Monday, October 27, 2014

Heresies and Half-Truths

by Pastor Paul Wolff

Jesus taught the truth at Nazareth
There is an understanding among faithful Christian scholars that there are two ways to fall into heresy (i.e. false teaching or false belief). The first is the chosen heresy, and the second is the exact opposite teaching. This is counter-intuitive, but it has been shown in history to be true time and again. But why is this so? What is going on? How can the opposite of a false teaching also be false, and not true?

The post-modern cynics would say this is just another example that shows that there is no such thing as truth, or at least that all truth is subjective and relative. However, if that were true it would contradict the very idea that the cynics are trying to sell to gullible people who think they are a lot smarter than they really are. There is in reality such things as truth and lies, and the exact opposite of the truth is still false, and vice-versa.

However, there is a simple explanation for why the exact opposite of a heresy is also false, and it explains why so many Christian teachers throughout history who have wanted to oppose false teachings have also fallen into heresy. The reason is that most heresies are not completely false, but are merely half-truths or contain some sliver of truth. This happens because false teachers try to rationalize teachings that they don’t understand or refuse to believe, and they try to come up with something that sounds believable (even though it contradicts the teachings of Holy Scripture). If false teachers want to convince others of the truthfulness of their heresy they can’t push something completely false or no one would fall for it. Then, if a Christian tries to counter the half-truth with its opposite, then that is also false because it is still half wrong – it is just the opposite half. A half-truth is still a lie, so its opposite is also a lie because it is still only half-true.

The devil tried to lure Jesus into heresy
To illustrate this let’s consider the Biblical doctrine of the person of Christ. The Holy Scriptures paradoxically describe Jesus as God and Man in one person. Faithful Christian teachers maintain the paradox and confess Jesus as 100% God and 100% Man even though we admit that we don’t (and can not) understand how this could be, yet we trust that God is faithful in the Scriptures in describing who He is.

Now, the complete opposite of the true doctrine that Jesus is fully God and Man in one person is to say that Jesus is neither God, nor Man, and never existed at all. This is not likely a teaching that you will find among anyone who calls themselves a “Christian” because no Christian (and few others) will be persuaded by something so completely false. You may find some militant atheists who would try to pass this along, but even among them this is more wishful thinking than anything else. Heretics use half-truths because they make the lie easier to swallow, first for themselves, then for anyone else who may wish to follow them.

But with this example there are many variations among those who either want to resolve the paradox or want to lead Christians astray through false logic. Like many heresies, these are quite rational, which only adds to both their appeal and their danger. This is especially true in this example because this doctrine is a paradox. In many ways God is the opposite of man, yet Jesus is somehow both fully God and fully man. Paradoxes seem irrational so any attempt to rationalize the paradox will end up with only partial truth which will be false in some way.

“Behold the Man” (John 19:5)
“Jesus Christ ... is God over all” (Romans 9:5)  
One false teaching from history says that Jesus is fully God, but he only seemed to be a man. This is called “docetism” and it is false because it denies the full humanity of Jesus. Docetism contains partial truth because it tries to maintain the deity of Jesus.

An opposite teaching from docetism is Arianism, which says that Jesus is a man or some kind of being less than God, but is not God. The false part of this teaching is that it denies that Jesus is fully God.

Another possible variation of this could maintain that Jesus is part man and/or part god. This is found in the Apollinarian heresy and perhaps others, though in practice both Docetists and Arians hold to this in a greater or lesser degree.

The doctrine of Christology is just one example of how blindly reacting to heretical half-truths can lead to other false teachings. There are many more such examples in history. We can see a stark example of this in the Lutheran Reformation. The brilliance of Martin Luther is that he steadfastly worked toward a conservative reformation. He only wanted to get rid of the false teaching in the Church, but he worked hard to conserve those true teachings which either were Biblical or otherwise promoted good Christian teaching. Not all of Rome’s teachings were wrong. Even today the Roman Catholic church still has many correct teachings mixed in with the false teachings. Luther’s reformation was the harder way to go, not only because it took much more work to sift out the wheat from the chaff, but also because it put Luther at odds with the Roman Catholics, and with the more radical reformers. However, it was the right way to go.

Martin Luther conserved the truth
while removing the false teachings
On the other hand, the radical reformers wanted to throw out every teaching that ever reminded them of what was done in the Roman Catholic Church. This is where they went wrong. In teaching the exact opposite of what the Roman Catholic Church taught, the radical reformers threw out many true Christian teachings and fell into the opposite false teachings.

This is why the descendants of the radical reformers have come full circle to teach the same Semi-Pelagian errors of the Roman Catholic church. The radical reformers simply said, “We are going to do the opposite of what Rome does. Since Rome is wrong, we will be right.” But they only exchanged one lie for another. As their descendants recognized the wrongness of their teachings, they reacted similarly by holding to the exact opposite teaching, then they eventually came full circle to embrace the same false doctrines which their ancestors first reacted against.

An example of this is Rick Warren’s comments at the Pew Forum on Religion, Life, and Politics in 2005 where he said,
“You know, 500 years ago, the first Reformation with Luther and then Calvin, was about beliefs. I think a new reformation is going to be about behavior. The first Reformation was about creeds; I think this one will be about deeds. I think the first one was about what the church believes; I think this one will be about what the church does.”

To my Lutheran ears this seems to take Warren back to the days of Pope Leo X, though it may be worse because many of Martin Luther’s Roman opponents would not have separated faith and works so thoroughly. The 16th century Roman church was Semi-Pelagian, and not completely Pelagian. Warren seems to be exalting works over faith.

It is good to want to correct false teaching. However we must be careful not to react too quickly. It often takes discernment and study of the Holy Scriptures to learn the whole truth. Saint Paul gives a valuable instruction when he wrote, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1) This clearly warns against falling into the same temptation as the transgressor, but it could also easily warn against falling into the opposite error, or falling into self-righteousness. Either way, we ought to take care when dealing with error in the church.

The word of God is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.
Psalm 119:105
The best way to avoid false teaching is to stick with the truth. God’s Word is the truth (John 17:17) because Jesus is the Truth (John 14:6). If we try to explain away parts of Scripture, then we lose Jesus and are in danger of losing our salvation. If we hold to God’s Word we hold on to Jesus because Jesus is the Word made flesh (John 1). Jesus said, 
“If you abide in my word, you truly are my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)

See also The Seductive Danger of Lies

See also What Do You Choose to Believe?

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