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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