A Biblical Guide to Orthodoxy and Heresy
Part Two: Guidelines for Doctrinal Discernment
by Robert M. Bowman, Jr.
How do we discern truth from error, sound doctrine from unsound doctrine,
orthodoxy from heresy? How do we discern when a doctrine is fully heretical and
when it is only aberrational?
In Part One of this two-part article I presented a case for doctrinal discernment as a
necessary ongoing task of the church. In this concluding part I will suggest some
guidelines for carrying out this task in a way that is faithful to Scripture.
PRINCIPLES FOR IDENTIFYING HERESY
Discerning orthodoxy from heresy should be done on the basis of sound
principles, each of which in turn must be based on the teaching of God's Word. I
begin, then, by discussing four principles which the church ought to utilize as tools
to identify and expose heresy. Although they are subject to misunderstanding and
abuse, all four -- properly interpreted -- are valid and should be utilized together in
(1) The protestant principle. Here I am not referring to an exclusively Protestant
position, but rather to a principle that will be especially agreeable to Protestants
(particularly evangelicals). According to this principle, the Bible alone is the
written Word of God, and as such is the infallible, definitive standard in
matters of controversy in the church. This principle follows from the teaching of
Jesus Christ Himself, who taught that while human tradition and religious leaders
are fallible, Scripture is the Word of God and never errs (Matt. 5:17-20; 15:3-9;
22:29; John 10:35). Since to be a Christian means, minimally, to be a follower of
Jesus Christ, no person or group can claim to be truly Christian that does not at
least acknowledge this special authority of the Bible.
I said that this teaching is not held exclusively by Protestants, though it is especially
agreeable to them. Both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy (the other two
main branches of Christianity) teach that the church's traditions are infallible and
authoritative, a teaching with which Protestants cannot agree. Thus, these
branches of Christianity do not adhere fully to the protestant principle as defined
here. On the other hand, Catholicism and Orthodoxy do teach that the Bible is the
norma normans -- that is, the norm by which all other norms are to be judged.
Thus, at least in some sense, the view of all major Christian traditions is that
Scripture has the final word. But evangelical Protestants have upheld this principle
more consistently than Christians in the Catholic or Orthodox traditions.
On the other hand, liberalism -- which began in mainline Protestantism and has
virtually engulfed it, and which has now made significant inroads in Roman
Catholicism -- completely denies the protestant principle. Liberalism presumes to
judge the teachings of the Bible according to the canon of human reason.
Accordingly, it should be rejected as apostate by true believers of all major
The protestant principle has often been summarized by the Protestant Reformation
motto sola scriptura ("only Scripture"). Taken in its true sense, this means that
only Scripture is an unerring verbal expression of the mind of God for the church
prior to Christ's return. But this should not be interpreted to mean that truth can be
found only in Scripture or that all traditions are based on falsehood. Nor should it
be interpreted to forbid using words not found in the Bible to express biblical
doctrine. For example, the idea that the Bible is a "canon," or rule of faith, is biblical
-- even though the word "canon" is not found in the Bible. The idea that God is
"self-existent," meaning that His existence depends on nothing other than Himself,
is biblical -- even though the word "self-existent" is not in the Bible. This is an
important qualification to the protestant principle, violated by many heretical sects.
(2) The evangelical principle. In Europe, "evangelical" is virtually synonymous
with "Lutheran," and the principle I enunciate here will be especially agreeable to
that tradition, though certainly transcending it. According to this principle,
whatever is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ is to be rejected as
heresy This principle is based directly on such passages as Galatians 1:6-9 and 1
Corinthians 15:1-4. Here, "the gospel" refers not to the Bible in its entirety, but to
its central message of reconciliation of human beings to God through the
redemptive work of Christ.
This principle implies that not every misinterpretation of or departure from the Bible
is equally damaging to authentic Christian faith. Misunderstanding the relationship
between the Millennium and the Second Coming, for example, is not as serious an
error as misunderstanding the relationship between faith and works. Denying that
Jonah escaped alive after being inside a large fish for three days is not as bad an
error as denying that Jesus rose from the grave after being dead for three days.
Whether the errors are clear-cut or debatable from our perspective, it remains true
that some errors are worse than others.
On the other hand, this principle can be misapplied by treating the gospel as a
"canon within the canon" such that some parts of the Bible become more
authoritative than others. While we may draw more directly on the Gospel of John
or the Epistle to the Romans in our presentation of the gospel, our understanding of
the gospel should be shaped by the entire Bible. Some extreme or aberrant groups
have lost sight of this and have argued that only one part of the Bible -- say, the
Book of Acts -- presents the gospel of salvation. Besides being contrary to the facts
(e.g., Paul rehearses the basics of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8), such an
argument undermines the unity of Scripture.
Moreover, even seemingly less important errors can be symptomatic of outright
heretical beliefs. For example, while some variant views on the Millennium are
tolerable among Christians, other views should be regarded as heretical, such as
the view that the Millennium will be a period in which unbelievers will be raised and
given a second chance to save themselves by doing good works. Clearly this view is
heretical because of its bearing on the doctrine of salvation. The belief that Jonah
was not swallowed by a fish and then set free three days later might be
symptomatic of a prejudice against all miracles. On the other hand, some Christians
who freely confess that God could have done such a miracle hold that the Book of
Jonah is a parable and was simply not intended as history. The latter view may be
wrong, but it is not anti-Christian in the way the former view clearly is.
Finally, it should be noted that in mainline denominations heavily influenced by
liberalism, the "gospel" has typically been reinterpreted and watered down to the
point of no longer being the biblical gospel at all. The evangelical principle must
always be tied to the protestant principle and not pitted against it, as is the case in
(3) The orthodox principle. I call this principle the "orthodox" principle because it
will be especially agreeable to Christians in the Orthodox (Eastern) tradition.
According to this principle, the creeds of the undivided church should be
regarded as reliable expressions of the essential truths on which they
speak. This principle follows from the biblical teaching that the Christian faith was
delivered once for all to the saints (Jude 3) and that the gates of Hades would not
prevail against the church (Matt. 16:18). These texts (see also Matt. 28:20; John
14:16; Eph. 4:11-16) make it inconceivable that the whole church could establish
as normative what is in fact aberrant or heretical.
Thus, the creeds formulated by the early church before it split into Eastern
Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism, and accepted by all three
branches of Christianity, should be regarded as reliable standards by which
heresies may be exposed. Such creeds as the Nice