The word “heresy” typically invokes a negative response toward the accuser (intolerant, bigoted, or ignorant) instead of the false belief it refers to. This is most likely due to past historical events such as the Inquisition or the Salem witch trials that remind us of the dangers of heresy-hunting. This blog will address the proper definition of heresy and the importance of confessing right doctrine, such as creeds.
A heresy can be defined as any teaching which contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture in regards to essential Christian doctrine: i.e. doctrine related to soteriology (salvation). A person could posit a theory such as suggesting that Jonah died in the great fish after being swallowed and God raised him from the dead three days later. Although this may not be supported in Scriptures well, it does not involve an essential doctrine and thus would not be a heresy. Heresy is by no means a new issue in the church, as there are many warnings in the New Testament, and writings against heresies continuing into the second century as well. Irenaeus of Lyons (writing toward the end of the second century) affirms the heresy problem in the church from the subjective contributions the Gnostics were introducing with new writings that conflicted with apostolic doctrines. He claimed the false teachers “introduce an indescribable number of secret and illegitimate writings, which they themselves have forged, to bewilder the minds of foolish people, who are ignorant of the true scriptures.”
A legitimate question to ask is who decides what is heresy; specifically what determines what Scripture is. In the overall case for Christianity (without describing in detail), the resurrection of Jesus confirms the claims of Jesus, including his claim to be God. Jesus put his stamp of authority on the Old Testament directly and on the New Testament through the apostles who witnessed his words and deeds. In the New Testament canon formation, apostolic authority was the primary reason for the early church acceptance of books to be included. Any belief or doctrine which does not comply with a teaching in the Old Testament or New Testament goes against what Jesus approved and if it is in contention with an essential salvific doctrine, it is heresy.
This brings us to confessing the correct doctrine or creeds. A creed is a basic authoritative formula of religious belief. Throughout the history of the church, creeds were established to affirm the basic teachings of Scripture. It was understood that creeds are subservient to Scripture and are man-made, but as John Webster claims in Nicene Christianity, “the creedal life of the church expresses each of the four marks of the church: its unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity.” In regards to heresy, the creeds were a method to dispute incorrect doctrine that formed as well as affirm the basis of ecumenical (universal) beliefs. Philip Turner affirms this two-fold (negative/positive) reason for creeds when he states, “the creeds came to provide a means of ruling out certain false readings of the bible and certain false presentations of Christian belief and identity; they provided the basis of church doctrine.”
In the modern church, the creeds and confessions have been ignored for the most part, or relegated to rote memorization with no intentionality behind them. It is not sufficient to just claim, “I believe the Bible” because most cults and false teachers for twenty centuries have used the Bible in support of their false doctrine. Confession of creeds needs to be done in the corporate life of the church as Webster affirms, “a creed is a public and binding indication of the gospel as set out in Holy Scriptures through which the church affirms its allegiance to God and repudiates falsehood.”
This corporate confession of creeds is also important because of post-modern (subjective) thought that has pervaded our culture and the church. Raymond Van Leeuwen states that “Christians in America and Europe have wittingly accepted a worldview that says their religion is a private, ‘spiritual’ matter of the heart, a subjective matter of personal values that have no claim on the real world.” Christianity flies in the face of this subjective thought because of its adherence to truth (what conforms to reality). There is objective truth that can be known and Christianity differs from all other religions in its testability and non-reliance on subjective feelings for its truth claims. Irenaeus affirms our commitment to the truth “Action, then, comes by faith…and the truth brings about faith, for faith is established upon things truly real, that we may believe what really is, as it is and believing what really is, as it is, we may always keep our conviction of it firm.” Although the creeds are not a complete guide to Christian living and ethics, they point to a universal way to do theology.
Historically, the individual believer upon entering the church through baptism recited the creeds. In the early church, this act could put the individual at risk, as this acceptance of Scriptural doctrine put you at odds with the world or the culture at large. Webster confirms this personal doctrinal commitment, “to recite the creed is to enter in revolution against the world and against the church insofar as it has not yet left the world behind.”
The apostle Paul warns his student Timothy of the importance in keeping right doctrine, in I Timothy 4:16, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” Incorrect doctrine as it relates to salvation is heresy and by persevering in correct doctrine, Timothy can save himself and his listeners from believing the incorrect ideas about God and Jesus’ redemption of man. Read the Nicene Creed (formed in 325AD) with a refreshed and new perspective and see if you agree with Webster’s affirmation of the creeds’ inherent value. “Confession is the act of astonished, fearful, and grateful acknowledgement that the gospel is the one word by which to live and die; in making its confession, the church lifts up its voice to do what it must do – speak with amazement of the goodness and truth of the gospel and the gospel’s God. Creeds and confessional formulas exist to promote that act of confession:”
The Nicene Creed
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.20.1.
 John Webster, “Confession and Confessions,” Nicene Christianity ed. Christopher R. Seitz (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2001) 129.
 Philip Turner, “Introduction,” Nicene Christianity ed. Christopher R. Seitz (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2001) 11.
 John Webster, “Confession and Confessions,” Nicene Christianity 128.
 Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, “Reading the Bible Whole in a Culture of Divided Hearts”, 3-4.
 Irenaeus, On the Apostolic Preaching, preface point 3.
 John Webster, “Confession and Confessions,” Nicene Christianity 124.
 Ibid, 119.