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The challenge of heresy is inherent to any claim of orthodoxy by the Christian Church. The New Testament already states that there must be heresies so that those who are genuine believers may be recognized.1 As deviation from the ecclesial norm of orthodoxy, heresy threatens the unity of the Church, and even the integrity of society at large, when Christianity is the official religion of the empire as it was from AD 380. Heresy was a revolution, an attack on the order of the world. While modern readers may be tempted to view heresy as some positive expression of individual creativity in matters of doctrine, perhaps an instance of freedom of speech, such ideas were alien to the early modern mind. The stereotype of the heretic was not a creative individual, but someone possessed by the devil, driven by pride, who hid his heresy under the cover of seeming piety. Of course, not all doctrinal errors, dissident beliefs, and practices, were heresies. Error became heresy by obstinate refusal to obey the Church, which had defined orthodox teaching and sought to correct errors. As Robert Grosseteste defined: “a heresy is an opinion chosen by human perception contrary to holy Scripture, publicly avowed and obstinately defended.”2
Sixteenth-century Protestant reformers did not reinvent the Trinity; most preserved the medieval understanding of the doctrine of God, which the church agreed upon at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and revised at the Council of Constantinople in 381. The remarkable continuity of the medieval consubstantial Trinity during the Reformation became increasingly relevant to framing standard Reformed theology as certain minds began to fancy antitrinitarianism. The consensus among the magisterial reformers was that sixteenth-century nonconformist “heretics” endangered traditional Christology and therefore the traditional Christian doctrine of God. At the inception of Protestant dogma, reforming theologians were forced to assess an old question of the utmost relevance to the church: If Christ is not human and divine – what is Christianity? Thus, putting the relation of God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit into words from a scriptural perspective occupied the reformers as it had the early church fathers. The early reformers who revisited church doctrine should have enjoyed a period of trial and error. However, in the broader Reformation context, the sixteenth-century characters, who pushed the orthodox envelope beyond tradition, had by the mid-sixteenth century compelled the reformers to exacting linguistic precision, which subsequently became a distinctive trait of Reformed theology.
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