Thank God for heresy!

Thank God for heresy! October 17, 2012

Long ago someone said that orthodoxy has heresy to thank for its existence. What he meant was that before there was heresy, as we generally think of that as “theological correctness” there was heresy. All the major tenets of Christian orthodoxy were carved out in response to false teachings among Christians.

Now, however, the word heresy has become problematic in most circles, secular and Christian. So has orthodoxy. Like many good words and concepts these have been stretched to the breaking point. Without careful definition they mean very little because of the tremendously diverse ways in which they are used.

I’m thinking about heresy today because I’ve just agreed to write a book about it. No title or outline yet, just a concept–a book for ordinary Christians about heresy. I consider that quite a challenge. Where to begin and how to proceed?

Obviously here I’m not going to work out my outline or table of contents or anything of the sort. These are just some initial musings about the concept of heresy from a Christian theological perspective. I’m not using the word sociologically (a la Peter Berger who I consider a friend) or (God forbid) in terms of popular culture (where heresy almost uniformly means something positive).

Theologically, “heresy” simply means “theological incorrectness.” It comes in many flavors and degrees. And what it is depends very much on context.

Most importantly, to begin with, the statement that a belief is heresy may either be descriptive (a statement of fact without any value judgment) or prescriptive (a value judgment which may also be a statement of fact but is usually disputed). Contrary to popular belief, in other words, when I, as a historical theologian, say a certain belief is heresy I MAY not be saying anything about its truth status or value. Let me explain.

I might rightly say “Belief that the Lord’s Supper is a memorial meal and not a sacrament of ‘real presence’ is heresy.” Of course, anyone who knows me might be puzzled–if they think all such statements are prescriptive. In fact, however, if I say that, it’s strictly a descriptive statement and I mean “in the context of (for example] Roman Catholic theology and practice.”

Or, I might say “Belief that the Lord’s Supper is the sacrament of eating the actual substance of the flesh and drinking the actual substance of the blood of Jesus is heresy.” In that case I’m making both a statement of fact AND a value judgment. I’m saying what is the case and what ought to be the case. (As a Baptist I do think that’s theologically incorrect.)

Already “heresy” is getting complicated. It’s not a safe term in the hands of the untutored! That’s especially the case when so many people still think all heretics ought to be cast out if not burned at the stake! (I loved the bumper sticker I saw the other day that said “It’s all fun and games until someone gets burned at the stake.)

That brings me to the second point. In historical theology heresies are not all equally serious. The Catholic Church, for example, speaks of “damnable heresies” which are especially destructive ones where the person teaching them knows they are contrary to the faith of the Church. (Contrary to what most people think, the Catholic Church does not consider someone excommunicable for teaching heresy until it is convinced the person knows the teaching is contrary to the faith of the Church. There is no such thing as being “accidently heretical”–at least not in the sense of being subject to discipline.)

In my experience, only fundamentalists think all heresies are equally serious. (And not all fundamentalists think that.) Every ecclesiastical community functionally distinguishes between teachings that contradict dogmas (essential of the gospel) and teachings that contradict doctrines (by which, in this case, I mean denominational distinctives).

For example, among most Pentecostals you’ll be excommunicated for denying the deity of Christ but denied ability to teach Sunday School or Bible Study for denying the rapture.

Not all ecclesiastical communities have worked all this out in any formal way, of course, by most have SOME sense of what’s essential Christian belief and what’s important belief for its own identity among Christians and what’s allowed for personal opinion that might not be what the majority thinks.

Technically, descriptively, from a Christian historical theological view, real “Christian heresies” are few. Here I’m talking about what most Christian tradition-communities have long recognized as such serious violations of the gospel that they justify declaring people who teach them not Christian. Like “mortal sins” in Roman Catholicism, though, there is no agreed on list. But there are some virtually everyone agrees are “Christian heresies.”

These include: Docetism, Arianism (the arch-heresy of all Christian heresies) (including semi-Arianism), Adoptionism, Sabellianism/Modalism, Nestorianism, Eutychianism, Pelagianism (including semi-Pelagianism) and Tritheism. All are alive and well and most “mainline” Christians consider churches that teach them cults (in the theological sense). However, they are often more latent than official. Docetism, for example, is rarely taught as doctrine by any Christian group, but it is everywhere present in some degree or manner among Christians.

Another factor has to brought up here, though. Is something really “heresy” where there is no magisterium to enforce it, that is, to expel from the faith community a person who teaches it? I argue it is still heresy. But calling it heresy has no “teeth,” so to speak, in the absence of an authoritative magisterium of some kind (whether that be an episcopacy or synod or whatever).

Is this complicated enough? It’s so complicated that many people, including many Christians, are willing to jettison the whole idea of heresy. It’s messy, it’s complicated, it’s dangerous.

In my opinion, it’s more messy, more complicated, more dangerous to try to do without some sense of orthodoxy which inevitably brings with it some sense of heresy.

To complicate matters further, every faith community has its own heresies beyond those mentioned above. These are denials of its teachings and/or practices that form its reason for being.

I once talked to the pastor of a Baptist church that advertised itself as “A Liberal Church.” That was on the church sign and included in all its public advertising. He said that “liberal” meant “inclusive.” I asked him what was required for membership. He said “Being willing to go on a faith journey with us.” I asked him what he would say to a fundamentalist Baptist who wanted to join. He said “I’d suggest there are other Baptist churches he’d be more comfortable in.” Aha. Then I asked him about baptism. Sure enough, for “tradition’s sake,” the church only baptizes adults upon confession of their faith. “Inclusivism” is never pure.

To Lutherans (I’m sure there are exceptions, of course) denial of justification by faith and belief in justification involving good works is heresy. To Reformed Protestants (generally speaking) denial of God’s sovereignty and belief in free will as ability to thwart God’s will is heresy. (Of course, there are “Lutheran” and “Reformed” churches that have become so liberal and revisionist that these historical distinctives don’t matter, but I’m not talking about them. They have their own heresies which would include things like believing salvation depends on right belief!) To Pentecostals denial of the contemporary validity of the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit and belief in cessationism of those gifts is heresy. Etc., etc., etc.

Even then (!) what those faith communities DO about heresies among them varies a great deal from denomination to denomination and congregation to congregation. And it depends much on WHO is teaching the heresy. An ordinary lay person my “get by with” much heresy without sanction whereas a pastor or elder or deacon is reprimanded or even excommunicated.

The irony about heresy is that in almost every case it is what gave rise to orthodoxy–to what is considered right and good teaching, theological correctness. To whom do we as orthodox Christians owe thanks for the doctrine of the hypostatic union of God and man in Jesus Christ (one person with two natures)? Nestorius, the “reluctant heretic.” And Eutyches (another reluctant heretic). Without them and their teachings, Chalcedon wouldn’t have happened. Okay, maybe we’d be better off if it hadn’t happened (many would say so)! But there seems to be a certain inevitability to it. But we should be gentle with poor old Nestorius as with Pelagius (who was arguably not a Pelagian!).

What does this “thank God for heresy” sentiment mean practically for us today? I think heresy still serves a good purpose, if we let it. First, reading and listening to the so-called heretics can be beneficial in helping us decide whether what we think constitute “heresy” and “orthodoxy” is really so. Heresy can keep us from becoming complacent about our faith. And often we can actually learn something valuable from heretics (e.g., about Jesus’ humanity from an adoptionist or the importance of good works from a Pelagian). That doesn’t mean embracing the error; it means learning from it in various ways.

I know a church that had an entire semester young adult Sunday School series on heresies and not only to deny and condemn them. The teacher was a historical theologian who used early Christian heresies to sharpen the students’ thinking and challenge their too often complacent Sunday Schoolish orthodoxy. His approach was (to paraphrase Pogo and borrow from Tony Campolo) “We have met the enemy and they are…partly right!”

Insofar as heresy means theological incorrectness (it’s most basic, broad definition), I’m against it. But insofar as it means “that with which I thought I was familiar and thought was wrong but am not really that familiar and don’t know why it’s supposed to be wrong” I think it can be a real benefit. (Okay, maybe not to junior high kids undergoing catechesis but to adults who have a sleepy and lazy orthodoxy.)

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  • Dan Johnson Sr.

    I have great respect for you–and admiration–but I’ve been a Pentecostal minister for 60 years, have traveled widely, now on the road for 25 years, but I am not aware that Sunday school teachers or Bible study leaders, or pastors for that matter, are forbidden to teach if they deny the Rapture, unless they make an issue of it and foster division.

    • rogereolson

      Progress, then. When I was in Pentecostalism I was firmly denied the right to teach my own post-trib rapture view in any setting. It was the main reason I was denied a position teaching in a Pentecostal college even though that denomination’s statement of faith didn’t even mention the rapture.

    • Phil Miller

      Well, in the Assemblies of God, dispensationalism is codified in their “16 Fundamental Truths”. Personally, I know many AoG pastors who aren’t dispensationalists, but yet when they’re ordained they’re essentially made to take an oath saying that they affirm these 16 points. It’s actually one reason why I gave the idea of pursuing ordination in the AoG. Sure, I could probably be a pastor in the denomination and agree with them on a lot of things, but I don’t feel right essentially lying simply to get credentials.

      • rogereolson

        I assume you mean you gave up the idea. I, too, could not sign it so I never joined the AG (I looked into it a long time ago when I was still Pentecostal). I have met a lot of AG pastors over the years who, I am quite sure, sign the yearly re-affirmation card with two fingers crossed behind their backs.

        • Phil Miller

          Yes, I meant to say “gave up the idea”… Sometimes my brain thinks faster than my fingers can type!

      • Jeff


        Your statement is not true. They do not teach dispensationalism, they teach historic pre-millienialism, like George Ladd teaches in his commentary on Revelation. Yes they believe in a rapture, but that is not the same thing as believing in dispensationalism

        • rogereolson

          Again, all depends on what is meant by “dispensationalism.” belief in a “secret rapture” is part and parcel of dispensationalism. Generally speaking, most Pentecostals are dispensationalists without the cessationism. Ladd’s historic premillennialism is controversial among the Pentecostals I have known. Some have adopted it but many leaders still insist that a “pretrib” rapture is biblicly true and right belief.

        • Phil Miller

          I don’t believe Ladd is really a proponent of rapture theology. I know that Dispensationalism as a systematic theology contains much more than the the rapture, but it’s because of Dispensationalism that rapture theology is so prominent today. When you read the AoG literature about the end times, it pretty much follows the line on Dispensationalist thought, especially as it pertains to Israel, the Millenium, and other details. They basically take a literal view of the Book of Revelation.

          I’m not saying that everyone in the AoG thinks like this, but it definitely is their official position.

    • Russ

      Amen! It may have been that way in the past, but there is more of an openness in regards to eschatology, especially in terms of the ‘rapture’ and ‘parousia’. Dispensationalism is on it’s way out!

  • Dean

    The pastor at the church I attend did a whole sermon serious on historical Christian heresies and I thought it was extremely beneficial, I think it’s a great primer for Christians to think more seriously about theology. Compare that to what is being labeled “heresy” today and it’s almost laughable. Whether you believe the universe was created in 6 literal days? Whether you believe the “correct” theory of the Atonement? Whether you believe in human evolution? Whether you have the “correct” view of eschatology? Whether you acknowledge Hell as Eternal Conscious Torment? Whether you think gays should be able to marry? Whether you think the Bible is appropriately “inerrant”? Whether you think women can speak in church? Whether you think God’s relationship with creation is dynamic or static? It’s just getting totally ridiculous, I think we’re at a point where calling someone is a heretic is barely even a pejorative. Honestly, the minute the YRR call someone a heretic for something they write, I automatically buy their book, and I usually enjoy it very much!

    • Bev Mitchell


      What a great list of today’s potential pseudo-heresies!


      Interesting way to begin thinking out loud about what your book outline might look like. As Dean’ comment suggests, it would be great to include a chapter of current issues that cannot ever rise to the level of heresy, and why. And, I guess, a companion chapter on why so many folk think that they can and should.

      As others have noted, probably you as well, the pseudo-heresy production line is mostly powered by fear. How true defences against heresies (defences against true heresies) can be shown to not be driven primarily by fear would be another interesting sub-topic. Or can a defence against true heresy actually be primarily driven by fear?

      It’s great that you give us the opportunity to ask such questions knowing that the asker cannot possibly provide the answer – or in this case, even make a reasonable start on an answer. 🙂

      • rogereolson

        Good questions to think about, though!

  • J.L. Schafer

    George Byron Koch has a very different take on heresy in his recent book What We Believe and Why. He ties it to the Greek word hairesis and examines how that word is used in the NT. His claim is that the NT consistently uses that word not to designate false doctrine, but any kind of emphasis on non-essentials that leads to unloving treatment of people and unholy division in the church. In that sense, even teachings and doctrines that are essentially correct ought to be viewed as heretical if they are wielded by Christians with impure motives, hurtful words and actions. Here’s a quote from his chapter 18:
    “Heresy is creating faction of division, rather than being simply bad doctrine. Even correct doctrine can be heresy. Even accusations of heresy can be heresy, if delivered in a way that sows division or hurtfully attacks the accused.”

    • Jeff

      I love that definition and I think the Apostle Paul would agree with it too. I will have to read that book!

  • Joshua Thiering

    The Rob Bell controversy has blown over, (Thanks be to God), but it is interesting that when people talk about classical heresies I don’t hear them say much about universalism, in fact it seems noticeably absent considering the massive contemporary uproar. Typically heresies are like you said things central about the person of Christ, or the Trinity. But do you think universalism belongs in the category of real Christian heresies? Adiaphora? Or just a presumptuous conclusion drawn too soon? Or something else all together?
    I really enjoyed this post. It is amusing that Orthodoxy and Heresy are forced to depend on each other to constitute their identity. It’s like a bizarre New Testament Parable.

    • rogereolson

      I call universalism “the most attractive heresy” 🙂 To say anything more might get me in trouble, you wouldn’t want to be the cause of that, would you! 🙂

    • Ted Seeber

      I’m Catholic. I call Universalism- true Katholikos- ORTHODOX!

  • Steve Rogers

    Here we are a couple of thousand years since Jesus, and we still need experts and councils to weigh in on what we should believe. With the Bible alone we just can’t seem to figure it out. At least that is the case for those who need litmus tests of “correct” belief to make certain no dissenters infiltrate their ranks. Here is a definition of heresy that I would offer. A heresy is any way of explaining the mysteries of the Almighty that threatens the way we have it figured out and our social/hierarchical context.

    • rogereolson

      That’s a purely descriptive approach. What if you met a Christian who said that whites are supreme over people of color and taught that as a “Christian” belief. Would you not consider that heresy? Even if you didn’t use the word “heresy,” wouldn’t you consider it false, dangerous, incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ? I hope so. Then you would be moving beyond your definition into a prescriptive realm.

      • Steve Rogers

        People who held (hold) the white supremacy view have throughout history been regarded with high esteem in some Christian circles. I consider that view dangerously ignorant whether or not it qualifies as a heresy, and would not be in fellowship with any group holding it. I would also welcome their labeling me a heretic for not agreeing in any way with racial supremacy of any sort.

        • rogereolson

          Ah, then you confirm my point. Whether it’s called “heresy” or not, there is always some litmus test for fellowship. So “examining people” for fitness to belong to a faith community is not necessarily abusive (although it often is).

          • Steve Rogers

            Yes. But my litmus test is a personal one and not dependent upon any creed or committee for validation or enforcement.

          • rogereolson

            But I was speaking about faith communities and inclusion in them. All have belief expectations of some kind even if only for leaders.

  • K Gray

    The universalism question illustrates something important: if one tries to define heresy as against Truth – that is, revealed truth from God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit (e.g. John 8:28, 16:13-15) – one gets in terrible trouble immediately! Yet how else does one identify theological error?

    • rogereolson

      Descriptively or prescriptively? Descriptively it’s “This is what both the church fathers and Reformers agreed about….” Prescriptively it’s “What you are teaching is so seriously harmful to the gospel of Jesus Christ that I cannot accept it as Christian.” I tend to combine the two into because I consider that about Jesus Christ commonly taught by the church fathers and the Reformers normative for “Christianity.” Which is not to say it is infallible, but it’s for me an authoritative guide to discerning authentic Christianity (in terms of cognitive belief) from serious error (heresy).

  • Elliott Scott

    Your post reads like the basis for the upcoming book’s introductory chapter. I look for to reading it.

    Tongue firmly in cheek, I hope to find another chapter in it focused on limited atonement……

  • John C. Gardner

    I believe that your views regarding the positive efficacy of heresy are consistent with those of Alister McGrath in his book entitled Heresy. Challenges to Christian orthodoxy must be met intellectually and with love. These challenges can give us the chance to think carefully about distinct Christian doctrines such as the Incarnation, Resurrection, and the Trinity(it has also been my observation that many Christians are de facto docetist while many so called liberal Christians may be effective Ebionites). Thank you once again for writing such a wonderful post.

  • craig mathison offers a different perspective on heresy in the business world and contrasts heresy as an engine for change. It’s not thoroughly transferable to theology but may offer a different perspective on how heresy not only helps generate orthodoxy re-actively but helps catalyze change proactively.

    • rogereolson

      Sounds interesting. But you’re right, there is no exact analogy to “orthodoxy” (as a theological concept) in the business world unless “orthodoxy” only means “the way we’ve always believed and done things.” I tend to think (I’m understating it) that in Christianity it means something more.

  • Did you not misspeak or mistype in this sentence: “What he meant was that before there was heresy, as we generally think of that as “theological correctness” there was heresy.”

    • rogereolson

      It wouldn’t be the first time! But explain what you mean. I know what I meant, but….

    • Drew Dabbs

      I’m fairly sure he meant, “before there was orthodoxy,” given the context.

  • Roger,

    I’m confused and frustrated about something and I need your help.

    I just finished reading a great book published by Zondervan in 2002. It is “Four Views on Eternal Security”. Here is my confusion:

    Stephen M. Ashby calls himself a Reformed Arminian and does a great job explaining the difference between his views and the views of the other participant, Steven Harper, who is a Wesleyan Arminian. Stephan Ashby quotes Wesley in a few passages where he seems to deny Penal Substitution and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Therein, says Stephen Ashby, is the main difference between Reformed Arminians and Wesleyan Arminians.

    However, when I read Steven Harper’s response he clearly says that Wesley believed in both Penal Substitution and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. He seems to imply that there isn’t a difference between Classical Arminians and Wesleyan Arminians.

    Adding to my frustration was the chapter written by Michael Horton. Michael Horton responds that Stephen Ashby absolutely cannot be Reformed and Arminian. He says such a hybrid cannot exist because many other denominations and many non-Calvinistic evangelicals believe in total depravity, penal substitution, and justification by an imputed righteousness. He basically states that what makes a person Reformed are the confessions (i.e., The Canons of Dort and the Westminster Standards) and those confessions are against Arminianism. He ends his chapter with these words:

    “Ashby’s admirable defense of depravity, penal satisfaction, and justification underscores the evangelical side of at least Arminius’s thought, while his remaining commitment to conditional election and an autonomous view of human freedom represent Arminianism’s perennial threat”

    Roger, I have considered myself a Reformed Arminian up until now. But what in the world is going on with the definition of these terms? How can the Wesleyan in this book say that Wesley believed in certain things that the Reformed Arminian says he didn’t? So is there or is there not a difference between Wesleyans and Reformed Arminians? Is everyone creating their own facts? What about Horton’s attack on “Reformed Arminianism”? So can I no longer call myself a Reformed Arminian or say that Arminius was Reformed? Where in the world do these terms get defined?

    This is driving me nuts!


    • rogereolson

      In Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities I dared to argue that classical Arminianism is a type of Reformed theology. Arminius was a Reformed minister and theologian. Sure, the Synod of Dort expelled the Remonstrants from the Reformed Church of the United Provinces (the Netherlands). So what? The Synod of Dort did not and does not speak for all Reformed people. Mike, a good friend who I admire greatly, simply has his own (shared by many but not all Reformed people) definition of “Reformed.” I have spoken directly, personally, “face-to-face” with him about this. To Mike (and many others, so I’m not saying his view is idiosyncratic) to be truly Reformed one must affirm the “three symbols of unity”: the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. But that excludes Presbyterians from being Reformed! Indeed. He told me he does not consider them truly, authentically Reformed in the “confessional sense.” Presbyterians follow the Westminster Confession of Faith which is parallel in most ways with the symbols of unity, but it is not exactly the same historically or theologically. So, Mike would speak of “Presbyterian and Reformed” as a larger tradition of which he is a part, but even Presbyterianism is not, to him, really “Reformed.” As for Wesley. He wrote a lot. You can probably find every theory of the atonement somewhere in his writings. I take as authoritative (for understanding Wesley’s theology) Thomas Oden’s new two volume set “John Wesley’s Teachings” (Zondervan). I recommend it highly. According to Oden (and he supports this with quotes from Wesley’s sermons and other writings), Wesley DID believe in and teach the satisfaction/substitution theory of the atonement–which does not mean he denied other theories’ validity (e.g, Christus victor). Much of whether Arminians can be “Reformed” depends on who is defining the terms. These are all essentially contested. But consider the World Communion of Reformed Churches. It includes the Remonstrant Brotherhood (Arminian denomination) of the Netherlands! (Time to scratch your heads, everyone!) I consider classical Arminianism part of the broad stream of Reformed, as opposed to, say Lutheran, Protestant Christianity. However, most Wesleyans would disagree with me. Fine. It’s all in how we define the terms. By Mike Horton’s definition, of course Arminians cannot be Reformed, neither can Presbyterians! Nor can Baptists! by the World Communion of Reformed Churches’ definition of Reformed, Presbyterians are Reformed but Baptists cannot be. But at least one Arminian denomination, the oldest one (!) is. Go figure. To me the difference between “Reformed” and “Wesleyan” Arminians comes down to sanctification. Reformed Arminians believe it is progressive while Wesleyan Arminians believe it can be instantaneous and complete.

      • Thank you! This was VERY helpful. God bless you.


  • Richard Worden Wilson

    Ironically, though Steve Rogers’ shot at describing “heresy” no doubt doesn’t cover the needs you are addressing, I think it actually does work for the circumstance you portrayed regarding racism, you just didn’t recognize yourself as being one of those who “have it figured out” and a member of the “social/hierarchical context.” His comment was more of a meta-critique, a tongue in cheekish reflection of how the term “heresy” is actually used by whoever feels they have the spiritually hierarchical authority to make such pronouncements. M2C

    • rogereolson

      It’s hard to catch tongue-in-cheek in e-mail and blog messages! 🙂

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Book title suggestions:
    “Out of Bounds: Reflections on Heresy from a Christian Insider”
    “Theologically Incorrect: Winners and losers in the battles over proper Christian belief”
    “Believers Adrift: Historical guide to Christian Unorthodoxy”

    I thought about suggesting phrases like “Damnable Lies” or “Beliefs from the heart of hell”, but maybe you were going for a bit more even-tempered approach.

    • rogereolson

      Great suggestions Tim. But did you know that publishers decide book titles? An author can suggest but often the publisher comes up with a title the author doesn’t want? Years ago i learned that from Bernard Ramm when I took a course with him. He told me he didn’t want his book called After Fundamentalism but the publisher gave it that title and he thought it doomed the book to obscurity.

  • Josh

    When I think about divisions and heresies, I always think about 1 Corinthians 11:19.

    “For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you.”

    Without a doubt, the history of the church and our understanding of doctrine would be dramatically different if there weren’t so many divisions and heresies throughout the history of the church.

  • Marshall

    I am reminded of the Positivists modern search for Truth; they keep thinking they can say what it is, or at least give examples, but they never can. There is a Reality and we are in contact with it, but no proposition or statement that we can say or write down or speech-actify that catches it exactly (similar to SR’s point.)

    The interesting thing here is that the Naturalists are oriented towards the positive TRUTH while the theologians are towards the negative HERESY. Actually “scientific” proof involves the idea that you try to falsify your hypothesis experimentally, so the scientists understand this idea of approaching truth by whittling away at error, they just phrase it differently.

    As Michelangelo said, you start with an Uncarved Block of marble and remove everything that doesn’t look like a Pieta.

  • Drew Dabbs

    I want to echo what “Dean” said. In my time at Truett, things like the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition (and a few others) became very important to me, theologically speaking. Then, there’s everybody else in the church. That’s the way it seems, at least. Here’s my observation thus far in pastoral ministry: theologically speaking, people will strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. That’s not a cynical statement. It’s not a hyper-critical, negative judgment, either. It’s just a plain truth based on observation and experience. Two examples:

    Example #1 – I met a man the other day, my barber, in fact. He is a Christian, and we began to talk about the faith. How we got to the subject of Trinitarian theology, I have no idea, but he told me he was “one-ness.” I asked him to explain, and he, essentially, described modalism (Sabellianism?). I was polite, of course, and asked him what he did with the baptism of Jesus where all 3 are on the scene at the same time. I also asked him what he did with the mount of transfiguration where 2 out of 3 are on the scene. I don’t remember his exact responses, but I remember they didn’t deal with the issue satisfactorily. Just then, I got a phone call and had to go.

    Example #2 – This one has more to do with doctrine (or, better, opinion) than dogma. I was visiting some parishioners in a former pastorate, and they point blank asked me what I believe about divorce and remarriage, specifically as it relates to the ordination of deacons. I couldn’t lie. I told them what I believed, which happened NOT to be what they believe. Their response: “Are you sure you’re Baptist?”

    All this to say, the really big heresies–the “damnable” ones, the ones having to do with the nature of God and the person of Christ–don’t seem to matter much to the average John or Jane Doe sitting in the pew. On the other hand, what you believe about “the end times,” or remarriage after divorce, or which theory of biblical inspiration you espouse, or the way God created the universe… all these things, along with others, seem to be front and center in the minds of many as issues that might make one a “heretic.”

    Dr. Olson, what do we do? Where do we start? How do we go about helping people understand that what you believe about the nature of God and the person of Christ matter infinitely more than what you believe about, for instance, the rapture or the millennium (just examples)? Any suggestions?

    • rogereolson

      That’s a real problem in church life and I struggle with it, too. I appreciated our pastor’s approach when he first came to our church. He held a series on Wednesday evenings on the Nicene Creed. He was not ramming it down anyone’s throat but simply telling what it says and why and encouraging folks to take it seriously. That’s a start.

  • John

    Great post! I think you’ve written the Introduction to your new book already.

  • John Metz

    You did a marvelous job of presenting the complexity of the issue of defining heresy and orthodoxy and of also alluding to how heresy helped shape orthodoxy. Not bad for a few musings on the subject! Some of the response above are also excellent. I especially liked Koch’s definition of heresy (given above). Almost anything in the Scripture (even right things) can be used improperly to create a party or division and thus damage the Body of Christ. It does seem that, in addition to what is true concerning essential Christian teachings, “heresy” should be identified by the effect it has on the Body.

  • Ted Seeber

    I guess my original post went kind of by the wayside. The most useful book you could write on heresy in America is the heresy of Americanism itself, as defined by Pope Leo XIII. It is quite prevalent.

    • rogereolson

      I have blogged about the heresy of Americanism based on Peter Leithart’s book Between Babel and the Beast (about two months ago).

  • Prof Override

    Loved the article, well thought out… however, “heresy” really only has meaning in a traditionalist arc or possibly in a modernist arc, but is totally meaningless from a post modernist perspective. Ultimately heresy is a purely relativistic judgement of your beliefs vs. someone else’s beliefs – Presciptive or descriptive. We are all heretics from someone else’s view. Embrace your heretical nature, the dynamic tension and diversity create a mighty Christian Oak.

    remember “facts just twist the truth around” D. Byrne 1980

    • rogereolson

      Isn’t disagreeing with Byrne and others who say such things “heresy?” That has been my experience among some radical postmoderns.

      • Prof Override

        Yes, which is actually the point. Heresy is not a bad or negative term. Abstract sequentialism has to be understood for what it is and isn’t. What it is is the inherent nature of the human mind to describe and categorize the world in order to understand it. What it isn’t is a successful way to understand the world. An abstract sequntial construct can approach, but never reach describing what is, hence the basis of post modernism and the Byrne quote. Think of it in terms of left brain / right brain theory – the left brain is the differentiator, constantly blathering out a constant stream of description. The right brain is the integrator, creating a unified whole from the pieces of data. Only the right brain is in the present and can sense and integrate what is real. The left brain is like a jet contrail, showing the passing of the jet, but never catching or being the jet. All the *ist’s and *ism’s are just abstract sequential constructs – the jet’s contrail, hence all *ist’s and *ism’s are heretics, deviating from what is. The flip side of that coin is that we are all wallowing in our own solopsistic orthodoxy, with the real question being how closely we are wed to our person house of cards vs how open we are to learn from another’s viewpoint.

        • rogereolson

          Is that sheer relativism or what?

  • numenian

    “All the major tenets of Christian orthodoxy were carved out in response to false teachings among Christians.” This is an interesting way to look at the subject. It is something like DaVinci said about his sculptures: he merely chipped away the excess to reveal “David.” Is this a way to reveal Christ?

    You must forgive me and give my heresy a hearing. It is not to mock your concern with all these details and labels associated with the ideas of men but simply to say that for me, I find little use of it. If as much energy was put forth in a spirit of action as is put forth in developing a system of belief, I feel the world would be a far, far better place. All this talk about who is Reformed or not and all the rest centered around certain Confessions and Synods seems to my weak mind a Monty Python skit.

    Of course, all the history you noted and the results could be vital and I am doomed by my lack of interest or appreciation, yet what is heretical or not has to do primarily, for me, with how we are in the world. It appears to me plain that if we act our way into right thinking instead of thinking our way into right action, following the directives and principles laid out by Christ, we might better reveal (through this chipping away of our thoughts and ways) the foundation and purpose of faith: sacrificial love.

  • jerry lynch

    (This is my third attempt at a reply. My previous two did not appear for whatever reason (a magisterium?).

    “All the major tenets of Christian orthodoxy were carved out in response to false teachings among Christians.” This seems similar to what De Vince said about his sculptures: he chipped away the excess to reveal what was already there. Is this a way to reveal Christ?

    You must forgive me and give my heresy a hearing. I was raised in a strict Roman Catholic household. I had twelve years of parochial education and graduated from what was still considered a Catholic college. To me at that time, all Protestants were damned and RC was “the one, true faith.” Then I started reading the Bible. What I now find as heretical are all these labels, such as Reformed, and most of all the naming of doctrines and sects after people, such as Calvin and Luther and Wesley (oh, my).

    That to me all this talk about Confessions and creeds and “post modern” and orthodoxy sounds too much like a Monty Python skit. Of course, it may all be quite vital to faith and I am doomed because of my thorough lack of appreciation or even care. Yet I feel what is heretical is better uncovered in how we are in the world. If all this effort toward a system of belief were instead directed to a spirit of action, I feel the Church would be far, far better off. If instead we were to act our way into right thinking, following the directives and principles of Christ, than think our way into right action, we would chip away at our own thoughts of way, the excess hiding his spirit in us. What I feel then would be revealed through this daily practice of being a “living sacrifice” is the very foundation and purpose of faith: sacrificial love. This cannot be divided and sub-divided into sects or ever become “post.”

    I am not an historian and these two stories may be apocrypha but I recall that Thomas Aquinas said of his writing, while on his death bed, “It is all straw,” and Augustine concluded at the end of his life this simple axiom: “Love and do what you will.” This better pinpoints how I feel about these great theological debates.

    • rogereolson

      To the best of my knowledge I didn’t censor any of your messages. In fact, I just posted one like this one to the blog. I value your opinion even as I disagree with it.