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What Is (And Isn't) Heresy?

Traditionally, a heretic is someone who has compromised an essential doctrine and lost sight of who God really is, usually by oversimplification. Literally, heresy means “choice” — that is, a choice to deviate from traditional teaching in favor of one’s own insights. But that sense of the word has been lost. To some people today, heretic suggests a rebel — someone with courage, the kind of person who can think for himself and stand up to the institutional church. Some Christians simply use the word to refer to anyone who doesn’t agree with their particular version of Christianity. In modern parlance, the word heretic usually means that you aren’t in the club, but it’s not the sort of club you would want to be in anyway.

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There have been times when the church has taken extreme measures to punish innocent dissidents by labeling them heretics. Even so, giving heresy a positive meaning is worrisome. The concept of heresy is a valid one. It’s true that the church has often been too quick to brand a new leader or idea as heretical, sometimes to its later embarrassment — the way that the Catholic Church handled Galileo’s idea that the earth revolves around the sun is a classic example — but in many instances, a legitimate heresy has threatened to confuse ordinary believers simply because of the speculations of an influential thinker. It is often a fine balance between allowing free exploration of who God is and reasserting what we can know for sure, and in many cases, the exploration went so far as to distort our understanding of God as he has revealed himself to us.

As Christianity grew and spread, it increasingly came into contact with competing belief systems such as paganism, Greek philosophy, Gnosticism, and others. Inevitably, teachers arose who attempted to solve the intellectual difficulties of Christian faith and make it more compatible with other philosophical systems. In this way, many of the heresies that arose had to do with the identity of Jesus Christ as he related to the God of Israel.

Most of those dubbed heretics were usually asking legitimate and important questions. They weren’t heretics because they asked the questions. It is the answers that they gave that are wrong. They went too far by trying to make the Christian faith more compatible with ideas that they already found appealing, especially those of pagan Greek philosophy. Others struggled with Jesus’ claims to be both sent from God and one with God. The reactions of the religious leaders in the New Testament to Jesus’ claims underline the difficulty of this revelation and point to later struggles about Jesus’ identity.

Here are a few of the more famous heretics in church history:

  • Marcion: The God of the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament are two different gods.
  • Docetists: Jesus only appeared to be human.
  • Arius: The Son was a created being of a lower order than the Father.
  • Apollinarius: Jesus’ divine nature/Logos replaced the human rational soul in the incarnation. In other words, Jesus’ “pure” divine nature replaced the “filthy” mind of a typical human.
  • Sabellius: Jesus and the Father are not distinct but just “modes” of a single being.
  • Eutyches: The divinity of Christ overwhelms his humanity.
  • Nestorius: Jesus was composed of two separate persons, one divine and one human.

This list could go on.

Whereas orthodox Christianity answers Jesus’ question to Peter — “Who do you say I am?” (Mark 8:29) — by affirming that Christ was both God (the Creator of the universe, the Lord of Israel) and human (an average Joe, yet without sin), these heretical thinkers answered the question differently.

Their challenges caused a tragic amount of controversy among Christians in the early centuries of the church. However, with each new heresy, the church was forced to study the Scriptures, wrestle with intellectual problems, and articulate more clearly the “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

Does the Bible Mention Heresy?

The Bible itself seems to presuppose a right and a wrong interpretation of Jesus’ coming and the nature and character of God, as it uses strong language against false teachers who promote doctrines that undermine the gospel.

In Galatians 1:9, Paul uses the strongest words possible against those who distort the gospel, writing, “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” And the apostle Peter warns against “false teachers among you [who] will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them — bringing swift destruction on themselves” (2 Peter 2:1).

As is clear from the New Testament, the apostles were not afraid to call out heresy when they saw it. If a teaching or practice threatened the integrity of the gospel, it was strongly condemned (as in the case of Peter and the circumcision party described in Galatians 2). However, heresy was a weighty charge that was not made lightly, nor was it used whenever there was theological inaccuracy or imprecision.

Heresy and the Early Church

Following the apostles, the early church maintained that heresy means directly denying the central orthodox beliefs of the church. Early church creedal statements codified orthodoxy into a widely accepted form. Even before important Christian beliefs such as the canon of Scripture (list of books in the Bible) and the Trinity had been carefully articulated, the mainstream of Christian believers and leaders had a sense of the essential truths that had been handed down from the apostles and the prophets, and passed along to each generation of Christians through Scripture, sermons, and baptismal creeds. Before the developments at Nicaea and Chalcedon regarding the proper beliefs about the Trinity and the dual natures of Christ, the early church possessed what is known as the “rule of faith.”

The New Testament speaks frequently about false teaching and doctrine. For the early church, heresy was merely teaching that stood in contrast to the right belief received from the prophets and the apostles in the Scriptures and put into written formulas in the rule of faith and the creeds. The early church formed an accepted and received statement of what is true and essential to the Christian faith. The rule of faith gave birth to more precise statements of the essentials of the faith, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. These widely accepted formulations of the essential “right doctrine” (orthodoxy) handed down from the apostles were crucial for combating heresy.

It is important to note, however, that the early church did not consider every potential wrong belief to be heretical. Rather, only those beliefs that contradicted the essential elements of the faith were to be labeled heresy, not disagreements on nonessential doctrines.

Unlike some churches today, the early church did not stipulate all of the minor beliefs that its members should hold, nor did it consider mere disagreement to be heresy.

Not All Theological Errors Are Equally Serious

Because there is always some room for mystery and speculation, both the Roman Catholic and Reformed traditions have been careful to distinguish three “zones” between strict orthodoxy and outright heresy. In Catholicism, to bluntly deny an explicitly defined church doctrine is heresy in the first degree — for example, a severe contradiction, like saying that Christ is not God. A doctrine that has not been explicitly defined by one of the church’s articles of faith but diverges from the received majority view is considered an opinion approaching heresy (sententia haeresi proxima) — for instance, to say that Christ can be found in other religions. One who holds a position that does not directly contradict received tradition but logically denies an explicitly defined truth is said to be erroneous in theology (propositio theologice erronea). Finally, a belief that cannot be definitively shown to be in opposition to an article of faith of the church is said to be suspected or savoring of heresy (sententia de haeresi suspecta, haeresim sapiens).

Similarly, the Reformed tradition has traditionally distinguished three kinds of doctrinal error related to fundamental articles of the faith:

  1. errors directly against a fundamental article (contra fundamentum);
  2. errors around a fundamental or in indirect contradiction to it (circa fundamentum);
  3. errors beyond a fundamental article (praeter fundamentum).

The point is that historically both the Roman Catholic tradition and the Reformed tradition have understood that not all theological errors are equally serious. Theological historian David Christie Murray distinguishes between orthodoxy, the body of Christian belief which has emerged as a consensus through time as the church reflects on Scripture; heterodoxy, Christian belief which differs from orthodoxy; and heresy, belief that diverges from orthodoxy beyond a certain point.

It is important to bear these distinctions in mind as we discuss heresy, since there are those who think that heresy is anything that does not agree with their own interpretation of Holy Scripture. These people fail to differentiate between the primary and secondary elements of the Christian faith and make every belief they have into a pillar of Christianity. So, on this view, if someone disagrees with them about the millennium, about infant baptism, about the role of women in ministry, or about the nature of the atonement, they are quickly labeled a heretic. While such impulses can be well intentioned, sometimes because Scripture reveals a great deal about God’s workings, the church of the New Testament walked the line between holding fast to some convictions and being flexible about others.

Though this group of heresy-hunters often say they’re motivated by concern for the faith once for all delivered to the saints, their practice of labeling every diverging belief as heresy has the opposite effect. Rather than making much of right belief, they minimize its importance by making, for example, the mode of baptism to be as important as the divinity of Christ. When everything is central, nothing is.

Is It Even Appropriate to Speak of Heresy?

In a modern, pluralistic society, it can be hard to imagine a “wrong” or “dangerous” interpretation of a religion, as long as it does not encourage violence or hurt to others. This is particularly true when it comes to a book like the Bible, which everyone agrees has a few parts that are difficult to understand. For this reason, more and more scholars are arguing that it is no longer appropriate to speak of heresy and orthodoxy in the early church. Instead, they argue, there were a number of early Christian groups who all took Jesus’ words to mean different things. According to this theory, the Christianity that modern people practice is simply the descendant of one of these early groups that happened to win out — the other early Christian groups are heretical from its point of view, but from their point of view modern Christianity would be heretical.

This idea was most famously promoted by Walter Bauer, a twentieth-century scholar of early Christianity who wrote about his theory in Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity in 1934. Bauer argued that there was really no such thing as objective heresy in the early church. Rather, according to his thesis, the Roman church labeled its own view of Christian doctrine orthodoxy while calling others who did not hold to their own views heretical. Bauer argued that these heretical forms of Christianity actually preceded so-called orthodoxy. According to him, there were many early Christian movements that we know of today as heretical that were actually practicing some form or another of legitimate expression of devotion to Christ. Thus, heresy is not a concept to be viewed in contrast to truth or right doctrine; rather heresy is any view that opposes the political interests of the church and as such needs to be stamped out. Orthodoxy is merely that which has been advanced by the Roman church as correct in order to facilitate some sort of oppressive control over those who would thwart their expansive efforts.

There is much to be said against this view. Bauer’s thesis has been shown time and time again to be false. In reaction to Bauer, Canon H. E. W. Turner argued in his book The Pattern of Christian Truth that early Christians held to three fixed, nonnegotiable elements of faith:

  1. religious facts such as God the creator and the divine historical redeemer Christ;
  2. the centrality of biblical revelation; and
  3. the creed and the rule of faith.

That is, early Christians, though marred by sin and susceptible to error, were ultimately concerned with truth about God, not politics.

In fact, it is the historical redeemer (rather than myth), the centrality of the Bible (over pagan philosophy), and the traditional creed (rather than innovation) that distinguished the orthodox from the heretics. An important question regarding heresy is whether there is really a tradition that leads back to Jesus Christ. The ancient Christians took great pains to establish such a connection; they were interested not simply in propagandizing other groups but in upholding what they believed to be their authentic inheritance, based on real events that had made a difference in the world. “To my mind,” Ignatius of Antioch declared less than a century after Christ, “it is Jesus Christ who is the original documents. The inviolable archives are his cross and death and his resurrection and the faith that came by him. It is by these things and by your prayers that I want to be justified.” It was vital for Ignatius and others like him to preserve the story of Christ as it had been passed down to them. As will be seen, most heretical groups were not particularly interested in doing likewise.

Why Do We Need to Learn about Heresy?

Core Christian doctrines such as the Trinity, the nature of Christ, and which books should be included in Scripture were developed through the early church’s struggles with heresy. When teachers began to lead movements that were blatantly opposed to the apostolic tradition, the church was forced to articulate the essential elements of the faith. The history of heretics, heresies, and the orthodox leaders who responded to them can be disheartening. Why learn about arguments over what sometimes seems like theological minutiae? There are two major reasons:

The first is that while there is certainly ambiguity in the Bible, the Creator of the world has decided to reveal himself to us and even to live with us. It is important to honor that revelation. When we find this revelation distasteful and try to reshape God according to our preferences, we are beginning to drift away from God as he really is. Imagine a friend who ignores the parts of you that he or she doesn’t like. Is that a deep relationship? Ambiguity or not, uncomfortable or not, it is vital that we are obedient to what we can know about God.

The second reason is related to the first. When we have a flawed image of God, we no longer relate to him in the same way. Think of the way that you might have related to your parents when you were growing up. Even if you didn’t necessarily understand the reasons behind boundaries they set for you in childhood, they look a lot different when you are confident in your parents’ love than when you fear or resent your parents. It is surprising how much our beliefs about God impact our daily lives, which is partly what makes theology such a rewarding (although difficult and dangerous) discipline.

It cannot be repeated enough that (as the old cliché goes) those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Moreover, as C. S. Lewis warns, if we remain ignorant of the errors and triumphs of our history, we run the risk of what he calls “chronological snobbery,” the arrogant assumption that the values and beliefs of our own time have surpassed all that came before. Lewis writes:

We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

Learning how Christians throughout history have wrestled with the tough questions of our faith gives us a valuable perspective and keeps us from assuming that our own know-how, pat answers, or inspiring platitudes are best suited to solving the problems of the world.

Learn more in the Know the Heretics video study, which introduces you to the 12 most influential heresies in church history. Watch the first video FREE ›

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Today's post is adapted from Justin S. Holcomb's Know the Heretics.

Know the Heretics Justin S. Holcomb
In this guide, Justin Holcomb---a priest, professor, and author---introduces readers to the major heresies in Christian history, outlining not just the false te...
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In the Know the Heretics online course, Justin Holcomb—a priest, professor, and author—introduces students to the major heresies in Christian history, outlining not just the false teachings themselves but also the orthodox response to each one and their ongoing contemporary relevance.
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