No, I was never excommunicated. No one ever threatened me with pitchforks and fire. In fact, no one was more surprised to learn about my heresy than I was.
I discovered the error of my ways during my first year of theology classes in Romania. Our systematic theology professor was helping us understand Christology. He spent significant time in the Bible pulling out relevant texts that pointed to Christ’s humanity and divinity. So far so good.
Then the professor began listing heresies of the Trinitarian variety. Eventually, he came to Apollinarianism, which he described as “the teaching that Jesus had a divine soul in a human body.” As he continued teaching, I felt like someone had suddenly punched me in the gut. Though this heresy had never been taught in my church or in my family, it had somehow wormed its way into my mind as the most logical way to hold Christ’s divinity and humanity together. I’d just assumed that Jesus as “God in the flesh” meant a divine mind/spirit wrapped up in a human body.
Logical or not, it was wrong. My professor was telling us that a guy named Apollinarius had thought the same thing and that the early church had condemned him as a heretic in 381.
So here I was, a closet heretic, and I didn’t even know it! What did this mean? Was I not truly converted? Was I an apostate? Up until this point, was I unsaved?
No, not at all. I was a child when God replaced my little heart of stone with a heart of flesh. I had been seeking to faithfully follow Jesus for years, which is why I wound up studying theology in Romania in the first place. My understanding of Christ’s nature was in error, but I was a genuine believer. Once my error was contradicted by the testimony of Scripture and the witness of the church through the ages, I corrected my understanding and never looked back.
So here I am, a former Apollinarian filled with immense gratitude that the Triune God saved me even when I didn’t have a correct understanding of His Tri-unity. By God’s grace, I am reminded that it’s not my perfect knowledge of Christ’s nature and person that saves me but Christ Himself.
Orthodox Teaching Does Not Save…
I believe this story is a good reminder that orthodox theology, while vitally important, is not what saves. Don’t get me wrong. We need to be firmly rooted in the Scriptures as we embrace and proclaim the full counsel of God. The church needs the guardrails provided by our creeds and confessions. Far be it from me to ever diminish the need for clarity and consistency on doctrines of first importance, of which the Trinity is a classic example. A non-Trinitarian god cannot save. Likewise, unless Jesus is both God and man, we are doomed.
At the same time, we need to remember that one can be saved by the Trinity without a complete and exhaustive understanding of the Trinity. It’s quite possible to be muddled in our thinking and still be gloriously cleansed of our sins. That’s why Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Richard Hooker, though standing solidly against the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, could affirm that there were Catholics who were justified by faith alone, even though they didn’t have a firm grasp on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In other words, we are justified by faith in Jesus, not justified by our faith in the right articulation of doctrine.
In the circles I run in, we believe this is a day for firm conviction, not flabby compromise. We seek to be clear on who God is and how He has saved us. That’s why we point out errors that creep into our churches (Counterfeit Gospels anyone?) and why we warn people of bad theology. But in our right emphasis on right thinking, we need to guard against somehow concluding that orthodoxy itself is what saves. After all, the demons have their systematic theology down, but they are still demons.
Tim Keller is on to something when he points out the way in which reliance on right doctrine can become idolatrous:
“Idolatry functions widely inside religious communities when doctrinal truth is elevated to the position of a false god. This occurs when people rely on the rightness of their doctrine for their standing with God rather than on God himself and his grace. It is a subtle but deadly mistake. The sign that you have slipped into this form of self-justification is that you become what the book of Proverbs calls a ‘scoffer.’ Scoffers always show contempt and disdain for opponents rather than graciousness. This is a sign that they do not see themselves as sinners saved by grace. Instead, their trust in the rightness of their views makes them feel superior.” (Counterfeit Gods, 131)
It’s quite possible to be muddled on doctrine and still belong to Jesus. It’s also possible to have all your doctrinal dots and iotas in line and one day hear Jesus say, “I never knew you.”
It’s not orthodox theology that saves but the God whom orthodox theology describes. It’s the reality that saves us, not our knowledge of that reality.
And thank God this is the case! After all, who can fully comprehend the intricacies of Trinitarian reality? Who can plumb the depths of our justification before God? Who can completely understand the Person and work of the Holy Spirit?
Thanks be to God that in this postmodern world of uncertainty, the Bible gives us real knowledge of God. And thanks be to God that the real God chooses to save us even when our knowledge falls short.
…But Persistent Denial of Orthodox Teaching Reveals the Heart
So we’ve established that orthodox theology is not what saves us. But what do we do with those who espouse unclear or untrue teachings regarding doctrines of first importance?
First, we are patient. We consider their background, their testimony, and their views on other matters. We do not immediately assume that the person must be unsaved. We must also make sure that our zeal for representing God correctly does not lead us to misrepresent our friend. Slanderous assumptions and false accusations against a brother are serious. It matters little how well we represent the truth about God if we are guilty of misrepresenting our brother.
But since truth does indeed matter and since the Bible offers us a robust portrait of salvation and the gospel, we cannot ignore or downplay essential teachings that are contrary to the Scriptures. So we seek to gently bring the person in line with the church’s understanding of biblical truth.
Should the person resist, we persist – again, not because orthodox theology is what saves but because truth really does matter. God cares deeply about how He is represented. That’s why we seek clarity. That’s why we want to make correct affirmations.
If a person espouses heretical teaching and continues to maintain the error in spite of clear Scriptural teaching and the witness of the church, then we must eventually conclude that their resistance to the revealed truth of God is evidence of an unconverted heart, not merely a mistaken belief. So we treat them as unbelievers, praying for them and their redemption.
In a time when many people are plagued with postmodern uncertainty and aversion to religious dogma of any sort, it is increasingly difficult to maintain both of these truths – that assenting to orthodoxy does not save and yet denying orthodoxy reveals an unconverted heart. So in our zeal for biblical truth, we must be careful not to assume that everyone who unknowingly accepts a false teaching is lost and hellbound. But neither must we let the truth that a person can be wrong and still be saved lead us to downplay or denigrate the vital importance of truth as we seek to proclaim the full counsel of God.