Thoughts about the terms “heresy” and “heretic”

Thoughts about the terms “heresy” and “heretic” June 13, 2012

The recent “dust up” over possible semi-Pelagianism among certain Baptists has given rise to the usual confusion about terms like “heresy” and “heretic.” So let’s clear things up a little (hopefully).

What makes a belief “heresy?” Well, there’s no easy answer to that unless it is within a church or denomination that has a formal magisterium. Such as the Roman Catholic Church. Some beliefs have been formally “anathematized” by a council or a pope. Then they are heresies. Somewhere, several times over the centuries, what we have been calling “semi-Pelagianism” here has been declared heresy by that Church. Some Protestant churches have also declared it heresy. Not all. If a belief has been formally declared anathema or heresy by a church magisterium, then, within that church or denomination it is heresy–there. Whether it is heresy outside that church or denomination is a difficult question. For example, what sense would it make to say that a Buddhist is teaching the “Nestorian heresy?” However, a Catholic, for example, might say that a certain Protestant is teaching that heresy. But “heresy” has somewhat different meanings even there–inside and outside that church.

Many “free churches” have no magisterium or even formal, written statement of faith. For example, the American Baptist Churches, U.S.A. is a denomination without a magisterium or formal, written statement of faith that could be used as an instrument of doctrinal accountability. So “heresy” is a very problematic concept there. Still, an ABCUSA leader or theologians might say that a person within the denomination is teaching heresy. That’s meaningless unless they explain what they mean by “heresy.” Usually in such a context it means a belief believed to be seriously contrary to the gospel or Baptist practice. For example, a conservative ABCUSA person might say “Such-and-such a pastor is teaching the heresy of universalism.”  But since there’s no agreed on list of heresies in that denomination, the person using the term can only mean ‘I think that pastor is teaching a doctrine contrary to the gospel” or to Baptist practice. In other words, in that context, “heresy” has no teeth other than the damage that might be done to a person’s reputation.

Now, there’s one other use of “heresy.” Historical theologians of any or no denomination sometimes say “Such-and-such is a heresy” and mean that it has generally been excluded by most Christian groups. This is a purely descriptive use; it has no prescriptive power. It may not even be meant prescriptively at all. It simply a statement of historical fact. In that sense, universalism is clearly a heresy. But, so what? It’s just an observation.

All that is to say that when people hear “heresy” they need to discern (or ask) its meaning. And its meaning will depend on the context and intention.

When I say that semi-Pelagianism is a heresy I mean all of the above. As a historical theologian I mean it has been declared and treated as a heresy (possible cause for exommunication) by the Catholic Church and some Protestant churches. And I mean it has generally been treated by even free church theologians and leaders as serious error. And I mean it has, for the most part, with no exceptions I am aware of, been treated as serious theological error by all major branches of Catholic and Protestant Christianity because they have discerned that it conflicts with the gospel.

Since I’m not a Catholic or member of a Protestant church with a magisterium, my description of semi-Pelagianism as heresy IN THAT CONTEXT has no force. It carries no weight. It’s simply an observation. That’s especially true when, as in this case, the people who seem to hold that heresy are also not Catholics or members of magisterial Protestant denominations.

Now, what about “heretic?” This is where people get really confused. Most people think that anyone who holds or teaches a heresy is automatically a heretic. Not so. Even within the Catholic Church a person is only a heretic insofar as they understand that what they are believing or teaching is heresy and continue to believe or teach it anyway. That’s fairly uncommon. (Here, of course, I’m talking about within the Church.)

When I say that a person or group is believing or teaching a heresy, I AM NOT saying they are heretics. It very well may be the case that they do not know or understand that what they are believing or teaching is heresy. In that case, they most certainly are not “heretics.” They are simply people believing and (possibly) teaching serious theological error. I would only call someone a heretic if I became convinced he or she knew and understood that what he or she is believing and teaching is heresy. That’s extremely difficult given the contextual nature of “heresy” in free church circles.

So what do I mean when I say, prescriptively, that a belief is “heresy?” (Given that I’m not a Catholic or a member of a magisterial Protestant church or denomination.) Well, it can mean one or both of two things. I might be saying “That belief has generally been rejected as seriously wrong by the majority of Christians” (or if it’s about Baptist belief and practice “the majority of Baptists”). I might also be saying “That belief should not be believed (and perhaps also should not be permitted) because it constitutes serious theological error.” The first meaning is descriptive; the second is prescriptive. NEITHER of them says that any individual is a “heretic.” To make that judgment I would have to know his or her intentions and level of understanding about the belief.

My main point here is to say that what someone believes is “heresy” is not always (or even most often) a personal attack on them. It may simply be a descriptive judgment based on historical theology. It may also be descriptive in which case it means “this ought not to be believed or taught.” BUT it does not amount to calling anyone a “heretic.” That would take another step; it would be a judgment about the person’s knowledge, understanding and intentions.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is not always possible to discern what a statement actually says without much dialogue and discernment. On the surface it may seem to be heretical, but on deeper inspection, after much dialogue, for example, it may turn out not to mean what it seemed to mean at first. For example, suppose someone says to me “I don’t believe in the Trinity.” Okay, if that person claims to be a Christian, I’m concerned. But I’ve learned not to jump even to obvious conclusions. So I say to him or her “That concerns me. Please explain.” Then suppose the person says “I don’t believe in three gods.” “Well, I say, that’s not what the doctrine of the Trinity is.” And we’re off on a discussion that might lead to the conclusion that the person’s denial of the Trinity is not what it seemed at first. Still, insofar as the person claimed to be a Christian, it was worth pursuing. At the end, what really matters is not the words they use but what they mean.

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  • Dave O’Brien

    Over 40 years ago, when I was teaching Old Testament in a midwestern Bible college, I formulated a new, tongue-in-cheek definition of heresy and orthodoxy. Usually in the fall of the year, in a first class dealing with the formal study of the OT, a student would raise a hand and declare, belligerantly, “I never heard that before.” Apparently, orthodoxy is whatever you’ve heard before, and heresy is anything you haven’t.

    • rogereolson

      That response by undergraduates (and a few graduates students) has always surprised me. I knew a professor once who routinely responded to it “Why did you come to college if you didn’t expect to hear things you never heard before?” I’m too nice (at least to students) to say things like that, but I did wonder sometimes (when I taught undergraduates in an evangelical Christian college) why they came to college if not to hear things they never heard before. But, I knew the answer. They expected to hear things they never heard before in other subjects, just not in Bible and theology classes. There many of them (not all, of course) wanted what they learned in Sunday School confirmed.

      • J.E. Edwards

        Ha Ha. That’s a good point. Enjoyed the post.

  • John C. Gardner

    Let us assume that a person (e.g. a pastor or laity in a teaching position) in a church that had doctrinal standards that affirmed the Incarnation of Christ(as understood at Chalcedon) believed or taught a position similar to Arianism. What if this individual was ignorant of the Chalcedon definition? What if the individual was informed about the Chalcedon definition and refused to change? That person would be in error in the first case but guilty of heresy in the latter case. Is that correct?
    This seems like a very cogent and understandable definition. Thanks for this post.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, that is correct. The person is a heretic only once he or she understands the orthodox belief and consciously, willfully persists in teaching against it.

  • James Petticrew

    These are interesting distinctions and I wish they could be more widely understood. I was continually told by a reformed theologian that the Arminian position on predestination was technically heretical because it had been condemned by the Synod of Dort but as a Wesleyan that condemnation was handed down by a tradition which I held had no authority over me or my denomination. Had I been a member of the Free Church of Scotland Dort may have made my position on predestination heretical but as a member of the Church of the Nazarene I can’t see how it’s condemnations has any implications for me.

    • rogereolson

      Exactly. In your denomination what the Reformed theologian believes would probably be heresy.

  • DRT


    You are on a roll for hitting issues that are concerning me.

    Question – I often hear you and others refer to heresies that were decided prior to the reformation. The only way that I could see that as being acceptable is if all heresies declared prior to the reformation are generally accepted as heresies by protestants. So, are there any heresies declared prior to the reformation that most protestants would not consider to be a heresy?


    • rogereolson

      The Protestant reformers generally accepted the decisions of the first four ecumenical councils about orthodoxy–Trinity, person of Christ, salvation by grace alone, etc. But, for the most part, they did not pay attention to the later ecumenical councils that dealt with, for example, iconoclasm. This may seem somewhat arbitrary, but there was a general impression among them that the church had taken a wrong path with Gregory the Great. So, to answer more specifically, I don’t find that the reformers agreed with medieval councils that icons are a necessary part of devotion (i.e., iconoclasm being a heresy).

  • Chiefkpr

    Dr. Olson, thanks so much for your thoughtful and thought provoking analysis of theological issues, especially your defense of Arminian theology. As an interested, but untrained Methodist lay person, I really appreciate your willingness to take on these issues and to foster a non-judgemental dialogue about them. Your blog has been a significant source of education for me. To be able to intelligently decypher the discussions, I’ve had to create my own glossary of theological terms. I will now modify my heresy/heretic definitions!

    I have observed that the language and vocabulary of theology both provides for accurate specificity of description needed for meaningful discussion as well as separates believers whose understandings differ. I hope you will continue to include more remedial lessons/observations for your readers like me!

    • rogereolson

      I will keep on because of people like you who seem to appreciate it. Thanks for your words of affirmation.

  • Mark

    What of church assemblies that worship their pastors, or whose pastors are idolized, or whose pastors are dictatorial to the point that what they say is a pronouncement from God? Is this not heresy? There have been accusations of spiritual abuse (that goes with this authority) against conservative evangelical (and fundamentalist) pastors. Some churches are being deemed cults, such as Mars Hill.

    • rogereolson

      Those are very loose, informal uses of the terms heresy and cult. Certainly it would be heretical to worship a pastor. And a church might have cultic features. But a certain amount of caution and precision needs to be exercised in using these terms if a person is aiming at something more than rhetorical effect.

  • Mark

    Sorry, I take my previous statement back since it is off topic. Spiritual abuse is not the topic, but I feel it is something that is a harmful teaching, and the pastoral authority as a cause of it is not healthy and not biblical because one member is being overemphasized to the detriment of other portions of the body. Your example of the ABCUSA (formerly Northern Baptist Convention) is correct. The Southern Baptist Convention has moved closer to actually having heresy trials (in how it has ostracized moderate and that rare liberal). These people have definitely been unlovingly labeled as “skunks.” I don’t believe there has actually been a fully publicized heresy trial since the trial of Briggs in the Northern branch of the Presbyterian church. There were recent attempts to bar Pinnock and other individuals espousing open theism from evangelical churches and seminaries. But I don’t believe even the individuals who were staging the trials were willing to state that these individuals were heretics. They just felt their beliefs were wrong or some aspect of their belief was wrong. I don’t know — this is no longer the middles ages when heretics were burned at the stake or had molten lead poured down their throat (like Bruno, a predecessor of Gallileo), thank God! Individuals who don’t fit in one communion can find another like Gordon Clark or some other denominational hopper. There is something for everybody in the USA.

    • rogereolson

      You’re right, even most conservative, neo-fundamentalist Christians are reluctant to use the “h” word. “Heterodoxy” is its common substitute. I once participated in a heresy trial. It wasn’t called that and I felt suckered into it. It was supposed to be a “Day of Theological Clarification,” but at the end of the day we (all the theology professors of a certain school) were asked to vote whether the professor in question was “within evangelical boundaries.” I voted under protest. Fortunately he was judged to be theologically sound. But it was a heresy trial. A rose with any other name…. So they do still happen. Tony Campolo was subjected to such an inquisitorial tribunal led by a leading Reformed evangelical theologian some years ago. And, as you mention, one professional society voted on whether to expel Clark Pinnock and John Sanders. By the way, just for your information, J. Gresham Machen was tried by the Northern Presbyterian denomination in 1935 and his ministerial credentials removed. That’s when he founded the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Westminster Theological Seminary. So, at least occasionally, it has been conservatives who have been subjected to heresy trials.

      • DRT

        I would say Piper’s comment about Rob Bell’s Love Win’s was pretty much calling him a heretic. What did he say exactly? “Goodbye Rob Bell”?

        • rogereolson

          I think it was “Farewell, Rob Bell.” Functionally, I think it was Piper’s way of saying he doesn’t consider Rob Bell an evangelical anymore. I don’t know what else it could mean.

  • Theophile

    Hi Roger,
    When we consider Jesus said: “The way is narrow and few be that find it”, or “When the son of man returns will he find even one man of faith?”, we wonder who the heretics are. When we read Jesus to say if you follow Him: “They will thrust you out of the synagogues(churches), persecute you, and kill you(taking up your cross)”, we have to admit this is serious.
    For instance on the Trinity: Moses said in Deuteronomy6:4The LORD our God is one LORD. Mark 12:29 records Jesus quoting Moses: “The LORD our God is one LORD”. John, in Revelation4:5 however, records that there are seven(7) spirits of God, the letter from Christ to Sardis 3:1, confirms that, as well as John’s opening 1:4 as authorizing the testimony. Then we have numerous instances in scripture, of the spirit of God “filling” individuals, like Balaam(Numbers24:2), king Saul(Samuel10:10), or Zechariah, and Matthew 3:16 describes the spirit of God descending upon Jesus. Now these examples are all expressed in the Bible as literal facts: #Our God is one Lord #The spirit of God can and has filled people #There are seven spirits of God before His throne in heaven. John’s gospel describes Jesus as God’s word, in the flesh. It is John(14:25) who recorded Jesus saying “These things have I spoken unto you, being yet present with you. But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.”
    I am not trying to be off subject here, just bringing up a question like: Did the words of Moses support a “Trinity God”? If not why did Jesus quote him? Can get whispers of heresy. Unfortunately Roger, I think the hundreds of divisions doctrinally under the banner Christianity today show just how wide that highway to destruction is, and the dire need of those who would cling to the words of Moses, the Prophets, and Christ, to become Heretics to the doctrines and traditions of men.
    BTW Roger your work is greatly appreciated.

    • rogereolson

      Thank you for your kind word of affirmation. However, I have to ask if you read my post carefully? Your use of “heretics” is far away from what I said it means. You can’t be an accidental heretic. You can be a person who unintentionally, accidentally (out of ignorance, for example) believes in and teaches heresy. Besides, the doctrine of the Trinity is the consensus belief of Christians and is solidly rooted in Scripture passages such as the one you quoted from John about the Holy Spirit. Jesus referred to the Spirit as “another comforter”–obviously not Jesus himself.

    • Yes, the way is narrow and few find it, but we shouldn’t be judging who may or may not be on the path as much as calling everyone to recognize it and walk in it. There are times to judge sin within the body of Christ, as when Paul judged a sexual sin within the Corinthian church (1 Cor 5), but we are not to judge people’s hearts, whether they are acceptable before God (1 Cor 4:5). It’s increasingly obvious to me who harbors heresies and other sins (I think we all do; we’re just not made aware of it yet), but it’s not at all obvious which of these people are forgiven before God. It’s better to do as Paul did, thanking God for the faith and good works of the churches even though some there might fail the test of being truly Christian (2 Cor 13:15).

      Yes, there are hundreds of doctrinal divisions between groups that identify themselves as Christian, but within each of them is likely to be blood-washed believers who haven’t been convicted of their heresies and/or sins yet, or have been convicted but feel they have nowhere else to go. And who better to lead the wayward nominal Christians back to truth than those in their own group? Therefore God has allowed His people to remain in the various denominations and sects in order to call others to repentance. As Jesus and Paul taught in synagogues before they were thrown out, so many of us have not been thrown out yet, still able to witness to the rebellious and self-sufficient.

      This is very obvious for me with the Seventh-day Adventist church. I just today attended an SDA service. I think most readers would agree with me in having serious concerns about much of their doctrine, their pride, the standards reminiscent of Judaism, and the testimonies of Ellen White. Within this group are many who do not understand the Gospel at all, and others who understand quite a bit, yet are convinced the seventh-day sabbath is for Christians today, or that Ellen White’s testimonies are worth heeding in a general-principle rather than specific way. I thank God for these witnesses, for they are doing what I can’t in good conscience do: deliver that Gospel as an SDA brother. I will continue to challenge these Gospel-savvy Adventists out of their spiritual ghetto, realizing that this is in God’s timing and not mine, and also that following the Lamb wherever He goes can leave a person homeless (Luke 9:58).

      • rogereolson

        I have attended Baptist churches that were no better in terms of understanding and living out the gospel of Jesus Christ. And, as I’ve blogged here before, when I spent a weekend at a SDA university I was pleasantly surprised at the level of real understanding of the gospel that I encountered there. And the worship service was fantastic.

  • Mark

    It all depends on perception. Even Gresham Machen’s detractors will admit he was the last of the great Princeton theologians. So was he tried for heresy or disobedience to the Presbyterian church hierarchy? Theologically he was a conservative and no one could impugn his orthodoxy. The heresy was founding a rival seminary with the founding of a separate missionary organization being the last straw. Something similar happened between the Northern Baptists and the Conservative Baptist movement. I look at this all from a “conservative” viewpoint. I can’t use the “H” word, but I just don’t agree with liberal theology, but I wish liberals well. And I wouldn’t classify you, Roger Olson, as a liberal. I know an evangelical when I read their blogs or listen to them preach. You have been accused of being outside the pale of evangelicalism? Wow! Evangelicals come in many stripes. Let’s leave it that way.

  • Chris Lutyk

    Great post on heresy and heretics! Thanks for clarifying this subject.

  • Mark

    Here is another interesting point and it goes back to the Fundamentals. The Fundamentals did not have core Christian doctrines as part of their platform (ie the Trinity, or even the Reformation doctrine of salvation of Faith through Grace). The speaker on this attachment is John Rice’s grandson.

    You mention Pelagianism and semi Pelagianism and Bibliolatry. Fundamentalists can go off the deep end and forget core doctrine, and even though they would state they affirm them they are not a part of their platform. So fundamentalists can speak of right doctrine, but miss core beliefs or deemphasize core beliefs. Heresy or wrong belief can sneak up in such an unbalanced ideology and the original intent of Fundamentalism was defending the faith.

    These people who are so critical of others’ doctrines may not be aware of their own doctrinal errors.

    • rogereolson

      So true and so often the case. As I have pointed out, even Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in biblical inerrancy!

  • Steven Ganz

    I am so glad our Lord did not make perfect doctrine a criteria for salvation. If so, none of us would have a chance. I find that if I met myself from 20 years ago we’d have some doctrinal conflicts. Yet 20 years ago I was in complete agreement with myself, as I am now. Hopefully in 20 more years I will know our Lord better than I do now and have some insights that presently I may have some issues with – only minor ones of course!
    The point is is that people change. Our stories are not over. I hope that when we, as the entire church, obey our only command and truly love one another we that we can then begin to civilly listen to one another. Then maybe we can fill those gaps in our understanding that we don’t even know are there.
    This is a big reason why I like the stuff you write Dr. Olson. It tastes of love and careful thought.

    • rogereolson

      I love Ruth Bell Graham’s epitaph on her grave marker: “Construction over. Thanks for your patience.” If only we all had that mentality about ourselves while we’re still alive.

  • Hi Roger,

    Well done for the post! Really well-written and balanced, and this topic, I think, is very important to be further explored…

    A few questions, if this is OK (don’t worry if you’re short on time), to see what your opinion is on these matters: 🙂

    1) If a person is a ‘heretic’ when they believe something that they know to be heresy, what sense is the word ‘heresy’ being used? Is it just the heresy according to a particular denomination, in which case the person would cease to be a heretic if they changed denominations? Alternatively, is it knowledgeably believing something that is different to what the majority of Christians have believed? Or is it in a different sense – i.e. a commonly-agreed heresy?

    2) If a person fits the definition of ‘heretic’, is this necessarily negative? For example, if a particular denomination, or even the majority of the Church, is wrong about a certain matter, and another person believes the truth about the matter, knowing it to be a heresy in this sense, is this negative? Or is ‘heretic’ only negative when you know a belief to be wrong but continue teaching (or believing?) it yourself?

    3) In your opinion, where does heresy stand on the spectrum of any faith/works distinction? In other words, if we assume now being a ‘heretic’ (as you have defined it) is immoral in a particular case, is this sin a worse sin than, say, lying about something? Is being a heretic a matter of wrong faith or wrong works? I suppose the answer may come here relating to what the definition of ‘saving faith’ etc. is; i.e. what doctrines are essential to salvation. I ask this question because, sometimes, it seems to me that believing the correct doctrines is considered (orthodoxy) is considered as separate to morality in general (orthopraxy), as though it is more important. Is having orthodox belief a matter of how valid your faith is, or a matter of your works?

    Sorry if my writing is a little incoherent. Don’t worry if you don’t have time to respond… your post was very good – keep up the good work!

    All blessings in Jesus Christ to you,

    3) Where does

    • Sorry… a few typos – I repeated the words ‘is considered’, and ‘3) Where does’ at the bottom… sorry! 🙂

    • rogereolson

      Answering would take a book! Let me just reiterate that I insist on distinguishing between “heresy” and “heretic.” Just because a person believes and maybe even teaches what I consider to be heresy (and may be by the consensual tradition of Christian doctrine) does not make him or her a heretic. A person is only a heretic when he or she has been shown the serious nature of his or her error and continues teaching it anyway. Yes, to be sure, this is always contextual to a certain branch of Christianity or denomination UNLESS we are talking about those matters about which all branches have always agreed in general outline form–Trinity, deity and humanity of Christ, salvation is by grace, etc.

  • I always enjoy your posts.
    And I value your input.

    I often think about how we use the word heretic.
    I wrote two blog posts about it, which you may be interested in reading.
    If you do, let me know what you think!