The Critical Difference between Error and Heresy

Cold, clammy, and shaking, my hands revealed more about my nerves than my face let on.  Sitting in a small room at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, surrounded by bright young minds and the brilliant but piercing gaze of my PhD supervisor, I presented my first exegetical paper in a seminar on the Trinity.

Yes, we had to read our papers aloud.

In my paper, I sought to exegete 1 Corinthians 13:14, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” The task was to theologically reflect on the Trinity from our paper. I had the pleasure of flaunting my erudition second.

The student presenting first was brilliant. My supervisor, the leader of our discussion, praised him highly, calling the paper insightful and practically flawless. I remember his short phrase, “I find no error in it.”

So while I was anxious, I too craved ‘wow-ing’ our teacher. I read my paper confidently, sat down triumphantly, and waited for the approval, exultation, and adoration to follow.

It didn’t.

The student who presented his paper on the Trinity before me spoke first, exclaiming flatly, “that’s heresy.”

Silence hung in the air and the teacher did not speak.

I had expounded both the unity and the uniqueness of the three persons of the Trinity. One sentence became my noose. I had noted that each person of the Trinity had their own unique personality. Three persons means three personalities—this is a no-brainer folks (or so I thought)! Having a flare for poetry and illustration, I even likened my ‘three personalities’ conclusion to fashion designers on the runway. The question “who is she wearing” can be answered by seeing the hand of the artist on the dress. It was a perfectly lovely, albeit heretical, illustration (if I do say so myself).

The student who decried me for a heretic (my supposed ‘friend’ turned Judas) was asked to explain his denouncement.  He did so ably. I was then asked to respond to his objection, but I was still in a bit of shock. My best reply went something like, “nuh-uh.” I made some feeble attempt at explaining how my first paragraphs on unity permit me some leeway to conclude three personalities. The apology failed.

The teacher, after a long silence, spoke to my accuser, “He isn’t a heretic.”

HA! I knew my supervisor had my back. He will vindicate me, or so I thought. With his words, my victory was sure to be won!

“He is not a heretic, yet,” he added. The hush in the room nearly crushed my spirit.

He then explained the difference between error and heresy. Error, he explained, is when a brother in Christ speaks something contrary to the Word of God but is willing to receive correction. Heresy is persisting in that error, even when the church has lovingly corrected him. “So,” the professor looked at me and paused, “do you recant of your error?”

He didn’t let me answer. The lesson had been learned. Instead, he picked out some gracious elements in my work, encouraged me, then allowed me to change my conclusion. He spoke the truth in love.

This story came to my mind after attending the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) last week. A question was raised from the convention floor as to the president elect, Ed Litton’s theology. Particular reference was made to Litton’s church website, wherein the persons of the Trinity were described as “parts” of the Trinity. The term ‘parts’, like personalities, implies a separate and distinct entity within the Trinity; in brief, it destroys the simplicity, the oneness, of God. The term “parts” could be understood as the heresy of modalism or even tri-theism.

The implication was that President-elect Ed Litton was heretical. The question of Ed Litton’s heresy was addressed to Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, during his seminary report. If anyone in the SBC is Heresy-Finder General, it must be Dr. Mohler. Long-recognized as one of the best scholars in the SBC, surely he was able detect and root out the heretics in our convention!

This was Dr. Mohler’s chance to tear down a “political rival”—to declare Litton a modalist or tri-theist, win the room, get a recall on the election, and maybe just maybe even win the presidency!

Cry heresy and let slip the dogs of war, Dr. Mohler!

But Dr. Mohler’s response was gracious. Kind even!

Dare I say, Christlike.

He calmly assured the messengers of the SBC that Litton holds to an orthodox view of the Trinity. Noting that he could not speak for Litton directly, he emphasized Litton’s fidelity to Christ and the cross. Litton’s response at the microphone was just as gracious and humble, praising Mohler for his service and love of Christ.

Some saw this brotherly love as a sign of deflection. Why not answer the heresy witch-finders directly? Others noted that shortly after his election, the statement on Litton’s church was edited. Critics of Litton cried, “Cover up!”

Can a person be a heretic who, after receiving correction from his brothers and sisters, removes his error?

It shows a great integrity for a man who stands accused to love in return.

I learned from my time in the PhD program at Southwestern Baptist Theological  Seminary that reactionary cries of heresy often overlook the heart of the accused. Worse, when these slanderous cries come out of jealousy, envy, or love of discord, they slander the name of Christ.

Error is the more loving term.

Error is the word we use to lovingly-correct a brother, not heresy.

There are many hopeful things to be drawn from this year’s annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville. But one of the most concerning things about the SBC right now is that a lot of folks are looking for blood in the water. They want to see error as chum—sufficient justification to snarl, snatch, and swallow their brothers and sisters whole.

The highly-polemical and emotional outrage that is used by members of the SBC on Twitter and other social media channels is abhorrent. None are given the benefit of love. None are granted a generous interpretation.

Highly-critical eyes and toxic lips reveal a heart of bitterness.

Out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.
Luke 6:45 (ESV)

If one discovers a brother or sister in error theologically, don’t ring the heresy bell. Perhaps, Chicken Little, heresy isn’t falling from the sky. Maybe another more loving explanation exists.

Error should be given a chance to correct itself.

The serpent of old speaks in truth or love, but never does he do both. In Genesis 3, Satan is not lying when he says “you will not surely die,” but he wasn’t speaking out of love for Eve either.

Rather than witch-hunting Ed Litton for every mistake and error he has ever made in his career, may I suggest that we rally behind him in prayer? That we see his heart for evangelism and missions and join behind him? Maybe then we can stop being Great Critical Baptists and catch the vision of the Great Commission Baptists set before us.

I appeal to you then, in this one way: let the measure that you use to speak about any brother or sister, be measured unto you.

5 thoughts on “The Critical Difference between Error and Heresy

  1. Great post, and I understand the main point, but I am curious about your “error” of the trinity. How is it that three persons does not equate to three personalities? Surely you aren’t suggesting that the three persons of the trinity have one personality between them.

    1. Keith,

      Appreciate you reading the article and I enjoy the question. To be precise in my reply, I would need to make sure you and I are on the same page on the definition of person and personality. Since that would take awhile, I hope this quick reply will suffice.

      As central to Christianity the doctrine of the Trinity must not only uphold the “who” but also the “what” of God. Both are equally important.

      Example: The name “Father” is a personal name, a who. Goodness is an essential name, a what. And “I am” is the most proper name of God (a who and what). Person ascribes unto God the personal names (Father, Son, Spirit). But personality discusses a “what”— an essential name of God.

      Thereby, when we say God is One, we mean he has one will, one personality, one essential nature. To discuss a “what”— an essential name— as distinct to one person is to introduce tri-theism. To discuss a “who”—a personal name— as unified is to move toward modalism.

      So, three persons (personal names ascribed to God) but one essence (essential names ascribed to God. Not confusing the two (Athanasian creed) is paramount to speaking of the Trinity correctly— to confess his most proper name “I am who I am.”

      1. Thanks for the answer. I think I understand what you are saying, but believe that making a distinction between person and personality is unnecessarily confusing. Obviously, the Trinity isn’t an easy topic to begin with, but there are some things about God we can understand. One “What” and three “Who’s” isn’t an easy concept, but it isn’t contradictory. If I’ve read you correctly, the problem I am having is grasping the idea of, “three persons, one personality.” That seems different to me than “three persons, one essence (God nature).” I believe “personality” is synonymous with “person,” but not synonymous with nature.

        Am I making sense?

  2. I agree with you mostly but shouldn’t someone of Litton’s caliber be more theologically precise than the average joe? He’s a pastor, now president of the SBC. He should know much more than a seminary student. Even a PHD candidate.

  3. I used to think this way as well. But I’ve learned that “shouldn’t someone” sentences in my head ought to be overcome with grace.

    I still have many times in my ministry that I say “shouldn’t I have known better,” but I’ve learned that Satan is the accuser and Jesus is the voice saying, “come follow me.” Shouldn’t David, God’s anointed have known better, or Elijah in dwelled with God’s spirit have known not to despair, or Peter have known treachery is evil? But praise be to our God that He gives grace to the humble, contrite, and broken in spirit.

    In Litton I’ve seen all of these manifest. So my disposition, having been forgiven much, is to pray and give grace.

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