The James A. Fowler 'Four Points' of Denoting True Christianity and Clearly Marking Heresy
We recommend James A. Fowler's four points on Christian normative teaching and spotting signs of heresy and heretical teachings. These points are part of James' much longer article 'Beyond Heresy.' We put James' four points here with a link to James' fuller article on the topic at the end.
How, then, are variant and aberrant schools of thought to be determined and identified as "heresies"? The following criteria may serve as general categories for the determination of orthodoxy, contrariety to which should produce "red flags" warning of possible heresy.
1. Scriptural standard.
In all the major communities of the Christian faith the scriptures are regarded as an objective and definitive standard for the determination of normative Christian teaching. Although Protestants have elevated the scriptures with an undue emphasis of sola scriptura that regards the Bible as the infallible word of God equivalent to the living Word (John 1:1,14), we must still recognize that Jesus declared that the scriptures "bear witness to Me" (John 5:39), and "cannot be broken" (John 10:35). To the Sadducees, Jesus explained, "You are mistaken, not understanding the scriptures" (Matt. 22:29). Paul's regard for the scriptural standard is clear: "All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (II Timothy 3:16).
2. Gospel consistency.
The scriptural writings do not address every pertinent detail of every Christian subject. Christians are called upon to use spiritual discernment and sanctified common sense in determining the consistency of any teaching with gospel message of God's grace in redemption, reconciliation, and restoration. Paul anathematized the heretical false teachers who had invaded Galatia, and chastised the Galatian believers for "so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel, which is not really another gospel, but some are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ" (Gal. 1:6,7).
3. Creedal formulation.
We must avoid the arrogant and foolish tendency to ignore the precision with which the early Christians sought to formulate the Christian message in succinct statements of creedal orthodoxy. Jude encouraged his readers to "contend for the faith which was once and for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). It is extremely important that we recognize the reliable expressions of essential truths that are found in the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. Those who claim to espouse "no creed but Christ," fail to understand how the early saints painfully sought to explain Christ in creedal statements [this was to protect against heresy].
4. Ecclesiastical consensus.
The accumulated wisdom of twenty centuries of Christian tradition is not to be rejected. The past and present consensus of the community of faith must be given due consideration, for Jesus declared, "the gates of Hades shall not overpower it" (Matt. 16:18). There is an essential and catholic, i.e. universal, confession of faith to be found in Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism pertaining to the Trinity, the incarnation of Christ, the redemptive efficacy of the crucifixion and resurrection, the spiritual regeneration of salvation, and the importance of the church. We must align ourselves with what all Christians in all times and in all places have believed.
These criteria should serve as a generalized guideline.
Okay, the above completes James Fowler's four points of Christian orthodoxy. I wholeheartedly agree with these points. These points are taken from James' much longer article Beyond Heresy which is certainly worth reading. For any wanting to go just a little deeper, my 2004 article Where We May Agree to Differ and Where We Should Defend the Truth goes further with this same general point, giving helpful examples of teachings which are fair and reasonable and teachings which should set the alarm bells ringing!