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).