Smoky Mountain Bible Institute
(Est. 2009) Lesson #100
We have discussed the three ladders that separate people from God and his truth in doctrine and practice now let’s jump into the five errors or departures from biblical truth that just refuse to die. All modern departures from biblical truth (either directly or indirectly) fall into one of these five categories. There are two commonly parroted phrases that can show the difference between a heretical statement and a sound biblical one. "All paths lead to god" This statement is heretical, and "There is nothing new under the sun." this is a sound biblical truth found in the ninth verse of Ecclesiastes chapter one. Heresies are like viruses that infect sound doctrine and grow within the church, attacking biblical truth and sound practices. So, before we discuss the five historic types, let us first define ‘heresy’.
Heresy: A doctrine or practice contrary to clear biblical truth. This is of course, a confessional Lutheran definition of this word. Some will argue that "clear biblical truth" is a topic for debate and I will refer that debate to lessons 96 & 97. "All paths lead to god" departs from the biblical principal of exclusivity. This is a clear principal taught throughout scripture. The first commandment, and Christ himself claimed this exclusivity in John 14 verse 6 “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." The issue of exclusivity is offensive in our postmodern society. Interestingly, those who condemn this principal as too exclusive....exclude those who hold this view, while claiming to be inclusive of all....except of course those who are too exclusive. If that seems a bit circular, illogical, and ridiculous to you...welcome to the club.
The devil is not very original when seeking to deceive God's people he just repackages the same old lies. "There is nothing new under the sun." Knowing about these heresies can function like a vaccine to protect us from false doctrines and practices.
The first and oldest of the heresies is Legalism, which made its first appearance in the Garden of Eden when Eve added to God's instruction by saying they should not touch the fruit. God said they shall not eat of it, but He did not prohibit touching. I find it interesting that this first form of legalism could be seen as laying the ground work for the first sinful act of disobedience. When we create our own rules, it leads to confusion which leads to sin. The early Christian church dealt with this heresy in the form of the Judaizers. Again, the problem with this form of heresy is that it makes rules where God does not and in so doing drives a wedge between God and man. It could be said that this is what all heresies do, but each one does it in a different way. With legalism, you end up with rules that are works you must do in order to be saved or have access to salvation. In the case of the Judaizers, they required circumcision, in essence saying that you had to first become Jewish in order to become a Christian. This shifts the work of salvation away from Jesus and puts it on our shoulders. We see St. Paul and the other Apostles working hard to root out this heresy in the early Church in the book of Acts and in some of Paul's epistles, especially Galatians. They came together specifically to deal with this question in Acts 15. We know from Romans 4: 5 & 6 that we are justified objectively by works outside of ourselves in the person and work of Christ. "5. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6. Just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works…" ESV
We see legalism sadly alive and well within Trinitarian Christianity today in many forms. They are man-made rules that are not biblical. For example, the idea that some form of penance is required for forgiveness, or that some form of decision on my part is required for a heart troubled by its own sinful nature to be given the gift of faith, turning Baptism and the Lord’s Supper into works of obedience, or requiring speaking in tongues as evidence of faith. Whenever we require a rule or activity that is not based on a clear biblical doctrine, as I pointed out earlier with the doctrine of exclusivity, we fall into the same legalistic trap Eve did when she put words in God’s mouth about touching the fruit. Next month we will discuss Gnosticism.
Smoky Mountain Bible Institute
(Est. 2009) Lesson #101
Gnosticism: Shortly after the early church dealt with the problem of Legalism, Gnosticism which actually predates Christianity took on a Christian form even while the church was still dealing with Legalism.
The word Gnosticism comes from the Ancient Greek “gnosis” meaning knowledge. This heresy first shows up in a number of ancient religions which taught that people should shun the material world and embrace the spiritual world. Gnostic ideas influenced many religions, including Christianity. Gnosticism is basically a pendulum swing away from the first heresy, legalism. Where the Judaizers combined Jewish practice with Christianity, Gnosticism combined pagan philosophy with Christianity. The Judaizers were holding on to the past, while Gnostics broke with the past looking to be attractive to the society of their day.... sound familiar?
Ancient Gnosticism is hard to pin down. It requires a “special knowledge” but that special knowledge is never clearly defined, much like today’s New Age movement (which is already decades old, so it is no longer new and therefore has faded from popularity like all fads). Christian varieties of Gnosticism did not really come into full form until sometime in the second century. That is when things such as the Gnostic gospels show up. Christianity survived Gnosticism by confronting it head-on. Many of the early church fathers fought for Biblical truth, laying down their lives rather than compromising their faith in Christ by mixing it with Paganism.
Gnosticism made numerous claims over the years, and as one version was squashed by the church, another would pop up in its place. However, most forms of Gnosticism fall into three categories. Dualism claims that everything in the universe is reducible to two fundamental realities, for example Good & Evil or Flesh & Spirit. Syncretism is the merging of two different systems of belief, for example, modern day Unitarian Universalism, or the beliefs of many Americans who claim to be Christian but will say "all paths lead to God". The last category is Docetism, which claims that Christ only appeared to be human. Modern historic critics make a similar sort of claim when they try to explain away all of Christ’s miracles with human reason, making him an aberration of a collective consciousness or the creation of a deluded individual or individuals. Modalism is another variation of Docetism reasoning that God can only be in one place at one time so he manifests himself as father or son or spirit but not all three at the same time.
Next, we have Arianism: which shows us how heresy can arise from within the church. During a climate of tolerance after Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, Arianism became a movement within the church before anyone rose up to oppose it. This is one of Satan’s favorite tactics; disguising himself as an angel of light. Arianism is an attack on the deity of Christ. The Arians claimed that Jesus Christ was a created being, higher than humanity, but less than truly God. The Gnostic attacked the church from outside the church, but Arianism brought false doctrine to the church from within. Arius was the heretic for whom this doctrine is named. He devised a view of Christ that made Him a created being, neither divine nor truly human, but a mediator between God and humanity. According to Arius, Christ was the firstborn of all creation, higher than other creatures, but a creature nonetheless. This is exactly what modern Jehovah’s Witnesses teach. Jehovah's Witnesses use the very same arguments Arius did.
The Nicene Creed was the church’s response to Arianism, but it marked the beginning, not the end, of the controversy in the church. After their doctrine was condemned by the council, the Arians pleaded for tolerance, and they succeeded in infecting the church worldwide with their doctrine. Emperor Constantine was frustrated when the Nicene Council was not successful in quelling the Arian controversy, because he wanted harmony in the church to promote harmony in his land. Arianism became so popular that only one man ended up standing against it—Athanasius (the same Athanasius after whom the Athanasian Creed is named).
Although Athanasius stood alone against the majority of the church in his day, his arguments won out, because he employed Scripture skillfully and persuasively to demonstrate the error of the heresy. This episode is a classic example of why Scripture, not majority opinion, is the first and last test of every doctrine. This is why we hold to the Book of Concord as the clearest exposition of biblical truth.
In Christ Pastor Portier
Smoky Mountain Bible Institute
(Est. 2009) Lesson #102
Next we have Pelagianism, this heresy is named after the British monk named Pelagius (354-420 or 440) who first popularized the view. Pelagianism is the belief that original sin did not taint human nature and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without special divine aid. Modern day Pelagians reject the doctrine of original sin or what Calvinists call total depravity, and they reject the practice of infant baptism. This heresy leads to works righteousness or partial works righteousness known as Semi-Pelagianism.
Pelagius and Augustine were opponents and this controversy they were involved in some of the very same debates Calvinists and Armenians have today. Pelagius was motivated by a concern to elevate human free will, because he was (wrongly) convinced it was the only way to preserve human responsibility. Augustine defended the sovereignty of God, because he (rightly) knew it was the only way to preserve the centrality of divine grace in salvation.
Augustine responded by demonstrating from scripture that the human will is not free in the sense Pelagius taught; our wills are hopelessly bound by sin (Romans 8:7–8). Sinners are utterly helpless to change for the better apart from the external working of divine grace in their hearts (Jeremiah 13:23). The Council of Ephesus in 431 condemned Pelagianism as heretical.
We see modern day versions of this in what is called decision theology, making a conscious decision to follow Jesus before you in essence accept the gift of salvation. Scripture teaches us that faith is a miraculous gift that we cannot take a hold of without the Holy Spirit gathering and enlightening us. Traditional Christian monergist hold that saving faith is the work of God and that is why most monergist baptize infants. Traditional synergist hold that saving faith is something you must choose that is why most synergist do not baptize infants. Monergist would contend that we cannot choose God in our fallen sinful nature and would site Ephesians 2 and Colossians 2 that we were dead in our sins and trespasses. Dead beings can choose nothing. We also see works righteousness in the sacrament of penance (Roman Catholic) in some way adding to what Christ did for us on the cross. This heresy has a lot in common with the ladder of feelings mentioned a couple of lessons ago. The Holiness movement, and revivalism are at their root Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian.
Finally, Socinianism is a system of Christian doctrine named for Fausto Sozzini (Latin: Faustus Socinus), which was developed among the Polish Brethren in the Minor Reformed Church of Poland during the 16th and 17th centuries, and embraced by the Unitarian Church of Transylvania during the same period. It is most famous for its Non-Trinitarian Christology but contains a number of other unorthodox beliefs.
Socinianism is the culmination of heresy—an amalgamation of all the other heresies—and it is without a doubt the most widespread of all the heresies in our generation. Modern theological liberalism is nothing more than a variety of Socinianism. Rejecting everything Catholic, the Socinians ended up with a doctrine that embraced virtually every serious error that had ever assaulted the church. Like the legalists and the Pelagians, they taught salvation by works. Like the Gnostics and the Arians, they were Anti-Trinitarian. In fact, they denied not only the deity of Christ but also every miraculous element of scripture, just as many do today. They blended the skepticism of the Sadducees with the humanistic rationalism of the enlightenment era, and that combination is what gave birth to this heresy. Modern day Unitarian Universalism is a clear representation of this heresy. This heresy does away with the authority of scripture and makes human reason supreme. Socinians would say that Jesus came to show us how to live not to die for our sins.
Every cult and every false doctrine that exists today has something in common with one or more of the five false doctrines, discussed in this and the two previous lessons. Now you are equipped to take on any serious heretic. So, remember, if you run into any of these garden variety heretics, let them know the church condemned Legalism in the first century, Gnosticism in the second century, Arianism in the third century, Pelagianism in the fifth century, and Socinianism around 400 years ago. Or, just tell them to read the Bible.
The Primary source for these three articles is; Phil Johnson, “Survey of Hericies”