No! Error isn’t always heresy

I’ve recently revisited the “EFS/ESS” controversy, a theological disagreement about how we talk about the Father and the Son in Trinitarian doctrine.  As I mentioned in my previous article, some people have been quick to use the “H word” accusing their interlocutors of falling into heresy. 

Now, charging people with heresy is a serious thing. This does not mean we should just avoid it at all costs. Elders in the church have a particular responsibility to guard and protect the flock from false teachers and false teaching.  We shouldn’t pull our punches on such matters.[1]  At the same time, because it is serious, it is important that we understand what we are saying and doing when we accuse someone of heresy.

By calling someone a heretic, we are not simply saying that they have got something wrong in their theology.  If it boiled down to that, then we would be calling each other heretics every time we opened our mouths as fallible human beings are prone to error. I have noticed that some people do seem to think that way and are so scared of being a heretic that they cannot engage in conversation and use their own words to explain and defend their position but resort to rehearsing formulaic sayings from creeds or catechisms. The result is that they end up failing to communicate.

Heresy rather is the formal and persistent rejection of Christian truth as taught in Scripture and believed by the church.  W Robert Godfrey helpfully defines it as

“Heresy is not simply an error. It’s an error so serious that it would deprive one of salvation.”[2]

In other words, heresy means that the person is both in danger of leading others away from the Gospel and appears to have abandoned it themselves so that their very faith is in doubt. It is not just about differences of opinion or wording, it’s not about getting an interpretation of Scripture wrong or an aspect of doctrine. It is about talking about God, his character and his deeds in a way that suggests that you could not possibly know him or else you would not believe that about him.

It is impossible to truly know Jesus and not recognise that he is fully God and fully man. It is impossible to have the Holy Spirit in your life and not know that this is God himself, that the Holy Spirit is a person and not just a power source. That’s why denying the Trinity is heresy.

This is important when we look at the EFS/ESS controversy.  We’ve said that orthodox Trinitarian doctrine requires that we must not deny:

  • The oneness/unity of God
  • The distinction of persons
  • The equality of the three persons in the Godhead.

Those who have advocated EFS have been at pains to carefully demonstrate that they do not cross any of those lines not merely to get themselves off the hook but because they genuinely believe that it would be wrong to deny the oneness of God and the distinction and equality of the three persons. They are convinced that The Son is of the one same substance, fully God, equal in nature with the Father. They are convinced that there is one God in three persons.

As I’ve explained before, I think that they have made mistakes in their thinking and teaching. I find it unhelpful to describe the Son as eternally subordinate to the Father. There are two reasons for this. First of all this could be read as implying passivity so that it is very hard to distinguish a conversation about the Son’s nature from the Son’s function. Secondly, I think that the language of obedience does not fit well with talk about timeless eternity.  At the same time, some of their opponents have relied heavily on the solution of applying much of what is said about Christ’s relationship to the Father primarily to his human nature and will.   There is a risk with that which is that we may not so clearly see the distinction of persons in the Trinity and that we may end up dividing Christ into his natures. 

The risk is not primarily with the people taking these positions but that what they say may be handled, misheard and/or misused by others in the future that will take them across one of those lines so that they do end up denying something essential about the Trinity. I think this is why some people have talked about trajectories and others have warned that positions (not people) may be in danger of flirting with certain ancient heresies.  I still think that such language goes too far or that you have to at least recognise the risk with all human attempts to grasp this wonderful mystery. 

It is right then to observe that there is a danger that some people might start to push the clumsy language of ESS/EFS in an unhealthy direction so that the equality of the persons and oneness of God will be denied. At the same time, it is right to warn that if people struggle to articulate the real distinction of persons between Father, Son and Holy Spirit or sever the link between economic and imminent Trinity then that may risk others falling into modalism.[3]

However, we should be careful about labelling people as heretics.  There are plenty of things that I could fall out with Wayne Grudem about. He is fallible and so I find myself reacting strongly to his political views, further, even and particularly as a complementarian I’ve been uncomfortable at times with the direction of travel of the Biblical Manhood and Womanhood movement in the States. However, Wayne Grudem is m brother in Christ and is 100% committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  His theology is far from perfect, he has made errors, some of significant concern but that does not make him or Bruce Ware  heretics.


[1] It has famously been claimed that St Nicholas took this seriously and literally at the Council of Nicaea and punched or slapped the heretic Arius in the face.

[2] How Do You Define Heresy? (ligonier.org)

[3] The imminent Trinity refers to the Trinity in terms of eternity, the economic trinity as revealed to us specifically in terms of God’s redemptive work.

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