What Defines a Heretic? Am I One?

What Defines a Heretic? Am I One? December 1, 2015
What Defines a Heretic? Am I One?

Biblical definition

Biblically speaking, the word heretic comes from the Greek hairetikon, meaning “divisive” (Titus 3:10). A heretic is one who purposes to create disunity, fragmenting the church. In this sense, I am not a heretic. My heart’s desire is to see the church fully united once more. This is one of the key driving factors that motivates everything I do. I hate disunity with a passion.

Though I align myself most closely with the Anabaptists, I do so with the full acknowledgement that they are just one tradition within the whole of Christ’s beautiful universal church. I long for the day when Anabaptists, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Protestants, and all the rest will sit together around one common table—when we will together break bread and drink wine in memory of our Savior, without stopping to worry about how our brothers and sisters may happen to understand the sacrament.

Historical definitions

Historically speaking, a heretic may be defined as one who denies the creeds of Christianity—namely the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. By this definition, I am also not a heretic, as I fully affirm them both (though I side with the Eastern Orthodox regarding the filioque controversy).

Moving a step further, some would define a heretic as a person who holds to any one of a rather large list of heresies condemned by church councils since those initial historic creeds. But here we run into some problems.

For one thing, to condemn all these as heresies would be to condemn nearly all Protestants as heretics. I’m not willing to do that.

For another thing, Nicea marked the beginning of the Christendom era of the church. For nearly 300 years, the earliest Christians unanimously opposed the use of violence, but this all changed when the church and state became fused. Ever since Constantine supposedly became a Christian, the church has entered into an unholy alliance with the state and its sword. Some of the greatest travesties in human history have come about through this union—crusades, inquisitions, and the like.

That’s not to say that the church became wholly and irredeemably corrupt; nor is it to say that the historic church has nothing to teach us from this point forward. But it is to say that I have a hard time treating any later councils as authoritative, given Christendom’s compromised state of union with empire. Even the First Council of Nicea is a struggle for me due to Constantine’s influence. Yet the church’s findings there seem to have still been based on the historic faith, rather than on any corruption brought about by the state.

Individualized definitions

Yet another way to define a heretic is based solely on the theological whims of the accuser. Such accusations these days seem to come mostly from fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals. Accusations of heresy are thrown around with nary a creed nor council to back them up, but merely a private interpretation of Scripture. It is in this manner that I am frequently called a heretic.

Thankfully, fellow Christians are no longer killing each other for this today, though that was not the case during the time of the Protestant Reformation. Nearly every branch of Western Christianity—Roman Catholics and all manner of Protestants alike—were killing one another as heretics. The Anabaptists, though condemned and persecuted from all sides, were the only ones who kept their hands free from bloodshed.1 And this is one of the many reasons I align myself with them.

Though Anabaptists are no longer condemned as heretics by most modern denominations, they did bear that title historically. And so, if being an Anabaptist makes one a heretic, then I am not ashamed to bear that name either.

Additional definition

Finally, I should note that up until now I’ve been discussing Christian heresies. But it’s worth remembering that Christianity itself was considered a heresy when it first came on the scene (Acts 24:14, KJV). Indeed, the way of following Jesus is a heresy compared to the world’s way of doing things. And in this sense, more than any other, I will proudly count myself a heretic—a hippie heretic.


1 Whenever I make the claim that Anabaptists kept themselves free from bloodshed, someone always brings up the Münster Rebellion. Here’s why I say that doesn’t count. Historically, there were four major groups of “Anabaptists,” i.e., those who practiced believer’s baptism during the time of the Protestant Reformation: the radical Anabaptists, the rational Anabaptists, the spiritualistic Anabaptists, and the biblical Anabaptists. (I’m taking these categories from the Logos Mobile Ed course MI101 Introducing Global Missions by Don Fanning.) Other than their shared belief about baptism, these groups were not very directly connected. Of these groups, only the biblical Anabaptists have continued in any significant extent to this day, as represented by the Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites, Brethren in Christ, etc. When I use the term Anabaptist, I am generally referring to this group, unless I specify otherwise. On the other hand, the “Anabaptists” involved in the Münster Rebellion would be among those classified as radical Anabaptists. And they were soundly denounced by the major leaders of the biblical Anabaptists in their day.

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  • Tom Torbeyns

    Very interesting read. I disagree with the modern ecumenicalism! 🙂

  • Derek Collins

    Nice read. I can’t go with the first council of Nicaea myself. Not only did Constantine sit over it (and we would be gullible to think the Emporer didnt influence it) but those bishops themselves were divisove and continued to be after what was “agreed” upon.

  • Why Nicea? I mean, I know it’s socially demanded by many Christians, but it is a mess biblically, historically, theologically. Many of us Anabaptist types have ignored or rejected it. http://trinities.org/blog/10-steps-towards-getting-less-confused-about-the-trinity-6-same-ousia-part-1/

    • The Nicean creed has always been recognized as the standard for Christian orthodoxy by the universal church. The counsel of Nicea represents the last great ecumenical counsel before the church became corrupted with state and violence. Though such problems were beginning to surface even then, the Nicean creed still manages to simply summarize the teachings of the early church fathers.

      Orthodoxy has become extremely important to me, especially given my rejection of biblical inerrancy and sola scriptura. I would never advocate a theological free-for-all where I just get to decide what I like and what I don’t. So I need to trust the wisdom of the historical church, especially such early-church wisdom so close to the Apostles.

      Furthermore, without Nicea we wouldn’t have a formalized canon of the Bible. They tested books for inclusion or rejection based on the same teachings they summarized in the creed. Seems awfully strange to me to accept the Bible they gave us but not their interpretation thereof.

      That said, it’s not my goal to denigrate those who disagree. I’m not overly concerned with the technical details of how one explains the trinity, for example. I do, however, believe that Jesus’ deity is everything for our faith. Nothing makes sense without it.

      • Irenaeus

        //”The counsel of Nicea represents the last great ecumenical counsel before the church became corrupted with state and violence.”//

        I’m obviously late, but that’s quite an interesting statement, as the Nicean council was pretty much the first held under the dominion of an emperor — the Emperor Constantine — who presided at the council and who forcibly exiled the bishops that didn’t agree to sign the statement (creed) produced at the time. He even decided on the terminology to be included in the Creed according to Eusebius of Caesarea (the pre-eminent bishop known as the “Father of Church History” in the catholic traditions). You can read it in his letter that is preserved. His (and the majority’s) concerns were allayed only by having it explained to them that the word did not change their current understanding of God the Father, Christ, and the Spirit as being separate “beings” (Eusebius was what is called a semi-Arian and semi-Arians and Arians were a substantial majority at the Council of Nicea). I just found it curious that you would call this the last council held without the corruption of the state when it was, indeed, clearly the first.

      • “The Nicean creed has always been recognized”
        Chuck, only after emperor Theodosius threw his full weight behind it in 380. The gospel seemed to do well without it before then, yes?

        On Jesus’s “deity,” I invite you, Chuck, to respond to this challenge. http://trinities.org/blog/podcast-124-a-challenge-to-jesus-is-god-apologists/

    • Tim

      Yeah, I’m pretty sure that unfortunately, things had already become corrupted by the time the Nicean creed came about.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    Ah, actually, the crystallization of the Canon and the council of nicea are not historically coincidental. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Development_of_the_New_Testament_canon

    • You are of course correct that it was not at the council itself that the canon was crystallized. My comment from over a year ago was a bit oversimplified. Nonetheless, I do believe the principle I was getting at is valid.

      As for when the canon as we have it was formally settled, that did not happen until much later, though certainly at a time when the Nicene Creed was in effect as a determiner for Orthodoxy.

      However, Athanasius (as the link you provided shows) was the first to compile a list of the exact 27 books we still use, and he used the word “canonized” to describe them. And he did this just a few decades after Nicea, undoubtedly with the findings of Nicea as his test of Orthodoxy.

      So no, it’s not a one-to-one “Nicea gave us the canon.” But indirectly, I stand by the claim that we wouldn’t have the formalized canon as we have it without the influence of Nicea.

  • Rob Shaw

    “Biblically speaking, the word heretic comes from the Greek hairetikon, meaning “divisive” (Titus 3:10). A heretic is one who purposes to create disunity, fragmenting the church.”

    Can I suggest that the definition of ‘heretic’ as provided is a little out of alignment with the Greek meaning. It seems that the original concept comes from haireomai, meaning ‘to choose’, from which came hairetikos, meaning ‘able to choose’. From this is derived the noun form ‘heretic’. The roots of the word are interesting, because they imply that the concern relates primarily to a belief that people can choose their own interpretation, rather than following the agreed, or ‘official’, interpretation. Clearly this becomes a little more complicated when the ‘official’ interpretation diverges from, for example, the scriptural foundation. We then have a conflict between what various branches of the organised church have deemed to be ‘orthodox’ or ‘official’ interpretations, and those who differ from that understanding, and the problem then becomes one of ‘authority’.
    Does the church have the authority to over-ride, or reinterpret the context and meaning of the scriptures?

    Certainly it was – and still is – the contention of the organised church that heresy is ‘divisive’ and has the effect of creating disunity and fragmenting the church – but this is not actually the meaning of the word.

    BTW – Jesus was a heretic in the context of the Judaism of His time.

  • Fred Knight

    I do find this discussion interesting, as I suppose I’m a fellow heretic. I’m actually a non-believer so I’m not sure what my comments have any say in this matter? But if I were to be a believer, I’d have to say that I’d be orthodox. Because authority does mean something to me. If Christ truly passed on His authority, it only makes sense that there was an orthodoxy attached to it, and I’d want to adhere to it.