Denominations, factions, different traditions; it seems that no one can agree on more than a few main doctrines, and even there each, to a certain degree, has his own viewpoint. What is the truth?
Don’t be discouraged by this. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in college, it’s that everyone, including myself, has flawed theology. It was only once I realized this that I was fully enabled to learn. Before that point, if there was an instructor whom I agreed with on almost everything, who said something that I had previously held to be false, then no matter what his argument was, I was inclined to accept his point of view. Likewise, if the instructor’s theology was very different than what I hold to, if he said something right I would still be inclined to reject it then and there, though often I would accept it outside of class. This was never vocalized, but waged war inside my head.
Now, however, learning is much easier and a lot more enjoyable. I look at things differently. I now see it the way Dr. Hauff sees it, which is in light of this proverb:
“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17, NIV)
If I am in class and I hear something I know is not correct simply because it is incorrect and not because I tend to disagree with the instructor on a regular basis (hopefully it’s not because of that), then I have to say to myself, “I just don’t think that’s right”. Sometimes, I speak up and say what I think the right view is, and this can reveal the flaw in either their argument or mine. Or we both may end up not having a clue who’s right (for issues like the doctrine of the Trinity, this is not uncommon). Either way, we help each other become aware of all sides.
But I have to go into it thinking that I might be wrong, or else I will learn nothing nor change any wrong view that I have. I try to make myself realize that my instructors, more likely than not, have a higher awareness of all sides, and therefore might possess information which I have no clue exists.
If it’s something I agree with, it strengthens my belief, and I say “Thanks for that!” If it’s something new, I say “WOW. Completely missed that. I’m going to chew on that one!” I must decide by reason and conviction, not by bias (to see my take on the role of reason in studying the Bible, click here).
I say all of this to make an encouraging point, which I discovered during my time at Bible college: just because there are so many different views, one should not be discouraged to seek the ultimate truth. A crucial barrier that must be removed in this process is bias, something I am still shedding to this day. There is only one answer, and the fact that Christians disagree should not lead us to the conclusion that we’ll never figure out what it is.
This leads to a question, though: when is the point when theology becomes so off that it is actually heretical? First, we need to define heresy. Whatever you think of Wikipedia, the definition there suits my purposes:
“Heresy is a controversial or novel change to a system of beliefs, especially a religion, that conflicts with established dogma.”
Then of course we must ask, “What exactly is dogma?” Wikipedia again helps with that:
“Dogma is the established belief or doctrine held by a religion, or by extension by some other group or organization.”
Dogma should therefore be thought of as the central belief or set of beliefs in Christianity, and failure to hold to these beliefs means to be heretical. In the case of Christianity, being heretical means being outside the realm of belief which leads to salvation or denies a crucial attribute of the nature of God.*
In light of this, we need to establish just what these central beliefs are. Paul lays that out for us:
“This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (1 John 4:2, NIV)
“Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist—he denies the Father and the Son.” (1 John 2:22, NIV)
Take note of this second verse. Denying Jesus means denying the Father. One cannot claim to follow God. and deny Jesus. Even if one claims that Christ is the Messiah but that he is not God, he is essentially claiming that the Father is not God. This lines up with what Jesus says in the book of John, where he actually seems astonished that the idea that he is separate from the Father is being held:
Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9, NIV)
Essentially what I am saying is that if you acknowledge that…
- The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one God, the only God.
- Jesus became human, while still remaining fully God.
- Jesus died on the cross for our sins.
- Jesus rose from the dead.
(if I missed anything let me know!)
…then you probably are not a heretic (though some doctrine is heretical because, even if it does not deny any of the above explicitly, it comes too close). But there is a lot of theology and a lot of doctrine that does not prevent salvation or go against the core belief of Christianity. For example, you might as a Christian be either Egalitarian or Traditional, Pre-Millennial or Post-Millennial, Arminian or Calvinist; or you might believe in post-belief baptism or infant baptism, trichotomy or dichotomy, the rapture or no rapture…whatever conviction you have, try to lovingly defend it if you believe it is a warranted belief. But never in these cases threaten the opposite side by accusing them of heresy, or by stating that they are not saved, unless it truly is a crucial doctrine of the faith that they are undermining. It is, however, safe and fair to say that they are wrong if indeed they are wrong.
What’s the key to finding the truth? Read your Bible! Then discuss difficult theology with others.
*I put a star on this point because what I stated there is based more on intuition than reason. It is difficult to define with precision what heresy is. The Church has traditionally called heretical that which denies the essential character of God and what he has done. This is why creeds were developed: to prevent heresies from becoming the norm. I find this definition to be a good one. The important thing to be aware of, however, is that some heresy, while being terribly off the mark, may not prevent salvation. For example, many Christians today, probably without realizing it, believe that the three persons of the Trinity are manifestations of only one person, who plays all three roles. On the opposite side of the spectrum is the view that each member of the Trinity is completely separate from the others in every way (in the same way that human beings are separate from each other), but that they simply have a relationship with each other, essentially making God into three separate gods. Do not assume that holders of such theology are not or cannot be saved; in fact, never worry about whether someone is saved. Just attempt to correct the false doctrine or heresies! It is not our place to determine their salvation.