An old series from the Against Heresies archives:
The strange thing about heresy is that it attempts to pass itself off as orthodoxy, even as good news. And often as thoroughly biblical good news. The key text here is 2 Corinthians 11:3-4:
But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough.Or in other words, he who has ears to hear, let him listen to what the Serpent is saying to the churches, and that with great discernment.
The language is right (Jesus, Spirit and Gospel) but each term is qualified by Paul. This is "another" Jesus, and a "different" gospel. If you put your trust in this "Jesus" it will do you no good. He is not the authentic Son of God but a fake. Notice that the goal of the false teachers is to break the relationship that the Corinthian believers have with Christ (they are "betrothed to him" according to verse 1). Instead they will be brought into a new relationship with another "Jesus."
Would this be obvious to them? Of course not. It is achieved through deceit and cunning. This is the Garden of Eden all over again. The goal of the heretic is a broken engagement to Christ. It is that vital, loving relationship that they seek to end. Never think that switching from one doctrine to another is a purely intellectual matter.
The preservation of orthodox words with substitute meanings has been a constant feature of heresy throughout church history. In Against Heresies Irenaeus wrote that “their language resembles ours while their sentiments are very different.”
Augustine made the same observation in his work A Treatise on Faith and the Creed:
It is underneath these few words, therefore, which are thus set in order in the Creed, that most heretics have endeavored to conceal their poisons. (Chapter 1)Vincent of Lerins also noted this behaviour:
But that they may with more successful guile steal upon the unsuspecting sheep, retaining the ferocity of the wolf, they put off his appearance, and wrap themselves, so to say, in the language of the Divine Law, as in a fleece, so that one, having felt the softness of wool, may have no dread of the wolf's fangs. (Commonitorium chapter XXV)More recently Francis Schaeffer wrote that "liberal theology is only humanism in theological terms." And again, that:
The new theology is simply modern thought using religious words...Historic Christianity and either the old or the new liberal theology are two separate religions with nothing in common except certain terms which they use with totally different meanings.Rather than going quietly and opposing the truth clearl,y heretics have gone about their work with different interpretations of biblical words and confessional terms. By doing so they loudly proclaim that they are the orthodox ones, they have the right interpretations, and it is their opponents who are the heretics.
Alister McGrath has made this point in his recent book on heresy:
Every major heresy within the Christian faith has presented itself as offering a legitimate interpretation of the Bible and has criticized its orthodox opponents as deficient in the art of biblical hermeneutics.I have previously compared this to the movie The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The host humans appear to be the same friends and neighbours that we have always known, but in reality they have been taken over. In large measure this explains why it is difficult to detect and expose heretics. Their camoflage is authentic Christian vocabulary.