What Heresy Is (A Post for Rachel Held Evans)

What Heresy Is (A Post for Rachel Held Evans) July 25, 2013

This blogger called Rachel a heretic. But he’s wrong.

Yesterday, I accused C. Michael Patton of holding a heretical view of the Trinity. He does. He thinks that the Trinity is a “functional hierarchy,” which contravenes the historic creedal belief that the persons of the Trinity are co-equal in all respects. It probably also makes him a modalist, or at least a dynamic monarchianist, since he overemphasizes the role of each member of the Trinity, and thus emphasizes the oneness over the threeness of the Godhead. (I imagine that he would disagree with me on the modalism charge.)

My friend, Rachel Held Evans, saw the post, and liked it. But she also tweeted,

I guess “heretical” is what you’d call a “trigger word” for Rachel.

I responded,

To which she tweeted,

OK, enough with the tweets. Let’s take up Rachel’s challenge.

The word “heresy” is bandied about liberally today, but it’s actually a technical term. For example, the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church begins its definition of “heresy” thusly: “The formal denial or doubt of any defined doctrine of the Catholic faith.”

The Greek word for heresy, airesis, merely meant “choice,” and was commonly used in demarcating one philosophical school from another. The word is used this way in the New Testament as well, for instance in Acts 5:17:

There, the word is translated “sect,” as in, a group that had its own particular beliefs. But in the early church, the term began to be used pejoratively, as in a person or group of people who stood outside of the official beliefs of the Church; that is, in theological error.

Much of the history of the Early Church is the story of struggle between competing ideas and theological positions. Through consensus or Council, one idea would be deemed “orthodox,” and the other “heretical.”

A prime example of this is the doctrine of the Trinity. Only vaguely attested in scripture, it was up to the Early Church to determine what, exactly, was an orthodox view on the triune nature of the Godhead. The word, triunitas, was first used by Tertullian, but it was Augustine’s unparalleled and brilliant treatise, De Trinitate (On the Trinity), that really defined the debate. There’s a deep history here that includes a lot of Platonic philosophy, but the bottom line is this: God is fully three and fully one; God is three persons (hypostases), but one essence (ousias).

Listen up, people: That’s not from the Bible. That’s from Greek philosophy. 

Nevertheless, the Church adopted this as the official, orthodox theology of the Trinity. If you stand outside of this, you are technically a heretic. That makes C. Michael Patton a heretic. And it makes me one, since I affirm the doctrine of the social trinity, which emphasizes the three persons of the Trinity and the eternal love relationship between them is what makes up God. (I will also note that Patton’s attempt to substantiate his view by appealing to a few random verses of the Bible is misguided — the Bible is not what one should appeal to when developing a doctrine of the Trinity.)

There are all sorts of heresies regarding the Trinity (Monarchianism, Tritheism (this is my heresy), Subordinationism, Modalism, and Dynamic Monarchianism (this is Patton’s heresy)) and regarding the person of Christ (Docetism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, Arianism).

In its purest sense, heresy only regards issues that were explicitly dealt with in the Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787), those which are recognized by all Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches.

The Counciliar Era of the church ended with the Great Schism in 1054 (precipitated, in part, by a christological controversy over the “filioque clause“). After that time, the magesterium of the Catholic Church in Rome had no claim over the Eastern Church. One side called the other heretical, and vice versa, but it didn’t matter because each rejected the other’s authority.

That only became more pronounced with the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The Pope called Luther and Calvin heretics. Calvin and Luther both thought Menno Simons was a heretic. And on and on and on. But without a unified ecclesiastical authority, calling someone a heretic is merely an ad hominem on any issue that wasn’t tackled by a Council.

Again, listen closely: That means that issues from the atonement to marriage are not issues of heresy and orthodoxy. If it wasn’t decided by a Council, it’s not a matter of heresy. If you deny the divinity or human of Jesus Christ, you can rightly be called a heretic. If you’re a Unitarian, you are technically a heretic.

Today, the Catholic Church defines heresy in Section 2089 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. “Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”

But that only applies to communicants of the Catholic Church. It doesn’t apply to me. (Or maybe it does, and all us us non-Catholics are technical heretics (we’re definitely schismatics).)

So, am I a heretic? Technically speaking, yes. I do not hold to the ancient, Platonic version of the Trinity. In fact, I think that it’s probably intellectually impossible to hold to the orthodox version of the Trinity. (I think it’s ultimately a mystical doctrine that supercedes human intellect.)

Are you a heretic? Probably, because it’s very likely that you’re an Arian, or at least a Semi-Arian.

But here’s the thing: No person or group of people on this planet currently have the authority to call you a heretic. Not a blogger or your pastor or the pope. I don’t have the authority to call Patton a heretic — I’m simply pointing out that, technically, he is outside of the orthodox, conciliar construct of the doctrine of the Trinity. Until the Church once again unites, there will not be any new heresies, because we have no mechanism by which to decide what is heretical.

Nor does anyone have the authority to make anything new a subject of orthodoxy vs. heresy.

For example, one cannot be called a heretic for supporting gay marriage.

So, the next time someone calls you a heretic, give ’em a wink, because it’s likely that they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

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