What Is “Heresy” and Who Is a “Heretic”?

Rob Bell is a heretic. Rob Bell is not a heretic. You are a heretic. I am proud to be a heretic. Everyone is a heretic.

I hear statements like these all the time. The fourth one prompted yesterday’s question: “Why is it popular to be a heretic?” And, we’ve had a good discussion around the extent to which cultural tendencies might contribute to the popularity of describing oneself as a “heretic.” But, such statements raise two other important questions: (1) What is heresy? and (2) What does it mean to be a heretic? Interestingly, people often answer only the first question without recognizing that the second is a different and equally important question.

Today I’d like to start pressing more deeply into what terms like “heresy” and “heretic” even mean. And, we’ll begin with the issue of heresy itself, since it’s impossible to talk about what it means to be a heretic without some understanding of heresy.

What is heresy?

According to Alister McGrath, the term heresy (hairesis in Greek) originally referred to any “act of choosing,” and over time came to include broader ideas like “choice” or “school of thought” (Heresy, 37). So, the term itself wasn’t necessarily negative. It wasn’t until the second century that Christians began using the term in a more pejorative sense to refer to a “school of thought” that needed to be rejected for some reason.

But, that still doesn’t answer the question of what qualifies something as a heresy? And, that is where the challenge lies. That question actually implies a number of other related and equally difficult questions:

  • What distinguishes a heresy from something that is merely incorrect or questionable?
  • What distinguishes heresy from “orthodoxy”?
  • Who determines when something qualifies as a heresy?

It should come as no surprise that people have offered a variety of answers to these questions. So, instead of trying to define “heresy” in one quick post, I’m going to do a short series on different ways that people have tried to define heresy. When I’m done, I hope that we’ll have come to a better understanding of what heresy is.

5 Common Approaches to Understanding Heresy

Specifically, we’re going to look at five different ways that people have defined heresy. I’m sure there are more, but these are among the more common approaches. Over the next few posts, we’ll take a look at each of these and see if they can help in the process of understanding heresy.

  1. Heresy as deviation from an ecumenical council.
  2. Heresy as a suppressed orthodoxy.
  3. Heresy as a social construction.
  4. Heresy as deviation from the “center.”
  5. Heresy as a threat to authority.
  6. Heresy as a failed orthodoxy.

I’ll link the posts to each of these as we go. So, stay tuned for more.

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About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on September 27, 2011, in Church History, Early Church, Theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

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