But thus we have reached this formidable word "heresy," and must examine what Scripture says about it. Not that there is much difficulty in what Scripture says: the difficulty is in what has been attached to it from elsewhere.
The word for "heresy" is, as frequently as not, rendered "sect "in our common version. The "sect" of the Pharisees, the "sect" of the Sadducees, (Acts V. I7 XV. 5,) show us the general thought. These were not divisions in the sense of separation from Judaism, but doctrinal parties in it. When Paul speaks of having "after the straitest sect of our religion, lived a Pharisee," he acknowledges other sects of our religion, and certainly could not have meant to use the word in any offensive manner. The impossibility of using the word "heresy" in these cases shows how little our modern idea of it can be taken as that of the New Testament. Christianity was looked at in its beginning as but a similar "sect"- the "sect of the Nazarenes" (Acts xxiv. 5); and it is to be remembered that Christians were not yet separated from the Jewish worship. When the apostle therefore before Felix confesses that "after the way which they call 'heresy,' so worship I the God of my fathers" (Acts xxiv. 14), we must not import these newer ideas into it. They would have used the same word of "parties" to which they themselves belonged; and that was the force of the word,- literally, a "choice," an "adherence." Those who used it did not mean to decide by it as to right or wrong, but simply to classify as different the schools of thought or doctrine which they saw existing. The apostle might well refuse for the Christianity which he professed, that it should be so classified. The term was offensive to him as ignoring the divine revelation which had been given in it, and characterizing it as a mere human choice - an opinion On the other hand, it is plain that he could not have resented the imputation of its being a doctrine or system of doctrines which was in fact, and in design, claiming men's adherence and gathering disciples. This it certainly was doing in the most distinct and positive way. And the apostle asserted this claim (which is the claim of truth everywhere, and at all times) in the very presence of those who called him before their tribunals for it. He could seek to "proselytize" the king Agrippa before their eyes. Yet he refused the denomination of Christianity as a 'sect," and for that very reason. God had spoken in it: all men were to hear. It was no opinion, but revealed truth; and this is the key to the condemnation of ''heresy" in the apostolic writings. There is to be no opinion, no mere human ''choice," among Christians. The one truth claims the allegiance of all. The word of God has been given to us; and the one Spirit to bring us all to one mind about it. All departure from this is to be condemned utterly.
There are but three ssages in the Epistles in which "heresies '' are spoken of. In the second epistle of Peter, the ''damnable heresies " of our English version has doubtless tended to some obscuration of thought. The phrase is literally "heresies of destruction, "- that is, heresies that destroy men. They are brought in by fake teachers, and are. doctrinal clearly - doctrines in which they even deny the Lord that bought them. Thus fundamental error is, of course, intended but this does not show that all ''heresy" is fundamental error. The term is a much wider one than this.
Notice, that they bring in these ''privily" - not necessarily whispering them about merely; for the word means strictly ''by the side": thus, perhaps, in an indirect way, not straightforwardly. Satan, in attacking the Lord among Christians, would naturally take his own subtle, sinuous way. To expect straightdforwardness in such a case is not to know the foe with whom you have to do.
In view of the "divisions" of which he had heard in Corinth, the apostle adds, "And I partly believe it: for there must also be heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you" (I Cor. xi. i8). Here the differences among them were openly showing themselves when they came together at the Lord's Table. These differences came from follow'ing different and discordant teachers (chap. i. 10-13); and therefore he puts them down as the fruit of '' heresies. '' These, too, he speaks of to the Galatians as ''works of the flesh" (v. 20). This is all that we have in Scripture as to heresies themselves.
But there is still one mention of a heretic : '' A man that is a heretic after the first and second admonition, reject ; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, heing condemned of himself" (Titus iii. to, r).
For ''reject," the Revised Version has ''refuse," or, in the margin, avoid "; Alford and Ellicott, '' shun '' ; J. N. Darby, ''have done with. '' Literally, it is ''ask off," or, in familiar parlance, '' ask him to excuse you so that ''have done with " seems to be the best rendered among these. It certainly is not the discipline of the assembly which is implied, and the assembly is not in question. In dealing with a man bent upon having his own opinion and maintaining it, after this is clear, leave him to himself. The reason given is: ''for he that is such is subverted "- rather, "turned aside," is gone out of the way, and cannot be helped: "he sinneth, being self-condemned." The truth bears its own testimony to the conscience; but he hardens himself against it: there is therefore no use in going on with him.
As for assembly - discipline in such cases, we must find the principles which regulate it elsewhere, and not here. Manifestly, the whole question is, whether that which is fundamental is at stake or no. Here every Christian has the means of judgment and the responsibility of it. As to what is not so, one could not expect all to have the same competency. The party-making, if there be such, is to be treated as the apostle treats it, by appeal to the conscience and the heart. The assembly has the right also to refuse what is unedifying. For the rest, God must be trusted, and we must learn patience with each other. The truth can be trusted to make its way with the true-hearted; and authority - short, that is, of the divine - can never help it. All manner of creeds and subscriptions have failed, in all countries and in all ages, to maintain the truth; and an unwritten creed will be worse in this respect instead of better: more uncertain and capricious, as subject to the will of the few, and varying with their character and temperaments, their learning or their ignorance, and with the many influences that may work upon them.
Nothing must stand between the word of God and the soul of the saint; and the Spirit of God must be the only authoritative Teacher. "Ye need not that any man teach you," should be graven upon our memories and hearts (x John ii. 27). only where the Spirit of God is honoured and relied on,- only where the word of God is received, not as the word of man, but as it is indeed, the word of God, can there be the least security for anything. If this be doubtful, where shall we find anything that is less so Nothing, again, must stand between the conscience of the teacher and his Lord as to what he teaches. "He that hath My word," says the Lord to Jeremiah, "let him speak My word faithfully" (xxii. 27). Who shall venture to dictate to him what the word is that he is to say, or to refrain from saying? who is to dictate as to what the Lord's people shall receive - some would say, even listen to - or not receive? who is able to take the place of vicar of the Spirit of God among His people, and to do for them what He Himself does not do, - nay, what He Himself expressly refuses to do,- keep them from all need of "proving all things," by keeping from them what shall need the proving, and giving them only what has been before decided to be good and wholesome food?
Could it be done, (as has often been said, but can hardly be too often repeated,) it would not be well done. It would be just to keep the children of God babes, unexercised, unaccustomed to decide for themselves between truth and error. Were their teachers, possibly, not so competent as they believed themselves to be - possibly in error even, in some things - it would ensure that those accustomed to receive without exercise what came to them from certain quarters, should receive the error now with no more question than the truth. Such principles received and acted on would introduce more than all the evils of an ordained clergy; they would introduce a practical Romanism, which would prepare the way for a large departure from the truth of God.
Such infantile Christianity, as the right condition for the saint, is advocated now in many ways, and in unexpected quarters. I have before me some conespondence of two brethren with a third person; and one of these refers to a book of essays written by rationalistic high-church Episcopalians, "Lux Mundi." The other retorts with a remark as to "his allusion to an infidel book (which he should know nothing about)." There is no qualification as to this whatever. He knows nothing of the motives which might have led the brother in question to read such a book. He is not suggesting caution in such matters. His words are equivalent to a statement that no motives could justify a Christian in acquainting himself with a book of the kind.
This is not as far as others go. They will refuse even to read the defence of those whom they know to be Christian men, and whom they themselves have charged with heresy! One gave as his reason for not reading a reply to his own pamphlet, that "those who read it fall under the power of it"!
Such Christianity is hardly suited for. the days on which it has fallen,- hardly suited for anything but some paradise (if it could be found) with evil carefully fenced out from all intrusion. Such ideas would condemn every book written in defence of Christianity itself, if this suppose a knowledge of what is said against it. But they are as well suited for an entrenchment to keep in error as to keep in truth,-to keep out truth as to keep out error. For such persons the apostle's "prove all things" must be too lax, too dangerous; or it must be intended for some special safe class who are to be the custodians of others, but who unfortunately are not indicated. Their rules would evidently, with slight alteration, suit every kind of heresy under the sun, while Christianity under them would become a mere hot-house plant, to which a breath of cold outside air were almost fatal.
God forbid that I should say a word to induce any to be really careless as to how they expose themselves to what are the attacks of Satan; but carelessness is the very thing induced by such contrivances for shutting him out: in proportion as we can suppose we have done this, we shall naturally, necessarily, be less upon our guard. Where does the soldier stand at ease most? In the battlefield? And shall we prosper by being ignorant - or being "not ignorant of his devices"?
Light, loose, careless dealing with Scripture is the trouble everywhere. Scripture is the pilgrim's guide-book, the soldier's manual, the furnishing of the man of God to every good work. But we must be pilgrims, soldiers, men of God. There is no help, no hope, but in this. And then Scripture, as interpreted by the Spirit to the honest heart, is amply sufficient for all possible demands upon it. Let us trust it, not be afraid for it. The unreasoning cry of "heresy" has for years been used to terrorize the souls of those who, if any, should have been God's freemen. They have been made afraid to look at the word of God for themselves, apart from the guidance of some recognized interpreter; and there there must be no question. People have been cut off as heretics for putting forth that which in a "believer knowing no more" would not have excluded him from fellowship; and again, because they have put upon paper what they might have held privately, or talked about here and there to others, without such action following! To publish what they held was to form a party by it, it was said, and a man became a heretic by this.
We have seen already all that Scripture has to say of heresy, and any one that will can judge. What I urge now is how, of necessity, this view and treatment of it must act to hinder and limit the Spirit of God, and therefore to stop all progress in the knowledge of divine truth. The only safe thing becomes to reiterate the old truths in the old formula; or if there is to be development, this must be justified, if possible, as a development of human standards, not fresh truth from the divine. The Christian gathering becomes thus a sect, or (according to the Scripture use of the word) really a heresy - a school of doctrine. The spring of living water is exchanged for the cistern or the pool: it will be well if it do not become, in the end, a marsh.
Again, the Lord's commendation of Philadelphia must be heard here. "Thou hast kept My word" implies, for all who are to receive it, that they allow none to rob them of their right, which is their responsibility, of knowing for themselves what Christ's word is. The apostle's "prove all things" applies to us all individually, and we cannot commit this proving to the hands of others. No assembly of men, whatever its Christian character, can be permitted to decide for us between heresy and Christian truth. "My sheep hear My voice" is too precious a privilege, too absolute a characteristic of the people of Christ, to permit it to be taken from us under any plea or pretext whatever.
Have I any truth that I believe in my heart to be such,- the people of Christ have a right to claim it from me. If I have any, I have it in trust to communicate to others. That done, it is for them to say whether they can receive it as such : and here comes in the opportunity for all that help which we can give each other by brotherly conference and free discussion, which these ready charges of heresy tend to make impracticable. If there be nothing that subverts fundamental truth, there is nothing to hinder the freest and widest circulation of all that can be said about it; and the more fully this is done, the sooner will that which is of God be sifted from error, and the honest-hearted find what He has for them in it. Exercise as to the Word will accomplish for us the more intelligent possession of what we had before, even if no fresh truth result from the sifting.