Who Are the Heretics and Why Do They Matter?
As the old cliché goes, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. That maxim is the impetus behind a new book, Know the Heretics. It provides an accessible overview of some of the major heresies throughout Church history.
Justin Holcomb has undertaken this project because the contemporary Church runs the risk of what C.S. Lewis calls "chronological snobbery," the "arrogant assumption that the values and beliefs of our own time have surpassed all that came before." (20) We also risk believing we are immune from the errors of the past, from the heresies of the past because of our supposed evolved, highly tuned set of beliefs.
Holcomb wants to save us from such snobbery that stems from ignorance and supposed immunity by outlining 14 key heretics and their heresies.
Now some may say such an effort is futile, agreeing with Walter Bauer that “there really is no such thing as objective heresy in the early church.” (18) Holcomb disagrees. In fact Jesus, Paul, and other New Testament writers disagree because they consistently warn against false teachers. Which is why Holcomb’s accessible field guide to historic errors is a crucial read for every church leader.
What Is Heresy?
Early on Holcomb is careful to define the terms orthodoxy and heresy.
He defines orthodoxy as “the teaching that best follows the Bible and best summarizes what it teaches.” He insists “the orthodox position best accounts for the Bible’s teaching,” and seeks to show “why it was a good thing that the church chose it.” (11)
By contrast, a heretic is “someone who has compromised an essential doctrine and lost sight of who God really is…” (11) He notes that heresy means “choice”—a heretic is choosing “to deviate from the traditional teaching in favor of one’s own insight.” (11)
Unlike popular depictions, a heretic is not a rebel, someone with the courage to think for themselves and stand up to the institutional church. He isn’t merely an outsider who lost the political battles of beliefs. Neither are people heretics because they asked questions—“most of those dubbed heretics were usually asking legitimate and important questions.” (12) The problem was their answers, answers that created chaos and confusion among ordinary believers.
Yet while heretics created confusion and chaos, there was an upside: “the church was forced to study Scripture, wrestle with intellectual problems, and articulate more clearly the ‘faith which was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3).” (13)
Not All "Heresy" Is Heresy
Too often people play the “heretic card” against an opponent merely because they deviate from their doctrinal preferences. Holcomb explains both Catholics and Reformed traditions have been careful to outline 3 “zones” to distinguish strict orthodoxy from outright heresy:
Roman Catholic Zones:
- A belief denying an explicitly defined doctrine, such as saying Christ is not God.
- A belief the church has not outrightlyrejected but departs from the received majority view, such as saying that Christ can be found in other religions.
- A belief that cannot be definitely shown to be in opposition to an article of faith, yet is suspected of heresy.
Reformed Traditions Zones:
- Teachings directly against a fundamental article of faith.
- Errors around a fundamental article or in indirect contradiction to a fundamental article.
- Errors beyond a fundamental article.
Historically these traditions “have understood that not all theological errors are equally serious.” (17) Those who label every diverging belief as heresy run the risk of minimizing the importance of actual right beliefs—“When everything is central, nothing is.” (17)
Why Learn About Heresy?
Given that our contemporary pluralist society cannot imagine a “wrong” or “dangerous” interpretation of religion, it may seem like a foolish exercise to learn about ancient teachings that deviated from accepted ones, maybe even inappropriate. Yet Holcomb provides 2 important reasons why we should learn about heresy:
- Revelation: "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 revelation.” (19)
- Relationship with God: “When we have a flawed image of God, we no longer relate to him in the same way…[Our] beliefs about God impact our daily lives…” (20)
Holcomb makes the point that God has made us a real genuine knower of Himself, and we are called to believe and obey God’s knowledge, regardless of how comfortable we are with it. When we choose to disregard that knowledge we risk relating to God in a way that’s not true.
For us teachers its doubly important to learn about heresies and their historic affect. Because not only do we risk drifting away from God as he really is, we risk leading our people in the same direction.
"Learning how Christians throughout history have wrestled with the tough questions of our faith," Holcomb writes, "gives us a valuable perspective and keeps us from assuming that our know-how, pat answers, or inspiring platitudes are best suited to solving the problems of the world." (20)
This is why you should get to know the heretics. And Holcomb will help you get to know them, so that we don't doom ourselves and our generation to repeating their errors.
Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.
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