Heretics ye shall
always have with you
Tony A. Bartolucci, B.S., M.A., Ph.D. student
It was the Monday following a fifteen-hour day on Sunday. I try to take Mondays off. Not that Monday is anything special, but I've discovered that if I try to take any other day off I end up not taking any day off. My office phone began to ring (I have an office extension in my home). I normally don't answer on Mondays, leaving the caller the option of my voice mail, but this time I grabbed it. "This is Tony," I said. The voice on the other end was that of a middle-aged man: "Yes, I have a Bible question." My extension was crackling with interference. "I'm sorry, what was that?" I answered. "I have a Bible question. Is there someone who could answer it?" came the reply. I answered, "Uh, yeah, go ahead I'll try."
The question came out of the seventeenth chapter of John's Gospel. The caller wanted to know why, in light of Jesus' statement that eternal life comes through belief in the one true God, we maintain that to be a Christian one has to believe that God exists in three persons?
The well-rehearsed manner in which he phrased the question tipped me off. My eyes rolled upward as I thought to myself, "Hmmm I'm being set up. This guy has no interest in my answer."
I excused myself for a moment. I was caught off guard and wasn't sure how to handle this. After a quick prayer, I went on to briefly explain the basis for the church's belief in the Trinity, how the English word "person" is rather inadequate and how it was phrased in antiquity with the Greek phrase "one ousia in three hypostasis." The nearest equivalent we have is to say that God is one as to essence, three as to person. I shared how it isn't contradictory and how the church has always upheld monotheism. We are simply saying that God exists as three in a different way than he exists as one, hence God is one in essence and three as to person.
I hardly got through my explanation when my caller started to object. "Yes, but why does Jesus say in John seventeen that it's belief in one God." (Good grief, I thought I already answered that, I thought.)
It was about this time that the conversation turned. My caller was attempting to instruct me! "What are you saying?" I replied. "Listen, we believe that Jesus Christ is Himself God. What do you do with John 1:1: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God?" The caller replied that this verse upholds two gods. Angels are referred to as 'gods' he reminded me. He went on tell me what the Greek words were in John 1:1 and why he believed they upheld his abhorrent theology! Okay, enough is enough. "Wait a minute," I said. "You called me under the guise of you wanting a question answered!? That wasn't why you called. You've got it all figured out already and just want someone to argue with."
"As far as John 1:1 is concerned," I continued. "The construction of the Greek text upholds what I'm saying. That the word 'theos' (God) is thrown forward is for emphasis and the fact that the noun 'logos' (Word) has the definite article while the world 'theos' does not, shows that the Word, as God, has all the essential qualities and sameness of nature that the Father has--He is God--yet He is not the Father."
The voice on the other end of the phone was not impressed. "That is not true," he replied as he rapidly fired off something about prepositions. I again rolled my eyes. How do I get out of this, I thought. When someone on the other end of the phone tells me that a universally accepted Greek rule is wrong, I'm not going to get anywhere. This guy just wants to hear himself talk. Maybe a tough love approach will work . . .
In trying to get a word in through his barrage of unending verbiage, I pointed out to my caller that his heretical view is represented by something like 0.0001 percent of those who would refer to themselves as Christians, that it is no more than the Arian heresy of centuries ago that Athanasius dealt with, that the church has overwhelmingly rejected this view as heresy throughout its history, and that all of the genuine scholars in systematic theology and language agree. And, frankly, I did not have time to waste with a guy who just wants to "wrangle over words" (something we're warned against in 2 Timothy 2:14) But I could not get this guy to stop talking.
I'm sorry to say that at this point I was getting impatient. The voice on the other end continued unabated. "Stop talking!" I demanded. Nothing. I shouted the same. Again, I repeated my demand. The voice on the phone continued without so much as a hiccup. I wasn't only angry, I was getting amused. This is amazing, I thought, as I held the phone down toward my left leg. The man was still talking! "Stop talking!" I shouted again. "Listen . . . listen . . . I'm . . . going . . . to . . . have . . . to . . ." and I hung up on him.
I have come to believe that among the spiritual gifts that God has given me is the gift of discernment. I can sense guys (and gals) like my caller a mile away. Jesus once said, "The poor you will always have with you," and that is true. But He could also have said, "The heretics you will always have with you." This is equally true.
Here are a few signals that you may be dealing with such a person.
1. They are outside of Christian
This is true of the major cults, such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons. However, just as Paul warned the Ephesians elders in Acts chapter twenty, we must be aware that "savage wolves" (false teachers) often arise from within the church. Wherever they may be, in the church or out, whatever their position, Sunday School teacher or Clergyman, anyone who denies the cardinal doctrines of the faith, such as God's Triunity or justification by grace along through faith alone, must be rejected.
2. They are devoid of Holy Spirit
False teachers always have as a calling card a notable lack of Christian grace. In fact, I find it interesting that those who reject the Trinity demonstrate this rejection with their lives in that they have no concept of the grace of the Father, the humility of the Son, or the power of the Holy Spirit. They are devoid of Holy Spirit grace because they have not the Spirit!
Note how Jude describes them in his short epistle:
10 But these men revile the things which they do not understand; and the things which they know by instinct, like unreasoning animals, by these things they are destroyed. 11 Woe to them! For they have gone the way of Cain, and for pay they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam, and perished in the rebellion of Korah. 12 These men are those who are hidden reefs in your love feasts when they feast with you without fear, caring for themselves; clouds without water, carried along by winds; autumn trees without fruit, doubly dead, uprooted; 13 wild waves of the sea, casting up their own shame like foam; wandering stars, for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever.
In verse 19 he adds:
These are the ones who cause divisions, worldly-minded, devoid of the Spirit.
3. They employ godless debate
Few things are as dangerous as a false teacher on a mission. All heretical doctrine is the "doctrines of demons" (1 Timothy 4:1). Those who set out to counter truth are not only driven by their own depraved hearts, but by demonic blessing as well. In that sense, they are doubly-dangerous.
As such, they are often slick debaters. They will attempt to overwhelm you will many words and sophistry. They will attempt to put you on the defensive in order to confuse you with word games. The faithful must not be discouraged by their devices. In fact, there is a time to avoid such arguments knowing that they are worthless.
In that regard, we are warned in 2 Timothy 2:14 not to "wrangle about words which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers." A few verses later, we are told to "refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels" (v. 23). Paul similarly warns Titus, in Titus 3:9, to "shun foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law; for they are unprofitable and worthless." He then says that such men who continue in their desire to argue be rejected after being warned twice (v. 10), "knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned" (v. 11).
In 1 Timothy 6:3-5, Paul gives further instruction regarding such men:
3 If anyone advocates a different doctrine, and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, 4 he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, 5 and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain.
4. They are issue driven.
That is, they are driven by a pet issue, rather than by the beauty of Christ and the simplicity of His Word.
False teachers tend to have pet issues. For my caller it was God's Trinality. For others it may similarly be the deity of Christ. Some specialize in issues related to eschatology, such as a denial of Christ's return and a future bodily resurrection (Hymanean Preterism). Yet others seek to deny the great doctrine of justification by grace through faith. These men become one-issue pseudo-experts who gain lots of experience in ensnaring others into their web of deceit and damning doctrine. Unfortunately, so many of these proponents of heterodoxy exist that they could line a sidewalk from New York to Chicago! Wasting time with them becomes time wasted.
5. They harbor their sin.
How often it is that false teaching is connected to bad living. As I have said many times, orthodoxy must precede orthopraxy. In other words, right belief is foundational to right living. An unholy man in doctrine is an unholy man in practice.
Again, we look to the inspired words of Jude, the Lord's half-brother:
3 Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. 4 For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Note that these peddlers of error are characterized as "ungodly," "licentious," and "Lordless" in that they deny the mastery and Lordship of Christ. How often those who wish to indulge in their sin build a theological house of cards around themselves that justifies their lusts!
One last warning . . .
Sadly enough, I have met genuine Christians who exhibit some of these same shameful characteristics. Men who specialize in trickery and sophistic debate tactics, men who are one-issue pseudo-experts, men who are arrogant, seemingly devoid of humility and grace. These are men who wield their so-called knowledge like a powerlifter on steroids and who flex their arrogant and condescending attitude like Mr. Olympia in a pose-down!
We must strive to be more like Gaius and less like Diotrephes. Gaius (3 John) was characterized by a commitment to the truth. He loved the truth. He walked in the truth and, no doubt could defend it well. Gaius was also characterized by his love for the church. I take it that Gaius had a good balance of knowledge, application, and devotion. Diotrephes, on the other hand, is characterized as someone who "he loves to be first (v. 9).
Even as we commit ourselves to the truth, let us be sure we defend (and live) that truth with humility and grace. I already noted 1 Timothy 2:23, which exhorts us to "refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels." Verses 24-26 are relevant also:
24 And the Lords bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, 25 with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.
Soli Deo Gloria