“Heresy” is a word that gets thrown around rather loosely these days. We will cavalierly declare someone a heretic because their views on eschatology differ from our own. It’s famously been said that “heresy is what you believe, while orthodoxy is what I believe.” But heresy is not the same as error. Not all theological errors or false doctrines rise to the level of heresy. A heresy is a belief held by a confessing Christian that is sufficient to damn their soul. To charge someone with heresy is not merely to say that their theology is wrong, but that it is so wrong that they do not qualify as a Christian and are not saved.
Theologians are much more circumspect when it comes to dishing out the heresy label. It is typically reserved for doctrines that define the Christian faith. These doctrines are understood to be the sine qua non of Christianity: doctrines that are so central to the Christian faith, that if you change them, you fundamentally alter what the Christian faith is such that it is no longer Christian. What are those doctrines? Good question! It’s not so easy to define them. Historically, such doctrines have included the Trinity, Chalcedonian Christology, salvation by faith, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and Jesus’ substitutionary atonement. In this post, I want to focus on Chalcedonian Christology. Specifically, I want to explore the question of whether all non-Chalcedonian Christologies are heretical.
Christology is my theological forte. I have long been fascinated with the historical development of Christology. I love studying the theological disputes of antiquity that eventuated in the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451. Personally, I am Chalcedonian in my Christology, which means that I hold Christ to be a single person (the divine person) with two distinct natures (divine nature, human nature). While I am fully persuaded that this is the correct way to understand Jesus, does that mean that all other views are heretical? I will grant that some alternative Christologies such as Adoptionism are heretical, but are all alternative Christologies heretical?
For example, consider Nestorianism. On this view of Jesus, he is two persons (divine person, human person) with two natures (divine, human). I disagree strongly with this view of Christ because, among other things, it undermines the deity of Jesus. Jesus is not God Himself existing as man, but a human person in whom God dwells in an unparalled way. Nevertheless, Nestorians fully affirm the Biblical data that Jesus is both fully God and fully man. The same could be said of the Eutycheans. They confessed the full deity and humanity of Christ, although on a practical level the humanity was subsumed by His deity. Or what about Apollinarianism? Apollinarius seemed to deny that Jesus’ humanity was complete. The question is not whether or not these views are wrong. They are. The question is whether they are so wrong that one who holds to such views is not saved. It is hard for me to think such could be the case. Does one’s view of Jesus have to be that theologically refined in order to be saved? Is Jesus really going to look at a Nestorian on judgment day and say, “I know you trusted in me for your salvation and lived an exemplary life of faithfulness and service, but unfortunately I have to send you to hell because your understanding of the relationship of my deity and humanity was wrong.”?
Just declaring a theological error to be heresy does not make it so. So why should we consider Nestorianism, Apollinarianism, and Eutchyeanism heretical views of Jesus? Are they deficient? Yes. Do they best explain the Biblical data? No. Are there theological deficiencies in them? Yes. But the same could be said of other aberrant theologies that we would not consider heretical. So why think these theological errors rise to the level of heresy and will cause those who believe them to be damned? At present, I see no reason to think so.