Are You A Heretic?

October 9, 2012 in Theology · 10 comments

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.

10 comments… read them below or add one

Richard Lubbers October 9, 2012 at 7:26 pm

I like this one, especially the closing paragraph! The idea that heresy is accidental is new to me. I understand how it is so. I have questioned parts of my faith since becoming Christian, and always felt comfortable doing so. I am reminded of the statement I read somewhere that said we need to start with doubt and wrestle our way to a reasonable faith.


Sandbur October 9, 2012 at 7:50 pm

Orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy.


Asad Jaleel October 10, 2012 at 6:30 am

A quick web search shows people are using “heretic” pretty recklessly. Some use it to refer to Christians who support Zionism.


Dan October 10, 2012 at 7:06 am

Yes, the term heresy is widely used and abused (as is the term evangelical). I didn’t really make this point in my post, but I don’t think “heresy” should ever be used except when describing historic heresies such as Ebionitism, Docetism, Valentinism, Arianism, Donatism and Pelagianism. Outside of that context it’s simply a pejorative that simply isn’t appropriate in Christian dialogue.


Alan October 10, 2012 at 9:16 am

In my theological education, these four conditions had to be met in order for something to qualify as heresy:

1) it explicitly contradicts an official Church teaching
2) it is intentional
3) it occurs in the public forum (vs. personal conscience)
4) it is held obstinately

Turns out that very, very few things meet all four criteria.


Dan October 10, 2012 at 10:04 am

I’m not sure those criteria work historically. The “classic” heresies did not initially contradict official Church teaching (because the universal Church had not yet established an official position on the issues). They were not intentionally antithetic to orthodoxy, but rather were seeking to strengthen and clarify Christian belief and only accidentally did the opposite. As to the distinction between public and private belief: a privately held heretical belief becomes essentially moot in regards to its impact on the church. And I don’t see obstinacy as a particularly useful characteristic either — I think one could certainly be an amenable heretic!

I can see how those conditions could be used categorize a person as outside of orthodoxy and as deliberately antagonistic towards Christianity…but I still don’t think such a person is necessarily a heretic.


vj October 10, 2012 at 9:38 am

I agree that we should try to limit the term ‘heresy’ to historical [sets of] beliefs. Labeling modern ‘dissenting’ Christians as heretics both dilutes the historical meaning, and seems to be mostly about puffing up the one who deems someone else a heretic. How can anyone possibly be absolutely sure that all the things they think they know about God are actually true, and that what someone else thinks about God is necessarily ‘wrong’ just because it’s different?! Have we really become so hard-hearted and intolerant that we can’t cope with differences of belief/practice/opinion? I’m sure God is big enough for all of us…


Dan October 10, 2012 at 10:11 am



Floyd Miller October 10, 2012 at 12:28 pm

With 31-45,000 Christian denominations, any number can be deemed heretic. Ultimately, the Bible is the final authority, but then we run into charges of heresy against various translations; remember, the RC Church even felt translating the Bible from Latin was heretical. The only true arbiter can be God himself. Ultimately, for a Christian, the measurement of heresy is if it violates Matthew 22:37-40 “37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”, Mark 12:29 “29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.””, Luke 10:27 “He answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ ; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”, and John 13:34-35 34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”


Martha October 13, 2012 at 7:56 am



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