Tradition and Heresy
Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I
had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the
saints. (Jude 3)
A recent article in Christianity Today caught my attention. It was entitled “Top 5 Heresies Among American Evangelicals” (CT, Stefani McDade, September 19, 2022). It was reporting on a survey done by Ligonier Ministries and Lifeway Research. I didn’t find it startling from the standpoint of what it revealed about the status of faith in the American church. I have no grand illusions of churches filled with theologically astute parishioners who sit around and debate the fine points of doctrine and how they apply to everyday life in these United States. No, theology has usually been off the table, left for seminarians and academics. But although surprise was not my reaction to this article, concern was. For the questions on the survey didn’t ask about the often debated topics of one’s understanding of freewill and predestination, or the various practices of baptism, or the application regarding the separation of church and state. Instead it asked five simple questions about items that are covered in the Apostles’ Creed.
The Creed begins “I believe…” It is a confession of faith and it is personal. The speaker affirms that he holds these statements to be true and reflective of his own belief system. The Apostles’ Creed is the oldest creed the church has. It has been handed down for centuries. It was not written by the apostles of the New Testament but it was written after their deaths in order to concisely preserve what they taught. It lists the traditional theological views held by the church from its beginning.
To clarify let me quote one of the best books about theology that I ever read entitled “Heresies” by Harold O.J. Brown. (Doubleday, 1984). In it he writes, “Christianity is a traditional religion…. The Latin word traditio refers to a process of transmission, literally, to the handing over of things.” He identifies this generational handing down of the faith as being first of all the Scriptures themselves, and then also the interpretation of their essential meaning. “What we now call orthodoxy is a traditional understanding” (page 5). Heresies are the beliefs that deny these traditional statements.
So what are these traditional beliefs that today’s Christians find so difficult to believe? These are the statements from the survey followed by the percentage of evangelical Christians who believe them.
1. Jesus isn’t the only way to God. (56%)
2. Jesus was created by God. (73%)
3. Jesus is not God. (43%)
4. The Holy Spirit is not a personal being. (60%)
5. Humans aren’t sinful by nature. (57%)
Clearly the leaders in our churches have not done their jobs. Professors and pastors have not made a convincing case for the Biblical truths about Jesus, about the Holy Spirit, or about the need for salvation. If humans aren’t sinful by nature then they don’t really need either the Holy Spirit or Jesus to lead them to God. And clearly there is significant confusion about the identity of Jesus. Almost half don’t believe he is God, 73% believe he was created by God, and a majority doubt that when Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), that he must have been confused.
The New Testament writers warned of this re-defining of the faith. Jude’s words are quoted above. Paul wrote, “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned” (Galatians 1:9). John wrote, “Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist” (1 John 2:22). And Peter wrote, “These men blaspheme in matters they do not understand” (2 Peter 2:12).
Friends, it’s time to do a little theological review. It is time to listen and think. It is time to affirm the creed with understanding. Let me recommend in addition to Sunday Worship and Bible Studies, that you begin a daily reading of the Bible and supplement that reading with a helpful book such as “Growing Deep in the Christian Life” by Charles Swindoll. You can find a copy easily online and it is now also available in audio format. In these days of increased confusion and claims of authority, we need to understand what Christian faith means. You can start this Sunday. See you in Worship.