Don’t we take heresy seriously?

Imagine the conversation should someone turn up today from the 4th Century church and observe the state of our theological debates.  What would they say to us? I imagine it would go something like this.

“Hold on, so you think that those people are heretics. I get that, but why then are you still reading their books, going to the same conferences as them and saying they are your brothers who you expect to be with in glory? Oh and how come no-one has been punched in the face yet?”

At the Council of Nicaea stakes were high as delegates gathered to hammer out what the early church believed about The Son.  Was Jesus fully God and fully man? Was he one with the Father, the only begotten son? Or was he a created being, powerful, spiritual, created before the heavens and earth but created all the same? If the latter then that had serious implications. It would have meant that the incarnation didn’t really take place, God had not come as man. It would mean that our salvation was not secure.

Passions were running so high that a guy called Nicholas allegedly slapped Arius in the face. That’s right, St Nicholas, good St Nick, the kindly gentleman who today we associate with giving presents to children, the basis for our modern day Santa Claus got into a fight with a heretic. 

The outcome of the council was a creed, a kind of statement summarising the conclusion to the debate stating what those gathered believed the Bible taught on the essential truths of the Gospel.  That creed has become foundational for historic orthodoxy.  Here’s what it says:

We believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the Son of God,
begotten from the Father, only-begotten,

that is, from the substance of the Father,

God from God,

light from light,

true God from true God,

begotten not made,

of one substance with the Father,

through Whom all things came into being,

things in heaven and things on earth,

Who because of us men and because of our salvation came down,

and became incarnate

and became man,

and suffered,

and rose again on the third day,

and ascended to the heavens,

and will come to judge the living and dead,

And in the Holy Spirit.

But as for those who say, There was when He was not,

and, Before being born He was not,

and that He came into existence out of nothing,

or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance,

or created,

or is subject to alteration or change

– these the Catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes.[1]

Note that the text here is slightly different to the one we use as “The Nicene Creed” today which is in fact a slightly later creed.  Notice something else too. We are used to creeds that affirm all the positive truths we hold in common but Nicaea didn’t stop there. Not it goes on after affirming belief in the Holy Spirit to say:

But as for those who say, There was when He was not,

and, Before being born He was not,

and that He came into existence out of nothing,

or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance,

or created,

or is subject to alteration or change

– these the Catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes.[2]

The reference to the Catholic Church here is not talking about the Roman Catholic Church which did not exist in such a form then but rather “Catholic” is a reference to all God’s people united by the Gospel all around the known world.

To anathematize someone is serious, it is in effect to excommunicate them from the church and therefore to declare that they are not a true believer. It has the idea of being accursed and is the word Paul uses of himself in Romans 9

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed (anathematized) and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers,[a] my kinsmen according to the flesh. [3]

Those who gathered at Nicaea recognised that getting it wrong on the Trinity and getting it wrong on who Christ is was serious business. Jesus says that his sheep know his voice and so you can’t be a believer in him and not really, deep down know who he is. Heresy is serious business, those who get involved in believing and teaching things that are not true about Christ stand opposed to the Gospel, they are false teachers, wolves.

The church today does not seem to take heresy so seriously.  We see two examples of that. First of all, we’ve witnessed people who claimed to be evangelicals deny the atonement and go on to question that Scripture is God’s Word. Yet much of the evangelical church does not want to confront such flagrant false teaching. There is a reluctance at one end of the spectrum to name heresy.

Yet at the other end of the spectrum there are those more than happy to accuse others of heresy.  Some use the word liberally and openly whilst others clearly insinuate through careful formulas about departing from Nicene orthodoxy that particular teachers, pastors and theologians have departed from orthodoxy and are therefore heretics. Yet they don’t seem to grasp the seriousness of the accusation. It is used as an insult between Christians rather than an identifier of those who not only fall outside of the Christian faith but are in fact seeking to infiltrate and destroy it.

Our fourth century time-traveller would be bewildered and concerned by our casual attitude to the issue. He would urge that if we genuinely believe that people are heretics then we need to act firmly to remove the heresy and the heretics from our midst through church discipline.  However, if we believe that these people are our brothers and sisters in Christ then we should not call them heretics.


[1] Creed of Nicaea 325 – Greek and Latin Text with English translation (earlychurchtexts.com)

[2] Creed of Nicaea 325 – Greek and Latin Text with English translation (earlychurchtexts.com)

[3] Romans 9:1-3