Are Heresies Necessary

In Christianity and Liberalism, a magisterial defense of evangelicalism and destruction of liberalism, J. Gresham Machen wrote:

In the sphere of religion, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight.[1]

Machen’s words seem at first glance to be the opposite of a truly Christian spirit, but the Apostle Paul wrote something similar in 1 Corinthians 11:19—“For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you.” Charles Hodge commented on this verse as follows:

It is a great consolation to know that dissensions, whether in the church or in the state, are not fortuitous, but are ordered by the providence of God, and are designed, as storms, for the purpose of purification.[2]  

God’s sovereign purpose to purify His Church and His people through the various dissensions and heresies that have rent and are rending her asunder is often overlooked and seldom fully appreciated. There are numerous controversies in the history of the Church that have actually served to advance the cause of truth. Many have been led astray by those heresies, but the Lord has preserved His true Church through them all. Thus, we should look at the various factions and heresies as aids to the Church in arriving at the great doctrinal positions of Scripture. When the canon of Scripture was completed with the writing of the Revelation to John, all the Christian doctrines were complete. Yet, the Church soon fell away from the truth. Why? Because Scripture was given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit to the holy men of old who spoke and wrote those things for our edification. When the writers of Scripture had completed their task, that form of inspiration was removed from the Church. No one today, or since the Apostles, has been inspired as they were. It was for that reason that God providentially allowed the various controversies to come upon the Church with the result that “those who are approved [would] become evident among you.” With that in mind, we should view the great controversies as representing the things that should be rejected and the things that should be received. All the doctrines were there in Scripture, but it took the crucible of controversy and factions to formulate them into a system that could be agreed upon by the Church. In this article, I want to show how the resolution of those controversies give us the doctrinal positions the Church should hold today.

There were seven ecumenical councils before the Protestant Reformation. The first of those was the First Nicene Council in 325 AD which dealt primarily with the rejection of the views of Arius concerning Christ. Arius’ doctrine of Christ, strongly opposed by Athanasius (‘Athanasius Contra Munda’ or ‘Athanasius against the world’) subordinated the Son of God to the Father and asserted that the Son had a beginning. That doctrine is still with us today and is taught mainly by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Nicene Council agreed on a doctrinal statement concerning Christ that is called the Nicene Creed. Orthodox Christianity is found within the parameters of that creed, but not outside it’s parameters. 

The First Council of Constantinople (381 AD), the Council of Ephesus (431 AD), the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), the Second Council of Constantinople (553 AD), and the Third Council of Constantinople (680-1 AD), all dealt with various heresies concerning the Trinity. Those heresies were too numerous to enumerate here, but they represented theological errors concerning the Trinity; the Person of Christ; the two wills in the Son of God (both divine and human); the Holy Spirit; etc. There were some other issues dealt with by the first seven ecumenical councils—particularly, the denial of Pelagianism (salvation by works) and the rejection of iconoclasm (the worship of God through images and icons). From 70 AD to 1517, the Church made little progress in developing Scriptural doctrine (even though it was all right there in the Scriptures). The dominance of the Roman Catholic Church resulted in numerous errors and heresies. The Church officially held to the doctrine of Trinity, but very little else. Of course, Mariolatry negated the worship of the Triune God alone with the exaltation of Mary above Christ. Also, the Roman Catholic Church did not ever make a definitive stand on the matter of salvation—whether by grace or by works—while siding with salvation by works in practice. Finally, the Church simply ignored the prohibition of the worship of images and icons. All those refusals to contend earnestly for sound doctrine by the Roman Catholic Church made it necessary for the Church to be reformed. Thus, these controversies teach that the church must be Trinitarian (in all that means); Augustinian (not Pelagian); and anti-iconoclastic (eschewing images and icons as aids in the worship of God).

The Protestant Reformation is the single greatest controversy to ever embroil the Church. The truth was and is on the side of the Reformers. They were not perfect men and not everything they wrote was true, but they were exceptional and extraordinary men whose positions on the whole were almost always true. Their labors represented a seismic shift in theology. While agreeing with the great truths affirmed by the seven ecumenical councils, the Reformers focused their main efforts on the doctrines of salvation—which had been greatly neglected by the Catholics. The Reformation was both a reformation of the Church and a revival. The message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone awakened the slumbering Church and swept many souls into the kingdom of God. That was the missing message of the Church for almost 1500 years and the promise of life everlasting through faith in Christ was a new birth for deadened souls. While the Reformers did not actually compose the Five Solas of the Reformation, they certainly agreed with all of them—Sola Deo Gloria (the glory of God alone); Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone); Sola Fide (Faith alone); Solus Christus (Christ alone); and, Sola Gratia (Grace alone). Those doctrines had been neglected by the Roman Catholic Church and that is why there was so little theological progress for those 1500 years. 

There were other doctrines that closely followed the Five Solas. The perseverance of the saints, the native depravity of all men, the assurance of salvation, the saving work of Christ’s atonement, the good works that always follow true saving faith, and the eternal predestination of God were all doctrines that the Reformers held—including Martin Luther (though most Lutherans today are unaware that Luther taught predestination). The greatest theologian, commentator, counselor, and preacher of the Reformation was John Calvin who accomplished more in one life than any three other men could have done in several lifetimes. As a Calvinist, I must protest against the uncharitable characterization of Calvin as a naturally irascible fellow. He was no such person. He had such an attractive personality that others were naturally drawn into his fellowship. On top of all his other labors, he maintained a letter writing ministry that few others have ever done. He wrote kings and princes, fellow reformers, church members, and people unknow to him by face. His letters breathe a sweet spirit of consolation and sympathy. I have read many of them. Calvin’s ConsensusTigurinus was the best counter to the Scholastic teaching on Sacerdotalism that came out of the Reformation.

So, the great contribution of the Protestant Reformation was that the Church was given the great doctrines of salvation—the Ordo Salutis. That was a gigantic leap forward for a Church that was moribund and famished for sound doctrine beforehand. Thus, the Protestant Reformation established that the Church must hold to the five solas; all the doctrines of Reformed theology; and oppose the Sacerdotal interpretation of the sacraments.  

The next great movement for the Church was Puritanism. It is almost impossible to date accurately the beginning of the Puritan Era, but it was a result of the Reformation. When the Protestant Reformation came to Great Britain (where it proved to be a partial reformation at first), there arose godly men within the Church of England and the Church of Scotland who were calling their churches back to the doctrines of salvation and Reformed theology. The Puritan era was the great period of practical theology. Their doctrines were essentially the same as the Reformers, but they reversed the emphasis of the Reformers. The Reformers had emphasized justification by faith first and then the necessity of good works which always flow out of a true faith. The Puritans, while holding to justification by faith alone just as clearly as the Reformers, put their greatest emphasis in their writings on the new birth and the things that always result from true saving faith. That order is logical and to be expected. The Reformers rediscovered justification by faith alone. The Puritans picked up on the Reformers’ emphasis that true faith is never alone and articulated it better than any other group of writers ever has. I cannot imagine what the Church would be like without the Puritans. I cannot imagine a true Christian not liking the works of the Puritans. Together, their works represent one of the greatest treasures that God has ever given the Christian church. Their greatest collective contribution to the Christian church, though, was the writing of the Westminster Confession of Faith—the greatest theological creed or confession ever devised by uninspired men. For almost 400 years, that Confession has stood the test of time and has not been eclipsed. It represents in my opinion the most mature expression of the Christian faith that has ever been put into a creedal form. Thus, the Puritans contributed to a correct understanding of the work of grace in a believer’s heart and to the spirituality of the Church and her ministry.

There are two more great movements or controversies which have helped define a true church. The Reformers were in the 16th century and the Puritans were in the 17th century. In the 18th century, there was a great schism of the Presbyterian and evangelical churches (both in Great Britain and in America) over the Great Awakening. In the American colonies, the Presbyterian Church was split into two groups—the Old Side Presbyterians, who opposed the Great Awakening; and the New Side Presbyterians, who supported and promoted the Great Awakening. The New Side Presbyterians championed support for the free offer of the gospel. The New Side Presbyterians also made another very important contribution to the Church through their support of non-hierarchical church government. A century later the Free Church of Scotland took a similar position in its rejection of the Patronage Act which had placed wealthy landowners in charge of the various Scottish congregations. Hierarchical church government under any form always results in the spiritual declension of the church because it places men in the place of Christ who is alone the Head of the Church. Thus, the New Side Presbyterians taught us to hold to evangelism, revival, the free offer of the gospel, and non-hierarchical church government. 

The last controversy was the Old School-New School movement of the nineteenth century which was over correct doctrine. The New School Presbyterians watered down the great doctrines of the Reformers and the Westminster Confession of Faith. In many instances, their positions were directly opposite of what the WCF taught. The Old School Presbyterians stuck to the doctrines of reformed theology. The difference between the New Side Presbyterians of the 18thcentury and the Old School Presbyterians of the 19th century was the order in which doctrines were emphasized. The New Side emphasized revival and then doctrine. The Old School emphasized doctrine and then revival. Thus, Old School Presbyterians taught us to hold to all the reformed doctrines of the faith without compromise or mental equivocation.    

When it is all said and done, therefore, here is what a true church or a true pastor or a true denomination must hold, if they believe that the Lord has guided His Church through these controversies to a better understanding of the truth:

1. The Scriptural doctrine of the Trinity and all its ancillary positions. 

2. Augustinianism—not Pelagianism.

3. Anti-iconoclasm or the rejection of images and/or icons as aids in the worship of God.

4. Calvinism, reformed theology, the five solas, justification by faith, and the ordo salutis.

5. Puritanism, the new birth, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the evidences of saving faith.

6. Evangelism, the free offer of the gospel, revival, and non-hierarchical church government.

7. Scriptural doctrine without compromise or equivocation. 

Someone might ask how I can so confidently assert that true churches should hold to all these positions. I can do so because these are all the approved positions that have resulted from the great controversies that have afflicted the Church. Paul said, once again: “For there must also be factions among, so that those who are approved may become evident among you.”The factions have arisen and the approved positions that have resulted from those controversies are the ones I have listed above. Truth is on the approved side. Error is on the other side. All churches are more or less pure, but every church must strive to be as pure as possible. We started Vanguard Presbyterian Church because we did not see another Presbyterian denomination in the United States that held all these things. 

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL

Please send any contributions to: Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540        

[1] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 1-2. 

[2] Charles Hodge, An Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1969), 208. 

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