What Constitutes “Heresy” and “Orthodoxy”?

What Constitutes “Heresy” and “Orthodoxy”? August 11, 2017


Does acceptance of same-sex marriage on the part of a Christian constitute “heresy”?  It may be wrong and un-Biblical, but does it rise to that level?  Conversely, can a Christian hold other-than-traditional opinions on sexual morality or other issues and still be considered “orthodox”?

Calvin College professor James K. A. Smith has ignited a controversy over the definitions of “heresy” and “orthodoxy” in his post On “orthodox Christianity”: some observations, and a couple of questions.  Derek Rishmawy discusses the controversy, summarizes the counter-arguments, and offers some insights of his own in his Christianity Today article What We Mean When Say “Orthodox Christianity.”

Prof. Smith says that “orthodoxy” refers to adherence to the Ecumenical Creeds.  “Heresy” refers to deviation from those creeds; specifically, to the Christological teachings that the creeds were in large part formulated to address.  You are thus a “heretic” if you are an Arian, a Monophysite, and so on.

According to this view, someone may have false beliefs or a wrong theology without being a heretic.  The current debates about sexuality, Prof. Smith observes, are not doctrinal but moral.  They can create the impression that Christianity is all about morality, rather than theology.

He suggests that it is indeed possible to be an “orthodox Christian”–that is, to believe in the creeds of the church–while still supporting same sex marriage.

Supporting same sex marriage might still be wrong.  But it is not a “heresy” and the person with those convictions might still be “orthodox.”  Prof. Smith suggests that we use other terms in discussing the issue, such as “traditional,” as in “he is an orthodox Christian, but he questions the traditional view of marriage.”

You can, however, see where this is going.  Bracketing away Christian morality from Christian theology enables people to be considered “theological correct,” even as they support gay marriage and other “non-traditional” beliefs.

Theology can thus be squeezed into a narrow corner as a set of abstractions that can be affirmed, without reference to actual life.

Not that this is what Prof. Smith is intending.  In fact, I think creedal adherence can be a good definition and criterion for orthodoxy.

But Prof. Smith applies the creeds much too narrowly, as if there can be no new heresies and as if all heresies have to be Christological.

For example, by this standard, evolution could be considered a heresy, a violation of the first article of the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.

As for same-sex marriage, it would seem to violate the third article, on the Holy Spirit:  “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.”

The creeds do not require us to be “orthodox”–except in that sense of accepting them–but to be “catholic.”  The word means literally “according to the whole.”  That is, we believe what the church as a whole, throughout time, believes and has believed.

Same-sex marriage is not “catholic.”  Up till now, no church has ever believed that marriage is possible for couples of the same sex.  The church–whether early or medieval or Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox or Protestant in any of its varieties–has ever looked at marriage in that way.

This is one of the strongest arguments against same-sex marriage.  It is also a strong argument against women’s ordination.  But other arguments also are comprehended in the Creed.  Again, the first article, which teaches the doctrine of creation, that “all things visible and invisible” are made by God, looms behind the arguments that same-sex marriage violates the created order and God’s design for human sexuality, which is the conception of children and their continued care by a father and mother bound as one flesh into a family.

Being “catholic” in this sense means that there can be no new teachings, as such, in the church.  New applications, new understandings, new emphases, but not innovations unknown to the rest of Christendom throughout the world and throughout time.

But didn’t the Reformation inject new teachings in rejecting the “Catholic Church”?  The Reformers were at pains to insist that they did not.  “Justification by faith” was not a new teaching, they insisted.  The authority of Scripture was not a new teaching.

On the contrary, the Reformers accused the Catholics of innovation, of not being Catholic enough.  The papacy isn’t catholic, they argued.  The eastern church has existed for centuries without the authority of the pope.  The early church had nothing like the infallible papacy.  Indulgences were unknown in the early church. Not all Christians have believed in purgatory.

To be sure, the Roman Catholic church disagreed with those arguments and condemned the Reformers as heretics.  That is their privilege.  Disagreements over what the creeds teach and how they are to be applied are at the essence of legitimate theological debate.

But the Reformers also emphasized that the church is not only “catholic” but “apostolic.”  That means that the church is in line with what the apostles taught.  That is, in accord with the apostolic writings of the New Testament.

As the creed says, the Holy Spirit “spoke through the prophets.”  The prophetic writings of the Old Testament are nothing less than the Word of God the Holy Spirit, as are the apostolic writings of the New Testament, also comprehended in this article.

Yes, the Roman Catholic church–also the Eastern Orthodox and the Anglicans–believe that an “apostolic” church is one that is in the line of a continual succession of bishops.  But Luther and other Reformers denied that bishops are apostles, as such.  Though some Lutheran church bodies, such as those in Scandinavia, do have bishops in that continual line, being “apostolic” primarily means believing the same things that Christ’s apostles did.

Thus, “apostolic” helps us to define what is truly “catholic.”  This is why Scriptural authority is creedal.

Again, Roman Catholics disagree.  They called the Augsburg Confession, which presented the case for the catholicity of the Reformation teachings, to be heretical.

Then again, they called Jan Hus a heretic for, among other things, giving the cup in Holy Communion to the laity.  This was a conciliar decision, made by the Council of Constance.  And, heresy being a civil as well as an ecclesiastical offense, the Council turned him over to the secular arm to be burned at the stake.  But Communion in both kinds was the practice of the early church, and it is even the practice of the Roman Catholic church today.  So the practice is “catholic”  in a way that this church council was not.  Nor was it “apostolic.”

But it is a lesson that charges of “heresy” should not be thrown around carelessly as simply a way to put down dissidents.

One question, though.  What do evangelicals who insist upon their adherence to the “orthodoxy” of the Nicene Creed do about its teaching on Baptism?

We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

We Lutherans believe this, that baptism conveys the forgiveness of sins.  Most other evangelicals–including Baptists and Calvinists–as I understand them, do not.  Baptists do not claim to follow the creeds, but Calvinists do.

So, by Prof. Smith’s standards, is not believing in the efficacy of Baptism a heresy?

I ask because I do not know.  Calvinists insist on their adherence to these creeds.  So how do they interpret that article so as to reconcile it to their sacramental theology?  I’d appreciate hearing from some of our Reformed readers.

There are other issues here–doctrinal minimalism, confessionalism, and discerning who is a Christian–which are different from “orthodoxy” and “heresy.”  Maybe we’ll discuss those later. . . .


Photograph of Gloucester Cathedral cloisters by GrahamH, via Pixabay, Creative Commons

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