Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Roger Olson, "Heresy, Heretics & Semi-Pelagianism"

The recent “dust up” over possible semi-Pelagianism among certain Baptists has given rise to the usual confusion about terms like “heresy” and “heretic.” So let’s clear things up a little (hopefully).

What makes a belief “heresy?” Well, there’s no easy answer to that unless it is within a church or denomination that has a formal magisterium. Such as the Roman Catholic Church. Some beliefs have been formally “anathematized” by a council or a pope. Then they are heresies. Somewhere, several times over the centuries, what we have been calling “semi-Pelagianism” here has been declared heresy by that Church. Some Protestant churches have also declared it heresy. Not all. If a belief has been formally declared anathema or heresy by a church magisterium, then, within that church or denomination it is heresy–there. Whether it is heresy outside that church or denomination is a difficult question. For example, what sense would it make to say that a Buddhist is teaching the “Nestorian heresy?” However, a Catholic, for example, might say that a certain Protestant is teaching that heresy. But “heresy” has somewhat different meanings even there–inside and outside that church.

Many “free churches” have no magisterium or even formal, written statement of faith. For example, the American Baptist Churches, U.S.A. is a denomination without a magisterium or formal, written statement of faith that could be used as an instrument of doctrinal accountability. So “heresy” is a very problematic concept there. Still, an ABCUSA leader or theologians might say that a person within the denomination is teaching heresy. That’s meaningless unless they explain what they mean by “heresy.” Usually in such a context it means a belief believed to be seriously contrary to the gospel or Baptist practice. For example, a conservative ABCUSA person might say “Such-and-such a pastor is teaching the heresy of universalism.”  But since there’s no agreed on list of heresies in that denomination, the person using the term can only mean ‘I think that pastor is teaching a doctrine contrary to the gospel” or to Baptist practice. In other words, in that context, “heresy” has no teeth other than the damage that might be done to a person’s reputation.
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