What Is Heresy?
If you have been in any Facebook theology group, you have seen the term "heresy" thrown around. In fact, it seems rare that a civil debate happens without the term popping up. However, what has become clear to me over the last few months is that, while the term is a popular one to use in this setting (after all, who wants to continue arguing for a position that some will, at that point, assume to be heretical?), many people do not understand what heresy actually is. In this post, I will answer that question. First, let's look at some bad definitions of heresy.
ANYTHING THAT CONTRADICTS SCRIPTURE
I was in a discussion with a man today who defined heresy as "anything that contradicts the Bible." At first glance, this may seem like a good definition, and it is likely what many non-theological minds think of when they think of heresy. However, there is a major problem with this definition, and there is a good reason why. If heresy is anything and everything that contradicts Scripture, then it follows logically that, if there is theological disagreement, one or both of the disagreeing parties must, of necessity, be heretical. That means that Calvinists, Arminians, Molinists, Lutherans, Baptists, Pentecostals, and the like are not really brothers and sisters in Christ. Only one group, if any, could truly be saved, at least if we take this definition to its logical conclusion. As much as some individuals may like to believe that only their particular denomination will be saved, there are going to be people of various denominations at the feet of Jesus.
A second issue with this definition is that, if heresy is anything and everything that contradicts Scripture, then it follows logically that even the most minor disagreements indicate heresy. That means that, if we disagree over, say, whether or not there were infants in the household of Cornelius, one of us must be a heretic. Not only is this unrealistic, but it makes the most minor things the determiners of whether or not a person is heretical.
Finally, a third issue with this definition is that it most likely makes us a heretic. For those who hold to this definition, I have a simple question: Are you ABSOLUTELY sure that you have EVERYTHING about Scripture correct? Are you sure that there is not a single, tiny, miniscule part of Scripture that you, intentionally or not, are getting wrong? If not, then I want to learn from you, because the fact is that some passages are difficult to understand, and there are some places in Scripture that could be interpreted in more than one way, and there are places where cultural influences affect our understanding of the passages, and........well you get the idea. If you hold this position, the standard is that you MUST, of necessity have EVERYTHING about Scripture correct, or you, by your own definition, would be a heretic.
SOMEONE WHO BELIEVES DIFFERENTLY
Another commonly assumed definition of heresy that I have run across is the idea that a heretic is someone who doesn't adopt enough of the beliefs that I hold. A scenario might illustrate what I am saying here: I am Arminian and (let's suppose for the sake of argument) you are Calvinist. You condemn me as a heretic because I only believe in the T (Total Depravity) aspect of TULIP.
The problem with this definition is that, without an objective reference point for theological truth, then what we call heresy is completely arbitrary. The proper approach is not to simply label anyone who doesn't believe "enough of what we believe" as heretic, but to look for an objective source for determining what is heretical and what is not.
WHAT THE CHURCH HAS CONDEMNED
This is the formal definition that would be given by most Catholic and Orthodox individuals. The problem with this definition is that the Church is not infallible. That is, it is possible for a Church council to be wrong. This does not mean that every Church council is incorrect. In fact, there is quite a bit to commend for the Church at large coming together to sort out what is correct and incorrect. However, because the proclamations of the Church councils are not infallible, then it becomes possible for them to incorrectly condemn something as heretical that should not be.
Case in point: Iconoclasm vs Iconophiles. The seventh ecumenical council condemned those who refused to adopt the veneration of icons. If heresy were anything that was officially condemned by the Church, then anyone who does not venerate an icon would be a heretic. Yet the biblical data suggests that such a practice is not honoring to God. So what do we do when the Church's official proclamation contradicts Scripture? We have to choose one or the other. If we reject Scripture, we reject God's Word. If we reject the Church council, then we have to admit that the Church is not infallible.
I think that it is also important to note that the Church has changed its position over time on several issues. For example, at the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church condemned Protestants as heretics. Later, at Vatican II, the Catholic Church referred to Protestants as "separated brethren." This brings up an interesting question: If heresy is what is condemned by the Church, and the Catholic Church once condemned Protestants as heretics, and if the Catholic Church now no longer considers Protestants to be heretics, but considers us to be "separated brethren," then does the concept of heresy change over time? Could something have been heretical yesterday, but not be heretical today or tomorrow?
A PROPOSED DEFINITION
In light of all of this, the definition of heresy that I would propose is this: A heresy is an express denial of a core doctrine of the Christian faith that is derived from Scripture, and generally, though not always, is understood by the Church at large. Let me look at several aspects of this.
First, I have defined heresy as an express denial of a core doctrine of the Christian faith. By this, I mean that a person can have a wrong belief, even about some aspects of core doctrine, and still be a Christian. Let me give an example: When I first became a Christian, I believe that I made a free decision to "take the first step toward God" and that God came the rest of the way to me. I understood that grace was involved, but I did not understand that grace initiated the desire in my heart to come to Christ. Those who know their heresies will recognize this as Semi-Pelagianism. However, as I came to a deeper walk with Christ, my understanding changed. I came to realize that grace was there the entire time, not just after I responded to an altar call.
The same can be said about individuals who, having no Christian background, come to Christ and misunderstand some difficult concepts, such as the Trinity. These individuals later, after realizing their error, come to an orthodox understanding. Were they, and I, heretics? I would not classify us as that, since we corrected our beliefs when shown, from Scripture, that we were wrong.
This brings up an interesting point that I think deserves attention. A heretic is someone who persists in their error, even after receiving correction. Heresy is more than simply being incorrect. It is continuing in that error, even after being corrected. But what kinds of doctrines need to be expressly denied for someone to be a heretic? This brings me to my next point.
Second, heresy is an express denial of a core doctrine of the Christian faith. Let me make this clear for those who throw this term around loosely: Being an egalitarian (or a complementarian) does not make a person a heretic. Believing in a post-tribulation rapture does not make a person a heretic. Believing in an Old Earth, as opposed to a Young Earth, does not make a person a heretic. Heresy has to do specifically and explicitly with core doctrines of the faith. This means that a denial of the Trinity, of the deity of Christ, or some other IMPORTANT doctrine of the faith, and then persisting in that denial after being corrected, would make one a heretic. No one is a heretic because they believe that Jesus' brothers were really his cousins, or vice-versa.
Third, I have stated that a heresy is a denial of a core doctrine that is derived from Scripture. I see no way to maintain the Sola Scriptura position without including this as an aspect of heresy. Although Sola Scriptura is often misunderstood (and addressing these misunderstandings is beyond the point of this post), suffice to say for now that Sola Scriptura, at a minimum, assumes Paul's position that we not go beyond what is written (1 Corinthians 4:6), especially when it comes to the doctrine that we hold. The denial of anything extra-biblical (such as the Marian dogmas in Catholic theology) does not make a person a heretic.
Finally, the definition above understands that, while the Church has a role to play in condemning heresy, the Church is not an infallible marker of what is heretical and what is not. The ultimate determining factor in understanding what is heretical and what isn't is Scripture. However, when the Church as a whole comes together and unanimously (or almost unanimously) condemns a certain theological position, my advice is to proceed with caution. A church council could be wrong, but such a decision should not be ignored. It should be weighed against Scripture as the ultimate test. Perhaps an analogy will illustrate my point:
If I were to attempt a Ph.D. in, say, New Testament, and there is a particular position that, say 90% of all New Testament scholars agree with, there are some important things that I must do. First, I must recognize that these scholars could be wrong, or they could be correct. Second, I cannot write a dissertation or come to an otherwise official position on a topic without at least addressing the viewpoint that is expressed. This doesn't mean that it is correct, but it does mean that I should address it. Finally, I should weigh the arguments made in this case against what is considered to be valid evidence for or against the position. That evidence is ultimately going to be what determines my position, despite what other individuals may believe in the field. In the case of doctrine, the "evidence" would be the teaching of Scripture. If an official position of any denomination contradicts Scripture, that position is to be rejected.
In short, heresy is thrown around too lightly, and the charge of heresy is a serious one. Not everyone who disagrees with you is a heretic, and not everything that the Church condemns is heresy. Be careful to distinguish between what is heretical and what is not.