Friday, October 05, 2007

Defining Heresy

It's getting late, but let me see if I can pen something that makes a little bit of sense before my battery runs out.

Q: How would you define 'heresy'?

And no, answering with "what is written on this blog" isn't good enough.

I started pondering the question as I read Hart's The Doors of the Sea. He wrote of 'the heresy of "limited atonement", which has so dreadfully disfigured certain streams of traditional Reformed thought' (89), and continues: 'The doctrine, of course, completely contradicts Scripture', and cites, as one would expect, 1 John 2:2.

As I began to think the matter through a little, I turned to a blank page at the end of the book and scribbled some thoughts down. I decided to define heresy along these lines:

'That which encourages a (communal) activity and attitude in opposition to the mission of God revealed in Christ'.

Of course, many would simply define heresy as 'opposed to scripture', which I think is totally inadequate left on its own. Essentially, such a proposal assumes too much (that scripture is univocal and that sublation doesn't happen within the canon). Would I be a heretic to be opposed to some of the prayers prayed in the Psalms ('Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock' 137:9), or when I find myself in ethical contradiction to the 'ethnic cleansing' in the OT? Of course, it may be responded that the point is that heresy is to be opposed not just this or that verse but to the general tenor of scripture. Indeed. And I think that tenor is sung by the God revealed in Christ as he reconciles the world to himself (cf. 2 Cor 5).

My definition badly attempts to express the following: heresy isn't just wrong thinking in isolation from how one lives (even though 'heresy' is strictly speaking opposition to established beliefs). I say this as there are many who like to call anything a heresy that doesn't agree with their own strict propositional theological system. And I find that problematic. My series on redefining inerrancy got me called all kinds of rude things by people who were captivated by the paper majesty of their own ideological neuroses.

I will make this more concrete. I know many people who are delightful Christians, beautiful examples of Christ-ward living, and yet believe in 'limited atonement' for rather pragmatic and naive logical reasons. This doesn't make them heretics, however. But, if one takes belief in 'limited atonement' in such a way that perpetrates a superior attitude of arrogance, and that hinders the offer of the good news to one and all (because Christ dies for me, not you), then we have heresy in the making. At this point one is in opposition to the missional God's plans for the world. There is thus a process. Heresy is conceived, and then later born. To rewrite James 1:14-15 (on sin and temptation) in terms of this argument:

'But one is tempted by one's own heretical potential, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that heretical potential has conceived, it gives birth to a heresy, and that heresy, when it is fully grown, gives birth to a heretic'.

This would mean that traditional heresies like Docetism, Arianism , Pelagianism and so on are heretical in so far as the church testifies that these beliefs contain within themselves heretical potential; that they give birth to heretics. It also means that heresy cannot be defined absolutely, hence I won't try too hard to fine tune my definition above. Much like the words 'childhood', or 'beauty', 'heresy' evidences semantic overflow, it is something in becoming. But in its becoming it is essentially, I suggest, that which is opposed to God's mission, to the activity of God in Christ.

According to this reasoning I come back to Hart's claim. Is "limited atonement" heresy, as Hart claims?



At 10/05/2007 12:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Being a heretic (as I have been labeled) I'm not sure I should post anything. But, I think your definition is right on. As far as "limited atonement" which I am at the opposite extreme...I believe at the time of someone's understanding should be considered to give them room...heresy? I wouldn't call it that. Just mis-directed at the moment.

At 10/05/2007 1:26 AM, Blogger Judy Redman said...

Chris, thanks for raising a really interesting point. I remember having to do a tutorial paper on the Chalcedonian Creed when I was studying Christology and wondering why anybody actually cared about most of the issues that were being combatted in the creed. I have difficulty with the concept that God will say to people at the judgement "You believed that Jesus only became human and divine at his baptism - get out of my sight, you miserable sinner! No, I don't care how many sick people you helped, how many hungry people you fed, how many prisoners you visited, you're a heretic."

I think that heresy has traditionally been defined as that which opposes the orthodox interpretation of Scripture, where 'orthodox' is that interpretation that comes from the great ecumenical councils of the church. You're right, of course, that it's often loosely used as "that which disagrees with my/our interpretation of Scripture" and I think that therein might lie the key. Heresy is a human category that is about deciding who gets kicked out of the/a church and who gets to stay. I actually think that God is more concerned with right action than right doctrine, so while I agree that we should be concerned about avoiding anything that encourages activities and attitudes that oppose the mission of God revealed in Christ, I'm not sure that what you're defining there is heresy.

At 10/05/2007 1:51 AM, Blogger Nick said...


I appreciate this post very much, thank you! I was just thinking about heresy and orthodoxy today and the question I've been asking myself is, do we define orthodoxy in reaction to heresy or vice versa?

I like your definition very much. I have usually used as my working definition for 'heresy': that [teaching] which causes factions in opposition to the generally accepted position.

This is a bit more general but I have a reason for that, my reason being that it can apply to any group. For example, the Nation of Islam is a heretical subset of Islam. They as a group hold teachings that are not in line with the fundamental aspects of Islam that are considered 'orthodox'. Every religious body has its heretical groups that have split off due to radically different teachings.

But for a definition of 'heresy' in regard to Christianity, I think what you have presented is top notch! Thanks again...

At 10/05/2007 2:33 AM, Blogger Cliff Martin said...

Chris, I think you've produced a good, practical, working definition for heresy. But the actual Greek word (heresy comes down to us by way of Latin,) has the root meaning of choosing. I have always defined heresy as the result of “choosing” your own beliefs, or “one’s chosen opinion.” In this sense, heresy has less to do with what the belief is, or even its practical ramifications. It would have more to do with how the belief system is come by, and even then it has more to do with the attitude than the substance of the belief. This definition of heresy would suggest that there is, in the heretic, an unhealthy independent spirit, or a spirit of pride. The heretic believes as he does not because he is convinced by the Word, or by the Spirit, but because he followed his own preferences. It has always interested me that heresy makes the list as part of the works of the flesh (see KJV, the word is the Greek word heresy) which would suggest that there is a natural inborn tendency in us to follow our own chosen way, to define truth for ourselves in ways that, quite simply, please us.

At 10/05/2007 3:43 AM, Blogger Angie Van De Merwe said...

One of the problems for postmodernity IS the individual and community issue.

In fundamentalism, heresy is defined by not adhering to Scriptual literalism (propositional truth) and compliance.
Orthodoxy defines heresy the church councils and historical decisions (yet, these decisions were made during a period when the Church needed to maintain its power, this is my understanding, at present)....
Liberalism has "undefined" heresy altogether...In liberalism, it is not about doctrine, dogma and definition, or an inerrant, infallible text, but as Judy says...a life lived...but a life lived as an individual in community...
Fundamentalism and orthodoxy place the communal aspect before the individual, which I believe is wrong (it is religion proper, in this sense)...
An appropriate analogy would be a family. We would be appalled if parent thought that children were to be defined first and foremost by obedience to every parental wish, even of vocation and marriage partner (yes, this is an American tradition). A parent that "predetermines" the child's life or "lives through the child" is known by certain labels by psychologists...The afore mentioned does not mean that a parent does not guide, but surely, a parent should not control!
A young child is open to learning through exploration...the newness of everything should be allowed, while protecting the child from injury...
Reason is like this...pupils are not to obey without questions, struggle and resolution, that is the process of learning...but does that mean that the individual will come to agree at all points with what is discussed? No, I don't think so, and that is okay...This very fact is why we have diversity of opinion in scholarly realms...Mentors impact but do not define another's commitments of "truth"..

Ethical commitment is not about dogma or is about what is of upmost importance to the individual. And a good parent will allow that freedom to explore...and become responsible for thier own choices, commitments and values...
So, Christianity goes back to Jewish ethical thinking...and application of that understanding to life...and yet, without the baggage of covenant, where ethnocentrism is applauded...and definitions of who is "in"(saved) and who is "out"(lost) is tightly defined...according to cliff, I am a heretic.

At 10/05/2007 4:15 AM, Blogger Aric Clark said...

Limited Atonement is definitely wrong, whether its heretical or not is another matter. Heresy seems always to involve a power play - ie: one person is making a claim to have the authority to exclude the other person. It is about control and thus it is really a dangerous part of our church tradition. Really heresiology should be regarded as heretical.

At 10/05/2007 5:20 AM, Blogger Owen Weddle said...

I think the first question we need to ask is whether heresy is itself is sufficient to separate "true Christians" from "fake Christians?" The connotation behind the word is that a heretic (one who believe heresy) is lost by many who use the word. Is this an accurate belief? If so, then we have our definition right before us: heresy is any belief that prevents and/or takes away salvation. Then it just becomes a matter of defining the essentials, a task undertaken by many a group. What are the essentials? When it comes down to it, it is what God determines it tobe and we may or may not be able to fully apprehend it unless God has revealed it or does reveal it to us.

But if the lost and those who believe heresy are not necessarily the same, then we have to ask other questions. Why might we want to avoid this idea of heresy? Why do we differentiate teachings as orthodox and others as heretical? If it is merely to claim we are right, this pride goes against the very spirit of the faith. There must be a more practical and useful reason to differentiate teachings.

So I think the next question we must ask is, what is the purpose of our faith? I think in this answer we can then determine the definition of heresy, because ultimately, I think the only real practical definition of heresy that we can give is a teaching that which somehow drastically counters the purpose of the faith as a whole.

And there are many answers one might give, but I will give mine (assuming it is right for the sake of argument): the purpose of religion is to change individuals' hearts so that they progress towards a perfect love of God with all of their life and a God-like love of all people. Or in other words, holiness.

So if there is a teaching that somehow severely turns us away from that purpose, then it can be classified as heresy. It could be a teaching that directly teaches us to go against the purpose of our faith. For instance, I have heard people justify the idea that we are to hate our enemies (never mind the Sermon of the Mount). Such a teaching in my opinion should be classified as heresy.

But it is deeper than merely permissions or commandments. I will give the example of Pelagianism for instance. That teaching would generally foster a habit of self-reliance to become holy, which means one would be prone to not accept the supernatural help of God to sanctify ourself. Such then would work in opposition to the purpose of the faith.

But in my opinion, it goes even deeper than that. God is the center of our faith. When we are transformed, we are being formed back into His image, which we witness through the example of Jesus Christ in the flesh (testified to by the gospels). But if we drastically misrepresent God, whom we are becoming like in righteous character (the righteousness of God) in the realm of love, then we are forming a description of God that if we follow would drastically lead us astray from our true purpose. For instance, a person who views God as only having love for the elect would then be in a conflict: they must either love the unrighteous, in contradiction of whom they believe God to love, or they would hate all the unrighteous.

So in my opinion, the definition is any teaching in regards to the realm of religion that would drastically hinder us fulfilling our actual purpose as Christians. Of course, then we must ask the question of what is a drastic effect, but then that is the Sorites paradox (how many grains of sand make a heap?).

At 10/05/2007 12:12 PM, Anonymous Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I would define "heresy" as a theological error so blatant that it completely distorts the nature of God and/or God's redeeming work in the world. Because of this, I had a teacher once who said that all heresies are, at bottom, Trinitarian heresies.

Now, is "limited atonement" a heresy? I think so because I think it distorts (limits) the redeeming love of God. But a Calvinist is equally convinced that those of us who believe in an atonement that is universal (or even potentially so) are heretics.

One reason that ecumenism isn't easy and divisions in the Body of Christ continue is that we have fundamental disagreements on the nature and work of God in Christ. We can and should try to overcome those differences, but it won't be easy--and we are bound to think that some of those with whom we disagree are heretics.

At 10/05/2007 6:06 PM, Blogger John said...


I enjoyed this post, and have responded to it on my blog.

On another note, I look forward to distributing chick tracts with you at the SBL meeting in San Diego.

At 10/05/2007 7:01 PM, Blogger Jason Pratt said...

So, okay, my turn as the hyperorthodox universalist--as one might suspect, heresy is an important topic there... {g}

As far as I can tell, the Greek root means to wander; which is why it could be eventually developed into two very different uses of the word 'errant': a knight errant was a traveling knight, but he wasn't supposed to be errant in the sense of mistaken. But either way it does involve moving in relation to an acknowledged standard. The errant knight may not be mistaken to be wandering (on a mission or otherwise), but he isn't at home either. But a mistake or error also cannot make sense except in reference to something otherwise accepted to be correct.

For theological application, then, I take and apply the meaning thus: heresy only counts as heresy (per se) in relation to contravening that which one otherwise accepts as being true. If it's intentional, you've got the sin of heresy (in effect the sin against the Holy Spirit, intentionally contravening what you otherwise believe to be true, in order to promote your own advantage). If it's unintentional, you've got the mere fact of heresy but not the sin of it.

As a matter of group history, 'heresy' as a technical term has also been restricted in the Church councils to contravention of metaphysical claims about God otherwise accepted to be true. Thus a dispute about historical facts wouldn't necessarily count as a question of heresy (e.g., was this guy healed before or after x-happened), but a dispute about whether God was omnipresent or not would necessarily count as a question of heresy. (There could be some topical bleedover into historical questions, of course, but it would still be first on the ground of coherency with a set of metaphysical claims.)

So, broadly, I treat heresy as concerning an error made regarding metaphysical truth; but it only counts as ‘heresy’ per se within intragroup discussions involving an otherwise shared worldview. I believe pantheism to be a heresy when it’s being proposed by Christians, and especially when it’s being proposed by Christians who would otherwise deny pantheism to be true, but I don’t consider Buddhist or Wiccan pantheists to be heretics. (Wrong, yes; heretics, no.)

To put it a bit more colorfully, as a hyperorthodox theologian (and apologist), I would say that the reason Judy is right to object to “the concept that God will say to people at the judgement [‘You didn’t believe the right things about me, so poot on you, etc.’]”, is because this is an example of the heresy of gnosticism!—far be it from me to dissuade her (or even a sceptic) from objecting to that! {g}

Now, it may be replied that there are pertinent reasons to object to the doctrine that salvation depends on knowing and professing the correct doctrine, other than that it contravenes principles of a metaphysical system otherwise believed to be true. Yes, I agree, there are. And I doubt Jan (among other people) needs to have those reasons spelled out for her. But it does give an example of why anybody might actually care about the kinds of things being debated in the creeds. Gnosticism is a heresy (in relation to orthodox trinitarian theism), because it ends up requiring a denial that God is intrinsically love in action (and so we can trust Him to preemptively act in our favor to save us from our sins, even though as sinners we must be enemies to Him.)

But the doctrinal claim that God is intrinsically love in action, in His own self-existence, is nothing less or other than the doctrinal claim of orthodox trinitarian theism. The creeds spell out the technical corollaries of this (to some important extent), and also go into some detail about how the Incarnation of Christ is to be coherently understood in relation to this.

These are not only hugely distinctive metaphysical claims, they have massive practical importance in terms of everyday life. If God is Himself an interpersonal relationship, and if all things are dependent upon Him for their existence, then I had better treat that enemy of mine over there fairly, for instance; because he exists and continues to exist only because God is loving him into existence. God loves him or her, so I had better not be unjust (which means unfair) to him, or I’m the one who’s going to be in trouble. We all exist within an overarching truly moral standard, as sons and daughters of God, so we had better love each other--quite literally for goodness’ sake.

In my novel Cry of Justice, one of the characters says this, in regard to someone everyone else in the room can only regard as an enemy:

“Even if she was my enemy, how could she not love the life she lives, even more than I? And if she couldn’t, then I would love it for her, for her sake; such an experience, as she is, ought to be loved. But, I think she must also love what she does. And if we are loving something together, I would be a traitor not to love her, even if she was my enemy; for we share that love. If we must fight, then we will fight; but I would love her anyway. And if she cannot love me . . . then I will love her still, though I die—for she is my sister, even if she cannot know me for her brother.”

That is what is at stake, among other things, in all those issues that were being combatted in the creeds, Jan. Not that people always kept it in mind (thanks in part, ironically, to the heresy of gnosticism {wry g}), or even understood all that much about why it was important in the first place. To a large extent, they were only trying to be as faithful as possible in keeping the data that they had been given, and putting it together as well as they could. (So were many of the heretics, like Arius.)

But the fact that even when they didn’t really understand it, they managed to keep together and protect (even if using the wrong means occasionally) something this much worth believing, which I can find to be worth believing to be true even without reference to scriptural authority--

--well, to me that looks like divine inspiration somewhere. {s}


At 10/05/2007 8:55 PM, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

If one takes belief in 'limited atonement' in such a way that perpetrates a superior attitude of arrogance, and that hinders the offer of the good news to one and all (because Christ dies for me, not you), then we have heresy in the making.

First — I like your emphasis on praxis, instead of abstract doctrine considered in isolation.

But what you say about limited atonement might be true of any doctrine. I come out of a denomination that was puffed up with pride about baptism by immersion. Does that make baptism by immersion a heresy?

What troubles me is this: the distinctives of a person's faith inevitably acquire exaggerated significance. I think the Trinity became the touchstone of Christian orthodoxy precisely because it is the most distinctive teaching of the Church. For denominations that practise baptism by immersion, or that have a dogma of limited atonement, those things suddenly become tests of orthodoxy — because those doctrines or practices set them apart from other believers.

Arguably the things that are most essential to the faith are not its distinctives, but the doctrines and practices we have in common with other denominations. Or even other faiths — e.g. Judaism. But this puts me on the path to angie's stricture, that liberals have undefined heresy altogether.

Which is only to be expected, because (like anonymous) I've been accused of heresy myself.

At 10/05/2007 9:47 PM, Blogger Ben said...

The one thing I really liked about your discussion is the move beyond simply what one believes, to how they believe it. I've seen a lot of pretty sound doctrine asininely wielded in a heretical manner. Would that fit your definition? In other words can you be a heretic with sound doctrine?

At 10/06/2007 1:28 AM, Blogger Jason Pratt said...

My own answer to Ben's question (which in fact I usually answer when discussing the topic but forgot to do so--sorry {g}):

yes, I believe I can be heretical and also be teaching perfectly sound doctrine, if I am engaging in the sin of heresy. That's more about an intention, and so doesn't necessarily have to synch up with erroneous fact.

So, as I typically put it: if I went out to Mongolia (or the Internet even {wry s}) and started teaching perfectly correct and true doctrine--but was doing it primarily to benefit and magnify myself -- then I would certainly be committing the sin of heresy, even though I wouldn't (in that case) be teaching technically heretical positions. I'd be going 'my own way'; I'd be doing it for the sake of my own selfishness, not for love of anyone else (be that God or even man).

Doesn't Jesus tell us the same thing, in regard to the church of Ephesus, in the encyclical sent via the RevJohn text? Doesn't Paul, under inspiration writing a hymn more beautiful than anything in secular literature, tell us this very same thing? I can be enduring persecutions and testing apostles (i.e. for doctrinal accuracy) and actually be doing correctly in all those things--but if I am not doing it in love... If I know all mysteries and all tongues of men and angels and all prophecies, yet do not love... "In that day, many will come to Me saying, 'Lord, Lord!--we have done miracles and exorcisms in Your name!' But I shall be telling them, 'Be _gone_!--you workers of rebellion!!'"

Ooooooohhh yes, I think it's _entirely_ possible for me to teach correct doctrine and yet be nothing more than a damned heretic; and I'm not kidding about that. (In fact, as an ultra-doctrinare, I had better be keeping _that_ little factoid very much in mind...)

At 10/06/2007 6:05 AM, Blogger :mic said...

Toward a 'working definition' -

Heresy is perhaps truth moving in unexpected or *un-accepted* directions. After all, heresy begins with truth but seems to push the limits of orthodoxy. Which only seems to show that sometimes 'orthodoxy' is quite a subjective thing.

At 10/06/2007 7:44 PM, Anonymous scott roberts said...

Toward another 'working definition':

Heresy (at least in many cases) is the substitution of something understandable in place of a mystery: e.g., tritheism or modalism for triunity, docetism or arianism for "fully human and fully divine".

But the real question for me is: how does it work that orthodoxy leads to the truth that makes one free of sin and death, while heresy leads away? I suspect it has something to do with repentance: to be fully repentant, one must know that one does not know.

At 10/08/2007 4:48 PM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Hi Judy,
“I have difficulty with the concept that God will say to people at the judgement "You believed that Jesus only became human and divine at his baptism - get out of my sight”
I totally understand you. I would like to think that these doctrines secure right living, but I can't prove that!
“I'm not sure that what you're defining there is heresy”
I admit, you may be right.

Hi Nick,
You make a good point. I suppose I would want to include the unity of the church in the dynamic of God’s world-directed mission.

Hi Cliff,
I must admit that I had not thought about the whole matter of choice and individualism in my definition. It is a good point. Perhaps it coheres rather well with the matter Nick was raising? Perhaps it doesn’t work alone, however, as Angie’s comment implies.

Hi Aric!
That was a feisty comment! “heresiology should be regarded as heretical”! I know what you are saying, but I wonder if the church has a responsibility to call heresy those teachings which hinder the saving work of God. Then it is a power games, for sure, but one in the service of love – ideally. But perhaps there is another way – see my comments to Michael.

Hi Owen,
Great comment. I enjoyed watching your logic unravel and it seems we ended up at more or less the same position, with your important qualifier: how many grains of sand make a heap?!

Hi Michael,
Your comment has given me something to think about. Perhaps it is more useful, rather than calling something heresy alone, to model a life that seeks to live according to the truth, and let the actions do the speaking – ala Jesus. Perhaps both need to be done, a life lived and crystal clear statements.

Hi John,
That is a helpful post. Thanks. I would want to qualify my approach in light of the implication that I say Psalm 137 is not the word of God. Surely it is, but only in light of the whole biblical story. I wanted to oppose a simple proof-texting orthodoxy with my comments, one that alone, does not work for me.

Hi Jason,
“If it's unintentional, you've got the mere fact of heresy but not the sin of it”. This is an interesting point.

Hi Q,
“Does that make baptism by immersion a heresy?” I would want to suggest that only those doctrines that one could call heresy would intrinsically tend one to heresy. If someone is being proud about baptism by immersion, they simply have a bad character. But does limited atonement itself lend to heretical impulses? Do you see the distinction I am trying to make here?

Hi Ben,
“In other words can you be a heretic with sound doctrine?” Great question! Here is my take on it:
I realise that Jason below answers this in the affirmative, but this is not what I want to claim. I think one is a heretic when one is seduced by heretical teaching through a process. If one is producing bad fruit with good doctrine, it may simply mean a bad character. They are not heretics but more broadly sinners. However, when certain teaching intrinsically lend themselves to bad behaviour or character, then we should talk ‘heresy’. Does that make any sense?

Hi Mic:
“Heresy is perhaps truth moving in unexpected or *un-accepted* directions”
I really like that! Perhaps we could say truth becoming half-truth as it moves ... ?

Hi Scott,
“Heresy (at least in many cases) is the substitution of something understandable in place of a mystery”
I read that and thought immediately of divine sovereignty! I think you’ve got something there...

At 10/09/2007 11:37 PM, Blogger Jason Pratt said...

{{I realise that Jason below answers this in the affirmative, but this is not what I want to claim.}}

I should probably admit that my affirmative answer on this question doesn't fit my technical answer very well (or maybe at all). But then, my technical answer is about what kind of errors count as heresy; whereas this affirmation was more about the sin of heresy. For purposes of the sin, I'd rather move to a more clearly sinful stance on the topic--especially as a guard against myself as a teacher. I don't need to get into the mindset that so long as I'm teaching "right doctrine" I'm safe from "going my own way".

However, if I knew (or could remember {g}) a good term for the sin of abuse of the teaching of right doctrine, I'd use that categorization instead of slotting it as a special example of 'heresy' I guess.


At 4/08/2008 4:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do not wish to join a intellectual jousting match, or visit the semantics gym. I would however like to offer a thought! Truth is relavant to the judge and jury that is examing it. The criteria used to determine it's boundaries. The diciples struggled with the question more than any of us (who is this Man)They slept with Him, ate meals with Him, and saw His Humanity more than any of us. And yet late in his ministry he asked them the question. Who do men say that I am? The correct response of course came from Simon Peter. Jesus our Lord than responded "it is your Father in heaven that hath revealed this to you" Truth must be revealed by the Holy Spirit and cannot always be logically discerned. My suggestion is earnestly pray about issues and ask God to reveal truth.


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