Click here for General Assembly coverage

The Heresy of Division

The range of responses to Alexander McKelway's reflections on the theology of homosexuality illustrates the diversity of perspectives in the Presbyterian Church today. Without commenting on the merits of what is said, I wish merely to note that each position is offered in good faith, and that each has a certain Christian plausibility to it.

By this I mean that each proceeds from some element of truth in the Christian faith to reach a particular conclusion. We need not agree with each conclusion! Indeed this would be impossible, since the conclusions are divergent and in some cases contradict one another. But we should at least acknowledge that the debate being carried on here is itself a Christian debate.

This is an important thing to recognize, since the atmosphere in the church today has been clouded by charges and counter-charges to the effect that certain views constitute heresy, or even worse, apostasy. To say the least, it is difficult to have honest and frank discussions when, before they are barely begun, charges such as these hang over our proceedings. In order to clarify things, then, it may be useful to revisit some old definitions.

The term heresy comes from the Greek, haeresis, which means choice. A heretic is not someone who tries to think through a doctrine in a new way but one who chooses to reject that doctrine altogether. An example would be to deny flatly the Nicene belief that in Jesus Christ we are confronted by true divinity and true humanity. However, simply to think through anew what counts as true divinity or true humanity would not be heresy, nor is it heresy simply to make a theological mistake. According to the definition provided by the Faith and Order Conference in Lucerne, a heresy is not an unintended doctrinal error; rather, it is an error of doctrine that is deliberately proclaimed against established norms of the church and one that affects vital matters of teaching.

Such vital matters of teaching are often called dogma, which signals a decision that the whole church has made and that is irreversible. The list of ecumenically agreed and irreversible dogmas is not very long. It includes the unity of Old and New Testaments (against Marcion), “triunity” of God (against Arius and others), the two natures of Christ (mentioned above), the necessity of prevenient grace (against Pelagius), the unity of the church (against Donatus) and so forth. There are many things about which there simply is no dogmatic agreement. For example, there has never been any dogmatically and irreversibly agreed to theory on something as important as the atonement, though certainly substitutionary atonement has held pride of place in the Reformed churches.

To put the point another way, it is possible to agree over what a doctrine is but disagree over how to interpret and to apply that same doctrine. To deny the centrality of atonement would be a heresy, to propose an alternative theory of atonement is not. Concerning our present disputes, to deny the centrality of marriage might well be a heresy, to propose a different way of understanding marriage is certainly not.

A more serious charge is apostasy. According to the definitions carved out at the Faith and Order Conference in Lucerne, apostasy is the denial of the lordship of Jesus Christ in attitude, mind or action. Apostasy is not merely an error in doctrine but a stance taken that denies who Jesus Christ is. For example, during the Roman persecution of the church in the early fourth century, certain Christians renounced Christ — clearly an apostasy — even though they did it to save their own lives. At the same time certain bishops, without explicitly renouncing Christ, compromised with the Roman authorities by handing over to them the sacred Scriptures of the church. Many considered this to be apostasy, which in turn led the church to a division — schism.

A schism is a breaching of Christian fellowship. Lucerne defined it as either a breach between roughly identical organizations arising from religious, personal or social reasons; or a wider separation of groups concerning a matter of disputed doctrine. The advocacy of schism can amount to its own kind of heresy. Just such a thing happened concerning the ancient persecutions I just mentioned. In their aftermath, certain people were ordained and others baptized by bishops who had compromised with the Roman government. One group, Donatists, claimed that these ordinations and baptisms were impure because the bishops were impure. Another group, led by Augustine of Hippo, held that the purity of the sacraments does not rest on the purity of the one who administered them but on the grace of God. Hence, schism was not warranted.

To return to our present debate, some will read in frustration the divergent views being presented this week and be tempted to say, “There’s no chance of agreement; let’s just split.” A recent overture to the General Assembly (which was defeated) provided for just such a possibility. This should come as no surprise, since the besetting sin of Presbyterianism has been neither apostasy nor heresy but schism. Historically speaking, Presbyterians have been strong on Bible and strong on theology, which has kept us free from apostasy and heresy, but it has made us rather hard-headed when it comes to considering alternative points of view.

When I read the divergent opinions in The Outlook forum, what I detect is neither heresy nor apostasy but well-intentioned Christians grappling with how they understand the claims of the gospel. Let us remember the teaching of Augustine: to advocate a breach of fellowship under such circumstances as these is not just a rejection of certain Christians with whom we disagree, it could well be a rejection of the grace of God.


William Stacy Johnson is the Arthur M. Adams Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary.