On the Word "Heresy"

I am pleased to share another guest post by Liam Goligher, regarding all of the uproar over the word heresy:
 
Since my first posts on the reinvention of Trinitarian theology in the church I have had the opportunity to have personal discussion with two of the main players in the debate, Drs. Ware and Grudem. Both conversations were pleasant and helpful in clarifying our different positions. Dr. Grudem particularly agreed that public debate over publicly expressed positions was entirely acceptable. Publicly expressed error must be addressed publicly. Where they expressed concern was in my suggestion of heterodoxy. For me the primary consideration in this debate has been the honor and glory of God; it was that which drove me to write as I did. On the other hand I would also want to be sensitive to my duty to brothers in Christ not to dishonor them unjustly in any way. Knowing the institutions in which my brothers work they have not infringed any doctrinal commitments they have undertaken. I don’t want to be seen to be saying what I am not saying about Drs. Ware and Grudem and I can’t speak for their respective ecclesiastical settings, but again, the honor of God is at stake. 
 
Part of the problem has been that in using the word ‘heresy’ (which I didn’t but do now) we have been talking past each other. Heresy is not a word to be used carelessly and hurled indiscriminately at anyone who dares to disagree with us. In confessional bodies, such as Episcopal, Reformed, Presbyterian or Reformed Baptist churches, heresy is a formal charge of preaching or teaching error. In such churches, confessional subscription carries more weight than in broadly evangelical churches or general Baptist churches. To teach something that strikes at the heart of the creeds and confessions of the church makes one, at least formally speaking, guilty of teaching heresy. It doesn’t declare one an unbeliever, nor does it immediately disqualify one from teaching. Church courts exist to adjudicate in such matters. Teachers in the church are justly held to a higher standard of orthodoxy (especially Trinitarian orthodoxy) because of the trust placed in them and their impact of the laypersons that read or hear their views expressed. While I cannot speak for whether or not Ware or Grudem’s views place them outside of the pale of their ecclesiastical confessions, I do believe their teaching contradicts the Nicene Creed as well as the major Reformed confessions. A couple of implications follow, given my role as a Presbyterian minister of the gospel. I have the responsibility to make sure that my parishioners are aware of the problematic nature of this teaching, since these views are widely published. I also have the responsibility to make sure that men who hold these views are not ordained within my denomination. Thus, to address the viability of this teaching over against the creeds and confessions of the Reformed churches is not to meddle in someone else’s business but to address issues of practical pastoral import.
 
Another issue in our debate where we are talking past each other relates to Biblicism. There is a recognizable shift in some quarters of the evangelical world to an atomized reading of Scripture cut off from the church’s tradition of exegesis and biblical interpretation. The Creeds are dismissed without due regard to the very thorough exegetical work done by the fathers and reformers. This movement is found in general evangelicalism and in movements emanating from Sydney and London. Treating the bible as if it landed on my doorstep this morning, instead of reading it in fellowship with Christ’s church is a failure to recognize the communion of the saints and is to breach the command of the apostle concerning the ‘unity of the faith.’ It was in the pursuit of this unity that the church sought early on to affirm its faith in God as Trinity. The reformation did not involve eschewing tradition, but refining the relationship of Scripture to that tradition. Sola scriptura is not solo or nuda Scriptura. Bannerman in his magisterial work on the church clearly defends the role of doctrinal standards in evaluating doctrine and identifying error. 
 
Here is the state of play thus far. There are, as I wrote in my first post, those who are revisiting and revising the creedal and confessional affirmation of our Trinitarian faith. Whether they are promoting a popular agenda, engaging in academic speculation, or formulating a new Trinitarian model they are nonetheless moving from orthodoxy. Let me be specific:
There is no argument generally about how God relates to us in the economy of redemption (how He chooses to reveal Himself to and relate to His creatures in the created order). The issue remains the ad intra being of God; God as He is in Himself. There are attempts to argue univocally from our created order and understanding back into the being of God. For example, there is an attempt to project something akin to male/female relations back into the relation of Father and Son. The incomprehensibility of God should warn us off from speaking univocally from our experience back into the being of God. Early Christian theologians spent time addressing the nature of divine self-revelation and of corresponding theological language to testify of him before addressing the nature of the triune life (see, e.g., Gregory of Nazianzus’s famous theological orations).
 
There is openly expressed dissatisfaction with the language of ‘only begotten’ or of ‘eternal generation’.  My concern is not with those who use subordination language in any form (though there are questions to be raised there as well), but most significantly with those, specifically, who are employing it while denying key tentposts of Nicene Trinitarian theology. Everyone affirms the deity of the Son (that he is homoousios with the Father), but it is noteworthy to highlight that the second paragraph of the Nicene Creed calls for belief in much more and some significant figures seem to deny other key elements. For some doing so, the language of “Father and Son” refers to a hierarchical relationship akin to a Father and son in a patriarchal setting. Intrinsic to the Godhead is Authority and submission (albeit loving submission). Yet what do the Creeds and the Orthodox Reformed Confessions teach? They confess One God and use the relational language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They teach that in the eternal life of the Godhead there is perfect life and perfect fellowship. The Father eternally communicates His life to the Son; the Son has ‘life in Himself;’ is His Word; His radiance; His image; and Father and Son eternally communicate this life to the Spirit who proceeds from their mutual love and eternal fellowship. The Creed uses four clauses to stress this point: 
 
‘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.”
 
The category of "relation" is used by Christian theologians--not only because that's what the names "Father" and "Son" appear to describe, but because this is the (only) way of describing a real distinction without subverting the numerical unity of God's being and operation. This also is why one can't have "consubstantial with the Father" without "begotten not made." Eternal generation describes the mode of being in which one divine being is shared by two persons. Any other scenario divides the divine being, an impossibility given divine simplicity (another foundational commitment of pro-Nicene theologians).
 
There is a failure to grasp what Nicene Christians mean when they say that God’s being and operations are ‘indivisible’ or ‘inseparable.’ They seem to use the word ‘deity’ in a generic sense to refer to a ‘secondary substance’ – something to be shared out by the members of the Trinity and divided among them. Yet the Creed affirms we believe in ‘one God;’ the Larger Catechism says that there is ‘but only one’ God (WLC 8, 11), numerically one being, numerically one operation, shared by three persons, three agents. This immediately challenges those who argue for three wills or three centers of consciousness in the One being of God. 
 
Pro-Nicene Trinitarianism and Reformed Orthodoxy require us to confess: the analogical nature of theological language, divine simplicity as classically articulated by Gregory Nazianzus and others, the one divine will, the inseparable operations of the triune God, and the eternal generation of the Son. To reject or recast these truths is to move out of Christian orthodoxy into heresy. This is where the chips fall. The church has given us words to say so that we can then be silent before the mystery. 
 
While there will always be room for growth in our knowledge of the triune God and, therefore, in principle, there will always be room for doctrinal development, true doctrinal development always occurs within the parameters of the truths summarized in the church’s creeds and confessions. This, as I understand it, is how a doctrine like the pactum salutis (as treated by, e.g. Owen) could be described: a deeper understanding of the internal relations of God with respect to the plan of salvation, but one that seeks to honor the Nicene settlement. Just as the pactum salutis is a development internal to the Nicene  doctrinal exposition, so Calvin’s teaching on autotheos is within that faith (and not outside it or a replacement for it).These matters then go to the heart of our Christian faith; they are matters of life and death; the good of God’s church, the honor of God’s Christ and the glory of God’s Name are at stake. These matters should be of utmost importance to those who say they love the gospel.
 

Dr. Liam Goligher is Senior Minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church. He is the author of A Window on Tomorrow (Christian Focus, 1994), The Fellowship of the King (Carlisle, 2003), The Jesus Gospel (Milton Keynes, 2006), and Joseph—The Hidden Hand of God (Fearn, 2008).  Liam and his wife Christine have five adult children (Louise, Ruth, David, Sarah, Andrew) and nine grandchildren.

 

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