A Caution to Heresy Hunters

Recently I came across the following surprising quotation from Charles Hodge, professor of Princeton Seminary from 1820-78:

‘It is not enough that a doctrine be erroneous, or that it be dangerous in its tendency; if it be not subversive of one or more of the constituent elements of the Reformed faith, it is not incompatible with the honest adopting of our Confession. It cannot be denied that ever since the Reformation, more or less diversity in the statement and explanation of the doctrines of Calvinism has prevailed in the Reformed Churches.’ (David B. Calhoun, Princeton Seminary, Faith and Learning, 1812-1868, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994, p.217)

Charles Hodge was one of the leading exponents and defenders of the Reformed faith in the 19th century, yet he showed a remarkable tolerance towards those who did not see things in theology in exactly the same way as he did. In its historical context, Hodge was referring those who held to ‘the New Divinity’ (also called Edwardseanism, Consistent Calvinism or Hopkinsianism). Amongst other things its adherents presented the atonement as the outworking of God’s love or a demonstration of his moral government rather than as a substitutionary satisfaction for sin.

Now, I am certainly not defending the New Divinity; nor am I necessarily defending every word of Hodge’s statement. But I have been struck by the irenic and catholic spirit of his words in the light of a number of recent theological controversies both at home and abroad in which some parties have been very quick to use the word ‘heresy’ and to accuse those on the other side of a great deal more besides.

Sadly, when Christians with strong view disagree on points of theology, they often fall into using overblown language and a tone that lacks the gentleness that is commanded or exemplified at least thirteen times in the New Testament. In particular when we are disagreeing with brothers about areas of theology that are somewhat speculative, let’s be very careful not to rush to judgment and revoke their Reformed credentials.


  1. Matthew April 21, 2017 at 11:03 am #

    When do we confront what we see as heresy?

    I mean this as a genuine question. My pastor is currently looking into a book study for the men written by someone that, at best, is a semi-pelagian (he claims that Christ’s blood wiped out original sin for all men so we start fresh from birth). While the book in question isn’t filled with heresy, per se (it is rather man centered, though), I find it to be an implicit endorsement of the man’s ministry.

    Would I be wrong in confronting the pastor?

    • Warren Peel May 2, 2017 at 12:16 pm #

      Thanks for your question, Matthew – so sorry it’s taken a while to reply; I was away most of last week at a Pastors’ Conference. All I’m really pleading for is that we should be very very slow to jump on someone and call them a heretic. I can’t really comment on the book you mention without knowing specifics, but if the author really does believe what you think (and just because we think an author holds a certain view doesn’t necessarily mean that he does!) then you should certainly have a chat with your Pastor about it (I would say you definitely shouldn’t ‘confront’ him about it, which sounds quite a combative approach to a shepherd of your soul who is over you in the Lord!). It may be he isn’t aware of the author’s views and will appreciate having them pointed out. My concern is that there are some Christians who would be ready to have their Pastor brought up on heresy charges for using such a book! And with a lot of these questions it is a question of degree – there are many books that have been written that are very helpful in all kinds of ways, even though their authors have gone wrong on a number of points. How badly wrong does someone have to be before their books should be avoided? That would probably be a useful blog article…!

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