what then should true doctrine be? He asks, “did the majority of Christians throughout time agree upon dogmas that reflect a kind of Protestantism or Orthodoxy (and Catholicism)?” Certainly, Cabe would readily answer “no” to various distinct Protestant dogmas inherent in Holcomb’s third-rung of authority, the Protestant confessions. To Cabe, the Protestant ladder of authority is ultimately too rickety to trust as a purveyor of true doctrine and thus it is not surprising that heretical “choices” would result.

So we’re left with a couple questions, is the Protestant ladder of authority sturdy? And, if not, does this necessitate a heretical stamp on the whole of Protestantism (a proclamation that Cabe seems sympathetic to)?

As for the first question, I would argue no. The first rung, “Scripture,” is simply too vague of an authority. Holcomb argues that Scripture is most authoritative (“of course”), yet does not clarify as to how Scripture ought to be utilized as an authority in deciding true doctrine and heresy. Are we to be “red letter” Christians that prioritize the words of Jesus as the base-line standard of true doctrine? If someone disbelieves in Noah’s flood or six-day creationism or limited atonement or Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist, is that person a heretic? When we speak of “Scripture,” do we mean specifically what is “central” to the gospel (and who decides what that is)? These questions can be raised ad nauseam, for if “Scripture” does not have a corresponding hermeneutic or measuring rod to determine what is heretical and what is not, then there is no simple application of “Scripture” to “true doctrine.” To put the argument in the terms of Holcomb’s ladder, the use of “Scripture” as an authority presupposes the authority of the further rungs of creed, confession, and (I would add as central) ecclesiology.

These sorts of thoughts lead me to believe that Protestantism proper does not have the authority to claim what is “heretical” (using the definition of “choice”). Protestantism is split as to how a Church or individual ought to hold Scripture as authoritative above all else, and thus relies on its own intra-Protestant ecclesiologies and confessions for its claims of what is heresy and what is not. It is thus not surprising that heresy hunting is so prevalent in Protestantism. Holcomb’s analysis leads one to concldue that in order for Protestants to have a firm grasp as to what is heretical, it must rely on that which is pre-Protestant and pre-Great Schism (i.e. the Creeds).

And on a separate but related note, the Protestant view of heresy is much smaller than the Orthodox view. For the Orthodox, heresy is any theologically positioning outside of the faith passed down from the ancient Church. For the Protestant without any ancient Church to appeal to, heresy has to be defined as that which is not shared by any “orthodox” Protestant denominations. Therefore, “heresy” results in the functional use of the term as “beliefs that deny the essentials of Christianity” (despite Holcomb’s defining of the term as “choice to deviate from traditional teaching”). Protestants do not have much of a ladder to stand on to appeal to “traditional teaching.”

The Orthodox and Catholic on the blog may now be rejoicing that I’ve seen the light. However, I’m still not convinced that a faulty ladder results in a free fall. I believe this for the simple reason that I believe that there is such a thing as Mere Christianity, that there is such a thing as “essentials” and non-essentials to the faith. This turn toward essentials and non-essentials seems to me essential if Protestants are to conclude that they can stay within their tradition without racing to Catholicism or Orthodoxy (I hear that Jeff Hart is preparing an article that would disagree with me that the ladder is faulty). Protestants must be prepared to present something along the lines of “there is a central core to the gospel/Christianity/ancient Church that Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox all share.” Something along the lines of agreeing on the central truths of the creeds, or of repentance and faith in Christ’s righteousness, death, and resurrection. Protestantism thus may be heretical according to Orthodoxy and Catholicism that define heresy as “choice to leave traditional teaching.” However, given that the Church is divided, might we take the more Protestant ecumenical route and redefine heresy as “choice to deny Mere Christianity”? Or, maybe we ought to keep the historic definition of the term, and yet distance ever-so-slightly the Church from “in Christ,” for who would be willing to deny that salvation may be found in other branches of Christendom?

I apologize that these thoughts are rambling. My questions for the comment section would be, Is the Protestantism ladder of authority tenable? And if not, does this necessitate a conversion to Catholicism or Orthodoxy? Can the essentials/non-essentials (or Mere Christianity) argument be agreed to by Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox? Does it make any sense to say that Protestants can declare what is heresy within this framework? Can some Orthodox or Catholic on the blog come out and say forthright that Protestantism is a heresy, or is this too difficult a conclusion to swallow?

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George Aldhizer

George Aldhizer

Raised in North Carolina, George works as an accountant and lives in New York with his wife and son. His writing is animated by Abraham Kuyper’s exclamation, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

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