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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  • Thanks, Tony! I really learned a lot from this. I will start forwarding you writing assignments on Mondays each week from now on. 😉

    Appreciate you, brother.

    • I’m always open to suggestions, especially on weeks that Rob Bell doesn’t say anything publicly. 🙂

  • I think you explained the origin and limitations of “heresy” very well. I glanced at Patton’s blog the other day and didn’t find it worth reading then. I guess I’ll have to go back and give it more thought.

    But, you said “the Bible is not what one should appeal to when developing a doctrine of the Trinity.” Can you explain what you meant by that?

    I mean, I get that Greek philosophy may have influenced the council’s decision on how to understand and explain the Trinity, but I doubt they just reached into Greek philosophy and came out with something to believe that wasn’t supported by Scripture. I mean, passages like the creation narrative in Genesis as well as John 1 are used to refute ideas like modalism, adoptionism, etc. As they should be.

    • What I’m saying is that there’s not enough about the Trinity in the Bible to come up with a robust doctrine thereof. You have to look elsewhere, and that’s okay.

  • Patrick Marshall

    I love this, Tony. But I think you just ruined Peter Rollins’ whole schtick…

  • “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.”

    Even with this definition you run into issues, although it is the way that Protestants tend to use the word “heresy” in its technical sense. The problem is that the Oriental Orthodox churches (confusingly, a different thing from the Eastern Orthodox churches) only subscribe to the first THREE ecumenical councils. This includes the Coptic Christians in Egypt, as well as churches that form the largest denominations in Armenia and Ethiopia. Which means that evangelicals who are standing up for the Coptic Christians in Egypt are standing up for a group that some of them would not consider to be Christians at all. I’m sure many are already aware of this and continue to support them, which is awesome, but I I suspect there are some people who might think twice about their support if they realized what Copts actually believe.


  • I am always surprised by how many Christians don’t know what historical heresy means, and that most of us are at least attracted to some heresy or another.

  • Jakeithus

    My theology/philosophy professor my first year at college made sure to stress the point that we are all a little heretical in some way or another. I think if more Christians realized this, it would help the quality of discussion.

  • Tom LeGrand

    I was just typing up the hymns for the screen on Sunday. Realized there were about 7 heresies in the hymn, according to Tony’s definition. That’s an improvement, because according to a Fundamentalist’s definition, there were 34 heresies.

  • Dennis

    If not heresy then perhaps we can address some of these issues in terms
    of “paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons.”

  • Sam Hawkins

    I often find myself saying to my theological discussion partners – particularly those who seek to avoid the label as if it were the plague – “We’re all someone’s heretic.” Provided it can be done in a manner that is neither proud, reckless nor spiteful, it seems to me a label [and fact of Christian life] to be accepted. And sometimes enthusiastically embraced. 🙂

  • The concept of heresy has developed in Christianity, but the difference in teaching between different Christian communions means that what is or is not heresy is only meaningful in the context of a particular church.

    Obviously most Protestant churches don’t accept the seventh ecumenical council, on the honor appropriately shown to icons. The Catholic Church recognizes 21 ecumenical councils, the Orthodox, seven. If I remember correctly, the Thirty-nine articles approve only the first four.

    Even if heresy is defined as serious doctrinal error, there is an important difference between believing a heresy and being a heretic. In Meister Eckhart’s defense he famously asserted that he might teach heresy, because that would be an error of the intellect, but that he could not be a heretic, because that was a matter of will. And in fact, though a number of his propositions were formally condemned, recent inquiries to the CDF about his formal status in the Catholic Church have confirmed that he is no heretic; both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have cited him with approval. It is an important point, that saying something is “heresy” doesn’t make the asserter a “heretic.”

    I would also go so far as to say that no Church cannot have something as heresy. Even if it formally disclaimed having any doctrine, a charge, then, that something was heresy would itself be heresy, i.e. an assertion at odds with the community’s teaching that nothing is heresy.

    On the whole, of course, it’s a term best left alone, except in the context of a formal determination of what is or is not the teaching of a particular Church.

    • The Catholic Church refers to this as the difference between “formal heresy” (when you know you’re doing it) and “material heresy” (when you are doing it mistakenly and in good faith).

  • Steven Kurtz

    So, the takeaway is that Rachel is not a heretic, since the issues she raises are not addressed in the creeds that the councils produced, but she may be a heretic since she may believe what you do about the Trinity, (or some other optional heretical view of the Trinity), as probably most of us do; so on that grounds she and we would be heretics, but that’s OK, not to worry. Have I got it?

    • Yes, you’ve got it!

      • Steven Kurtz

        insert smile emoticon – only I don’t do that

  • James

    “but it was Augustine’s unparalleled and brilliant treatise, De Trinitate (On the Trinity), that really defined the debate.”

    This is true with the crucial caveat “in the West.” No one in the East read De Trinitate, and it was in no way formative for trinitarian disputes or development in the Greek speaking world. This, of course, in no way affects your point. Good post.

    • “No one in the East read De Trinitate” Well, except for folks like St. Gregory Palamas.

  • “But without a unified ecclesiastical authority, calling someone a
    heretic is merely an ad hominem on any issue that wasn’t tackled by a

    I think this is key to understand in our post-protestant/post-modern/”The World is Flat” world. Most western protestants have become a “law unto themselves” deciding who’s “orthodox” and who’s a “heretic” according to their “sola scriptura” reading of the Bible. When, as I think you are probably hinting at, there is such a wide and diverse tradition in the current Church that almost anyone can find an “orthodox” Church to support their beliefs. So, I could just as easily be considered a heretic by one group of Christians as I would be considered orthodox by another. Saying something or someone is “heretical” is more an attempt to denounce, discredit and degrade anymore than actually ascribing to any ecumenical authority.

    Along the lines of everyone being a heretic or probably an Arian, I took an “orthodox” test for a seminary class a while ago. While, I was relatively orthodox and not at all Arian, I did have some Nestorian leanings since I probably focus too much on Jesus’ humanity rather than his divinity.

  • Brenda P

    Thank you so much for this! I really had never thought about what the actual definition of heresy is.

  • Derrick Peterson

    I agree with you regarding “heresy” being thrown about without major recognition of its historical usage. Major points of the article aside though, I feel like there are bunches of little technical points I feel need to be addressed.

    1.) Modalism has nothing
    to do with “overemphasizing the role” of each member of the Trinity.
    Modalism is saying that each “persona” has no ultimate ontological
    purchase on referencing God, who is ultimately a nameless Monad beyond these “masks” (of Father, Son, and Spirit), which were “worn” or
    taken on in different points in the economy of salvation. Also I think you are
    the first person to ascribe modalism to someone who holds a
    functional-subordination view of the trinity which by definition holds the
    distinction of persons to be eternal and hence precisely not modalism.

    2.) “…Or at least a dynamic monarchian.” This term dynamic monarchian is just another, earlier phrase used to reference Modalism, for example in Tertullian (Against Praxeas). It is not a “lesser form” of modalism.

    3.) Tertullian is usually
    credited with the term “trinitas” not “triunitas”

    4.) Augustine’s de Trinitate, though brilliant and a must read, did not “define the
    debate,” but rather came much later and in a much different geographical
    region, usually thought to be written between 400-420 A.D., with the main
    portions of the “pro-Nicene” debates reaching something of a
    denouement at the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. (though it is true that
    this council was not widely recognized until Chalcedon, in 451 A.D.) Though it
    is true that it reflects and develops with sophistication the 4th century
    pro-Nicene trajectories, as a whole Augustine’s trinitarian theology has
    actually had less influence than one might think, commentators mostly taking
    bits and pieces of it across history as they saw fit. But we can say for
    certain, based purely on chronology, that it did not influence, let alone
    settle, any ecumenical debates regarding the Trinity.


5.) “A deep history that includes a lot of Platonic philosophy.” This is a fairly worn trope of turn of the century historiography. “Platonic” philosophy was involved (though this is something of a hollow claim as Platonism was a fairly internally diverse set of systems at this point). However it must be mentioned that history is not a chemistry of concepts arbitrarily stirred together, to then be distilled and analyzed by the historian for “purified” sources of influence.
    I feel that your reference of a history of Platonism is going along with
    your bizarre comment that one should not turn to the bible for Trinitarian
    theology (huh?), as if the history of the concept of the Trinity was in a sense
    a free-floating Platonic concept only associated at several removes from the
    “vague” (your term) notion of the Trinity contained in scripture. “I do not believe in the ancient, Platonic version of the Trinity.” Great! Neither
    did Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the Theologian, Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine, Hilary of Poitiers, Maximus the Confessor, John
    Damascene, heck even ps. Dionysius cannot be said to have a “Platonic”
    trinity—because that epithet isn’t a useful signifier for anything real.

    6.) Maybe this should be called “5a” but whatever: “Listen up
    people: That’s not from the bible, that’s from Greek philosophy.” This is both a false dichotomy, and it makes into a neatly packaged, discrete concept something called “Greek philosophy” (there were literally dozens, if not hundreds, of philosophical schools in Greece, all of whom disagreed with one another). With all due respect you seem to misunderstand the relationship that pertained between scripture and the attempt to understand scripture. Philosophical terminology, and some concepts, were taken ad hoc as they were deemed useful to help explain concepts already present and latent in the text of scripture. The trinity is not a “Greek philosophical concept,” rather it is a biblical concept that borrowed and transformed preexistent Greek terminology to further its purposes. Is the Son less than the Father? No? Are there two Gods? No? Hence, in that tiny insufficient summary, a word like homoousious became helpful to say “one and the same essence.” Is the Son the Father (or vice-versa?) No? Then they must in some way be distinct.
    Eventually, through a somewhat torturous history, hypostasis came to be used as such (though as Augustine says in de Trinitate, no one is entirely sure
    what it signifies). These terms were needed precisely to preserve the narrative of scripture, not supersede it, not box it into tight parameters of orthodoxy. Doctrines are the cliff notes of scripture.

    7.) “In its purest sense,
    Heresy only involves issues that were explicitly dealt with in the Seven
    ecumenical councils, those which are recognizes by all Catholic, Orthodox, and
    Protestant churches.” The fact is that really only the Orthodox church recognizes the full seven councils. Catholics accept them up until maybe the 6th
    council, sometimes the seventh council. And with Protestants its really up in the air. Most want to accept Nicaea and Constantinople,
    probably Chalcedon (and Ephesus), but of course later movements with a
    hyper-emphasis on sola scriptura would simply reject any type of authoritative precedent set by counsel.

    So here is the problem:
    you are right insofar as heresy was traditionally understood as dictated
    through the acceptance or rejection of an ecumenical decision regarding
    doctrine. Yet what the very concept of heresy has changed, it itself is not a totally stable index. A heretic, for example, was often defined in
    the Reformation as not conforming to the explicit teaching of scripture (this
    was Luther’s explicit strategy when debating Eck, for example), or certain
    traditions catechisms, etc… While I agree there are topics (soteriology, etc…) in which heresy is the wrong word because the church never even approached a “resolution” to say “heresy” can only mean agreement or disagreement with the seven counsels (something I sympathize with) is to ignore that one has to deal with the claim that heresy itself is a mutable, historically pregnant concept. Its offspring have to be dealt with on a case by case basis to say they are illegitimate definitions or otherwise.

    • I agree with some of your points — I simply did not go into the detail that you seem to require. Other points I disagree with vehemently, both historically (Augustine) and philosophically (Neo-Platonism).

      Orthodoxy is mutable. I’ve made that point on many occasions (in fact, it got me banned from Wheaton). Heresy, however, is not mutable. Without a discrete authority, we can come to consensus about what is right. We cannot, however, so easily call someone out as wrong.

      • Neoplatonism or Platonism? Which is it?

  • Ric Shewell

    Wait, so if we can’t call each other heretics anymore, what are we supposed to call people we don’t like?

    • DudeBro.

      • Ric Shewell

        head tattoo.

    • Chris Thomas


  • jeff burns

    “vaguely attested”


  • Charles Cosimano

    And remember, historically, the heretics were usually right.

    • I’m not sure what you mean here? Is there actually a way to adjudicate who is “right” on something like the divine and human nature of Jesus?

  • Hey, I really appreciated this post. Condensed church history for me better than seminary ever did. 😉

  • Brandon Colbert


    Really interesting post, especially as I have been re-reading Alister McGrath’s book, Heresy. I agree with the overall thrust of your analysis of heresy, though it does raise the question about where a church should draw theological lines. I would be interested to see you sketch out where you think Christians should draw those lines, if we should at all.

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

    Oh, snap!

  • So, for my church history class I assigned readings from John Cassian’s Conferences. Grading them today and tomorrow. Reminded me of this post. Cassian is one of those early victims of heresy labeling. The Augustianian mafia (a model for the Hauerwasian mafia?) got him labeled as a “semi-Pelagian.” Cassian made the mistake of thinking Augustine was going a little bit too far, that there are passages in the Bible in which God seems to invite response and responsibility. A farmer plants, but anything that grows depends on the rain. So works and grace, it’s all God, but there’s a relational participation.

    Well, we can’t have anything like that, so folks made up a label that made Cassian sound hereticish, thus allowing them to change the debate from what he actually said to focus on something someone else said that was more clearly heresy. So even though Cassian was arguably more popular and influential in
    his time, a teacher of popes, missionaries, monastics, bishops, no one
    knows of him or his middle way between the extremes of Augustine and

    A very familiar tactic. They try to make a person defend the heresy in order to defend themselves, tarring whole movements and never giving the people themselves a fair hearing.

    Whole websites against the emerging church are basically established on the same method.

    • “no one knows of him or his middle way”


  • Jeff King

    “Resist every false doctrine: and call no man heretic. The false doctrine does not necessarily make the man a heretic; but an evil heart can make any doctrine heretical.” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

  • For the love of God, people. The claims many of you are throwing around are a Gish Gallop of errors and misunderstandings. Derrick hit on a few points and I can’t believe he had the patience.

  • “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.”

    What is correct here: Tertullian used the word Trinity, and Augustine wrote De Trinitate. That’s about it.

    “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… Tritheism (that’s my heresy)”

    I seriously doubt you are a Tritheist.

  • This post makes me question your last one. It seems that in your last post your main point is that Patton’s view is heresy…and you left it with that. Patton’s character was in question because of his heresy.

    Now, after being challenged on your use of the word “heresy,” you explain that everyone is really a heretic–including yourself.

    So then, why call someone out on his heresy? While I vehemently disagree with Patton, why single him out for the purpose of exposing his heresy if we all are heretics? My point is, your last post seems misleading. You want everyone to see Patton for the heretic he is; yet, in this post heresy really isn’t that big of a deal. Why not just explain the flaws in Patton’s theology rather than place the negative label of “heretic” on him, only later to explain that it doesn’t actually matter if he’s a heretic? This post makes your last one moot.

  • BillD

    “To God, all men are heretics.” – Cormac McCarthy. I love that line.

  • David Dault

    This is a fantastic post. I especially appreciate the point that – in a post-conciliar time, when the Church lacks unity – heresy is simply an ad hominem attack.I learned a great deal from this post – partly from the information, but even moreso by your clear and thoughtful presentation. Sharing!

  • Tyler Jon Carrico

    Even when it comes to ecumenical councils, I don’t think you can limit them to the first seven and say those are the only authoritative ones; indeed, there is widespread disagreement in the church on which councils (and even which decisions of each council) should be considered authoritative, if any. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecumenical_council

  • Truth Preacher

    The Bible is not what one should appeal to when developing the doctrine of the trinity??? REALLY??? With that one statement, you expose yourself for the unbiblical rebel and heretic you are, defending another rebel, Rachel the soon-to-be-lesbian. That is where all who fall away, like she has, end up. You have misrepresented EVERYTHING.

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  • JJackman

    As a pastor in the Moravian Church, since we were founded by the followers of a bona fide, convicted-at-a-council, burned-at-the-stake heretic, I take it as a compliment when I am labelled that way. The charge is thrown around far too easily by people who simply mean “you don’t agree with what I believe.”