I’ve recently encountered several instances of Christians I know calling certain beliefs “heresy.” In one case, a pastor labeled the belief that Christians could be possessed by demons as a heresy. In another, an acquaintance called the entire Emerging Church movement heresy. But what’s the real meaning of such a divisive term? Why not just say “I think you’re wrong?”
Presumably in the instances above the intent was to delineate true from false belief. Beliefs held by Christians that are true = orthodoxy. Beliefs held by Christians that are false = heresy. But that sort of demarcation seems extraordinarily unhelpful. Who’s the heretic, the Arminian or Calvinist? The universalist, the inclusivist or the exclusivist? The egalitarian or the complementarian? Is everyone who disagrees with me a heretic, since I only hold beliefs that I think are true?
Alister McGrath defines heresy as “a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing, or even destroying the core of the Christian faith.” In other words, heresy comes from within Christianity. Christians themselves are the ones who develop heretical beliefs…and simply holding a heretical belief does not make you a non-Christian. Furthermore, heresy is by accident rather than design. Heretical beliefs are not intended to be so. Rather, they intend to elucidate essential truths of Christian faith. They are well-meaning. But ultimately heretical beliefs are destructive, ironically subverting that which they originally sought to support. This is the key element of heresy: what was well-meaning Christian belief, when worked out in its fullest implementation ultimately turns out to be antithetical to Christian belief itself.
But who is the arbiter of heresy? Who defines orthodoxy? Of course anyone is free to compile their own list of doctrines and declare them to be the standard. But within historic Christianity we have the luxury of having wrestled with these issues for a couple of thousand years. The early ecumenical councils established Christian orthodoxy. The creedal statements that came out of these councils established normative Christian belief that still holds true today; ideas that undermine those beliefs can rightly be labeled as heresy. Ideas not addressed in a universal manner by Christendom may still constitute heresy, but without a consensus from the church on what constitutes orthodoxy in relation to those ideas, they cannot accurately be deemed heretical. Christianity, in its current fractured state, is incapable of universally establishing the orthodoxy of new doctrines. They may be aberrant or questionable or even subversive, but they are not truly heretical. In short, there are no new heresies.
It’s important to keep in mind that a heretical belief isn’t necessarily a false belief. It is certainly possible that one, many or even all of Christian belief is wrong. We shouldn’t be afraid to explore the boundaries of our beliefs, questioning our faith, probing for weakness and seeking the truth wherever it may lead. We shouldn’t be afraid of heresy per se, but we should be cognizant of its implications. We should be cautious about trying to over-explain something to the point of explaining it away. At the heart of Christianity are some great mysteries that defy complete comprehension. Heresy seeks to cast light on those mysteries and in doing so fails to realize that the mysteries themselves are what is important. We should try to understand, but we should understand that we can only try — some tensions cannot be resolved. Heresy is not simply a label for marginalizing those we disagree with. Rather, it is a powerful designation that has implications for the very foundations of our faith.