Who is a Heretic?

Who is a Heretic? May 20, 2014

From time to time I read a blog or hear someone call another person a “heretic.” Recently a blogfriend asked me how I would define “heretic” or “heresy.” I’ve been asked this about two people, and I won’t use names but it wouldn’t be hard to figure out about whom it was asked. Yes, the term “heretic” can both be defined and describes a reality, though some would like to think the term is now obsolete (like Model T sales strategies).

How do you define “heretic”?

Let me suggest that the term “heretic” is used in three ways, only one of which (I believe) is justifiable — though I have little hope that the mudslingers will learn to use terms as they are supposed to be used.

Before I get there, though, let me add another point: it is too bad we don’t have such an evocative term for praxis. Jesus’ focus was on “hypocrisy” more than “heresy,” and it might just be an indication of how far we’ve strayed for us to give so much attention to “heresy” and not enough to failure in praxis. As far as we can see, failure in practice is just as bad as failure in theology. But this is not what this post is about. We are concerned here with the term “heretic.”

Now to the three uses of this term that I routinely hear:

First, there is the slipshod use: a “heretic” is used here for anyone who doesn’t believe something we might think important. As when someone uses this term for someone who is amillennial or a preterist or a partial inerrantist or paedobaptistic or trans-substantialist … or a host of other things.

Those who use the term for such things ought to stop. It is unfair, it is volatile, and it really does damage to what is central to the faith and what is not. When I hear someone call another a “heretic” for something that is not central to our faith, I wonder more about the name-caller than the one being name-called. It tells us something about a person to hear them pronounce such denunciation and damnation on someone who genuinely is a believer.

This slipshod use of the term leads to the current rave about the “orthodoxy of heresy” and the “heresy of orthodoxy.” Some scholars are trying to get people to realize that traditional orthodoxy is today’s heresy and clear heresy is today’s orthodoxy. Others are trying to get genuine orthodoxies trivial by suggesting that minor issues are more important than they really are.

Second, there is the extended use: a “heretic” is used here for anyone whom someone else thinks is skirting with danger on a central theological concept. I hear this at times about those who affirm the New Perspective with respect to Justification by Faith. There are a variety of topics here — including one’s theory of the atonement, one’s view of Jesus’ self-consciousness, one’s view of Scripture … or one’s view of Hell and final judgment.

The term “extended” refers to someone’s theological claims to suggest that, if they were to follow through in their logic (which as often as not they don’t), they will end up with some belief that is inherently no longer orthodox. Sometimes this is true. Example: some of those who deny final judgment end up denying a host of things — like God’s holiness or the ultimacy of Christ and the like — but some don’t, and we need to let each person speak for him- or herself.

And here’s something else that is very important to realize. “Heresy” was an interactive term, and as often as not it was a term used by both Jews and Christians for the other as they gradually broke off relations. Heresiologists and heresiology is the study of this time and those who definitively shaped how we now understand the term. In other words, the days of Irenaeus and the emerging proto-rabbinic class defined themselves over against one another.

Third, the proper use: a “heretic” is someone whose teachings or beliefs “undercut the very basis for Christian existence”. I here quote my friend and former colleague, Harold O.J. Brown’s book, Heresy.

Most importantly, heresy pertains only to the central doctrines of God and Christ. Heresy is established by orthodoxy and orthodoxy was established by the classical creeds (Nicea, Chalcedon, etc). Brown once told me a heretic is someone who denies something in the classic forms of Christian orthodoxy, such that orthodoxy and heresy are mirror terms. That is, one is a heretic if one teaches what has already been judged to be heretical — say, docetism or Arianism.

Here’s the rule on the proper use of the term “heretic” or “heresy”: anything that denies Nicea or Chalcedon, etc., is heretical; anything that affirms them is orthodox. We should learn to use the term for such affirmations or denials.

I once had a conversation with Kallistos Ware about the topic of heresy and he told me something I value:

No one can be called a heretic until they have been informed by a proper authority of a theological error,

until that person has understood what she or he is teaching,

and only if the person then continues to teach such an idea.

So the proper ingredients of the heresy accusation is: 1. An authority, 2. Explanation and confrontation of the error, and 3. Refusal to change one’s teaching. What is often the case today is that #1 is seized beyond one’s recognized status; in other words, one usurps the position of authority and then pontificates from that usurpation.

Who then should be announcing the term “heretic”? 

Can the non-denominational or independent church use the term appropriately? 


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  • Glenn Sunshine

    I tend to use an etymological definition: heresy comes from “hairein,” to choose. The sense is that heresy occurs when one takes one idea and runs with it to such an extent that it distorts the fabric of the faith, much like pulling the yarn on a knit sweater can distort the shape. It’s a non-technical definition and not terribly precise, but I think it gets at the core idea. For example, over-emphasizing the humanity of Christ result in Arianism, which distorts many other aspects of the faith. Over-emphasizing divine sovereignty (hyper-Calvinism) distorts anthropology and missiology. I don’t use the word often, but I do think this is a useful way of thinking about it.

  • A big part of the labeling problem comes from those whose theologies are a package deal, meaning that they understand all (or most) of their opinions, doctrines, and dogmas to be inextricably linked. For example, I’ve been told that I can’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus if I don’t believe in a literal six day creation. In this view, the literal interpretation of Genesis 1 (7 days) is directly tied to the resurrection of Jesus (3 days) such that you cannot believe one without believing the other. Therefore, if I don’t believe in Young Earth Creationism, I am a heretic. It’s like a house of cards. If you take one card out through unbelief, the whole thing collapses and you wind up a heretic or a liberal, which to many folks are essentially the same thing.

  • Martin Downes

    Good comment by Kallistos Ware. It places the accent on the element of divisiveness in heresy. It is possible to be in error, but to be teachable.

  • Scot, your last question is particularly profound and Bp. Ware’s first point indicates that the categories of heresy and orthodoxy have intrinsic ecclesiological implications. As you know it was this very question, “What is heresy?”, that prompted me to rethink my ecclesiology. Ultimately I think it does boil down to who decides and on what authority? God bless!

  • Martin Downes

    Scot, I’d be interested on your take on Paul’s anathema in Galatians 1as it relates to the issue of who is a heretic. He’s dealing with an error in soteriology rather than christology or theology proper. After all Pelagius was a heretic, but as far as my knowledge stretches, not on the grounds of departing from Nicea

  • scotmcknight

    Martin, if orthodoxy determines heresy, then one has to have the former before one can have the latter. I don’t know how the heresiologists approach Pelagius, but perhaps through both theology and christology to his soteriology?

  • scotmcknight

    Very interesting Glenn. I do like what Bp Ware said — that has influenced me. But OJ Brown’s comment was formative for me, too.

  • Martin Downes

    The Council of Orange (529) condemned Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism. It was dealing with issues that neither Nicea or Chalcedon were called on to clarify or defend. In fairness Pelagius even used Augustine’s early writings on the freedom of the will against him, but at the time Augustine had been responding to Manichean determinism.

    But theological controversy is like that isn’t it? Pelagius pushed things so far in one direction that a defense of the doctrine of grace was demanded.

    Harold Brown’s work on heresy is stellar

  • Just to nit-pick, but not really, isn’t Pelagianism a heresy that isn’t directly about God and Christ? Wouldn’t that expand out the usage a bit? I mean, I’m not trying to push back on the very helpful taxonomy by much, but it does seem like there are a few more teachings than those encapsulated by the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed that are worthy of the title.

  • Norman

    Well I thought this article was going well until we encountered the “Third” use of heretic. I’m very uncomfortable with the concept of setting “someone with authority” over someone else regarding many theological issues. Pray tell who defines the authority when it comes to theological students who may have grown past the knowledge of the “authorities”. (There’s an assumption here on my part obviously)

    Let me present an example from the NT concerning those in the Bible who were considered “righteous” due to their faith in God yet never heard of Christ or lived to see him yet they were included because they “saw him from afar”. I think we really need to think through the implications of the writer of Heb 11 who was including archaic humans of faith whom we very likely would say don’t meet our definition of Christian Righteousness. However they are included under a broad umbrella of inclusion. Deeper introspection into early Christian inclusion should give us pause to rely upon those who might set themselves up as “authorities”. Of course this subject could easily have a book or two written about it but it’s not a popular topic perhaps.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Who made Augustine God? The only basis you could have to make Pelegianism a heresy to the 3rd degree Scot is describing is if the big C Catholic Church was infallible in its ultimate promotion of Augustine’s ideas and shunning of Pelagius’s. And then if you’re a Protestant, when did those infallible judgements stop? You end up in quite the vicious circle.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “Pelagius pushed things so far in one direction that a defense of the doctrine of grace was demanded.”

    That’s the revisionist history. Contrary to what his detractors claimed, Pelagius never denied the existence of grace nor that it aided in all good works, but did assert that we do have the power to choose right or wrong and are not wholly corrupted. If you compare Pelagius’s teachings and Augustine’s to the NT and earliest Patristic fathers, it was Pelagius who was orthodox, not Augustine.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I think if one during their lifetime hasn’t adhered to at least a couple of “heretical” views they aren’t really thinking through their faith enough.

  • “Who then should be announcing the term ‘heretic’?” and “Pray tell who defines the authority….” and “Who made Augustine God?” All good questions. So do the categories “heresy” and “orthodoxy” have application apart from an ecclesiology that posits an ongoing authority higher than an individual’s private reading of Scripture?

  • Andrew Dowling

    You’re right. The big paradox is that any religion to establish and affirm itself needs to define the “rules/parameters” of the faith, but as time progresses one can see/decide that the determinations to come to some of those rules was flawed/should be re-visited, or at the least decreased as a potential “barrier to true belief.”

    A legitimate concern is does doing the latter take the faith back to the pre-300s when you had vastly different perspectives assuming the mantle of Christ? Personally, I think the Reformation already took that cat out of the bag . . .when Jehovah’s Witnesses, Eastern Orthodox, and Charismatic Calvinists are all under the “Church” umbrella, the differences are already so significant as to make the exact nature of the Trinity almost small potatoes.

  • I love the definition of heresy from Ware. As someone who has thrown around the word “heretic” a bit flippantly, this post is convicting. Thanks Scot!

  • The comments to this post, by themselves, demonstrate that one person’s heresy is another’s orthodoxy.

    Sometimes I refrain from expressing my own personal beliefs about obscure theological issues, because I do not see how they would be helpful to a particular audience.

    Perhaps the greatest heresy is promulgating a belief that tends to drawn the focus off of Jesus and onto ourselves, so that we can get “glory” for a deeper understanding than others have.

    It is often too easy to think that salvation comes thru deep understanding of theological issues. When the reality is that it comes only thru Jesus.

  • Chris

    This is the classic Protestant conundrum. Divorcing itself from any real ecclesiology, modern evangelicals have no authority to appeal to. The individual and their private interpretation is the authority. This is indeed the sin of autonomy- the curse of the modern age

  • Martin Downes

    I’ll stick with Augustine on this one. You’re welcome to Pelagius.

  • Matt Edwards

    While the collapse of the denominations has made the term “heretic” meaningless, I think there is still some value in labeling ideas as “historically heretical” according to Scot’s third definition. In a postmodern culture you can believe whatever you want to believe, but if you want to claim some kind of connection between your ideas and those of historical Christianity, then orthodoxy and heresy are still relevant concepts.

  • I actually just posted an article yesterday on something similar to this article’s topic: Fear-Driven Biblical Interpretation (http://prodigalthought.net/2014/05/19/fear-driven-biblical-interpretation).

    I am saddened when these 2 fallacies are employed about biblical interpretation: 1) Slippery Slope – if you believe A, then you’ll believe B, C, D, E, etc. 2) Those who immediately make secondary issues a “gospel issue.” Both of these seem to come from a fear-focus (and control focus).

    Shepherds are called to protect & guard the sheep. But we also need to guard against over-protection.

  • See my other comment – something happened with this one.

  • Andrew Dowling

    But do 5 Point Calvinists and Eastern Orthodox Catholics fall under the same umbrella because they subscribe to the same parameter (and 4th century concern) of the Trinity? I would suggest their views of God and His place/role in humanity are so different as to make their agreement on that issue mere window-dressing.

  • Davis C

    I think the introductory aside about praxis is helpful in framing the whole discussion. What does heresy look like to a pastor that is orthopraxic in ‘washing the feet’ of her congregation, in being the servant of all? How do clergy and lay people demonstrate orthodoxy with their bodies? What good is it to be the official interpreters of the scriptures and fail to love neighbor as self (Matt 23)?

  • Thanks for including Arianism as an example of heretical teaching, especially since it’s still around… ironically among some who accuse others of being heretical.

  • Scott, you wrote of, “Those who immediately make secondary issues a “gospel issue.” From your vantage, who decides what’s secondary and what’s primary?

  • I think Scot lays out a good focus in his article – the Apostle’s & Nicene Creeds. Now some secondary issues are important to me – all spiritual gifts today, women in leadership, etc. But none of these issues really ever point towards heresy. Yet, you can hear some say allowing women in leadership is a “gospel issue.”

  • scotmcknight

    The church’s tradition. Not a who so much as a what.

  • scotmcknight

    It has to be done by an authoritative council of some sort… depending on one’s denomination. Not just RCs but EOs have the structures to do this.

  • scotmcknight

    Silly comment to say Protestantism doesn’t have “any real ecclesiology.”

  • Chris

    Evangelicalism has a flawed ecclesiology based on biblical and historical evidences. The locus of authority in the contemporary church is the individual. Any hierarchy or mediators are seen as threats to individual autonomy. The church is simply a reflection of modern society. God ordained authority (bishops, priests, etc) are disdained much like kings or emperors and overthrown by popular vote. This ecclesiology is not of God. It is a product of modern democracy.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “The locus of authority in the contemporary church is the individual.
    Any hierarchy or mediators are seen as threats to individual autonomy.”

    That’s not true in all Protestant churches

    “God ordained authority (bishops, priests, etc) are disdained much like kings or emperors and overthrown by popular vote.”

    While I agree there is a conundrum as you pointed out, let’s not pretend the selection of bishops and cardinals by the Catholic Church does not feature similar levels of infighting, political gamesmanship, and “popularity” contests as can occur regarding the appointment of pastors/church leaders in Protestant churches.

  • Jeff Miller

    I understand that it was not within the scope of this piece to further discuss the praxis/hypocrisy vs. heresy thoughts at the beginning of the piece, but, for what it’s worth, I would be glad to read more on that topic from you in the future.

  • Peter Davids

    While the article is quite helpful, there is a missing meaning of heretic/heresy, perhaps not in English, but in the underlying Greek (perhaps significant in that the word itself is an adapted transliteration). That meaning is, “one who creates a faction” and “a faction” within a larger group for heretic and heresy respectively. The New Testament can, as you well know, refer to both the Pharisees and the Jesus movement as “heresies.” Neither is prejudicial; both are descriptive. The Pharisees were one group within Judaism, a ethic-religious people divided into many such groups (those we know and those we don’t know). One of these was the new followers of The Way or, as I usually say, the Jesus movement. Many of these groups claimed to be the true People of God. Paul and others will later vigorously resist the formation of any factions within the Jesus movement, heresies within or separating from the Jesus heresy. Naturally, if this meaning were retained we would have some interesting results. Every church split would be a heresy, and so would the Reformation (or the various parts of the Reformation). Many churches have several heresies within them (i.e. factions), The Catholic Church learned to adopt some heresies (in this sense) as orders and the like, so one has a variety of spiritualities and practices all approved by and giving allegiance to the central authority of the Church (those that did not were labeled, well, heresies). This is a bit of a play on the origin of the term, but it has a serious side – the NT writers were against factions of any sort, whether they be Jewish Christian versus Gentile Christian or whether they be a Peter group, Paul group, Apollos group and Messiah group (in Corinth). Concrete unity was very important. And there is so little of it today. Even the calling of others “heretic” is often an in-group versus out-group action. Would the New Testament writers call all of us (in that sense) heretics? “We belong to the evangelical heresy.”

  • Peter Davids

    While it is doubtful that Calvin was a Calvinist in the later sense of the term, I basically agree that factions breed factions and that this is the history of Protestantism with its tens of thousands of denominations worldwide. This is precisely what Bowen family emotional systems theory would predict, by the way. And that is a major reason why a number of evangelicals especially Episcopal/Anglican evangelicals (including members of my own faculty) have “gone home,” “crossed the Tiber,” or, to quote Sheldon Vanauken, “crossed the English Channel” to become Roman Catholic. I should add that that group includes former Disciples of Christ, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and other evangelicals. It is mainly former Anglicans, however, who have been ordained in the Roman Catholic Church. For many of these the disunity and infighting of Protestantism in general and evangelicalism in particular was a major impetus in returning to Rome (not that there is not infighting in the Roman Catholic Church, but there are boundaries set upon it that keep them under one roof; the same is true of the Orthodox).

  • Chris

    Andrew, I really don’t think the issue is corrupt authority but authority itself.

  • Scot, I would love to get your engagement on a recent piece I wrote exploring a atypical definition of heresy that follows Paul’s use of the term haeretikos in Titus 3:10. The original word seems to carry the connotation mostly of unnecessary divisiveness and contentiousness. It seems like we’re trapped in a modernist understanding of truth as “facticity” in the way that we try to define heresy as conformity to a “correct” set of propositions. The ancient fathers that I’ve read seem to describe orthodoxy more in terms of being harmonious than being correct. For example, an Arian understanding of Christ is not necessary “un-factual” Biblically since you could come up with proof-texts to support it, but it does create an disharmonious theological system. So here’s a little more that I wrote about this topic: http://morganguyton.us/2014/05/09/what-is-a-heretic-and-what-is-orthodoxy-a-response-to-timothy-tennent/

  • Yes, some evangelicals love to claim things as “gospel issues.” However, you have to jump from point A to point H, skipping over B to G. That’s slippery slope. And it doesn’t hold water.

  • rising4air

    In response to both of your questions, the response of Ware does both mercy and justice. It’s a source of disappointment and embarrassment to hear anyone declare another a heretic: as is the lack of unity for the mission and worship we’re called to in Christ.

  • Tom F.

    I wonder about the functional difference between “heretic” and “wrong on a crucial issue to the Christian faith”. I get that one can make an argument that “heretic” only applies to Nicea/Chalcedon/ect., and I might even buy that.

    But what is the difference if the end result is the same: “heretics” and those who commit grave, yet non-heretical, errors are still going to be shown the door, no? What precisely is different in terms of our response between those we view as heretical and those we view as fatally wrong? (And we all view at least someone as fatally wrong.)

    It seems like our linguistic precision could improve with this clarification, but its hard for me to see how our ecclessial unity or even our ecumenical conversation is likely to improve. We are still going to disagree over what we view as non-negotiables, and we will still exclude and condemn each other over non-negotiables, even if we were to all start using the terms like heretic properly.

    Based off of this conversation, what difference in our reaction should there be between people who are actually heretics and people whom we think are simply badly, fatally, wrong about some aspect of the faith?

  • Andrew Dowling

    Very insightful post. The huge paradox upon Christendom’s shoulders is that it seeks to maintain power and hierarchical structures, while the roots of the movement (Jesus and the first Disciples) are of a group breaking tradition and in effect being “heretical.” Which is one reason, especially in this day and age, the term is practically meaningless.

  • But if the points don’t connect properly & don’t hold water (has any scholar ever argued this? not that I’ve read), then we don’t really have much to engage with. Of course, we’re also skipping over a lot of Jesus’ focus in the gospels and Paul’s trajectory of new creation.

    I’m not sure if your challenge to Protestant ecclesiology means you are RC or EO. I’m happy with either. But all 3 branches have to admit ecclesiology all problems – or admit positives & challenges.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “I do not mean this in any kind of derogatory or insulting way”

    Oh please Brad, your tone in all of these posts has been pretty sanctimonious and smug.

  • Andrew Dowling

    The RCC doesn’t even make their “priests must be male” claim on some bizarre argument of Jesus inheriting Pharisee tradition . .

  • “modern evangelicals have no authority to appeal to”

    The Holy Spirit. Now, whether their pneumatology is sufficiently coherent is a different question, but it’s pretty clear in the NT that the authority over orthodoxy (knowledge of God), orthopraxy (actions and gifts of the Spirit), and orthopathy (fruit of the Spirit) are related to the work of the Spirit. How does the Spirit work in the life of the Church? Through the established authority or with the authority or… some other model. The story of Cornelius and the decision about the inclusion of Gentiles suggests a pattern of mutuality of ecclesial authority and pneumatological dynamics.

  • “Evangelicalism has a flawed ecclesiology based on biblical and historical evidences.”

    No it doesn’t. Volf’s After Our Likeness is just one example of a very coherent Free Church ecclesiology.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    If we are all to be teachable and avoid divisiveness then we all need to avoid declaring others heretics–especially on the basis of post-Apostolic/NewTestament “orthodoxy”–and engage in open discussion of all spiritual/theological/doctrinal matters so that we may all learn together. ISTM that the “orthodox” creeds were attempts to answer questions that weren’t explicitly answered by God in the textual traditions which were affirmed as the received revelatory standard for those who believed in and followed Christ. The conciliar creeds are not authoritative for me or much of the free church trajectory; rejection of them as theologically definitive is of ecclesiastical significance, but has little relationship to whether one knows and is known by Christ, whether s/he is in Christ by faith. During New Testament times it seems to have been behavioral moral matters that would get one expelled from fellowship rather than doctrinal matters, which would only engender serious argument; by creedal times it was mostly the other way around.

  • BradK

    And when that authoritative council gets it wrong? Humans are fallible, right? One could argue that God guards his church against error, but that pretty quickly starts to sound an awful lot like the case made by KJV only advocates…

  • Markus

    “We belong to the Evangelical heresy” is the best comment I heard in a long time. Well done, Peter! 😀

  • I would be interested to know your criteria for heresy in the case of Dr. McGrath. He affirms that scripture does not support the doctrine of the Trinity and then goes on to describe the doctrine as a “spectacularly helpful and inspiring development which may therefore be justified if not on biblical grounds”.
    Is it or is it not a heresy to deny the normative role of scripture?