I used to believe a heresy.

No, I was never excommunicated. No one ever threatened me with pitchforks and fire. In fact, no one was more surprised to learn about my heresy than I was.

I discovered the error of my ways during my first year of theology classes in Romania. Our systematic theology professor was helping us understand Christology. He spent significant time in the Bible pulling out relevant texts that pointed to Christ’s humanity and divinity. So far so good.

Then the professor began listing heresies of the Trinitarian variety. Eventually, he came to Apollinarianism, which he described as “the teaching that Jesus had a divine soul in a human body.” As he continued teaching, I felt like someone had suddenly punched me in the gut. Though this heresy had never been taught in my church or in my family, it had somehow wormed its way into my mind as the most logical way to hold Christ’s divinity and humanity together. I’d just assumed that Jesus as “God in the flesh” meant a divine mind/spirit wrapped up in a human body.

Logical or not, it was wrong. My professor was telling us that a guy named Apollinarius had thought the same thing and that the early church had condemned him as a heretic in 381.

So here I was, a closet heretic, and I didn’t even know it! What did this mean? Was I not truly converted? Was I an apostate? Up until this point, was I unsaved?

No, not at all. I was a child when God replaced my little heart of stone with a heart of flesh. I had been seeking to faithfully follow Jesus for years, which is why I wound up studying theology in Romania in the first place. My understanding of Christ’s nature was in error, but I was a genuine believer. Once my error was contradicted by the testimony of Scripture and the witness of the church through the ages, I corrected my understanding and never looked back.

So here I am, a former Apollinarian filled with immense gratitude that the Triune God saved me even when I didn’t have a correct understanding of His Tri-unity. By God’s grace, I am reminded that it’s not my perfect knowledge of Christ’s nature and person that saves me but Christ Himself.

Orthodox Teaching Does Not Save…

I believe this story is a good reminder that orthodox theology, while vitally important, is not what saves. Don’t get me wrong. We need to be firmly rooted in the Scriptures as we embrace and proclaim the full counsel of God. The church needs the guardrails provided by our creeds and confessions. Far be it from me to ever diminish the need for clarity and consistency on doctrines of first importance, of which the Trinity is a classic example. A non-Trinitarian god cannot save. Likewise, unless Jesus is both God and man, we are doomed.

At the same time, we need to remember that one can be saved by the Trinity without a complete and exhaustive understanding of the Trinity. It’s quite possible to be muddled in our thinking and still be gloriously cleansed of our sins. That’s why Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Richard Hooker, though standing solidly against the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, could affirm that there were Catholics who were justified by faith alone, even though they didn’t have a firm grasp on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In other words, we are justified by faith in Jesus, not justified by our faith in the right articulation of doctrine.

In the circles I run in, we believe this is a day for firm conviction, not flabby compromise. We seek to be clear on who God is and how He has saved us. That’s why we point out errors that creep into our churches (Counterfeit Gospels anyone?) and why we warn people of bad theology. But in our right emphasis on right thinking, we need to guard against somehow concluding that orthodoxy itself is what saves. After all, the demons have their systematic theology down, but they are still demons.

Tim Keller is on to something when he points out the way in which reliance on right doctrine can become idolatrous:

“Idolatry functions widely inside religious communities when doctrinal truth is elevated to the position of a false god. This occurs when people rely on the rightness of their doctrine for their standing with God rather than on God himself and his grace. It is a subtle but deadly mistake. The sign that you have slipped into this form of self-justification is that you become what the book of Proverbs calls a ‘scoffer.’ Scoffers always show contempt and disdain for opponents rather than graciousness. This is a sign that they do not see themselves as sinners saved by grace. Instead, their trust in the rightness of their views makes them feel superior.” (Counterfeit Gods, 131)

It’s quite possible to be muddled on doctrine and still belong to Jesus. It’s also possible to have all your doctrinal dots and iotas in line and one day hear Jesus say, “I never knew you.”

It’s not orthodox theology that saves but the God whom orthodox theology describes. It’s the reality that saves us, not our knowledge of that reality.

And thank God this is the case! After all, who can fully comprehend the intricacies of Trinitarian reality? Who can plumb the depths of our justification before God? Who can completely understand the Person and work of the Holy Spirit?

Thanks be to God that in this postmodern world of uncertainty, the Bible gives us real knowledge of God. And thanks be to God that the real God chooses to save us even when our knowledge falls short.

…But Persistent Denial of Orthodox Teaching Reveals the Heart

So we’ve established that orthodox theology is not what saves us. But what do we do with those who espouse unclear or untrue teachings regarding doctrines of first importance?

First, we are patient. We consider their background, their testimony, and their views on other matters. We do not immediately assume that the person must be unsaved. We must also make sure that our zeal for representing God correctly does not lead us to misrepresent our friend. Slanderous assumptions and false accusations against a brother are serious. It matters little how well we represent the truth about God if we are guilty of misrepresenting our brother.

But since truth does indeed matter and since the Bible offers us a robust portrait of salvation and the gospel, we cannot ignore or downplay essential teachings that are contrary to the Scriptures. So we seek to gently bring the person in line with the church’s understanding of biblical truth.

Should the person resist, we persist – again, not because orthodox theology is what saves but because truth really does matter. God cares deeply about how He is represented. That’s why we seek clarity. That’s why we want to make correct affirmations.

If a person espouses heretical teaching and continues to maintain the error in spite of clear Scriptural teaching and the witness of the church, then we must eventually conclude that their resistance to the revealed truth of God is evidence of an unconverted heart, not merely a mistaken belief. So we treat them as unbelievers, praying for them and their redemption.

Conclusion

In a time when many people are plagued with postmodern uncertainty and aversion to religious dogma of any sort, it is increasingly difficult to maintain both of these truths – that assenting to orthodoxy does not save and yet denying orthodoxy reveals an unconverted heart. So in our zeal for biblical truth, we must be careful not to assume that everyone who unknowingly accepts a false teaching is lost and hellbound. But neither must we let the truth that a person can be wrong and still be saved lead us to downplay or denigrate the vital importance of truth as we seek to proclaim the full counsel of God.

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31 thoughts on “Confessions of a Former Apollinarian”

  1. So doesn’t this mean that infants can have faith?

    If we should not immediately assume that a person must be unsaved, why are the children of believers not baptized in Baptist churches?

  2. Not trying to start a paedobaptism discussion, just raising the question of child / infant faith, since so many baptists (e.g. Schreiner in “Believer’s Baptism”) say infants cannot have faith because they cannot understand the Gospel. But John the Baptist understood something in the womb when he leapt in Jesus’ presence. So infants may not fully understand / be able to express the Trinity, but

  3. Trevin Wax says:

    Shep,

    That’s a good question for another post and thread! ;)

  4. Thanks Trevin. I enjoyed the post. I think it is indeed important to make a distinction between theological error and theological heresy. There is indeed overlap, but heresy has a component of spiritual unrepentance and rebellion against the Church. Heresy is a word too loosely thrown around these days, especially on blogs.

  5. brian says:

    You say, “I believe this story is a good reminder that orthodox theology, while vitally important, is not what saves.”

    Then what do you do with (NKJV) 1 Timothy 4:16 “Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.” ??

    Scriptures explicitly says here that doctrine saves. Ultimately, though, it’s both in that we are save by the grace of God through Christ’s redeeming act… and… salvation comes through this act in union with the fullness of truth in the deposit of faith as lived out in the teaching of Christ’s Church. We need Jesus, and we need the Church he left us, so that we may “know the truth” and “that truth will set you free.”

  6. Trevin Wax says:

    Brian,
    I don’t doubt that right doctrine is related to salvation, but I think you’re reading more into 1 Tim. 4:16 than is there. Is that the standard Catholic interpretation of that passage?

  7. brian says:

    Trevin,

    As you’d agree, there are many who ascribe to the notion that the totality of the Christian faith is “me and Jesus.” I surely don’t put you in that camp, but there are indeed many in that camp. In this camp, doctrine doesn’t matter, (or, at best, conflicting doctrine is okay), and church attendance isn’t critical… just, me, Jesus, and my bible is all that’s needed. So, my comment is compensation against that tendency in order to defend that Christ gave us a Church with teaching authority, that Christ is its head; that like Christ, it’s got body and spirit (visible and invisible), and that this is his gift to us. Therefore, it’s fitting that we seek out the teachings of his Church and bind ourselves to that teaching. So, 1 Tim 4:16 doesn’t stand in isolation. (For instance, (NKJV) Hebrews 13:17 “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account.”)

    We should want to submit to right doctrine. Is that ALL that saves us? Not at all, and the Church would never say that. Salvation is an immersion into the life of Christ and his Church, and there are pitfalls to oversimplification.

  8. Irene says:

    Thanks for this. Going from seminary prep to ministry “in the field,” I’ve come in contact with people who deviate from what I’ve learned is the healthy norm doctrinally in a lot of different areas. When confronted with their viewpoints (which come basically from cultural syncretism – “if you love them, you can marry whoever you want, man or woman” is a popular one) I wondered if I needed to doubt their salvations. Your article has helped firm up in my mind that it has to do with what they do with Jesus, and who they say He is. Them changing in regards to the rest of it might just be the process of sanctification and maturity, which includes maturing doctrinally as well.

    All that to say is that through studying this topic I’m more encouraged to go out there and disciple women – get them into God’s word and help them see the authority it has over their lives, and change alongside them as we both grow. I guess that’s what Jesus meant about “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20). Thank God for the fact “He is with us” through it.

  9. Aaron says:

    So, Trevin. . .shall we just “punt” on mysterious questions like how to describe Christ’s nature, and/or the relationship of the Trinity? I heard once that the minute you being to describe the Trinity, you are beginning to speak heresy. I don’t think that’s true, but describing the Hypostatic Union is probably close to that! :) Should we just say “it’s a mystery”?

  10. Trevin Wax says:

    I don’t think we punt. I think clarity is vitally important, and yet we ought to maintain an element of mystery. After all, if we could fully comprehend the Trinity, we’d be God. :)

  11. Aaron says:

    ***begin** to describe

  12. Trevin,

    I have not read “Counterfeit Gospels”, so I wanted to ask a question just to clarify a portion of what you quoted from Keller. When he talks about scoffers, is he only referring to those who have been exposed to false teaching or maybe immature believers? I am guessing that he would not take issue with how Paul wrote in many of his epistles to address issues with false teachers in the churches that he wrote to.

    Thank you for the post…I, too, have come out of heresy (converted out of the RCC) and the Holy Spirit is continually exposing me to the truth contained in Scripture.

  13. Trevin Wax says:

    Robert,

    I think he’s referring to people who feel superior because of the rightness of their views, a posture that is antithetical to grace. And no, Keller wouldn’t take issue with Paul’s exposing of false teaching.

  14. Christiane says:

    Trevin, if you can share with us,
    how was it that you came to hold that ‘Apollinarian’ view of Christ?

    Was it taught to you by someone, or is it the way you always pictured the Incarnation ?

  15. Kenny Taylor says:

    “That’s why Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Richard Hooker, though standing solidly against the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, could affirm that there were Catholics who were justified by faith alone, even though they didn’t have a firm grasp on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In other words, we are justified by faith in Jesus, not justified by our faith in the right articulation of doctrine.”

    Hi Trevin – any recommended reading to further delve into this reasoning from the reformers? books, chapters? Thanks

  16. Trevin Wax says:

    Christiane,

    It wasn’t taught to me, and thankfully, I didn’t teach anyone else along these lines. It was just my logical way of thinking that made me go that direction. And of course, in this area, logic is wrong! :)

    Kenny,

    Try Corneliu Simut’ book on the sermons of Richard Hooker. He has some stuff about it. Maybe try some articles if his book is too expensive.

  17. brian says:

    Robert,

    “Thank you for the post…I, too, have come out of heresy (converted out of the RCC) and the Holy Spirit is continually exposing me to the truth contained in Scripture.”

    Here’s a serious question. Who defines heresy? What communal body has defined each heresy and pronounced each as heretical? As a hint, they typically gather as a collection of bishops either locally or ecumenically (usually including a Pope) in councils and make formal pronouncements. So, whether it’s Apollinarianism, Gnosticism, Montanism, Arianism, Nestorianism, etc., it’s the RCC that pegged each of these as heretical.

  18. John Metz says:

    Trevin, very good post!

    Peter describes us as newborn babes who grow into salvation (1 Pet.2:2). A baby is born with life but not a mature life. The baby needs to live, grow, eat, drink, breath, learn, see, experience, etc. In the same way we are regenerated, that is, saved, but have the need to grow into our salvation. Your story is an excellent illustration of this.

  19. Brian,

    The demons correctly identified Jesus as the Son of God…should we line up and identify ourselves with them? Go read Foxe’s book of Martyrs and try to talk about how great the RCC is. I’ve never heard the RCC come out against the actions the RCC took during those times and certainly have not heard them take on the issue of indulgences. How about the Immaculate Conception?

    I’ll leave it at that as I don’t want to run too far off-topic, but I will say that I believe there are some immature Christians within the Catholic church…I’d also say that I believe it is a small minority. And that makes me sad for the lost souls being lead astray by the RCC.

  20. Trevin,

    Thanks for the response. I didn’t think that Keller would have a problem with talking in such a manner about false teachers, but I just wanted to make sure.

  21. Robert,

    The Roman Catholic hierarchy has expressed sorrow over the persecution of other religious traditions and have made numerous gestures toward ecumenical reconciliation with Protestants in modern times. Protestants are now considered “wayward brethren.”

    Roman Catholic theology certainly holds its fair share of doctrinal errors but they are baptized into Christ and trust in Christ alone for salvation, and as such should be considered Christians.

  22. Regarding Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, lets not forget that Protestants did their fair share of persecuting. Christians killing Christians was the story on both sides of the schism.

  23. brian says:

    Shep,

    Kudos for fair-mindedness. It’s nice to see.

    Robert,

    I guess if I was protestant and someone pointed out to me that the RCC has defined the heresies, I’d probably not say something akin to it having demonic origins, though somehow able to accurately define the heresies. Rather, I might say… well, the church started out good, and many of the early councils were accurate, but the church went off the tracks later. Something like that would be a logical response. Launching into demonic origins, killing of innocents, indulgences, and the Immaculate Conception seem to tell the tale of a resentment likely rooted in a bad experience in your former Catholic life. If so, I’m sorry and hope for forgiveness. Don’t give up on Catholicism, and please read through the catechism. You’ll likely be surprised.

  24. JW says:

    So, what would you say is a right articulation, if divine “soul” in human body is not right? I’m trying to sort out wording from content. I didn’t see how you clarified the “heresy” within the post. Maybe I missed it.
    Thanks

  25. Jeremy Myers says:

    Great post.

    I have written some posts about “heresy” which will be published later this week. Did you know that it is actually a transliterated Greek word which means “sect.” When we read in the NT of “the sect of the Nazarenes” the Scriptures are calling the early Christians “Heretics.”

  26. MarieP says:

    I’m a former Apollinarian too! I think there are probably more of those than we realize (and more current Apollinarians). I think the problem stems from the effects of gnosticism on the church. We forget that God made us body-soul entities. When the two are severed at death, we forget it’s unnatural- that is why the Resurrection is what is so much looked forward to, not the “intermediate state” (which is certainly better than this world, because we will be with the Lord). So, it would make sense that, when we have a wrong view of our soul and bodies, then we might err on the doctrine of Christ Jesus.

    Of course, we also don’t want to fall into Arianism here and think that the Son was created!

    So we have the Man who is fully God and full human, and yet He was begotten, not created! As AW Tozer said, “The doctrine of the Trinity is truth for the heart. The spirit of man alone can enter through the veil and penetrate into that Holy of Holies…Love and faith are at home in the mystery of the Godhead. Let reason kneel in reverence outside.”

  27. Brian,

    Who is the head of the RCC? Does this person believe he can make extra-biblical statements that are infallible? What does the term ex-cathedra mean? Does the RCC uphold the idea of the Immaculate Conception? Does the RCC hold that tradition (of the RCC, not the apostles) is at the same level as Scripture? Does the RCC say that there is a certain amount of extra merit from saints (who are sinners just like the rest of us – just read what Paul says about himself) that can save people from purgatory? Does the RCC teach transsubstantiation? Does the RCC teach that if you die in the commission of a “mortal sin” that you automatically go to hell and that justification can be lost? Does the RCC believe that infant baptism brings justification?

    For each of these that you answered yes to, please show where this is supported by the Bible. And please do not just put forth verses that are taken out of context. My hope is that everybody in the RCC might take the Bible and read it and be freed from so much of the false teaching that comes from the RCC.

    I am not some bitter Protestant. I am a person who grew up in the RCC…I was an altar boy, went through confirmation, the whole nine yards. And then I read the Bible for myself and learned the true positions of the RCC and that much of what they believe goes against the Bible. My life as a catholic was filled with guilt…I never really had much assurance and felt like I had a lot of work to do to ensure my salvation. Now I know that justification is by faith, and even that faith is a gift from God. And that I can not do anything to lose my salvation. Because of my love for my Savior, I repent of sin and count on His strength to help my put sin to death in my life every day.

  28. brian says:

    Robert,

    This is the problem in discourse with those who harbor bias against the RCC. We’re talking about heretics, and now you’ve given me a laundry list of of about a dozen things to defend. And defending these is impossible, because you give the “characature” of the Church’s teaching, not the actual Church’s teaching. With all due respect, you’re horribly misinformed, and the catechism will clear up much of your misunderstandings. For example… Who’s the head of the RCC? Quoting section 792 “Christ ‘is the head of the body, the Church.’ He is the principle of creation and redemption. Raised to the Father’s glory, ‘in everything he [is] preeminent,’ especially in the Church, through whom he extends his reign over all things.”

    What does ex-cathedra mean? It means “from the chair” or “from the seat”. Where’s that in the bible? Matthew 23 alludes to this… “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.” But no mention was made in the OT of a particular seat of Moses. That’s because it was the oral tradition, and this oral tradition had such force that Jesus told his followers that when the Pharisees speak on the basis of Moses’ seat, his followers are to do WHATEVER the Pharisees tell them. The bishops united carry forth the charism as had the Jewish leaders for centuries.

    So, I’m not going to address each of these – although that’s fairly easily done – but suffice it to say they have Bibilical roots and can be supported scripturally. Clearly you weren’t well catechised in your Catholic life, and that’s most regrettable. My prayer is that the Lord’s peace be with you, and that you follow him wherever he leads. Many blessings.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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