On Diagnosing Heretics

According to the Apostolic Fathers (from the early to mid 2nd century) Simon Magus (or Simon of Samaria) was the first heretic (Acts 8:18–24).

Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.”

When I first read this narrative carefully, in the summer of 1979 (in Phillip’s NT) I was struck with Peter’s bluntness. There are other things, however, with which to be impressed, namely, the grounds of Peter’s condemnation of Simon. Surely Simon was guilty of gross theological error. He was a heretic. He completely misunderstood the nature of grace, the way the Spirit works in the world. Simon thought like a pagan, that gods are just powers to be possessed for our use. He ignorantly and wickedly thought that the power of the Holy Spirit can be bought and sold (hence our term, “simony”). That much is evident from the text.

Peter, however, articulates another ground for condemning Simon the heretic: his heart: “For your heart is not right with God.” Simon, Peter said, “was in the “gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” He called Simon not, first of all, to change his theology but to acknowledge his sin, to repent of it by turning to God for forgiveness. Simon’s primary problem was not bad theology but a bad heart. His problem was as much a spiritual problem as it was an intellectual problem.

We may speak of a priority of of one faculty over another but of course these faculties are intertwined. This narrative reminds us that, when we face heresy we are also facing spiritual matters. Judging from Peter’s analysis the first thing to address is the heart or the spiritual darkness of which the heresy may be only the symptom. The heart belongs to God. We are not the Holy Spirit. We only speak God’s Word but it is the Spirit who convicts and who brings the dead to life.

This is not to say that we should be intellectually lazy when dealing with heretics but it is to say that we should avoid the temptation to reduce every theological heresy to an intellectual matter. Peter did not do so nor did the early Fathers. They also recognized the spiritual component in heresy. This means that prayer is not just an after thought in confronting heresy but perhaps the first tool of orthodoxy.

Paul says in Ephesians 6:12:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places

In v. 18, after walking through our battle dress, which includes sound doctrine, he turns to prayer. The response to heresy is both/and, prayer and doctrine but perhaps prayer should receive first attention. Peter’s approach to Simon might even be described as downright dismissive. It’s interesting, in an age of “dialogue” and “opening avenues of communication” that Peter did none of that. He saw what the root problem was, he diagnosed it, and wrote a prescription on the spot: repentance. It’s true that we’re not the Apostle Peter but it’s also true that heresy is heresy. None of them are really much different from Simon the Magician are they?

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  1. I especially appreciate your observation, “Judging from Peter’s analysis the first thing to address is the heart or the spiritual darkness of which the heresy may be only the symptom.”

    I talk to a lot of so-called atheists and in every case I’ve encountered, their false theological beliefs stem from a moral problem of the heart.

    Thanks for the post and reminder!

  2. Thanks Dr. Clark for another great post. I was wondering if we could consider Simon’s response to Peter as a verbal expression of repentance?

    • Calvin says about this, in his commentary on Acts:

      Now arises a question what we ought to think of Simon. The Scripture carries us no farther, save only unto a conjecture. Whereas he yields when he is reproved and being touched with the feeling of his sin, fears the judgment of God. That done, he flies to the mercy of God, and commends himself to the prayers of the Church. These are assuredly no small signs of repentance. Therefore we may conjecture that he repented. And yet the old writers affirm with one consent, that he was a great enemy to Peter afterward and that he disputed with him by the space of three days at Rome. The disputation is also extant in writing under the name of Clement, but it hath in it such filthy dotings, that it is a wonder that Christian ears can abide to hear them. Again, Augustine, writing to Januarius, says, that there were divers and false rumors spread abroad in Rome in his time concerning that matter. Wherefore, nothing is more safe than bidding adieu to uncertain opinions, simply to embrace that which is set down in the Scriptures. That which we read elsewhere of Simon may justly be suspected for many causes.

  3. Dr. Clark what do you think about the phrase pectus est quod theologium facit? I personally found it reading the prolegomena to Augustus Hopkins Strongs’ Systematic Theology. I am aware that he was a Reformed Baptist and I in truth didn’t advance beyond the prolegomena. This phrase did strike me quite poignantly at the time and it is difficult for me to ascertain whether it was due to it’s actually profundity or the QUIRE I now see that generally did affect me at the time.

    • Hi Daniel,

      I would agree that no one is a proper theologian sine pictore (i.e., without affection) but I agree with Turretin (and many others) who defined theology as partim…partim, partly theoretical (intellectual) and partly practical (outworking of the faith). That is a better, more biblical definition of theology than the “affective” definition found in Ockham, Ames, and Edwards. Affect (as a synecdoche for regeneration) is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

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