Who Is a “Heretic?”
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I am not tied down to any dictionaries when it comes to religious words. I have a two M.As and a Ph.D in Religious Studies. So please don’t refer to a dictionary to correct me. I know how religious and theological scholars generally use these words (viz., “heretic,” “heresy,” “heterodox,” “orthodox,” “orthodoxy,” etc.).
These words (in parentheses just above) are indexical. Their meaning depends on a context. Taken out of any context, however, and very generally speaking, “orthodoxy” means “right believing.” But that is not very useful. We have to add, for it to be descriptive, “right believing within a particular religious context.”
The same is true of “heresy.” Generally speaking, “heresy” means belief that is contrary to orthodoxy. That’s not very useful in everyday language. So, to make the term useful, we have say this: “Belief that is contrary to the orthodoxy of a particular religious context.”
So now let’s move to defining “orthodoxy” and “heresy” in the Christian context. That gets very sticky because there is so much diversity within “the Christian context.” What and who all belongs there? Who is to say?
All meaningful claims about “orthodoxy” and “heresy” even within “the Christian context” will fall into one or both of two categories. First, such claims may be dependent on a particular person’s or group’s vision of “classic Christianity.” For example, the “Vincentian Canon” — What has always been believed by all Christians everywhere. But is there such a thing? Second, such claims may be dependent on a particular Christian denomination’s (or institutions’s or organization’s) formal (or possibly informal but well-understood) creedal or confessional doctrinal statement.
The challenge here is that a belief may be a heresy in the second sense but not in the first sense. And, of course, one may be a heresy in the second sense but not in the first sense. (Think of all the groups that consider themselves “Christian” but hold beliefs that are novel, departing significantly from anything recognizable as “classic Christianity.”)
So, to the question of this essay: Who is a “heretic?” Technically speaking, a heretic is a person who knows that what he believes and teaches is against the orthodoxy of his religious community but teaches it anyway—even after being admonished not to teach it. Technically speaking, a person cannot be an “accidental heretic.”
However, in non-technical, informal language, a heretic is someone who believes and teaches, tries to convince others to believe, something that is contrary to the classical tradition of the religious faith that she claims.
Some religious communities are so permissive that it is virtually impossible to be a heretic within them. That’s called “theological pluralism.” For example, what would a “Unitarian heretic” be? Someone who believes in and teaches fundamentalism? Perhaps only such a person.
Some religious communities are so strict that it is almost impossible not to be a heretic within them—sooner or later—if one thinks one’s own thoughts and does not merely repeat the “party line.” Thus, for example, someone who believes in and teaches amillennialism rather than premillennialism or who denies the “premillennial rapture” might be a heretic there.
So, these terms, “orthodoxy,” “heresy,” “heretic,” “heretical,” are indexical terms dependent on some context—when they are being applied to a particular person or group.
As a Christian theologian who has studied Christian history and theology for fifty years, I have a vision of what I believe “classical Christianity” requires as to its essentials beliefs. I have stated those here several times. That is what I mean by “orthodoxy” most broadly. However, my own church tradition has its own particular “classical” beliefs that are more detailed. Its “orthodoxy” includes things like believer baptism and the priesthood of every believer. I would not consider someone a heretic for denying the particular beliefs of my church tradition and community if they do not belong to it. However, I reserve the right to call someone a heretic who claims to be a Christian but teaches against the essential beliefs of classical Christian orthodoxy, which are relatively few.
I would be very cautious about using that label “heretic,” however, because it is difficult to know whether and to what extent a person knows that what she is teaching is contrary to orthodoxy.
I was once a heretic. Maybe more than once. For a couple of years I taught that a person could be filled with the Holy Spirit but never speak in tongues. That made me a heretic among Pentecostals. Eventually I surrendered my “membership card” and joined a different Christian tradition and community. Why did I not do that sooner? Because I knew leaders of my Pentecostal tradition community who secretly did not believe one has to speak in tongues to be Spirit-filled—in spite of that being a formal doctrine of that tradition and community. I hoped against hope that they would broaden their vision of Pentecostal orthodoxy to include me. They should have. They didn’t, then. Later they did, but it was too late for me.