What is Heresy? Sugar in my coffee.

I like coffee. I’m drinking it right now. Hot and steaming, black and strong. Perfect.

I have one very important rule for my coffee: don’t put anything in it! A good cup of coffee needs no help. Leave it alone.

But, what if, unknown to me, someone had polluted my coffee with vile sugar. Reaching over to take a drink, I wouldn’t see the danger. It looks and smells just the same. Outwardly, everything is fine. But, the nature of the coffee, it’s very essence, has been changed…corrupted.


Saxon (via Flickr)

If you had asked me what I thought heresy was when I started writing this series, I probably would have given you an answer that sounded a lot like sugar in my coffee.

The coffee is the essence of Christianity, it’s core beliefs and ideas about Jesus and the Gospel. This is the very “center” of the Christian faith, without which, you just don’t have Christianity.

The sugar is some belief that maintains the outward form of Christianity – i.e. it continues to talk about Jesus and the Gospel – but at the same time it undermines the very essence of Christianity.

For example, Gnostic Christians could at times sound very orthodox. They talked about Jesus, the Spirit, God, salvation, the church, and many of the other core aspects of Christianity. Too many people, they looked like just another cup of coffee. But, on closer examination, you find something very different. The gnostic belief that the world is inherently bad necessarily undermined any concept of the incarnation. And, their understanding of salvation, with its emphasis on secret knowledge, tended to be elitist and works-oriented. (To be fair, gnosticism was a diverse movement that is impossible to summarize this simply. So, this is a bit of a caricature. But, you get the point.)

So, what made gnosticism heresy wasn’t that it had been condemned at an ecumenical council; it was understood to be heresy long before Nicea. And, it wasn’t just a power play or an attempt to establish community identity. What made gnosticism heresy was that it held beliefs that necessarily undermined and corrupted the very essence of Christianity. Once the church realized this, declaring it heresy was the only real option.

I have to admit that there’s still a lot about this approach to heresy that I find attractive.

  • It understands that heresy arises from within the community. Some of the other views tend to portray heresy as something coming from outside that the church needs to defend itself against. But, heresy is better understood as something that develops within the church itself, making it both more difficult to identify and more challenging to address. 
  • It realizes that heresy can look orthodox. This discussion would be much easier if certain ideas would come pre-labeled as heretical. But, that’s not how it works. And, the challenge is that heresy often appears to be very orthodox. Indeed, that’s why it often took the early church long years of wrestling before they came to a final conclusion on some issue. So, just because something appears orthodox on the surface, we can’t simply assume that it’s safe to use. 
  • It emphasizes that “heresy” is only about central issues. “Heresy” as a label should not be applied to peripheral issues. If we’re going to use it at all, we should reserve it for issues that lie at the very heart of Christianity. 

Nonetheless, there are a few problems with this approach.

  • It assumes agreement about the “center.” This is a pretty big problem. The only way for this understanding of heresy to get off the ground is to have some concept of the “center” or the “essence” of Christianity so that we can identify those things that corrupt that center. So, if we’re not careful, this approach simply relocates the debate from “What is heresy?” to “What is the essence of Christianity?” And, indeed, those two questions are inseparable.
  • It doesn’t cover all heresies. Or, at least, it doesn’t unless you expand the “center” to include far too much. For example, what are we to do with Donatism? It was declared heresy, but to include in this view of heresy, the “center” needs to include the universality of the church and the nature of the sacraments. Some may be comfortable with that, but I’d prefer an understanding of the “center” that is more limited.
  • It often treats heresy as self-evident. How do you know when some ideas strengthens or weakens the center of Christianity? This definition, at least as it’s often used in discussion, tends to assume that the answer to this question is relatively self-evident. Of course gnosticism undermines the essence of Christianity. That’s easy to see. Really? Then why did so many Christians follow it for so long, and why did it take the early Church so long to counter it? Or, more challengingly, what about Arianism? That kept the Church busy for decades. And, if you asked an Arian, they wouldn’t be so inclined to think that it was just self-evident that their view undermined the essence of Christianity. Quite the contrary.
  • It has an “intellectualized” view of heresy. This is actually one of the things I like about this approach, since I tend to like intellectual things. But, this approach views heresy as an exclusively intellectual reality. It’s all about ideas and their adequacy. But, if the “power struggle” and “community identity” approaches taught us anything, it’s that identifying something as heresy is more complicated than this. 

So, I think there’s a lot to be said for this approach. And, our eventual definition of heresy will need to capture these strengths. But, there are some things here that we’ll want to try and avoid as well.

[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 13, 2011, in Early Church, Theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 34 Comments.

  1. I’m glad somebody else understands the heresy that is sugar in coffee. No one understands when I tell them I’m “offended” when they put anything in the coffee that I make for them.

  2. you do love your folgers!

  3. Simply but profoundly, there can be no true understanding of right doctrine and so-called “heresy”, without the reality of the historical Church Catholic! We can easily see this in the second century, and the whole reality of Monarchianism. Here the whole doctrine of the monarcha of God, and the Logos theology was somewhat worked out, and then later fully worked-out and applied in the Council of Nicaea, etc. The whole history of early Christian doctrines was historical and dynamic, within the Church itself. We simply cannot escape this! And it is here btw, that the Apostolic Church itself declared gnosticism as heretical! Even from the NT itself, (1 John, etc.)

    *A classic book here is JND Kelly’s work: Early Christian Doctrines. Still a solid and simply standard work!

  4. isnt the fact, that you claim to be able to take away three heavenly crowns in itself a form of hersey?

  5. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ ‘Christianity and…’ (a bad thing). It doesn’t need or shouldn’t have anything else added to it. Just Christianity.

    Just to talk about coffee. I’m a home roaster and connoisseur. But I have such a sensitivity to the bitter aspect of coffee I can’t drink it much (unless I’m evaluating coffee with others for a co-op) without sugar because the BITTER overwhelms the other flavors. A small bit of sugar balances it out. So, we need to make allowance for each other’s faults.

    But Christianity needs no embellishment.

    • Okay, you can use a little sugar, but no one else. 🙂

      • Thank you. I feel affirmed.

        Instant, referring to coffee, should be illegal.

        And French Roast will roast the flavors right out of the coffee. So I could have some stuff to say about that too! But you’re/we’re talking theology so we won’t go there.

        Interesting analogy.

  6. Sugar also reminds me of ‘seeker sensitive’.

  7. You can have right doctrine, and not be right with God, (The Pharisees); or you can be right with God and lacking in right doctrine, (Apollos).

  8. I can’t argue with that Fr. Robert. The way it was put was like an absolute comparison of two poles. But of course you’re right and it bothers me that I will never have ‘correct’ doctrine!

    • Indeed Jeff, as I think, reason, and age along the way, I still love theology & doctrine. But I realize it is much more mystical in the spiritual sense, “unio mystica” in the life of our Triune God! I am even more Augustinian, but I hope in a more biblical, spiritual and interior reality.

      I am making my rounds in the hospital this morning, it is humbling!

  9. I’m a bit confused. If I may ask, If we can’t have “correct” doctrine, then how do we know how to truly be saved? We got many denominations, are they all correct? If so, then why do they sometimes contradict each other? Should there be a “correct” doctrine so we can peace of mind?

    • Our “perfection” is above at the Right-Hand-of-God, in the Risen, Ascended Christ Jesus! And this really is the cream of St. Paul’s ministry & letters: The Epistles themselves, especially the so-called Prison Epistles: Ephesians, Colossians, & Philippians!

      *If you read theology books, let me recommend Gordon Fee’s: Pauline Christology, An Exegetical-Theological Study. Grand!

      • If I understand you correctly, “perfection” is achieved at the Second Coming? Thus, we can have different theologies, but one outcome?

    • No, our “perfection” is already in the glory, in the Living Person of Christ, and we are even now with Him – “in spirit & truth”. But we enjoy the ‘already but not yet’ tension, of the sure and certain eschaton, ‘In Christ’. See, (Eph. 1: 17-23). But, now we walk by faith, hope and love, in the “face” and presence of Christ.

  10. Just to be clear, my focus in this post wasn’t really on the question of whether we can have correct doctrine. My only focus was the view of heresy that describes it as something that pollutes or corrupts essential truths of the Christian faith. Whether we can have unpolluted beliefs is a different question entirely.

    To respond briefly to your question, though, I think we need to affirm two things: (1) All our beliefs are “tainted” so some extent because we’re fallen beings in a fallen world and cannot know things perfectly; but (2) it is possible to know something sufficiently to refer to our knowledge as “correct.” In other words, I think we must reject both the idea that we know things perfectly and the idea that we can’t know anything at all. As with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the muddy middle.

    • I appreciate your patience in explaining these matters. I will find the answers elsewhere. Its just that with that idea, we can never truly know if someone is presenting false doctrines. Waiting years until history can teach us otherwise would cause large flocks to be lost. If God is love, wouldn’t he teach us otherwise, prior to us failing? Either way, thank you both for your time.

      • Exactly. That’s partly why I reject the idea that we can’t know anything truly. Although I agree that we won’t know things perfectly until the end, I think that’s very different from saying that we can’t know things sufficiently well to be able to reject some ideas as false. I think we get hung up on the idea that if we don’t know everything absolutely, then we don’t know anything at all. That’s just not the case.

      • Makes sense. As long as we are humbly submitting ourselves to God, daily, we cannot hope to understand anything at all. That’s the only way we can identify “sugared” ideas, albeit can be difficult. I do believe its possible to know enough to reject bad doctrines, although in some cases you have to really test them against the Bible to ensure you haven’t misunderstood it yourself. That’s just my personality, I need to know 100% truth before I can accept it. Thank you both for your time. God Bless.
        Oh sorry, which Church is instrumental? No need to answer if you don’t want, just curious.

      • To give a rather theological answer, I think reason & revelation are not two equal sources of divine truth. On the contrary, reason merely points us to that true revelation, which does contain divine truth. As Turretin contends that faith is not based on reason per se, but upon the reasonable testimony of reliable witnesses to Christian mysteries. The relationship between the objective and subjective aspects of belief are seen in a threefold causality. The objective cause of belief is Scripture and its marks. The efficient cause is the Holy Spirit by whom one is led to belief. The instrumental cause is the Church, the means through which the believer is brought to the truth. This is perhaps the beginning of a Reformed Scholasticism, but workable I believe. And of course the Word of God is central here always! We can “know the truth”, and the truth will always set us free! It is here that as Jesus said, “spirit and truth” live together!

  11. Dr. Cortez-
    Three weeks ago I preached a message on false teachers to a congregation in St. Marc, Haiti. It was not the message I originally had in mind, but was clearly what God was leading me toward. Sunday the pastor at my church preached on Paul’s warning in Galatians 1 about the Judaizers. Last night during the LifeGroup that meets at my home, the discussion around that Galatians message was very intense and focused on the fact that false doctrine is so often subtle and difficult to recognize; it looks and sounds good at first. This morning (while sipping my cup of “steaming, black, strong” coffee) I ran across this post.

    Suffice to say that it has been my long experience that any time I start hearing the same message from God over and over, I best pay attention because he’s leading me intentionally. All of that said, I will be for the coming days or weeks be alert to this message and spend my time studying it intensely.

    Thanks for your insightful post.

  1. Pingback: Links: Friday, October 14, 2011 | Danny Poyner

  2. Pingback: Link Roundup: Heresy, Church History, and Rocks | City of Jericho

  3. Pingback: What Is “Heresy” and Who Is a “Heretic”? « scientia et sapientia

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