In the title above, I put the word “heresies” in quotation marks because I would prefer that the word “heresy” be confined to erroneous beliefs about the Trinity and the Person of Christ, rather than be used broadly to describe any view that might be considered an error.[i] At the same time, in this essay, I intend to address “errors” that many would regard as “heresy” and that, if accepted, would fundamentally undermine Christian faith. Thus, I am speaking of the blessing of deep and serious errors in the history of Christian thought, including, of course, but not confined to, errors about the Trinity and the Person of Christ.
It may sound odd to think that a false teaching could be a blessing, but in fact the New Testament gives us a prominent example, one that is much discussed. In fact, the first council of the Christian church — the first authoritative and official meeting of apostles, prophets, and church leaders — convened to deal with a serious problem in the teaching of many in the church. I am speaking of the problem of circumcision. There were some in the apostolic church who taught that in order to be saved, one must first be circumcised.
And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1)
But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:5)
From a modern Protestant perspective, this notion appears so obviously aberrant that we rarely consider why it should ever have appeared. We might ask: How could anyone think that circumcision and keeping the law of Moses would be necessary to be saved? But if we ask this question seriously, we betray our ignorance of the Bible, for starters, but even more, our ignorance of God’s providential working.
Consider the Biblical background for the problem. From AD 30 at Pentecost until Peter’s paradigm-changing sermon at Cornelius’ house, virtually all who called themselves Christians were Jews. It is usually estimated that Peter visited Cornelius sometime around AD 40. It was probably not much later. One thing interesting in the story recorded in Acts 10 and repeated in Acts 11 is that Peter would apparently not have visited a Gentile Roman to eat with him or to preach the Gospel without divine intervention. God had to push Peter to preach!
Again, if this seems odd — and in a way it should seem odd to us from our historical position and perspective — it is because we have not comprehended the Biblical story of the apostolic church and its almost exclusively Jewish roots. Recollect the following verse.
Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. (Acts 11:19)
For the early Christians from AD 30 to about AD 40 — all of them Jews who had believed in Jesus — their faith was in continuity with and a fulfillment of the covenant given to Abraham and David (cf. Matthew 1:1), as well as the law of Moses, even in its most minute details (cf. Matthew 5:17-18). To be a Christian, therefore, meant to be a believer in the Messiah, Jesus, who fulfilled the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants. It did not at all mean to be someone who rejected the “faith delivered once and for all to the saints” of the Old Testament. On the contrary, to reject Abraham, Moses, or David could only mean to reject Jesus, the Messiah!
This would obviously require circumcision, since circumcision was the absolute requirement for participation in the blessings of Abraham (Genesis 17).
Also, to reject circumcision would have also been to reject Moses (cf. Exodus 4:26; 12:44, 48; Leviticus 12:3; Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Joshua 5:2–5, 7) no less than Abraham, and to cut oneself off from the blessings of every covenant from Abraham onward. How could anyone not see that circumcision, as the ceremony for entering the Abrahamic covenant, was obviously essential to believing in the Messiah who fulfilled and completed Abraham?
This kind of reasoning may not appeal to us now, but we should be able to imagine the force it would have in a day when the vast majority of Christians were baptized Jews and when the baptized Jews regarded themselves as the true heirs of Messianic faith. Baptized Gentiles were late comers with little or no knowledge of the Scriptures or of God’s working in the history of the family of Abraham. Pharisaic Christians believed they needed to be initiated into the Abrahamic covenant and taught the law of Moses so that they could be true followers of the Messiah who fulfilled the promises to Abraham, Moses, and David.
We should be able to appreciate the allure of this thinking in the early years of the Christian church. It was so seductive that the apostle Paul — a Pharisee of the Pharisees — had to address it repeatedly and with all of the spiritual and rhetorical force he could discharge (cf. Romans 2:25–3:1; 3:30; 4:9–12; 15:8; 1 Corinthians 7:18–19; Galatians 2:3, 7–9, 12; 5:2–3, 6, 11; 6:12–13, 15; Ephesians 2:11; Philippians 3:3, 5; Colossians 2:11; 3:11; 4:11; Titus 1:10). As Paul shows, Pharisaic reasoning fundamentally misconstrued what it means to say that Christ fulfilled the covenants of the old era. As a New Adam, Jesus inaugurated a new and fundamentally different era of the Spirit. All the bloody sacrifices and the childhood-era rules (cf. Galatians 4:1-7) had been transformed in Christ.[ii]
Of course, this is all too brief to describe this early church conflict, but it is not my point to do justice to the New Testament backgrounds for the doctrine of justification by faith. What I am trying to point out is that without the false teaching of Pharisaically-minded Christians, the apostle Paul might not have been forced to think through the matter or to expound it as eloquently as he did. The error gave birth to great blessing.
We should note the connection between the New Testament controversy about circumcision and the way errors in doctrine have repeated appeared and been used by God in His providential working throughout the history of the church. The New Testament, in other words, is not just teaching us about circumcision and justification, it is also teaching us about how God leads His church to grow (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:19). Indeed, most of the epistles of the New Testament are a blessing given to us because of the sins and errors of early Christians.
Thus also, in the years after the New Testament, God used Marcion to help the early church think more deeply about the Canon of Scripture and the relationship of the Old and New Testaments. He used Sabellius and Arius to prod early Christians to deliberate more carefully and clearly about the relationships between the Father, Son, and Spirit. Likewise, controversies about what it means to say that Jesus is truly man and fully God forced theologians to compose the Decree of Chalcedon. Again, without Pelagius, Augustine’s understanding of sin and grace might not have been as developed as it became in his writings refuting Pelagius’ errors. Finally, on our short list, without Tetzel, could we have had Luther?
Just as individuals can and should learn through mistakes, God has providentially led His people to learn through testing, often accompanied by error. Peter was tested and failed, but it could be argued that after his repentance, he became a better Christian than he would have been had he never fallen into sin. In conclusion, every error and sin is an opportunity to refine our faith, to repent, and to grow.
But the blessed result only comes to those humble enough to stand before God in faith and love, accepting and rejoicing in His correction.
Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.
[i] It is reasonable to argue that any teaching that contradicts the decision of a universal council of the church should be regarded as “heresy.” But that would still be a much narrower definition than many use and would not add much to my working definition.
[ii] For a full treatment of this, see Peter Leithart, Delivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, Mission (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016).
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