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.