Long ago someone said that orthodoxy has heresy to thank for its existence. What he meant was that before there was heresy, as we generally think of that as “theological correctness” there was heresy. All the major tenets of Christian orthodoxy were carved out in response to false teachings among Christians.
Now, however, the word heresy has become problematic in most circles, secular and Christian. So has orthodoxy. Like many good words and concepts these have been stretched to the breaking point. Without careful definition they mean very little because of the tremendously diverse ways in which they are used.
I’m thinking about heresy today because I’ve just agreed to write a book about it. No title or outline yet, just a concept–a book for ordinary Christians about heresy. I consider that quite a challenge. Where to begin and how to proceed?
Obviously here I’m not going to work out my outline or table of contents or anything of the sort. These are just some initial musings about the concept of heresy from a Christian theological perspective. I’m not using the word sociologically (a la Peter Berger who I consider a friend) or (God forbid) in terms of popular culture (where heresy almost uniformly means something positive).
Theologically, “heresy” simply means “theological incorrectness.” It comes in many flavors and degrees. And what it is depends very much on context.
Most importantly, to begin with, the statement that a belief is heresy may either be descriptive (a statement of fact without any value judgment) or prescriptive (a value judgment which may also be a statement of fact but is usually disputed). Contrary to popular belief, in other words, when I, as a historical theologian, say a certain belief is heresy I MAY not be saying anything about its truth status or value. Let me explain.
I might rightly say “Belief that the Lord’s Supper is a memorial meal and not a sacrament of ‘real presence’ is heresy.” Of course, anyone who knows me might be puzzled–if they think all such statements are prescriptive. In fact, however, if I say that, it’s strictly a descriptive statement and I mean “in the context of (for example] Roman Catholic theology and practice.”
Or, I might say “Belief that the Lord’s Supper is the sacrament of eating the actual substance of the flesh and drinking the actual substance of the blood of Jesus is heresy.” In that case I’m making both a statement of fact AND a value judgment. I’m saying what is the case and what ought to be the case. (As a Baptist I do think that’s theologically incorrect.)
Already “heresy” is getting complicated. It’s not a safe term in the hands of the untutored! That’s especially the case when so many people still think all heretics ought to be cast out if not burned at the stake! (I loved the bumper sticker I saw the other day that said “It’s all fun and games until someone gets burned at the stake.)
That brings me to the second point. In historical theology heresies are not all equally serious. The Catholic Church, for example, speaks of “damnable heresies” which are especially destructive ones where the person teaching them knows they are contrary to the faith of the Church. (Contrary to what most people think, the Catholic Church does not consider someone excommunicable for teaching heresy until it is convinced the person knows the teaching is contrary to the faith of the Church. There is no such thing as being “accidently heretical”–at least not in the sense of being subject to discipline.)
In my experience, only fundamentalists think all heresies are equally serious. (And not all fundamentalists think that.) Every ecclesiastical community functionally distinguishes between teachings that contradict dogmas (essential of the gospel) and teachings that contradict doctrines (by which, in this case, I mean denominational distinctives).
For example, among most Pentecostals you’ll be excommunicated for denying the deity of Christ but denied ability to teach Sunday School or Bible Study for denying the rapture.
Not all ecclesiastical communities have worked all this out in any formal way, of course, by most have SOME sense of what’s essential Christian belief and what’s important belief for its own identity among Christians and what’s allowed for personal opinion that might not be what the majority thinks.
Technically, descriptively, from a Christian historical theological view, real “Christian heresies” are few. Here I’m talking about what most Christian tradition-communities have long recognized as such serious violations of the gospel that they justify declaring people who teach them not Christian. Like “mortal sins” in Roman Catholicism, though, there is no agreed on list. But there are some virtually everyone agrees are “Christian heresies.”
These include: Docetism, Arianism (the arch-heresy of all Christian heresies) (including semi-Arianism), Adoptionism, Sabellianism/Modalism, Nestorianism, Eutychianism, Pelagianism (including semi-Pelagianism) and Tritheism. All are alive and well and most “mainline” Christians consider churches that teach them cults (in the theological sense). However, they are often more latent than official. Docetism, for example, is rarely taught as doctrine by any Christian group, but it is everywhere present in some degree or manner among Christians.
Another factor has to brought up here, though. Is something really “heresy” where there is no magisterium to enforce it, that is, to expel from the faith community a person who teaches it? I argue it is still heresy. But calling it heresy has no “teeth,” so to speak, in the absence of an authoritative magisterium of some kind (whether that be an episcopacy or synod or whatever).
Is this complicated enough? It’s so complicated that many people, including many Christians, are willing to jettison the whole idea of heresy. It’s messy, it’s complicated, it’s dangerous.
In my opinion, it’s more messy, more complicated, more dangerous to try to do without some sense of orthodoxy which inevitably brings with it some sense of heresy.
To complicate matters further, every faith community has its own heresies beyond those mentioned above. These are denials of its teachings and/or practices that form its reason for being.
I once talked to the pastor of a Baptist church that advertised itself as “A Liberal Church.” That was on the church sign and included in all its public advertising. He said that “liberal” meant “inclusive.” I asked him what was required for membership. He said “Being willing to go on a faith journey with us.” I asked him what he would say to a fundamentalist Baptist who wanted to join. He said “I’d suggest there are other Baptist churches he’d be more comfortable in.” Aha. Then I asked him about baptism. Sure enough, for “tradition’s sake,” the church only baptizes adults upon confession of their faith. “Inclusivism” is never pure.
To Lutherans (I’m sure there are exceptions, of course) denial of justification by faith and belief in justification involving good works is heresy. To Reformed Protestants (generally speaking) denial of God’s sovereignty and belief in free will as ability to thwart God’s will is heresy. (Of course, there are “Lutheran” and “Reformed” churches that have become so liberal and revisionist that these historical distinctives don’t matter, but I’m not talking about them. They have their own heresies which would include things like believing salvation depends on right belief!) To Pentecostals denial of the contemporary validity of the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit and belief in cessationism of those gifts is heresy. Etc., etc., etc.
Even then (!) what those faith communities DO about heresies among them varies a great deal from denomination to denomination and congregation to congregation. And it depends much on WHO is teaching the heresy. An ordinary lay person my “get by with” much heresy without sanction whereas a pastor or elder or deacon is reprimanded or even excommunicated.
The irony about heresy is that in almost every case it is what gave rise to orthodoxy–to what is considered right and good teaching, theological correctness. To whom do we as orthodox Christians owe thanks for the doctrine of the hypostatic union of God and man in Jesus Christ (one person with two natures)? Nestorius, the “reluctant heretic.” And Eutyches (another reluctant heretic). Without them and their teachings, Chalcedon wouldn’t have happened. Okay, maybe we’d be better off if it hadn’t happened (many would say so)! But there seems to be a certain inevitability to it. But we should be gentle with poor old Nestorius as with Pelagius (who was arguably not a Pelagian!).
What does this “thank God for heresy” sentiment mean practically for us today? I think heresy still serves a good purpose, if we let it. First, reading and listening to the so-called heretics can be beneficial in helping us decide whether what we think constitute “heresy” and “orthodoxy” is really so. Heresy can keep us from becoming complacent about our faith. And often we can actually learn something valuable from heretics (e.g., about Jesus’ humanity from an adoptionist or the importance of good works from a Pelagian). That doesn’t mean embracing the error; it means learning from it in various ways.
I know a church that had an entire semester young adult Sunday School series on heresies and not only to deny and condemn them. The teacher was a historical theologian who used early Christian heresies to sharpen the students’ thinking and challenge their too often complacent Sunday Schoolish orthodoxy. His approach was (to paraphrase Pogo and borrow from Tony Campolo) “We have met the enemy and they are…partly right!”
Insofar as heresy means theological incorrectness (it’s most basic, broad definition), I’m against it. But insofar as it means “that with which I thought I was familiar and thought was wrong but am not really that familiar and don’t know why it’s supposed to be wrong” I think it can be a real benefit. (Okay, maybe not to junior high kids undergoing catechesis but to adults who have a sleepy and lazy orthodoxy.)