So what is a heretic?
First of all, it is worthwhile to remember that “heretic” is a technical term, the use of which ought not to communicate the notion that a person is a horrible, nasty human being. I am sure heretics are as nice to their children as anybody else!
Pelagius, for instance, seems to have had a reputation in the Church as quite an upright sort of fellow prior to his taking on of Augustine over the doctrine of OrigInal Sin.
Poor old Origen managed to go an entire lifetime maintaining a worthy reputation as an eminent theologian & apologist before later in Church history it was decided that the scoundrel had been a heretic all along!
This teaches us that “heretic” is not a word that ought to simply be thrown around as an insult. Generally speaking, I would suggest therefore that it is better to depersonalize the whole issue by asking not what a heretic is, but rather what is their heresy? In this way we ensure that we always “play the ball rather than the man.”
Moreover in dealing with the beliefs of these early Church Fathers we must always remember that not a one of them had a systematic theology on their bookshelves; indeed the earliest of them did not even have access to the whole of the New Testament. I wonder how you and I might have got on in such circumstances!
The Church came to call some of them heretics because that is technically correct in that their beliefs deviated from the central truths of Christianity as revealed by the apostles & prophets.Their heresy didn’t mean that they were necessarily evil men. Rather they were men who trying to get it all straight in their heads in a way that we simply don’t have to because of all of the theological spadework that has been done for us.
In the earliest days most of the battles raged around the great Christological issues, whilst Augustine and Pelagius took us onto more soteriological ground. And their battle was to resume a millennia later in the Reformation. The result was the restoration of the great truths encapsulated in the Five Solas etc.
All of these doctrines must still be contended for today.
But I would suggest that in addition to this, we might also need to update our classification of heresies.
I am conscious of the fact that we live in a day when our conventional statements of belief covering such matters as the Trinity, the nature of Christ, the doctrine of justification etc are insufficient to expose many of the modern-day heresies.
What, for instance, of those men who would cheerfully subscribe to our traditional Creeds and Confessions but also adhere to such beliefs as Word-Faith, the Prosperity Gospel, and the Kingdom Now teaching?
The danger is that these often slip through the cracks of our traditional defences against heresy.
I would place the above beliefs under a broad category of philosophies that all operate on the same false premise that this world is for the believer to be a place of material prosperity and influence. That we as Christians are not ever called to suffer lives of hardship, deprivation or illness. Nor would God ever call upon us to submit to the loss of our rights and privileges in society. To undergo any of these would only indicate a lack of faith.
The propagators of these teachings can be summed up in one Pauline expression- they are the "enemies of the cross of Christ" (Phil 3:18). A.W. Tozer saw them clearly when he referred to "Crossless Christianity". He understood that it is the power of the Cross that lies at the heart of the Christian life, and that the crucifixion of self is the secret of victorious living.
The cross, he said: "wins by defeating its opponent and imposing its will upon him. It always dominates. It never compromises, never dictates nor confers, never surrenders a point for the sake of peace. It cares not for peace; it cares only to end its opposition as fast as possible."
Throughout history, the truest and most faithful followers of their Lord have been the men who laid on the altar their own ambitions and plans, their own material comforts and well-being and surrendered all to His glorious cause.By so dying to self they were able to nullify the power of the flesh & win great battles for Christ.
But such selfless examples are repudiated by many today
And just as those ancient heretics could often seem to be decent enough sorts & enjoy good reputations, so in our day a certain class of false teacher is feted by many, whilst his ear-tickling & Cross-denying books & DVDs sell by the million.
The religions and cults outside of Christianity are clearly recognizable to us, as they will always deny the most fundamental tenets of the historic Christian faith. They are visibly outside the camp of orthodoxy.
However we must not forget that there is another class of heretical doctrine, much more subtle in its denial of orthodoxy; that has often "crept in unnoticed" (Jude 4) to our churches.Pastors have an equal duty to defend against these.
Happily, many are the ways in which God is able to reveal the false in our midst. Indeed, the apostle Paul tells us that in the fulness of time the deceivers will themselves always overstep the mark and that the false will eventually reveal itself.
"...they will progress no further, for their folly will be manifest to all" (2 Tim 3:9).