What constitutes heresy? That’s a question addressed in a report to the Christian Reformed Church’s synod, the denomination’s broadest assembly—still on hold due to cancelations because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Synod 2019 requested the report after it was asked to declare Kinism, a theology that teaches that the races should remain separate, among other things, to be heresy. In many respects, Kinism resembles the theology that supported apartheid in South Africa. In 1984, synod declared apartheid a sin and the theological justification of apartheid a heresy. Taking its cue from the decision on apartheid, Synod 2019 declared Kinism a heresy.
But this declaration led to questions. Synod asked how to define heresy, noting that not all theological differences are heresies. Christians can differ from each other, even on important doctrines, and not call each other “heretics.” Synod 1984 used, as a working definition for heresy, “a theological view or doctrine that is in conflict with the teachings of Scripture as interpreted by the Reformed confessions” (Acts of Synod 1984, p. 179). But Synod 2019 observed that definition is “too broad” (Acts of Synod 2019, p. 819). Baptists, for example, differ from the Reformed confessions in their views of baptism, but this does not make them heretics. Synod, expressing the need for more reflection on what constitutes heresy, asked the Council of Delegates (the denomination’s governance board) to convene a group of scholars to study the issue and report to Synod 2020.
The report of the study group was included in the Agenda for Synod 2020 (pp. 68-77) and, because of the subsequent cancelations of synod, has yet to be taken up.
Heresy Described, Not Defined
Briefly surveying heresy in the Bible and subsequent Christian history, the authors of the report settled on a descriptive approach rather than trying to nail down a tight definition. They list a set of characteristics of heresy. Heresies, they say, are serious distortions or denials of core Christian teachings. Heresies tend to mislead people, to cause confusion in the church, and to bring disrepute to the gospel. Heretics exhibit a stubborn refusal to be corrected and destroy the unity of the church. Heresy in this respect is not only a theological but a moral matter.
The characteristics of heresy laid out in the Council of Delegates’ report are meant “to help future discussions in the assemblies of the CRCNA when determining what heresy is and what heresy is not” (Agenda for Synod 2020 p. 69). The report amply cautions future synods that declarations of heresy should be a last resort. The church, they say, should “not be quick to designate people or movements as heretical” (Agenda for Synod 2020 p. 76).
Putting the Definition to the Test
Classis Illiana has not waited for the study on heresy to be approved by synod before using the report’s findings to pursue another declaration of heresy. Published as Overture 12 in the Agenda for Synod 2021 (an overture is a formal proposal to synod), the request asks synod to declare denials of the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement as heresy. They define penal substitutionary atonement as “the historic Christian belief that Jesus satisfied God’s wrath against our sin at the cross” (Agenda for Synod 2021, p.377).
Classis Illiana says this is necessary because, “We must be diligent in defending the historic Christian faith, especially when denials such as these are within our own walls.” To make the point that such denials as these are within the walls, the classis has included in the overture sermon excerpts “preached from a pulpit in the CRCNA,” which they believe demonstrate heretical departure from the church’s teaching on atonement. What is at stake here is not whether Christ died for sinners. Both Illiana and the minister whose sermons are quoted in the overture believe that Jesus died to atone for sin. The quoted sermons suggest there are other ways to understand the cross that do not involve the view that what’s at issue in the atonement of sinners is satisfying the wrath of God.
The broad history of Christianity reveals a variety of views on the atonement. Theological teachings have included the victory of Christ over the powers of evil favored by the early church, the medieval idea of the cross as a demonstration of God’s love teaching us how to live, and the later emphasis on the death of Christ as substituting for us. Each of these views has found support in Scripture.
The question facing Synod 2022 is whether the denial of one such view, the theology of penal substitutionary atonement, constitutes heresy.
The classis is asking that synod “declare that any officebearer who explicitly denies penal substitutionary atonement or promotes teachings contrary to the penal substitutionary atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ is worthy of special discipline in accordance with Church Order Article 83.” That article requires suspension or deposition of any persons bearing office in the church who “in any way seriously deviate from sound doctrine and godly conduct” (Church Order, p. 97).