As sort of a continuation of Monday’s post, I thought I’d offer just a couple of thoughts on the distinction between heresy and a false teaching, as well as heresy and heretic. Technically speaking, one who is a pastor of a non-denominational church can’t really be a heretic, since the standard is going against the teachings respective to a particular church or denomination. As long as the author is working within his own church’s doctrinal statement he is not really a heretic by that standard, although he might be another standard.
That distinction is probably not unanimously agree upon, as one could in some sense be a heretic with respect to the evangelical movement by denying certain doctrines, like say, inerrancy, but yet not be a heretic with respect to your own denomination or your own church. It all is somewhat relative to the standard you are using to gauge either a heretical belief or a person who advances them. From an Islamic perspective, we’re all heretics, (all Christians anyway) but that’s a different story entirely.
Speaking then of standards, the one for determining false teaching, as opposed to heresy, is teaching a false gospel, as judged against the biblical standard (or you could say your interpretation of the biblical standard). In this sense, universalism would be considered by most in the evangelical world to be a false teaching. Someone who then promotes it even in the face of opposition is a false teacher. It is also worth noting that saying “no one goes to hell,” can either be universalism (everyone goes to heaven) or annihilationism (the elect go to heaven, the non-elect cease to exist at death). The former is a false teaching, the latter, while questionable, is not. The reason is that the latter does not distort the gospel per se, as only those who live by faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ actually go to heaven.
Now books, unlike people are fixed in nature. Once a heresy or false teaching is captured in a book it is there for good. At that point, I think it is best to warn that the author is promoting false teaching in that particular writing, but not necessarily say that he is now a false teacher. In this way you are leaving open the option for the teacher to repent, or for you yourself to come to a better understanding of the writing and see that maybe it isn’t false teaching after all. Once you pronounce someone to be a false teacher, it is hard to move away from that position, even in the face of contradictory evidence.
In other words, it might be best to realize that if you do pronounce someone a false teacher, that is a fluid category and the person can move in and out of it. He may later come to see the truth and change his position, in which point, he would no longer be advancing false teaching, but his book would still be doing so (unfortunately for him, while bearing his name). Only once an author is dead can he be placed in a fixed category, but even then it is according to his actual writings. If the question were raised whether or not Karl Barth were a false teacher, one need only consult his writings to verify, but again, it depends on the standard of measurement whether or not you will indict or vindicate him.
If for instance, in Rob Bell’s upcoming book he affirms universalism, that would represent a heresy in my mind, but it does not make Bell a heretic, unless he stands by his belief in the face of critique and continues on down that path. I think he has already advanced false teaching, but I don’t think he is fully solidified as a false teacher. If he promotes a form of universalism in this new book and holds fast to it, then I think he becomes one. I hope though that this is not the case and that the video was in fact just a marketing plot to generate buzz, but from what one person reading the book has said, I don’t think that will be the case.
Being a heretic is a lifestyle, held fast in the face of opposition. It is probably helpful for us to remember that living in continual sin and refusing to repent because we think we are justified in our position is just as heretical as promulgating false doctrine. Some of us, while not writing books full of heresy may be living a life full of it. Few of us are false teachers in terms of doctrine but some of us may be false teachers in the way we live our life.