Back at the second infamous Auburn Avenue conference, when representatives of “both sides” were trying to work something out, one particular clash came over the definition of heresy. The representatives of the TRs were taking any doctrine that was out of accord with the Westminster Confession as heresy. There are enormous problems with this, as I pointed out at the time.
If a minister subscribes to the Westminster Confession, but his views are better represented by Augsburg, or the London Baptist, this is not heresy. It might be dishonest, or cowardly, or subversive. It is “out of conformity” to the Confession. But it is not heresy.
Well, it is not heresy, depending on which part of the Westminster he is denying. If he is a liberal who denies the chapter on Scripture, he is a heretic. If he is a Socinian who denies the chapter on the Trinity, he is a heretic.
The early creeds of the church (I am thinking here of the Apostles, the Nicene, and the Definition of Chalcedon) sought to establish the line between Christian and non-Christian. This over here was orthodox, and that over there was not. As time went on, and Christians continued to set down their faith in statements or confessions, the time eventually arrived when these statements set the difference between this kind of Christian and that kind of Christian. The catholic era was gradually transformed into the denominational era.
Then came the liberals. They, by their evasions and denials, pushed the church back into a fundamentalist catholicity. Every denomination had its orthodox, and also its modernists. And an orthodox Methodist had far more in common with an orthodox Presbyterian or Baptist than any of them had with a heretic who happened to be a fellow member of the same tribe, that unbeliever just across the table.
Add to the mix the increased ease with which believers (and unbelievers) could communicate with one another across denominational lines. I am thinking about magazines, conferences, books, and as the technology accelerated, blog sites, video conferencing, and so on.
So there are two things going on. The first has to do with different understandings of what the truth is. The second has to do with the nature of truth itself.
Now back to the FV thing. It is absurd to define a man in a Presbyterian communion as a heretic because he is more in line with Augsburg, and then turn around and head off to your ministerial association meeting chaired by the Lutheran pastor, steeped in Augsburgery from his youth onward. Puritans and Lutherans are very different, but their differences are differences between Christians. Heresy doesn’t enter into it.
But the devil knows his onions, and we have not made him go away just because we have our confessions of faith. Remember that we live in a time when that postmodern sticky stuff has gotten all over everything. The differences between Westminster and Augsburg do not represent heresy. But to say that Augsburg and Westminster are all saying the same thing is a heresy. This is not catholicity; it is confusion. It is not charity, it is wooly-mindedness. And if it is a wooly-mindedness that is embraced on purpose, it is heresy. This is because denying the law of non-contradiction is the royal gateway to every heresy imaginable.
Because there is always a ditch on both sides of the road, it is also heresy to reify (and deify) the Westminster, and treat it as though it were an appendix to the book of Romans. Ironically, the i-dotters and the t-crossers here are the best friends the heretics ever had. No need to produce slanderous caricatures of the Defenders of the TRUTH when they are doing it for you.
One final coda. When I say that position x is heresy, it does not follow from this that every one who holds to position x is a heretic. Real life is more complicated than that. Some heretics do embrace the heresy, of course, and promulgate it afterwards. But there are some deceived by the heresy, people who are better Christians than they are logicians. There are other people who are simply confused, and who if you asked them to construct the doctrine they profess to embrace, they would be utterly unable to do it. There are others who are orthodox in the substance of the matter, but who are tangled up by the vocabulary. There are others who are orthodox on the merits, but who are too proud (for personal reasons) to admit it.
If we were saved by our works, including our doctrinal works, then all these poor folks would be hosed. Not only that, all Christians everywhere would all of us be hosed. Try to imagine a doctrinal entrance exam outside the Pearlies, and there you are, sharpening your number two pencil, sweating bullets. You hear someone talking about the works of the Trinity ad intra and ad extra, and it was a car wreck, happened so fast, and you don’t have your review cards. Or perhaps you never had any review cards. Loser.
But bringing it around full circle, the devil does not generate heresies for his own personal amusement. His interest is in the damnation of souls, and confusing all the issues is a prime way to advance that result. Heresies are not innocent, and we shouldn’t play with them just because John Mark was tangled up with the circumcision for a time, and still wrote one of the gospels.
Some people walk away from plane crashes too, but that is not an argument for trying it.