Some random thoughts about that awful but necessary word “heresy”

Recently I’ve used the word “heresy” here.  I hate that word, but I find it inescapable.  But dictionaries aren’t very helpful for defining it (or many other necessary theological terms).  So, in an attempt to shed some light (and hopefully less heat) on the matter, please bear with me as I explain what I mean by it.

The most general meaning of heresy is any theological error as determined by some authoritative religious group.  In other words, to call something heresy is to imply that it is not just theologically mistaken in one’s judgment but also in the judgment of some organized (or at least semi-organized) group of religious people (e.g. a denomination or movement).  When I call a belief (or denial of a belief) “heresy” I do NOT mean it is something I find erroneous by my own lights.  There are many things I find erroneous by my own lights; they are not all heresies.  When I call something heresy I mean it is generally considered seriously theologically mistaken by some group I recognize as having some authority to make such judgments.

But even there a caveat is in order.

When I call something a heresy I MIGHT mean it is considered theologically mistaken by a group I recognize as having some right and authority to make such judgments BUT I DISAGREE in which case I would be using the term in a strictly descriptive, not prescriptive, manner.  OR, when I call something a heresy I MIGHT mean it is considered theologically mistaken by a group I recognize as having some right and authority to make such judgements AND I AGREE in which case I would be using the term prescriptively and not only descriptively.

Also, I think every group implicitly recognizes degrees of seriousness of heresies.  For example, the Catholic church considers obstinate heresy tantamount to apostasy but does not consider all theological error tantamount to apostasy.  In other words, once a person has been shown the serious error of his or her thinking and persists in it, that amounts to apostasy.  On the other hand, when it is determined that a person simply does not understand that his or her thinking is erroneous and why, the error is not automatically tantamount to apostasy.

Think about my three categories of right religious beliefs: dogma, doctrine and opinion.  (I have written about this rubric in many places.)  A dogma is a a belief considered essential to authentic Christianity (insofar as a person is capable of understanding such matters).  A doctrine (in this technical sense) is a belief not essential to authentic Christianity but essential to being faithful to a particular church system and its tradition.  An opinion is a belief one holds that is not essential to anything.

A similar taxonomy could be used for heresy: egregious heresy amounting to apostasy (when the person is capable of understanding such matters), heresy as denial of something important to a church system and its tradition, and heresy as profoundly mistaken belief but not a denial of anything essential to either authentic Christianity or a particular church system and its tradition.

One thing should now be apparent: “heresy” is itself an essentially contested concept AS SOON AS one applies it to a particular belief (or denial).  In other words, what counts as heresy (of any kind) in one form of Christian life may not count as that in another one.

As an evangelical Protestant Christian I work within and out of that general tradition and I define it broadly–as encompassing a wide range of denominational traditions and doctrinal systems.  For example, it includes both Reformed and Anabaptist individuals and groups (to choose two branches about as far apart as any two can be and still somehow be part of the same movement!).  When, over a long period of time, the consensus of all evangelicals is that something is heresy, I tend to call that heresy also.  But I don’t think all heresies are equally pernicious.

For example, all evangelical Christians (and I’m talking about respected spokespersons for the movement beginning with Edwards and Wesley and ending for now with Henry and Graham) agree that denial of the deity of Jesus Christ is heresy.  They also agree that FOR SOMEONE WHO CLAIMS TO BE EVANGELICAL to deny the importance of conversion is heresy.  But the second heresy is specific to evangelicalism; the first one is universal among all orthodox Christians.  I would have trouble recognizing someone as “evangelical” who denied the importance of conversion, but I wouldn’t necessarily say he or she is not a Christian.

Another tradition I belong to is Baptist.  A person who denies the deity of Jesus Christ is, in my view, not a Christian whether he or she is a Baptist or not.  A person who denies the importance of believer baptism may be a Christian but is certainly not a Baptist!

So, when I say that a person who denies the importance of believer baptism is a heretic I’m using the term in relation to being Baptist and not in relation to being Christian.  Such a person would, of course, have to be Baptist for that appellation to apply. That person would possibly not be a heretic in another church system and tradition.

When I say that we are all heretics, I mean we all hold some mistaken beliefs–the third category that corresponds with opinion.  We all hold opinions that are theologically incorrect even if we will only find that out with certainty in the afterlife.

So, now, that all points to the question–what do I mean when I say universalism is heresy?  Well, it certainly is historically a heresy within the evangelical movement and its tradition.  Whether it is a heresy in terms of authentic Christianity, making a universalist automatically apostate, is another question.  For now, anyway, I don’t think so.  There have been good Christian universalists and, from where I sit, there is no authoritative Christian magisterium to settle that question.  I tend to look back to the consensus of the church fathers and reformers, but I also recognize they could have been wrong about some things.

So, when it comes to making my own personal judgments about heresy in the absence of an authoritative body that I regard as legitimate for deciding with finality what counts as heresy I have to turn to my own best theological judgment.  Then I should say “In my opinion, going by my own best theological judgment, such-and-such is heresy.”  And the I should explain what level of seriousness I attribute to that heresy.

All this messiness is why some Protestants run to the Catholic church.  It has a magisterium to settle these matters.  But is that magisterium always automatically right?  I don’t think so. Therefore, I have to live with the messiness of terms like heresy that can’t be completely avoided but contain a good deal of ambiguity.

Practically speaking, on the ground, so to speak, when I say something is heresy, at the very least I mean I would not affiliate with a church or denomination that tolerated it among its leaders OR that I would at least continue to try to convince those who held the defective belief that they are wrong.

If someone has a better approach to defining “heresy” that does NOT appeal to an authoritative magisterium or simplistically say “unbiblical” I would love to hear it.  In the meantime, at least you now know what I mean when I utter “heresy” toward a belief (or denial of a belief).

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  • raoul

    The use of “heresy” in theological discussions is akin to Godwin’s law in political discussions. Instead of fostering continued engagement, you’re taking a self-righteous stand and shutting off constructive discussion.
    The reality is that there are at least 38,000 discrete Christian sects wherein many claim to have some version of absolute dogmatic truth.
    Certainly, you are permitted to discuss your dogma and use your own choice of theological arguments to make your case. But once you use loaded terms like “heresy”, you’ve essentially chosen to be disingenuous, revealing the poverty of your own intellect. My understanding of 1st Corinthians is that we “see through a mirror darkly”. Clarity will not come from our own understanding in this lifetime.
    I guess that means that our respective dogmas are more of a dark reflection of our own nature, not something that will readily be resolved during our lifetimes. Considering that most Evangelical churches grow from capturing members from other faiths, who can truly judge a heretic. All Christians are a heretic to another.

    • Tim Reisdorf


      Roger admitted that “heretic” is a loaded term – and that he hates to use it. But it does mean something and can convey helpful thoughts. If that term has been misused beyond the point of helpfulness, what terms would you use to say the same kinds of things Roger was saying?

      Your reflection on 1st Corinthians may give one humility in how to treat their own abilities to know things for certain, yet I think Paul would say that he knew quite a bit for certain (at least he had lots of strong opinions about important matters).

      I would think that if any of the 38,000 discrete Christian sects gave up all their claims to absolute dogmatic truth, then you’d only have 37,999 discrete Christian sects remaining. If you know nothing for certain – I don’t know how you face the day – I can’t believe that such could be sustainable for long.

      • rogereolson

        And I would add, in response to Raoul, that if Christianity (or any sect of it) is compatible with anything and everything it is literally nothing. But that insight does not require burning people at the stake, figuratively or literally. I recall a story told to me by a theologian friend who heard it from his grandfather–a founder of a pietist Christian denomination made up mostly of Scandinavian immigrants. He told me that one of the original leaders of that group questioned the Trinity. His colleagues and fellow ministers met with him at the annual conference and they had vigorous discussion and debate about it. The conclusion was a prayer for light and peace and they departed still friends and co-workers with the full intention of continuing to discuss the matter. There was no excommunication. Eventually the non-trinitarian left the group and joined a unitarian church.

        • raoul

          I think its instructive to consider that on at least two occasions, Jesus represented heretics as paragons of faith, morality, and compassion. When the Gospels mention Samaritans (the Good Samaritan and the Samaritan mother), it is in sharp contrast to the orthodoxy of the Pharisees and priests.
          Of course, Jesus was considered to be a heretic by the magisterium of his day. So please put down your rhetorical stones. You’re not qualified to cast them.

      • raoul

        “Know nothing for certain” is deliciously ironic. Especially if you insert a hyphen between the first two words.
        A perfect, if unintended, description of those who casually bandy words like “heretic” to enforce their orthodoxy.

        • rogereolson

          Well, as I have explained, calling someone a heretic does not necessarily imply any desire or attempt to enforce orthodoxy. I said we’re all heretics, remember? You just seem to have an axe to grind.

  • I read a very helpful book by Brad Kallenberg in seminary called “Live To Tell.” Kallenberg argues that in our evangelism, we should simply engage people as though they have already accepted Jesus rather than trying to convince them to accept Jesus. Just start talking the language to them and allow them to learn it and catch on, rather than treating it as an argument we’re supposed to win with them before we can engage them any further. He basically claims that the idea that conversion is an instantaneous transformation has more to do with the heritage of 19th century camp meeting culture than with Biblical teaching. I tend to agree. Paul was thrown off of a horse on the way to Damascus but most of the disciples had a very extended conversion process. I’ve been saved at least three times which is something that is impossible according to Baptist soteriology. I definitely believe in the importance of conversion but not in a moment when the switch gets flipped because it’s been a very long process for me and I suspect other evangelicals who were honest would confess the same thing. How does this sit with you? What is lost if conversion is a process rather than an instantaneous transformation?

    • rogereolson

      All I mean by “conversion” is that “once I was lost but now I am found.” It doesn’t have to include any specific formula for how or when or evidence. The point is that one cannot be saved by birth or by sacraments alone without faith.

  • Mark Murphree

    Would it not be more helpful to use the word “heresy” in reference to denial of the truths advocated in the Ecumenical Councils and the early church creeds? (Apostles’, Nicene, Chalcedon, Athanasian, etc.) This would establish a mutually agreed-upon ground of truth that all branches of orthodox Christianity could support. The way you use “heresy” is so subjective it doesn’t seem to be useful in a meaningful conversation. “Heresy” just becomes an emotionally-loaded, pejorative term, rather than a serious denial of central Christian truths.

    • rogereolson

      Especially when you throw in the Athanasian Creed I get very nervous. It says one must believe all of it in order to be saved. Would it, then, be heresy to deny that salvation is dependent on belief? I think I did give a lot of credit to the early Christian consensus in determining what is heresy. As a Free Church person, however, I’m very reluctant to accord any man made creed or confession of faith authority equal with Scripture itself.

      • gingoro

        I too find the Athanasian Creed problematic. Even with the Nicene Creed I omit the filioque as that does not seem to be in scripture.
        Dave W

      • The Ath-Creed, by most scholarly reckonings (including those who agree to whatever degree about its contents, such as the editor of the official Sources of Catholic Dogma) dates to the time when the Pope was trying to convince Eastern Orthodox churches that they needed to sign up with Roman Catholicism or else.

        Its two main halves, however, go back to Augustine and the days of the Chalcedonian clarification to Nicea. (The wording is identical to Augustine in places, so one or the other were borrowing from each other or a common source.) While Augustine would probably agree with the wrapping statements of the AthCreed, Chalcedon didn’t insist on the (quite gnostic) wrapping statements.

        So the internal structure is ecumenically sound anyway. I have no problems in the least accepting them as an accurate statement of ‘orthodox’ theism (in the cultural sense as well as in the sense of being true), even though I reject the wrapping statements as an addition.

        I was that way back when I was a non-universalist, too, for what it’s worth: my opinion on the AthCreed hasn’t changed.

  • gingoro

    A former minister of ours defined weak heresy as that which obstructs the closeness of our walk with Christ.  Strong heresy of course is that which makes one not a Christian.    I strongly suspect that the very best of us here in this world have at least some amount of weak heresy.

    • Tim Reisdorf


      Could you develop this a bit further? If strong heresy makes us not a Christian and weak heresy obstructs the closeness of our walk with Christ, why is this the case? By what mechanism do you suppose that believing that Christ never came in the flesh keeps us from having a right relationship with God? Would it be better not to have any belief that might doom us – and simply be neutral or unconcerned about such things and just relate to God?
      What about the historicity of Genesis or Job or Jonah? How would certain opinions (opinions made honestly) about that question help us be closer or hinder our relationship with God? Would knowing and believing the absolute truth about these issues give us more strength to live better lives? Is the Spirit less productive in our lives if we have too many weak heresies?

      I do have a sense of what you’re saying and I think that notion is generally correct, but I have lots of questions about it that make me nervous to believe too readily. At least I can’t get my arms around how this would actually play out in real life when I consider people like Mother Theresa and Brother Lawrence.

      • rogereolson

        I will let Gringoro respond if he wishes to. My own thought about this is that, while heresy MIGHT NOT hinder an individual’s personal relationship with God or keep him or her from living an exemplary life, seriouis heresy is always potentially destructive of the church and its mission–insofar as it is allowed to promote itself unopposed.

  • Susan N.

    “When I say that we are all heretics, I mean we all hold some mistaken beliefs–the third category that corresponds with opinion. We all hold opinions that are theologically incorrect even if we will only find that out with certainty in the afterlife.”

    Thank you for these gracious words, and the helpful distinctions in defining “heresy.”

    I read a lot of Christian blogs, and comment on a few. Yours is one that consistently provides honest, helpful, accessible commentary on matters relating to faith and life. What’s more, the tone is so gracious and civil, even toward those with whom you disagree, that you have earned my trust and respect.


  • What if, instead of appeal to a magisterium, we just appealed to the community-guided-by-the-Spirit? We tend, I think, to be too atomistic in our theological assertions. I say I believe X to be true, and I fight it in a world (books, articles, blogosphere) largely disconnected from any real community. But surely we would say that theology should be formed within a community of followers of Jesus. Let the community–guided by the Holy Spirit, connected to the great tradition of the church–be the filter through which our best guesses (whether dogma, doctrine, or opinion) emanate.

    The community of the church is the place ultimately where these beliefs will get lived out. And that, I think, is where the dross will be separated out.

  • Matt W

    I think it was Bonhoeffer who said that Christianity needs to rediscover heresy. I think he meant meant ‘heresy’ in the way that you present here; as a nuanced term that brings theological insight (i.e. not as some sort of political weapon).

    I agree that it is an awful but necessary word, yet we need articulate terminology when it comes to the task of talking about God. A quote from Rowan Williams from the book you suggested the other month says: “[Doctrinal truths are there] to place us in a certain kind of relationship to truth, such that we can be changed by it.(Christ on Trial, 39)”

    At the end of the day are all using human words and relying on grace to articulate truths about an amazing God.

    • rogereolson

      I like that.

  • It is hard for me to see why anyone would disagree with this conceptual structure. You have proposed a set of ideas to make it easier to classify theological ideas as either dogma, doctrine or opinion. We might agree or disagree on how to categorize some specific idea (e.g. Rob Bell’s position on hell), but the categories make it easier to have a clear discussion.

    In short, I like the framework.


  • John Metz

    In Galatians 5:19-20, some translations use “sects” for “heresies” as it is used in the list of the works of the flesh in connection with “factions, divisions, sects.” Here Darby says it includes the idea of “schools of opinion.” So, it seems that although heresy should apply to false teachings, it also includes the idea of forming a following, a party, a school of opinion based on a certain teaching.

    By the way, I think you did a good job of describing the levels of error and how they relate to the essentials of the faith and the plurality of beliefs among Christians.

  • Tim Reisdorf


    When you use a word that means three very different degrees of the same thing, wouldn’t it be better to use three different words or terms? I generally reserve the “heretic” word for the most basic and egregious offenses to accepted Christian doctrine (for example: Polytheism). I suppose I’d collapse the remaining two categories into “differences of opinion accepted within the mainstream of Christian tradition”. I’m not about to call someone a “heretic” simply because I have a different view of baptism than they do. The term it too loaded (as you say, “hot”) to refer to more relatively lightweight disagreements.

    I want to use it so carefully because it has been used in very damaging and hurtful ways by powerful people in the past – even it was applied accurately. I understand that lots of terms have been used in such ways – I think of Hester Prynne – but to me the term “heretic” seems most worthy of sensitive use.

    Thank you for another thoughtful blog entry.

    • rogereolson

      I’m sympathetic with your suggestion. Remember that I made a distinction between using “heresy” descriptively and prescriptively. When I say someone who claims to be Baptist but denies the importance of believer baptism is a heretic I mean it descriptively. Historically-theologically that is simply the case. Like you, however, I would be very cautious about calling anyone a heretic unless he or she is knowingly, openly denying a tenet of basic Christian orthodoxy.

  • dopderbeck

    Better just to use the word “erroneous” then, Roger. Otherwise you’re invoking a kind of authority that implies a right to excommunicate and so on.

    • rogereolson

      Well, I don’t give up on necessary words easily–even if I find it necessary to define them differently than the way most people do. Wasn’t there heresy before there was any church magisterium with the authority and power to excommunicate people? Did heresy only come into existence with Constantine? I don’t think so. So what I am trying to do is communicate the fact that one can believe in very serious theological error that needs to be opposed without believing in a magisterial office that can excommunicate people.

  • Ivan

    The Lord’s disciples were all hung up on protecting God and his church from those people who might not be “orthodox.” Jesus told them, in effect, to “Bug off!” Here’s how it all came down: “John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name,and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us'” (Mk 9:38-40).

    • rogereolson

      Ivan, Thanks for participating here! I always enjoy your comments, even if we disagree. For example, in response to this comment I would point out that the rest of the New Testament must be taken into account and at least some of it seems to care a lot about orthodoxy (as theologically correct thinking and believing) and even tradition (but not as absolute). But mainly I want to say how delightful I find the irony of our conversations here (and elsewhere). Most will not understand, but you and I (and a few others, perhaps) will. 🙂

  • K Gray

    Peter mentions that false teachers brought in ‘destructive heresies’ and deceived many; he goes on to describe the damaging results for the deceived. That seems on-point.

  • I wonder if more thought needs to be put into theological methodology rather than jumping straight to the conclusions of those methodologies and defining heresy strictly in terms of theological “positions.”

    For example, you talked recently about different ways of arriving at universalism and the varying level of issue you had with each. So, while the theological methodology of, for example, liberal pluralists that leads to universalism may indeed be heresy, the theological methodology of Barth or Gregory MacDonald (Robin Parry) that also leads to the same universalist “position” may not be (as) heretical. It seems that your own post-conservative approach to Scripture would have to leave room for biblically-based minority positions that aren’t strictly heretical (however that’s defined), whether those positions include open theism, universalism, or what have you.

    As an aside, this was the argument 16th century Anabaptists gave against the accusation of heresy: “We can’t be heretics because we are willing to change our views if you can show us their error scripturally.” Of course, Protestants and Catholics rarely took them up on this challenge, figuring it would be easier to get out their torches than their Bibles!

  • Interesting discussion and blog…

    “When I call something heresy I mean it is generally considered seriously theologically mistaken by some group I recognize as having some authority to make such judgments.”

    So, please name specifically the groups you recognize as having authority to make such judgments. What group or groups have authority for making judgments binding on all Christians? Biblical support?

    >”belief not essential to authentic Christianity but essential to being faithful to a particular church system”

    Is this (I get to believe and teach something different from you because its “non-essential”) not the first stone in the path to heresy and the cause of fracturing of the one united Church prayed for by Jesus? The “non-essential” label seems a convenient contrivance for being intellectually and spiritually lazy, because working at learning and maintaining the truth takes effort.

    >”… heresy (of any kind) in one form of Christian life may not count as that in another one.”

    Then one may not be dealing with a heresy. Truth is never relative, neither is heresy. If its not truth (dogma, doctrine), its un-truth (heresy). [Philosophy 101]

    >”the Catholic church. It has a magisterium to settle these matters. But is that magisterium always automatically right? I don’t think so.”

    Um, how about some specific instances of rulings by the magisterium that were not automatically right? Stem cells? Abortion?

    From my research the magisterium seems to be batting 1000.

    By the way, what is the pillar and ground of the truth? What does the Bible say is the pillar and ground of the truth? Amazing how many Christians don’t know the answer to that question: 1Timothy 3:15

    >Mark Murphree says: “Would it not be more helpful to use the word “heresy” in reference to denial of the truths advocated in the Ecumenical Councils and the early church creeds”

    “…we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins…”
    (Nicene Creed of 381)

    So if one doesn’t believe that baptism actually does something other getting one wet (removes sins) then they’d be guilty of heresy by your definition?

    Interesting that you fall back on ancient Catholic magisteriums, as those councils didn’t include messengers from the Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, and independent evangelical congregations. The members and their teachings were pure Catholic.

    >Brett Gibson says: “What if, instead of appeal to a magisterium, we just appealed to the community-guided-by-the-Spirit?”

    Um, where exactly is this “community-guided-by-the-Spirit” in the Bible? How would all Christians know what the “community-guided-by-the-Spirit” had decided and made binding on all Christians. How would heresy by corrected?

    Didn’t Jesus already provide for a “community-guided-by-the-Spirit”?

    God bless…