While I'm not really a history expert, I was called on to TA a course last winter on the history of early Christianity. As part of this, I gave a lecture on early Christian heresies about Jesus, and why they were problematic.
If you're not familiar with the term: "Heresy is best seen as a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing, or even destroying the core of Christian faith".1
And so when dealing with the topic of heresy, we might start to wonder - are heretics saved? Or put another way, how wrong can a person's theology be before it impacts their eternal salvation?
Near the end of the lecture, I asked the class this question:
What statement about the salvation of heretics do you believe is most correct?
- All heretics are unsaved, for they believe wrong things about Jesus, and thus worship a different Jesus and trust in a false savior.2
- Only those who were intentionally or stubbornly heretical cannot be saved; accidental heresy is forgiveable.
- It depends on the heresy.
- Heresy is a theological problem, but if heretics trusted in Jesus as their savior, they're saved.
There was a wide spread of answers, but I choose number 4. Let me explain why.
I sometimes see Christians claiming that you must not only believe in Jesus as your savior to be saved; you also have to believe certain other theological ideas.
Some of the ideas commonly listed may include: Jesus' virgin birth, that Jesus is simultaneously 100% human and 100% divine (the hypostatic union), and that Jesus rose from the dead bodily. Other things might include the nature of the atonement, that God is Triune, or whatever other doctrines a person or denomination feels particularly passionate about and wants to ensure others adhere to.3
A critic once said about Jonathan Edwards that "He was a very great bigot, for he would not admit any person into heaven, but those that agreed fully to his sentiments".4
If it were true that we needed to believe the exact same things as Edwards did in order to be saved, then most Christians throughout all history are headed for hell! Heaven would be a very empty place indeed, except for some Puritans and maybe a few other Calvinists.
There was a group of early church heretics who also claimed that only they were really saved because only they had the secret knowledge that was critical for salvation.
They were called Christian Gnostics, from the Greek word gnosis (knowledge). Their views are represented in writings such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, and the Gospel of Truth by Valentinius. While Gnosticism also included a variety of other strange beliefs that the early Church deemed problematic, the name comes from the emphasis they put on having the special secret knowledge necessary to be saved.5
It is in this sense of the term that I believe some Christians are still under the influence of "gnosticism", by insisting that only those Christians who know certain theological truths are saved.
The problem with this is highlighted by Gregory of Nazianzus, who was an early church theologian who argued against various heresies. He wrote that:
Heretics "proclaim to us today a wisdom hidden ever since the time of Christ — a thing worthy of our tears. For if the faith began thirty years ago, when nearly four hundred years had passed since Christ was manifested, vain all that time will have been our gospel, and vain our faith; in vain will the martyrs have borne their witness, and in vain have so many and so great prelates presided over the people; and grace is a matter of meters and not of the faith".6
So basically, if it was true that real Christianity only began with certain heretics who claimed that salvation had to do with particular knowledge not available until 400 A.D. or so, then any Christian who lived in the years before this were not saved.
So whenever we make a claim that some specific theological knowledge is absolutely necessary for salvation, we should carefully consider whether the Church has had access to this knowledge from the beginning of Christianity. Because otherwise we are writing off huge numbers of Christians as unsaved.
But as Gregory pointed out above: Gnostic Christianity cannot be true, for then Christianity would not be about faith in Christ as Christians have always believed, but would be about having the right theological knowledge or saying the correct words in the correct order, like a magical incantation or secret password to open the gates of heaven.
Yet, ironically, Gregory also argued that having non-heretical beliefs was necessary for salvation.7 So Gregory is actually just as "gnostic" as the heretical Gnostic Christians were, because both insisted on adherence to particular beliefs beyond simple belief in Jesus as savior!
Now, it is certainly helpful to have certain Christian theological beliefs. It helps us make sense of the Bible and of what Jesus was able to do for us and why, and build a Biblical and self-consistent Christian worldview. But are these beliefs necessary for a person's eternal salvation?
The Thief on the Cross Test
One way we can answer this question is to see if any particular doctrine or idea passes what I call the Thief on the Cross test. That is, we ask ourselves "Did the thief on the cross know and believe this?"
The thief on the cross is recorded in Luke 23:40-42 as making a simple statement that consisted of three main points:
- That the thief had done wrong and was being justly punished for it.
- That Jesus had done nothing wrong.
- That Jesus would one day have a kingdom.
Yet Jesus said that the thief would be with Jesus in paradise that very day (Luke 23:43). So the thief was saved.
But when we look at what Luke records the thief said, there is nothing here about the virgin birth. Nothing about the hypostatic union. Nothing about a lot of other doctrines that are frequently listed as essential things Christians must believe. We see some hint of belief that Jesus would be resurrected and is some sort of king (or how else could he have a kingdom in the future?), but that's it.
If someone says "Well, this is a special case, because he was about to die and didn't have time to learn any theology", then let's look at all the people listed in Hebrews 11 and see how many of them likely knew these things. When we read Hebrews 11 we see the emphasis is on faith in God, not belief in specific doctrines or knowledge of certain facts.
If someone insists that "Yes, all these people did believe these exact things; the Bible just doesn't mention it," this is presumptuous and cannot be proven from Scripture.
Since Scripture doesn't provide a comprehensive checklist of all that must be believed for eternal salvation, if there really is such a list, then God has either misled us or is not very good at letting us know all that we need to know.
Can we really imagine that an early Christian heretic dies, stands before God, and God says to them:
"Well, you did believe that Jesus was your savior. But, you didn't believe that Jesus is actually the second person of the Trinity incarnate, fully God and fully human. And yes, I really didn't make it clear that you had to believe these things to be saved — I only inspired John and Paul through my Holy Spirit to mention that faith in Christ was all that was necessary. But, because you disagreed with the Council of Nicaea's creed (even though you died before this creed was created), I can't let you into heaven, and due to this technicality I'm going to have to destroy you eternally. Sorry about that."
Obviously, the above is sarcasm. But whenever someone claims that Christians must believe in Christ as their savior AND also believe [ insert doctrine(s) here ] to have eternal life, a scenario very much like the above is implied.
Heresy: Not a Salvation Issue
So this is why I believe that heresy is a theological problem, but not necessarily a soteriological problem. In other words, heresy is a problem involving how we understand the gospel, Christ, God, or some other topic related to the Bible, but it is not a problem that will keep people from being saved.
And yes, we do have the right to determine what we want to be taught in our churches, and heretics are free to go start their own churches. And we're free to debate with heretics why we think they are wrong, and why we think we're right. But we should never say that a particular idea or doctrine is so wrong that it cannot be discussed by Christians. And it is never right to persecute those who disagree with us.
In fact, debating with heretics can actually strengthen Christianity by refining our doctrine, as it did in the early Christian era where councils were called to sort out key debated issues.
As a result, we clarified that Jesus is fully divine, the second person of the Trinity incarnate (contra the Arians). We understood more about how we're saved (that the initiative begins with God, not us, contra the Pelagians and semi-Pelagians), defined the doctrine of the Trinity (contra the Modalists), and many other things that are not explicitly mentioned in Scripture, but which can be derived from it by in-depth study.
So in conclusion, I don't think we should say that only those Christians who are part of our particular denomination or who believe the exact same things that we do are truly saved. We are not the gatekeepers of heaven who have authority to judge others' beliefs and say whether they're saved or not.
We all understand theology only in part and dimly at that (1 Corinthians 13:12), and God's grace is enough to cover theological misunderstandings or errors.
Therefore, we can debate theological ideas with Christians who disagree with our beliefs, while still considering them brothers and sisters in Christ and treating them with respect and love.
- 1. Alister McGrath, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009), 11-12.
- 2. For an example of this kind of claim, see Douglas Wilson, "Foundations of Exhaustive Foreknowledge," in Bound Only Once: The Failure of Open Theism (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2001) 163-168. Wilson argues here that because Open Theists have a different understanding of God's foreknowledge and omniscience than some Christians, they are not worshipping the same God as some Christians, and therefore Open Theists are heretics. This is utterly ridiculous. The question the Open Theists ask is "What does Scripture teach about God's omniscience and foreknowledge?" This is a completely legitimate question for Christians to investigate and is not an issue that compromises the Gospel.
- 3. For example, the Council of Trent said that "No one can be justified unless he faithfully and unhesitatingly accepts the Catholic doctrine on justification." Henri Rondet, The Grace of Christ: A Brief History of the Theology of Grace, ed. Tad W. Guzie (Westminster, MD; Toronto: Newman Press, 1967), 413.
- 4. George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 380.
- 5. Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume 1, Revised and Updated (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2010), 70-73
- 6. Gregory of Nazianzus, "Epistle 102", in Church and Society in Documents (100-600 A.D.), ed. Alan L. Hayes (Toronto: Canadian Scholar's Press, 1995), 160.
- 7. Gregory of Nazianzus, "Epistle 101", in Church and Society in Documents (100-600 A.D.), ed. Alan L. Hayes (Toronto: Canadian Scholar's Press, 1995), 151-153. Here he says that various heretics who do not believe correct things about Jesus are "severed from the Godhead", and they "lose [their] part in the adoption promised to those who believe aright", are "anathema", should be condemned, and are "unworthy of salvation".