Is Anyone a Heretic?
(Test Case: William Lane Craig)
On August 4th, 2010 an article appeared at Ancient Christian Defense accusing Dr. William Lane Craig of heresy for his adoption of monothelitism (the view that Jesus has only one will). I found this intriguing on many levels. First because Craig is, by many accounts, the premiere defender of the evangelical faith today. He is one of the true scholars in the apologetics game - a real philosopher. Second, Craig is a genuinely nice guy. In fact, his stellar character and reputation makes him an excellent test case for this issue of orthodoxy vs. heresy (Please note that I say nothing below to impugn his character or call into question his faith.). Which leads to my next point: more than evaluating the particulars of Craig’s views, my interest in the question has more to do with how one should go about answering it. Is a judgment of heresy an objective one? Is there a standard by which all doctrines can be judged? And if so, what is it?
Orthodoxy in Principle
Before looking at the question of Craig’s orthodoxy in particular, we must first look at orthodoxy in principle. That is, we must ask what constitutes orthodoxy to know what makes for heresy (the denial of orthodoxy). There are two ways of departing from Christianity: a simple denial of the gospel and the other to deny whichever parts of revealed faith to which one does not wish to submit. The heretic is in the second class, and therefore is always a “Christian” in the sense that they do not simply deny the gospel (note: a Christian who moves from belief into a position of disbelief in the gospel is an apostate. These terms are often confused.)
Further, one may be a heretic out of mere ignorance / misjudgment or by an act of the will. The former have been called material heretics, the second class formal heretics. The first type is not truly an act of the will and may not be considered sin. However, once one is cognizant of the fact that they have departed from orthodoxy and yet refuses to repent, these become formal heretics.
Now, the minimal standard for orthodox Christianity from the beginning has been creeds. Some are found in Scripture. Later, the Apostle’s Creed was required for baptism (entry into the Church), and the Nicene Creed which was required to maintain orthodoxy. As approved by the ecumenical Council of Constantinople (AD 381), the Creed is the profession of the Christian Faith common to the Western Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox (in slightly different forms), as well as most Protestant denominations (who typically follow the Western-Roman Catholic version).
Orthodoxy in Particular
As stated above, William Lane Craig drew fire for his adoption of monothelitism, but this is not the only accusation of heresy that might be leveled against him. He also denies the present eternality of God as well as the procession of the Son from the Father (see Is God the Father Causally Prior to the Son? much of which is taken from his chapter  on the Trinity in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview). Each of these positions contradicts some ecumenical creed (in the understanding of the Church if not the exact wording – e.g., “eternally begotten of the Father”).
Craig is clearly aware of his position’s conflict with the Church’s beliefs in these areas. Further, he is concerned over the charge of heresy. This is clear in articles where he makes statements such as this from Monothelitism:
“No earnest Christian wants to be considered a heretic.”
“I don’t like contradicting the decrees of an ecumenical Council.”
Craig affirms the Church’s creeds as the determiners of orthodoxy in Could Christ have Sinned? :
“The doctrine of Christ’s impeccability (or inability to sin) is not some peculiar doctrine but part and parcel of an orthodox doctrine of Christ. It is affirmed by all the great confessions of Christendom.”
Craig also recognizes that the Church has defined heresy in Does the Problem of Material Constitution Illuminate the Doctrine of the Trinity? when he notes that, “The Father knows, for example, that the Son dies on the cross, but He does not and cannot know that He Himself dies on the cross—indeed, the view that He so knows even has the status of heresy: patripassianism” (emphasis mine).
Yet, despite his positive use of (and discomfort with departure from) the ancient Church and the creeds, Craig judges both when he writes in his article Monothelitism:
“In condemning Monotheletism as incompatible with Christian belief the Church did overstep its bounds.”
Why does Craig deem this to be the case and think he has the authority to judge the Church? By invoking the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura. In the same articles above Craig makes statements such as these:
“Protestants bring all doctrinal statements, even Conciliar creeds, before the bar of Scripture.”
“No earnest Christian wants to be considered a heretic. But we Protestants recognize Scripture alone as our ultimate rule of faith (the Reformation principle of sola scriptura). Therefore, we bring even the statements of Ecumenical Councils before the bar of Scripture.”
Thus, Craig stands by his views whether or not they contradict the beliefs of the ecumenical Church and / or the creeds it produced.
Heresy in Particular
Now, whether or not William Lane Craig’s theological arguments are sound and whether or not his heart is in the right place, he has denied Christian orthodoxy as stated in the ecumenical creeds. Does this mean he is a heretic? Well, if the Church’s historical understanding of heresy is correct then yes, he is (and a formal heretic at that).
This is an objective conclusion that has nothing to do with anyone’s opinion or preferred theological position – a Muslim or an Atheist could compare the Creed to Craig and derive this conclusion. In fact, it technically also has nothing to do with the truth. Speaking from a strictly logical standpoint, if the Church made an error in the Creed, then one could be correct and still be a heretic!
Now, some might say, “Hey, no big deal, Craig isn’t denying any essentials of the faith.” Perhaps – but who decides what count as “the essentials” of the faith? Again, the standard has historically been the ecumenical creeds plus various councils and confessions. But if the Protestant is free to bring “all doctrinal statements, even Conciliar creeds, before the bar of Scripture,” then we’re right back where we started.
Further, Craig’s arguments are nearly always reliant upon his philosophical interpretations of Scripture rather than biblical proof-texting. This is not necessarily inappropriate (everyone brings presuppositions to the text of the Bible) – it’s just that the “bar of philosophy” is not the same thing as the “bar of Scripture.” (Interestingly, Roman Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong wrote a response to Craig’s monothelitism using something akin to a sola Scriptura strategy!)
Perhaps one will posit another escape route for Craig by saying that his denial of filial procession is not a major issue even though it is mentioned in the Creed. But, what if such thinking leads to other problems? Craig’s philosophical position could run him into biblical problems since the Holy Spirit is said to “proceed from the Father” (John 15:26). If procession is a problem for the second person of the Trinity, why not the Third? or what if Craig one day decides the Trinity itself is “an unfortunate vestige of the Greek apologists” as many people have? Well, now, one might say Craig is in real trouble because he is messing with God’s very nature! But one’s view of filial procession or Christ’s will (or God’s foreknowledge!) could be seen as messing with God’s nature too. So, third verse same as the first: who decides which doctrines of God count as essentials?
Heresy in Principle
This particular question of heresy is a prime example of the basic problem facing Evangelicals today. The Protestant ideal was that they were restoring the Church to orthodoxy via proper application of sola Scriptura. The problem was that Scripture still had to be interpreted, and so the major denominations quickly produced their own binding confessions. But these could not be universally binding, and without a universally authoritative means of determining doctrine, the Protestant project quickly degenerated into doctrinal disagreements with each denomination/convention/non-denomination making its own competing creeds (i.e., “doctrinal statements”).
Evangelicalism has taken this even further – often adopting the more radical principle of “no creed but the Bible.” Among all the differing opinions there is no way to authoritatively judge between them, because each person was, at least in practice, their own interpretive authority. The best one can hope for is to win a exegetical argument, but when differing philosophies, backgrounds, and education are brought into play, no consensus ever seems to be reached.
The opening question might thus be better stated: “Is anyone a heretic?”
In the end, for those who believe in the authoritative autonomy of the individual, it is not a problem if 99.999999999% of the Church is thought to be in error, because one’s own view of biblical teachings is all he is accountable to believe. It seems to me that there is, therefore, no authoritative means – in principle – of calling out a heretic within Evangelicalism today. If Evangelicalism is to claim the authority to objectively determine heresy, then a non-question-begging, principled explanation and defense of its ability to distinguish between orthodoxy and heresy needs to be made.
That, or just give up on concern for orthodoxy altogether.