Heresy: Who Decides?

Heresy: Who Decides? July 8, 2016

From time to time I read a blog or hear someone call another person a “heretic.” Recently a blog friend asked me how I would define “heretic” or “heresy.” Yes, the term “heretic” can be defined.

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.

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. Hence, as with Lewis Ayres, it is wise to speak of a heretic as someone who has jumped the rails on the Nicene habitus and the life of the mind. The creed then is not just a set of lines but a wise reception and absorption of pro-Nicene theology in a way that it governs how we think and also how we read the Bible.

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, Constantinople, Ephesus, 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 Constantinople 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? 

Only someone whose church body adheres to the classical creeds can be successfully accused as a heretic in the classical sense. Accordingly, only someone whose church body adheres to the classical creeds can be called “orthodox” in the classical sense. Or, at least, adheres to substantive teachings of the classical creeds. Which is a way of saying Who decides.

On the other hand, the term heretic measures someone according to the classical creeds (and how they were intended to be interpreted/understood) so, while someone’s church body may not adhere to the creeds (“our only creed is the Bible” kind of folks), a person’s teaching/beliefs may well violate the creedal tradition. Which is a way of saying What decides.

"Hi Dr. McKnight and others,I wish to make a couple observations concerning what is the ..."

The Gospel of With Us and ..."
"I am just amazed at the hedging against “male leadership” in marriage, and the church. ..."

Elisabeth Elliot and Me (by Ruth ..."
"Christians are attacked for following a man who may not be a Christian or be ..."

Church Attendance is Down, But Why?
"I don't know where you are from,but in THIS country, WE are the 'government', and ..."

Is Religious Freedom an Issue Today ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Evangelical
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Wayfaring Michael

    Thanks for this post, Scot. This is one of those basic ideas that I think everyone needs to be reminded of from time to time. I say that as someone who taught history, not religion, for many years, where I saw something similar happening.

    I couldn’t help thinking about that as I read your essay, especially in this craziest of political seasons in a very long time: and I write this as someone who lived in the Washington, D.C. area during Watergate.

    We often hear politicians, pundits, and plain-folk USAmericans denouncing other USAmericans as being “un-American,” or being characterized as people who “hate America.” Why? Because they believe in some form of gun-registration, or socialized medicine, or pacifism, or environmental regulation, take your pick. The people who are making these charges, probably unknowingly, are starting from a position that takes for granted that there is an orthodoxy, and that any deviance from that orthodoxy is the equivalent of heresy.

    We do, of course, as USAmericans, have an equivalent of a creed, the constitution and its amendments. (The Declaration of Independence was a propaganda tract, and as much I and so many USAmericans and even people from around the world love it, it has no meaning in law.) Beyond that, we also have the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, which explain the meaning of the constitution. But we have another body of creed most people don’t think about, which are the treaties that have been signed by the president and ratified by the senate.

    The creedal equivalency is not perfect, of course, because we can indeed amend the constitution, and our understanding of its meaning changes in ways that don’t happen with say, the Nicene and other creeds. Or maybe not, as some of the recent posts here explore…

    Technically, then, you’re “un-American” only if you reject the beliefs set forth in the constitution and its amendments. Establishing “socialized medicine” in this country does not contravene the constitution. Neither does establishing a system for registering guns, or advocating for a smaller military.

    Paul warned us about what comes out of our mouths, and by extension, or pens. I question some of the things written by him or attributed to him, but on this point, I think we would do well to listen.

  • Wildwillie

    Michael you are Way far out – troubling comment!

  • Marja Erwin

    Two questions:

    1. Why and how would rejecting Nicaea “undercut the very basis for Christian existence”?

    Seeing as Christianity predates Nicaea, many Christians have rejected Nicaea, etc. And I can find no reason to assume Nicaea or Chalcedon are more ecumenical than the series of councils leading to Constantinopolis 360; the anathemas make it doubtful that any were fully ecumenical.

    2. Why would questioning the description of G’d as *hailagaz be heretical? Except by association with rejecting Nicaea in favor of Constantinopolis 360.

    Hailags appears in the pagan Pietroasa Ring, but not in the Christian Gothic version of the Bible. The linguist D.H. Green suggests it was associated with worldly power. It is still associated with health, so it suggests that those of us who are disabled and/or chronically ill are worth less than those who are abled. It is also used in Nazi slogans.

  • Jaco van Zyl

    And that is where it ends: No questions asked, no further deliberation. Thou shalt believe the fabrications of Nicaea and Chalcedon, end of story. Petty and pathetic playground bullying by losers who obviously have a lot to fear. Contemptible…

  • Charles Twombly

    Sad caricature. Hope you’ll come to a different understanding of these matter, Jaco. Peace.

  • Charles Twombly

    Am with Harold Brown and Lewis Ayres. “Creed or chaos,” to quote Dorothy L. Sayers. My three concentric circles (dogma, doctrines, theologies) still work well for me. Have used them in both college and seminary courses. Am told they’ve been a bit of a hit at Yale Divinity School.

  • Jaco van Zyl

    Since when does the truthfulness of something depend on it’s utilitarian efficacy? You’re treating people like animals.

  • gingoro

    A former minister who was adjunct professor at Tyndale College defined heresy as any understanding that gets in the way of our being conformed to the image of Christ. He also took the position that there are many levels of heresy most of which imply nothing about one’s salvation or lack thereof. Probably we should use the word heterodox instead of heresy to reference wrong belief that does not necessarily imperil salvation or that if followed to their logical conclusion would imperil salvation. Someone who holds that Christs miracles were being done by the power of the accuser seems to me both to be a heretic and a none Christian and I think there are other beliefs with similar implications. By the way I would not see Buddhists etc as heretics since they make no claim to be Christians. From Eastern Orthodox thinkers I am given to understand that in many cases it was those who held unorthodox beliefs who separated from the church not the other way around.

  • gingoro

    Too many church denominations make acceptance of all three concentric circles necessary to become a church member.

  • Jaco van Zyl

    So my comment got deleted. In true Trinitarian fashion. Want to get an idea how oppressive the Trinitarian legacy has been? Take the Jehovah Witness cult, imagine it as running an empire and convert it’s teachings into trinitarian doctrine. Equally authoritarian, equally suppressive and equally harmful. And our theologian above confirms it: hands off Nicaea and Chalcedon!

  • RJS4DQ

    Comments get deleted for maligning others. Argue against the creeds and the Trinity if you feel so inclined – but comments that “get personal” will be deleted.

  • Jaco van Zyl

    Oh, and calling those who reject the Trinity “heretics” does not qualify as maligning? Hmmm… Interesting inconsistency… But wait I see whose the judge here. Gotcha…

  • Robin Warchol

    WOW!, That is one of the best explanations I’ve read outside of Catholic apologetic circles. Thanks again Scot.

  • Charles Twombly

    Which is another way of saying that they dump circles two and three into circle one–or at least attempt to do so. Bad move, especially with circle three (theologies).

  • gingoro

    I agree it is a bad move but our denomination does it and then wonders why it is difficult to find people even to be deacons, let alone elders.