The ‘Heresies’ of 2016: The Year in Controversy Over Christian Doctrine


How important is it to know your Christian creeds and confessions?

Not terribly, according to most Americans. Fifty-eight percent said they believe there is little value in studying or reciting historical Christian creeds and confessions, according to the 2016 State of American Theology survey conducted this year by LifeWay Research and sponsored by Ligonier Ministries.

But getting Christian doctrines right — exactly, precisely correct — matters a lot to enough others that 2016 was something of a banner year when it came to believers hurling charges of heresy at each other.

Perhaps that’s understandable given that next year marks 500 years since Martin Luther — one of history’s great heretics, or heroes, depending on your point of view — nailed his 95 Theses to a church door in Germany, launching the Protestant Reformation. Yet it’s still remarkable that believers today can find themselves embroiled in debates over theological questions, many of which seem to have been settled by the early church.

Here are a few of the “heresies” that made waves in certain Christian circles in 2016.

One God. But whose God?

Late in 2015, Larycia Hawkins — then a professor at Wheaton College in suburban Chicago — posted a photo of herself on Facebook wearing a hijab as a spiritual discipline during the Christian season of Advent, which leads up to Christmas.

It wasn’t the photo that caught attention of authorities at the well-known evangelical Christian school so much as its caption: “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

Wheaton officials apparently did not agree and began termination proceedings against the professor, saying her statements seemed “inconsistent with Wheaton College’s doctrinal convictions.” The controversy spilled over into this year, when the two agreed to part ways.

Not all might consider what Hawkins had to say heresy, though.

The Second Vatican Council affirmed in 1964 that Muslims “together with us adore the one, merciful God,” NPR noted. Most Americans (64 percent) also believe that God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam, according to the State of American Theology survey.

Latin for schism?

Are Catholics now Protestants? On marriage, at least, that’s what some of Pope Francis’s hard-line critics started asserting this year.

The background to their complaint was a major document on family life, published in the spring, called “Amoris Laetitia,” Latin for “The Joy of Love.”

It was Francis’s take on the deliberations of two major Vatican meetings, called synods, at which bishops and cardinals debated ways the Catholic Church could better welcome families that don’t always fit the ideals of the catechism.

Conservatives were upset that the apostolic exhortation, as it is known, stressed the church’s commitment to accept any family in whatever situation rather than laying a greater stress on conforming to traditional sexual and marital norms.

But the hard-liners homed in on one passage, in particular, that seemed to allow pastors latitude to give Communion to Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment.

This, the critics said, was tantamount to caving to Henry VIII’s demand that the pope allow him to divorce.

The Trinity, Part II

Usually when Christians debate submission, they’re talking about marriage. This year, though, they were talking about the Trinity, the doctrine that God the Father, God the Son (that is, Jesus) and God the Holy Spirit together make up one God.

The nature of the Trinity was key to the split between the Eastern and Western Christian churches nearly a thousand years ago.

Those disputes were given new life in a flurry of blog posts this summer, set off by a guest post on the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals blog by Liam Goligher, senior minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.

Goligher said Wayne Grudem, professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary and founder of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and other well-known complementarian theologians have presented “a different God than that affirmed by the church through the ages and taught in Scripture.” The theologians do this, he said, to justify biblical gender roles in which women are subordinate to men.

In short, Goligher wrote, their theology makes Jesus subordinate to God the Father.

Grudem responded in a post on the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood’s blog that it is not contradictory to believe that Jesus is “eternally God (equal to the Father in his being and in all attributes) and that he is eternally Son (subject to the authority of the Father in the personal relationships within the Trinity).”

Most Americans (69 percent) affirm that there is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, according to the State of American Theology survey. But they also seem split on questions of subordination, though their questions seem more about the Holy Spirit than about Jesus: 62 percent said Jesus is both truly God and truly man, and 51 percent said the Holy Spirit is equal with God the Father and Jesus.

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SOURCE: Emily McFarlan Miller 
Religion News Service