What Is Heresy? The “Other” Answer.

Who am I? Well, that’s a difficult question to answer. I could tell what I do for a living, who I’m related to, what interests me, and so on. But, how to get you to understand who I really am? That’s not easy.

Cover, August 2005 Legal Action 7

But, there’s one thing I can do. One way to make some aspect of my identity very clear.

I’m not you.

There, that was easy. All I had to do was set you up as the “other,” the one against whom I define myself. And, it works even better if I can point out a bunch of your more negative qualities as the main ways in which we’re different. (I suppose I could accomplish the same thing by pointing out all the positive qualities you have that I’m lacking. But, who wants to do that?) In one fell swoop I’ve clarified my identity and made myself look good in the process.

Groups do this all the time. The most effective way to establish the identity of your group is to contrast it to some other group. Explain how your church is different (i.e. better) from the church down the street. Point out why the people from that other country are weird. Make sure everyone knows that your group doesn’t act (dress, believe, feel, eat…whatever) like them.

This happens so often, people have turned “other” into a verb. You can now other some person or group by making them the object against which you define yourself. Or, even worse, we even have othering. I agree with Calvin (the cartoon character) that “Verging words is cool.” But, sometimes we go too far.

But, for this to work effectively, the other can’t be too far away. It doesn’t help much to say that my church is different from some church in Madagascar. That doesn’t have any meaningful impact on the people in my church. They just don’t care enough. But, if I say that we’re not like the church right next door, that has impact. And, if I say that we’re different from those people who are actually sitting inside the church! That’s the most effective of all.

As they say, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. That’s because you need a good, close enemy to be your other.

According to many people, this is the best way to understand what “heresy” is all about. Heresy doesn’t fundamentally have to do with what people do and don’t believe. It’s primarily about some group’s need to develop and/or maintain a strong group identity. So, when the early church declared Marcionism to be heresy, they were making an identity statement. By turning Marcionites into the other, they established a group against which to define themselves. They settled the borders of their identity on the backs of those they excluded.

Like most of the definitions we’ve considered in our pursuit of heresy, there are a couple of things here that we need to appreciate:

1. Heresy is a social reality. There’s just no avoiding this conclusion. “Heresy” is a label that one group applies to another. And, all such labels are social realities with social implications. Whether I’m calling you a “nerd,” “jock,” “illegal alien,” or “heretic,” those labels all come with socially-laden meanings that structure society in particular ways. Whatever else “heresy” may be, it is at least a social reality.

2. The early church “othered” people. Again, this seems unavoidable. One of the great tasks and challenges of the early church was to figure out its identity. And, along the way, the early Christians figured out that they weren’t Jews, Greeks, or pagans. Those moves all helped create Christian identity. But, nothing did that more effectively than identifying those sitting “inside the church” who were other. Irenaeus was brilliant at this. No one used theological rhetoric more effectively to identify “Christian” groups who should not be called “Christian” any longer. They were other.

But, as with the “power struggle” motif, I find this approach to heresy ultimately unsatisfying.

1. It is reductionistic. It’s one thing to say that using “heresy” as a label is a social practice with social implications. It’s something else entirely to say that there’s nothing behind the label other than the need to define oneself against another. This approach runs the risk of neglecting the many other reasons that Christian communities have for talking about heresy. All Christians need to be sensitive the possibility that we’re just using “heresy” as label to identify those who are different from us, similar to forcing Jews to wear  distinctive clothing to identify them as the other in the community. But, in the great heresy discussions of church history, I think we can see that more is going on than just this.

2. It downplays the data. The idea that heresy is a social “construction” suggests that there is no reality behind the label other than the inclusion/exclusion process. “Heresy” and “orthodoxy” are like “nerd” and “cool.” These aren’t really truth claims since what it means to be “cool” varies from one group to another. They are purely social realities. But, go back and read Ireneaus and other early Christian authors. Even if what they were doing had social implications, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that they saw themselves as making truth claims. And, pretty important truth claims. Granted, it’s possible that they were mistaken about what they were really doing, or maybe even that they were intentionally misrepresenting themselves. But, where is the evidence for such a conclusion? It’s not there.

3. It seems anachronistic. There’s a lot about the social construction theory that feels like modern thinkers trying to apply modern categories to ancient people. Granted, humans have always been social beings. So undoubtedly some social processes remain the same throughout time. But, social construction arguments often read like they were written by modern secularists who fail to appreciate the fundamental significance of theological beliefs in an ancient world. In our modern world, where people don’t really think that theology is all that important, the suspicion is that any heated theological argument is really about something else. And, I’m sure that is often the case. But, applying that modern suspicion to ancient debates is unhelpful. We just struggle to understand a world where average Christians on the street could debate the intricacies of trinitarian theology with one another while buying bread. For them, theology was much more than sociology.

So again, we have a lot to learn here. A label like “heresy” is a powerful social tool that can be used to create identity by pointing out the other in the room. As such, it’s a tool that needs to be used very carefully. Othering is dangerous.

But, I think we’ll find as we go along, that “heresy” is more than this. It’s a social reality, but not a social construct.

[This post is part of our series on “What is ‘Heresy’ and Who Is a ‘Heretic’?”]

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 October 6, 2011, in Early Church, Theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Again for me at least anyway, heresy & heterodoxy will always be defined by both Holy Scripture (the only true rule of doctrine), and the ‘One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church’, its general authority, and “pillar and ground of the truth.” (1 Tim. 3:15 / Acts 2:42) It seems this subject and issue presses me back to these solemn places and truth’s! And here btw, we run square into the historic Ecumenical Councils! Not just the winners, but the ancient roots and truth of Christian doctrine and theology! Yeah, I am a “churchman”, by the grace and glory of God! 🙂

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