On the Trigger-Happy Use of the “Heretic” Label

Though I’ve written several articles criticizing Calvinism, one may notice that there is one thing I have not done: I have never called Calvinism a heresy or any particular Calvinist a heretic.  In fact, I’ve made clear that even if I disagree with Calvinists, I still respect many of them as preachers of the Gospel and consider them brothers in Christ.  The use of the word “heresy” is very serious, and because of that, I tend to have little patience for those who use it quickly and carelessly.

Uncharitable Immaturity

For example, several years ago I was listening to a Mark Driscoll podcast as a passenger in a car (back in his heyday of popularity), and he mentioned the story of Noah.  Unfortunately, the clip is no longer up on Youtube, though you can still find many references to his message online.  You can also still download the original sermon (date: April 5, 2009), though the relevant quote is this:

What do we do with Noah? Hi Noah! Genesis 6. Let me tell you the story of Noah. Here’s the deal. If you grew up in church you probably don’t know the story because it gets butchered! It freaks me out; there is this long of things that freak me out and this is way up on the list. Every children’s Bible I get, I get white-out and I fix this part and I get a sharpy, and my kids all know that dad freaks out on the Noah story. Dad does freak out on the Noah story, because every kids Bible I’ve ever seen preaches a false gospel in the story of Noah. I don’t want my kids to be heretics, so I white it out and fix it. (emphasis added)

And the story in every kids Bible is told like this: Noah was a righteous man, he was a good guy. Everybody else was bad, Noah was good, Noah got a boat, everybody else swam for a little while. Moral of the story is be a good guy, you get a boat named Jesus, don’t be a bad guy, you’re going to have to swim for it. It’s ridiculous! Alright Genesis 6, Noah, verse 5, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” We call that total depravity. Who was bad?  Everyone. How bad? Totally. When? All the time. That’s pretty all inclusive. Now this is a heart-breaking statement, “And the Lord was sorry that he made man on the earth and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out man from the face of the land. Man and animals and creeping things and birds of heaven for I’m sorry that I made them.’ But, here’s the big idea. Noah found what? Favor; it’s the Hebrew word for grace. Noah found grace or favor in the eyes of the Lord. God looked at the earth, everyone’s only bad all the time, including Noah. And God looked a Noah and said, “I’m going to love that guy.”

While I understand that Driscoll was trying to be funny, this is a pretty concerning quote because it is so obvious that he was force-feeding Reformed theology into the text and calling other interpretations heresies.  All one has to do to blow up his interpretation is to read Genesis 6:9, which he conveniently left out:

These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. (ESV)

New Testament texts such as Hebrews 11 would also help, which identifies him as a hero of faith, as well as 2 Peter 2:5, which calls him a herald of righteousness.  The point is not that Noah was righteous all by his lonesome but that it is perfectly plausible (and better, in my estimation) to see Noah as someone who is righteous not by works but by faith.  It is illegitimate to read unconditional election into the text.

However, the worst part is not that Driscoll gave such a terrible interpretation or was so presumptuous as to “correct” all these children’s Bibles.  It’s that he called the idea that “Noah was a righteous man” (a direct quote from Scripture, no less) a “false gospel,” something that needs to be corrected so that his kids wouldn’t grow up to be “heretics.”  Thus, not only was his interpretation wrong, he was strident enough to call other ones “false gospels” or heresies.

This is uncharitable and immature.  It causes unnecessary disunity among Christians and puffs up some prideful people.  There are genuine heresies out there, but Christians need to use wisdom before we start throwing that label around.  One text that is often misused in this regard is 1 John 4:1:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

We have to test every spirit, right?  And if they do not alight with right doctrine, they are “false prophets!”  Except we need to keep reading:

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God,and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.

What’s in mind here?  Jesus Christ coming in the flesh.  Many scholars believe that John was dealing with some form of proto-Gnosticism that had seeped into this church, and people were confused as they saw others walk away from the faith.  Against teachers who were evidently denying the humanity of Christ, John is emphatic: That’s not what the apostles taught, and therefore anyone who denies that Jesus came in the flesh is not a prophet from God.

One of my Greek professors bluntly stated that people try to “put all sorts of other crap in here [1 John 4:1]” in order to attack any disagreeing Christian, but this is not the purpose of this verse.  John is dealing with one of the central beliefs of the Christian faith: That Jesus was fully man (of course, in his Gospel, he affirms that Jesus was also God in John 1:1).  We can therefore conclude that the centrality of a doctrine matters when deciding if something is heresy.

Guidelines for the use of “heresy” or “heretic”

It is not always illegitimate to call a belief a heresy or a person a heretic.  However, we better be pretty sure when we use those terms lest we possibly slander a true believer.  Here are some useful guidelines:

1.  “Heresies” are clear denials of central doctrines of orthodox Christianity.

Basically, heresies are beliefs that are denials of central doctrines of Christianity such that it doesn’t even make sense to call them Christian doctrines.  A good summary of many of these central doctrines can be found in the Nicene Creed.  Jehovah’s Witnesses are heretics because they deny Jesus’ divinity.  Mormons are heretics because they deny God’s uniqueness.  Many adherents of the prosperity gospel are heretics because they deny Christ’s uniqueness as God the Son and believe that we can achieve his status of sonship.  This does not mean that other beliefs are not important; baptism, for example, is very important, but while I think many Christians have incorrect beliefs and practices on baptism, those incorrect beliefs do not necessarily mean that they deny something like the resurrection.

2.  Heretics are those who stubbornly hold to heretical beliefs in the face of correction.

I actually think it is possible for a true believer to entertain, for a moment, a heretical idea, but he will show himself to be a true believer when he accepts correction.  One of my professors gave an example from when he was pastoring: A man, who had been a Christian for many years, told him that he was doubting the divinity of the Holy Spirit.  My professor explained the Holy Spirit to him and gave him several passages on the matter.  The man read those texts, saw that the Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit is God and a person, and accepted the correction.  My professor did not consider this man a heretic because he did not persist in this belief in the face of a biblical correction, and I agree.  This means that before we hit someone with the label of “heretic,” even if they are questioning a central doctrine, we should try to correct them first.

3.  Focus more on explicit beliefs rather than your conclusions about their beliefs

This guideline is probably the real key to avoiding unnecessary accusations of heresy.  Even if you think someone’s belief will logically lead to a heresy, do not call that person a heretic if he does not actually go there.  For instance, many Calvinists believe that Arminianism logically leads to Pelagianism, the idea that righteousness does not require divine grace.  However, Arminians and other non-Calvinists do not actually believe that, so even if Calvinists are correct in their reasoning, that does not mean that Arminians are heretics.  Likewise, many non-Calvinists believe that Calvinism logically leads to Hyper-Calvinism and a denial of God’s goodness.  Orthodox Calvinists, however, do not believe those things, so even if that reasoning is sound, we should take care to note that Calvinists don’t follow that alleged logical train down that track.  This means we should have a lot of grace when it comes to disagreements on reasoning and interpretation and refrain from accusing people of having beliefs they don’t actually hold or attributing some sort of sinister ulterior motives to those with whom we disagree.

There is a wise limit to this if someone states blatant and absurd contradictions.  Hypothetically, if someone persistently says, “I believe the God in the Bible is the one true God” but also states explicitly “I believe Shiva is also the one true God,” then the contradiction is so obvious and silly that it’s fair to question his orthodoxy.  However, I think such cases are not very common.  In fact, even pretty controversial positions such as certain kinds of open theism should not be called heresies because such open theists actually do not deny God’s omniscience.


Calling someone a heretic or a belief a heresy is a big deal, and should be done with wisdom.  Using these labels as weapons against other Christians because you can’t handle disagreement in a reasonable, charitable, and calm manner speaks poorly of your maturity.


One thought on “On the Trigger-Happy Use of the “Heretic” Label

  1. Pingback: How Understanding Logic Can Lead to More Charitable Discussion | leesomniac

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