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Can Heretics Be Saved? Or “Aren’t We All Saved Heretics?”

I remember in seminary, sitting under Dr. John Hannah. He was out of this world (although some would say, “No, Michael, you mean ‘out to lunch’!”). Students would purchase a special “Hannah quote book” just to write down the “Hannahisms.” There were so many. The things he would say… The paradigms he would cause you to question… The language he would use! Let’s just say this: everything was unexpected. One day during class, we were talking about a certain heretic in church history. As a green student of theology, all I knew was that I hated heretics. Whoever was the “heretic” of the day, he was the anti-hero. The self-righteous theologian in me was glad that he was burning in hell. However, Hannah said something that did not fit in my puzzle. He suggested (even implied?) that this certain heretic would be in heaven. A heretic in heaven? He said that this heretic was “just doing the best he could.” He said he loved Jesus! What? Quickly, the students raised their hands. “Ummm…do you mean that this heretic was saved?”

Believe it or not, I have been called a heretic many times. The charges vary. One time it was simply because I did not believe someone else was a heretic! (In this case, I think it was Rick Warren). Don’t worry too much. I have about twelve more layers of skin than I used to have. Whether it has been my view of Bible, the Trinity, my stance on Roman Catholics and their eternal destiny, or my understanding of Christian freedom, I get in trouble with someone. To someone, I am always a heretic. Don’t get smug. So are you! Sometimes it will be because people think you are too liberal. Sometimes they will think you are too conservative. I have even had my orthodoxy questioned because of my sympathy for those who doubt their faith. There are always going to be people to the left of you and to the right of you. There are always going to be those people who think your beliefs and teachings are destructive. There are always going to be people who believe you are doing more harm than good. There are always going to be people who think you are a heretic.

But here is my question today: How does one determine if someone is a heretic? What is a heretic anyway? And, most importantly, can a heretic be saved?

The word “heretic” comes from the Greek hairetikos. It speaks of causing divisions. It is used in Titus 3:10 for those who divisively fracture the church. Throughout church history, it became a word used to describe those who divided the church due to doctrinal departures.

Here is a definition of heretic/heresy that I have used elsewhere: “A taught opinion, belief, or doctrine that is in variance to an established cardinal Christian belief. In Christianity, a heresy can have a historic value (more serious) or traditional value (less serious). In other words, a belief can be considered heretical to Baptists (e.g. paedeobaptism), but it is not heretical in the historic sense. To be a historic heresy, it would have to be in variance to that which has been believed by the majority of Christians of all places and all times and touch on a cardinal issue (e.g. the deity of Christ).”

And a heresy is not just an error. It is more serious than that. The puritan writer Thomas Adams distinguishes between mere error and heresy:

“There is difference between error, schism, and heresy. Error is when one holds a strong opinion alone; schism, when many consent in their opinion; heresy runs further, and contends to root out the truth. Error offends, but separates not; schism offends and separates; heresy offends, separates, and rageth… . . . Error is weak, schism strong, heresy obstinate. Error goes out, and often comes in again; schism comes not in, but makes a new church; heresy makes not a new church, but no church. . . . Error is reproved and pitied, schism is reproved and punished, heresy is reproved and excommunicated. Schism is in the same faith, heresy makes another faith. Though they be thus distinguished, yet without God’s preventing grace, one will run into another.”

Because many use the words heresy and heretic in a cavalier way, they have begun to lose their value. At least once a day, it seems, I hear someone calling someone else a heretic for something that is not really deserving of the designation. These will say someone is a heretic for being too strong of a Calvinist, for believing theistic evolution, for saying that drinking alcohol is not a sin, for denying inerrancy, or for being charismatic.

Calling a person the “h” word should be done with great fear and deliberateness. I don’t think we should call a moratorium on the word just because it can be very offensive or because it is so often misused. I think it can carry with it an important rebuke with the implications of grave consequences. However, here are the qualifications I suggest:

Distinguish between two types of heresy which people reference

Traditional heretic: those who depart to some degree from the faith of a particular tradition (e.g., Catholic, Protestant, Reformed, Dispensationalist, etc.) or denomination (Baptist, Anglican, Methodist, etc.). Actually, this type of departure should never be labeled “heresy.”

Historic heretic: Those who depart from the faith with regard to a belief that has been held by Christianity from the beginning (i.e., an orthodox belief). There can be two different types of historic heresy:

1) Departure from an essential belief (which should be limited to the person and work of Christ);
2) Departure from a non-essential belief.

In this case, we may do as some and say that only a historic departure from an essential or cardinal belief qualifies as a “heresy.”  A “heretic” is one who not only believes in the heresy, but actively and progressively teaches the heresy.

If this is the case, then a departure from a non-essential historic belief might be labeled “heterodoxy” (“different teaching”) rather than “heresy.” Heterodoxy, while bad, is not as bad as heresy.

Here is how I would designate some common errors:

Modalism (denies the distinction between persons in the Trinity): Heresy – any departure from the basic historic definition of the Trinity would make it into my heresy book.

Open Theism (denies that God is transcendent to time and, therefore, does not know the future): Heterodoxy – to deny God’s transcendence in favor of immanence is a departure from the church’s understanding about God, but I don’t see a belief in God’s timeless transcendence as being central to the faith.

Preterism: (believes that the second coming already happened and that we are living in the New Heaven and New Earth): Heterodoxy – definitely outside of any accepted historic eschatology and borders very close to dismantling the Gospel (i.e. what’s the good news if redemption is not complete?). Many would think it goes beyond heterodoxy because of this. They may be right. I am not sure here.

Universalism: (believes that all will eventually be saved): Heresy – denies the need for the proclamation of the Gospel, thereby completely replacing its hope with a false hope.

Annihilationism: (believes that hell will eventually be vacated with all those who reject God ceasing to exist): Heterodoxy – outside of what the church has generally always accepted about the duration of hell, but I don’t think it is destructive to the essence of the Gospel.

People can advocate heresy in a few ways:

1. Ignorance – some people have simply never been exposed to the orthodox teaching about a particular issue. They need to be educated.

2. Misguidance – some people have been taught wrongly their whole life. They need to be corrected.

3. Obstinance- some people have been taught the truth, but still refuse to conform their thinking accordingly. They need to be rebuked.

When one obstinately believes and teaches something contrary to the essence of Christian orthodoxy, he is a heretic. Someone who is ignorant or misguided is not.

Can heretics be saved?

I don’t know if I want to always connect salvation with orthodoxy. I don’t know how to always disconnect it either! Many people ask this question: What heresy is damnable, evidencing that the person is not saved? I don’t really like that question. Dwight Pentecost used to say that we are all entitled to just one pet heresy. That is Dwight Pentecost from Dallas Theological Seminary saying that! I do believe that one can be a saved heretic. I think we all are saved heretics to some degree. But we need to understand that our “pet heresy” cannot come in an area that is central to the core Gospel message…so be careful which pet heresy you choose! A denial of personal sinfulness, for example, necessarily and completely makes the Gospel ineffective in one’s life. A denial of salvation through Christ necessarily and completely makes the Gospel ineffective in one’s life. In the end, it is the act of unrepentance and unbelief in Christ (who he is and what he did) that keeps us from God, not whether or not our doctrine is perfect. However, I don’t have all this worked out by any means. I have never met anyone who does. Ironically, I don’t know of an historically “orthodox” position on what makes a heresy and which heresies are ultimately damnable.

All heresies are terrible. All need rebuke. While I think that all Christians are, to some degree, saved heretics, we dare not find our heresy in those areas in or around the heart of the Gospel.

19 Responses to “Can Heretics Be Saved? Or “Aren’t We All Saved Heretics?””

  1. Very nice! I loved the quotes from the Puritan Thomas Adams! Btw, I am trying to think of what is my “pet heresy”? Perhaps it is somewhat my stuff from being raised Roman Catholic, and Irish Roman Catholic to boot! Not that I hold to “R. Catholic” doctrine any longer, but I cannot say anathema to Rome either. And I do love Mary Ever Virgin! Yeah she is the “Theotokos” for me! ;)

    Again, great article! :)

  2. It’s good that I don’t care too much for Puritan thought. Personally, I think today, in today’s world, the term is irrelevant and simply an artifact. Everyone is a heretic to someone. The term involves authority, who has it and wants to keep it, or who doesn’t have it and wants it. When the issue of a heretic being saved is raised, it’s too subjective to have much relevancy to me, unless I choose to be part of a certain denominational, or nondemoninational, church, and care more about what they think than what Jesus says, which I don’t (or hope that I don’t). Only Jesus saves. No one else. Not Puritans, Neo-Calvinists, Reformed Baptists, Roman Catholics, Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons. No one. Except Him. He knows what’s in our hearts and will judge us accordingly. If there are errors in our thinking, who exactly decides what they are, but I think that when the time comes He will correct us…with mercy and forgiveness. He already knows we’ve fallen short of Him, but still wants to deal with us. I personally do not question people’s faith if they call themselves Christians. For me, apologetics, while intellectually stimulating at times when it is genuine and not one-sided, leads to division and underlying hatred and anger in the heart. I am personally take an ecumenical approach to my faith (am I a heretic? Sorry.) I don’t get my checklist of scripture to disprove their beliefs if their faith seems to be not what I want it to be to satisfy my need to control someone. I once read a comment by a minister, I think Presbyterian, about the whole topic of the Antichrist. He said that we’re all antichrists if we hear the gospel and don’t do anything. Is he correct or not? So, I guess we are all heretics, then, too. That and a quarter will allow me to make a telephone call, too. I know my faith, I know what Jesus I believe, I know my opinions on things (how to treat other people, namely, according to what Jesus says and not what I want him to say) and don’t involve myself in “issues” that foster hate and fear and antichristian behavior. And I’m a sinner undeserving of God’s grace. So, thank Him for that.

  3. Michael, what’s your pet heresy?

    Good post. Just one comment on your statement:

    ‘I don’t know of an historically “orthodox” position on what makes a heresy and which heresies are ultimately damnable.’

    Aren’t the anathemas of the Council of Trent clear enough on that topic? They tell Roman Catholics what heresies are damnable. And, by the way, doesn’t Paul name at least one damnable heresy in Galations 1, i.e., preaching another (legalistic) gospel?

  4. Michael,
    Father Hopko, an Eastern Orthodox Priest said something I thought was helpful in understanding heresy:

    “Generally speaking, the Orthodox tradition regards the teachers of heresies as not merely being mistaken or ignorant or misguided; it accuses them of being actively aware of their actions and therefore sinful. A person merely misguided or mistaken or teaching what he believe to be the truth without being challenged or opposed as to his possible errors is not considered a heretic in the true sense of the word. Many of the saints and even the holy fathers have elements in their teachings which Christians of later times have considered as being false or inaccurate. This, of course, does not make them heretics.”

    I also wish you would have addressed Titus 3:10-11. (KJV uses “heretic” instead of diversive person [NET] which is more of a schismatic, but Paul is awfully harsh!) I’ve always wanted to see a Biblical theology of heretics and how to respond to heretics, but really have yet to have found one… (I think how to respond is multifaceted and requires a leading by the Spirit).

  5. Those verses are worth another post:
    “Reject a divisive person (hairetikos) after one or two warnings. You know that such a person is twisted by sin and is conscious of it himself” (Titus 3:10-11).

  6. I understand, and here is what I have encountered, To some Holiness people, I am a heretic for believing in the Trinity, To others I am a OSAS once saved always saved, guy, there fore I am a heretic, To the Militant Fundamentalist people I am a heretic for not believing that the 1611 KJV is the re inspiration of Scripture, To some Charismatics, I am a heretic for not experiencing a second Baptism of the Holy Ghost, I believe that I was baptized into Christ upon salvation, I have seen God work in wondrous ways, I know of heretics, people who leave the church and get into in get wonderfully saved. Of course I am not a heretic, to quote MacArthur “I know I am right, if I were wrong, I would change my view” His q&a tape. Scripture say’s allot about this, and I do not appreciate people calling everyone who has a different method [Rick Warren and the like] a heretic, And some things, like prophesy, Cant be a measurement for heresy, unless you are setting dates, and naming names.

  7. “I don’t see a belief in God’s timeless transcendence as being central to the faith.”

    What? If one changes the nature of the God revealed in Scripture, is it even the same God?

    Can heretics be saved? I don’t think you draw clear enough lines in the sand with your answer.

    No heretics cannot be saved if their heresy changes the core components of the gospel: the nature of Christ (Nestorianism, etc.), the Trinity (Modalism, etc.), the work of Christ (justification, propitiation, imputation, etc.), the nature of man and sin (denial of a sin, historic Fall or Adam/Eve).

    To put it simply:
    1.) No one can be saved without the gospel of Jesus Christ.
    2.) Certain heretics deny and/or corrupt the gospel as revealed in Scripture.
    3.) Therefore, some heretics cannot be saved.

  8. Since the ‘orthodox’ doctrine of the trinity didn’t come about until after the council of Nicea, are modalists before Nicea considered to be in error and then after Nicea they are considered heretics?

  9. Michael, thanks for another great post.

    I am reminded of a story I read not too long ago and one that I hope I relate accurately (surely someone will correct it if not). Charles Hodge disagreed strongly with Friedrich Schleiermacher and his theology. After Scheiermacher’s death, Hodge visited Scheiermacher’s congregation in Germany and heard them singing an evangelical hymn. Hodge commented that he could picture Scheiermacher singing such a hymn in ‘heaven.’

    I think this story may fit your post. Thanks again.

  10. I agree that people use this word too lightly. To me the essence of the faith is found in the Nicene Creed, that is the bottom line which encapsulates the historic Christian faith.

  11. I too, have been positively changed by Dr. Hannah! GREAT article, I thoroughly agreed and will continue to pass this balanced understanding along. Thank you

  12. Truth Unites... and Divides November 30, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    I’ve often wondered the same thing: Can Heretics Be Saved?

    Your post is helpful and cogent.

    Modalism (denies the distinction between persons in the Trinity): Heresy – any departure from the basic historic definition of the Trinity would make it into my heresy book.”

    Recently, there’s been a bit of a brouhaha over T.D. Jakes being a modalist or a Oneness Pentecostal.

    Anyways, I’ve noticed that heretics/heresy like to hide in the ambiguity, vagueness, and equivocation of words and terms.

  13. Read and appreciated this article a while back…but it was more of an intellectual exercise. Then I visited a friend I hadn’t spoken with in a long time and discovered that she had become a full/hyper preterist. I think the first time I encountered the term was in this article. She is eager to convince me of the full preterist position, and of course I said I’d evaluate it. However, I am concerned to discover that many conclude it is heretical due to its redefinition of terms and eventual eroding of the resurrection. This raises another question for me: What do you do when your friend becomes a heretic, but refuses to acknowledge they are one? I am not sure…

  14. You write “Universalism: (believes that all will eventually be saved): Heresy – denies the need for the proclamation of the Gospel, thereby completely replacing its hope with a false hope.” Is that true of all universalists?

    Suppose someone was a universalist postmillenialist – that everyone will be saved, if not in this life, but the next; but also that Jesus will not come back until the entire world is converted to the Gospel, and thus the perfect millennial kingdom (a “heaven on earth”) will not be achieved until everyone accepts the Gospel. Would such a view really constitute a denial of the need for the proclamation of the Gospel? It seems on the contrary to propose a vital need for doing exactly that.

  15. The irony is that most people consider heresy the method Paul, Jesus, John and Peter gave for how one receives eternal life.

    “Whoever believes in me hath everlasting life”

    I have rarely met a person who actually believes this. (They say “It can’t be that simple”)

    Much lip service is given to “faith alone in Christ alone”. But then the phrase is qualified (i.e. explained away and dismissed)by saying:

    1. Faith yes, but of course you must also hold out faithful
    2. We are saved by faith alone, but that faith is never alone
    3. We are saved by faith, but it is a faith that works
    4. We are not saved by meritorious works, but we are saved with works done in us through God.
    5. in order to believe, you must first turn from your sins and forsake them
    6. To believe in Christ means a commitment to live for Him
    7. You first get saved by believing, but if you stop believing you lose eternal life

    SO, the MOST orthodox position in Christianity (for it is what makes us a Christian) is actually considered heresy and preached as heresy BY NEARLY ALL BRANCHES OF PROTESTANTISM, FUNDAMENTALISM, CATHOLICISM AND NON DENOMINATIONALISTS!!!!!

    But the “heresy” I believe is the “stumbllngblock” in Christendom in general.

    I am actually dumb enough to believe Christ and Paul’s “heresy” who tells us how to have eternal life….BY BELIEVING ON THE LORD JESUS CHRIST.

  16. Michael is pretty much on target. I like his distinction between heterodox and heresy. Only those ideas that undermine the gospel should be considered heresy. I get this definition from 2Pet 2:1 heresy= denying Jesus.

    I would include non-trinitarian beliefs into heterodox. How does believing in a unity godhead affect the gospel of Chirst? Just because we think it is a fundamental tenant, does not matter. Our heresy definition with which Michael agreed is that only those ideas which demean or alter the work of Christ. How the godhead is composed does not affect His love for mankind, His incarnation, His resurrection, or His saving grace. So as far as I can tell, no heresy, just incorrect heterodoxy.

    Heterodox is not necessarily bad. The historic church has likely believed some erroneous stuff. Just because we all bought into an idea for 2000years does not make it true. Perhaps the Spirit will reveal some new, fresh, before unknown detail in the future. Just because it is new does not mean it is wrong. Regardless of historic orthodoxy. For example, godly men only started thinking about slavery as being wrong in the late 1700s. Yes, for over 1000 yrs Christians in Europe (especially Byzantium) kept slaves. In 1600 if you spoke up that slavery is just wrong because all men are made in god’s image, your idea would definitely be heterodox from the historic church.

    My point is don’t be dogmatic on anything except the gospel. It might be you who is wrong.

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