Blog Archives

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’?”]

What is heresy? The conciliar answer

“What is heresy?” you say. Well, that’s simple. Heresy is anything declared heretical by one of the first seven ecumenical councils. So, if hold to those councils, you’re fine. If you reject any of them, you’re a heretic.

That was easy.

What is heresy? Of the five answers we’ll be considering, this is one is the most popular and also the least satisfying. It’s the most popular because it’s the easiest and clearest. Many of the councils even provided lists. Arians, semi-Arians, Pneumatomachoi, Marcellians, Photinians, and Apollinarians all live on the wrong side of the tracks. How do I know? The First Council of Constantinople said so. (Now I just need to dig through some history text to figure out what in the world “Photinians” are. Sounds like something from Star Trek.)

But, I really don’t find this approach terrible helpful.

1. It really doesn’t tell us what heresy is. For our purposes, this is really the core problem. Suppose that I asked you to tell me what a “disease” is, and you said “cancer.” That’s kind of helpful. At least know I know that cancer is a disease. But what does disease mean? You can list specific diseases all day long, but you haven’t really answered the question. The same problem is at work here. Arianism is a heresy. Great, but what is heresy? How did the Nicene fathers determine that Arianism was heresy? How did they decide that Arius was a heretic and not Athanasius? Why did they even think that labeling something as heresy was necessary? Questions like these press beyond particular examples of heresy and probe into the nature of heresy itself.

2. It focuses on the seven ecumenical councils. I love this part of the argument, particularly when it gets used by Protestants. Here’s a quick test for all the Protestants out there: name the first seven ecumenical councils and what issues they each addressed…without using Wikipedia. When most Protestants (at least the ones I know) talk about the 7 ecumenical councils, they’re really talking about two: Nicea/Constantinople (most of the time we just mash those two together) and Chalcedon (we tend to skip Ephesus). We know hardly anything about the others. Yet we throw the number 7 around like a holy talisman that wards off heresy. The argument also fails for Catholics who have quite a few other authoritative councils. So, there’s no reason for them to identify these as the sole arbiters of what qualifies as heresy.

3. It takes away our ability to identify heresy today. Do we really believe that anything worthy of the name “heresy” arose in the first few centuries of the church? Humans are amazingly creative beings. We’re constantly coming up with new ways to do stupid things. So, why would we think that the church addressed every possible heresy at these 7 councils? Yet, I often hear people wield this argument almost as a club to prevent people from using the term “heresy” today. “That can’t be a heresy, it wasn’t addressed at one of the 7 ecumenical councils.” Whatever heresy is, it sounds bad. So, we should probably be able to recognize it today.

4. It assumes a problematic level of conciliar authority. Problematic, that is, for Protestants. Even Protestants with a great appreciation for church history have a problem with simply affirming the absolute authority of a church council to define heresy. That’s just not how Protestantism works. We can have high regard for the decisions of an ecumenical council, even choosing to assume that these councils did in fact teach biblical truth faithfully, and thus exercising extreme caution whenever someone suggests that one may have erred in some way. But, we can’t simply say: “The Council taught it. I believe it. That settles it.”

5. We apply the councils selectively. If I said that the Son was a created being who was not eternal with the Father, people would get pretty upset. And, if I said that Jesus was just a normal human person who was chosen and empowered by the eternal Son, a completely separate person, I would have serious job-security issues. But, what if I made an argument like this. (1) Jesus is a single, unified person. (2) Persons have a “will” by which they choose to do (or not do) certain things. (3) So, where there are two wills, there are two persons. (4) Therefore, in the incarnation, Jesus had one will. Otherwise, you’d end up with two persons in incarnation (Nestorianism) or a Jesus who has a split-personality disorder. I know many theologians who hold to this argument or something very like it. And, I can guarantee that I could develop this argument in a book, with very little response from the Christian community. But, there’s one problem. It’s heresy. At least, according to the Conciliar Answer it is. This view is known as Monothelitism and was rejected as heretical at the Sixth Ecumenical Council. (Explaining why it was rejected would take too long. For our purpose, it’s enough to know that it was.) Why do we get all upset at someone who affirms one heresy (Arianism) but not another (Monothelitism)?

So, I don’t think the Conciliar Answer gets us very far in understanding heresy. But, it does point in helpful directions. As we’ll see throughout this series, it’s almost impossible to define “heresy” without taking a close look at the historical situations that caused particular communities to identify some belief/group as heretical. So, studying the first seven ecumenical councils (among others) is a great way to understand what heresy is and how the label has been used by the church. But, that’s a more complex task than simply saying that heresy simply is whatever these seven councils declared to be heretical.

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

You might also be interested in:

Flotsam and jetsam (9/3)

Flotsam and jetsam (6/20)

Many thanks to Brian LePort for handling these posts while I was at the Acton conference. I have returned and will be posting some more reflections on Acton over the next day or so. But, for now, here are some interesting links.

  • Peter Leithart has a very helpful post on whether we should continue to use the label “Arian” despite recent historical studies suggesting that Athanasius’ opponents were far too diverse to be covered by a single label like this.
  • There’s been a lot of discussion lately about Ron Hendel’s decision to relinquish his SBL membership over concerns that the society has changed its position on the relationship between faith and biblical studies, and that it has done so for largely financial reasons (i.e. they’re trying to recruit more evangelical and fundamentalist scholars). John Hobbins, Mike Bird, and Jim West have all offered comments.
  • Jim West asks if someone can be a committed Christian and a practicing homosexual. In the process, he presses on the popular notion of what it means to be a “committed” Christian and how this relates to ongoing sinful practices in general.
  • Diglogtting reviews Don Schweitzer’s Contemporary Christologies. It sounds like a good, brief resource for familiarizing yourself with a variety of recent less-traditional approaches to Christology. The apparent lack of material dealing with more traditional Christologies, though, belies the back-cover claim that the book deals with the “chief approaches” in Christology since WWII.
  • CT has posted its June 2010 interview with Al Erisman, who contends that “we need to think about ministry in the digital culture the way missionaries think about the culture of the people they serve”. They’ve also posted the responses by Wha-Chul Son, Haron Wachira, Nigel Cameron, and Juan Rogers. If you’re wanting to understand some of the pros and cons involved in using technology in ministry, this would be a good conversation to follow.
  • With the growing use of the rosary in popular culture, Alan Creech offers a helpful primary on the rosary.
  • Stuart discusses some recent claims that fundamentalist Christians are using the BP oil spill to support their eschatology. Joel Watts offers some thoughts as well.
  • C. Michael Patton offers some thoughts on his two days as an atheist. His story raises some interesting questions about the nature of faith, doubt, and disbelief.
  • And, apparently if you jump onto a moving semi on a dare, you should have some plan for getting down.

Flotsam and jetsam (6/10)

  • Kenton Sparks discusses the doctrine of inerrancy. Specifically, he looks at the problem or conflicting moral standards in the Bible – e.g. Jesus’ love ethic vs. OT commands to kill everyone. And, he argues that this is not simply a problem generated by modern sensitivities and that these are problems that cannot simply be set aside by conservative theologians.
  • Last Seminary offers a very list list of articles dealing with unity and diversity in the New Testament. (HT Nick Norelli)
  • In a NTY op-ed piece, Tony Judt discusses six cliches that make it difficult to talk intelligently about the Israel situation. I thought this was a very helpful article for clarifying some of the rhetoric that often gets thrown around in the discussion.
  • Claremont Seminary decides to become “the first truly multi-faith seminary in America.” I can understand the idea of a multi-faith religious studies program, but a multi-faith seminary? That seems like the final result of a mindset that thinks theology and ministry have almost nothing to do with each other.
  • And, in honor of Brian LePort (aka Arius), here’s James McGrath’s attempt to put Arius’ theology to music, in keeping with Arius’ own practice.

Origen: Heretic or Great Theologian?

Here is my paper that I wrote for our Greek Father’s class.  Before taking the class, the only thing I had heard about Origen was that he was a heretic.  After studying him this semester, I found that my conclusions were wrong.  There we definitely things he taught that would be considered unorthodox today, but he was clearly one of the first great Christian minds.  Therefore, I submit this paper for your reading enjoyment.

Origen’s Trinitarian Theology


Origen is one of the most controversial early church fathers.  He was accused of heresy by the 5th Ecumenical Council and was excommunicated from the church.  The anathema centered around several tenets of his theology, one of them being his doctrine of Subordinationism.  Subordinationism was the teaching that the Son and Holy Spirit were both subordinate to the Father in nature and being.  Origen is thought to be the first theologian to insinuate, if not out right teach such an idea, and that subsequent heresies derived their authority from Origen’s initial teaching.  In light of this accusation, this paper attempts to do three things.  The first section takes a look at what Origen actually said about the Father, Son, and Spirit and tries to piece together a coherent view of his Trinitarian theology.  An explanation is then given as to why Origen appears to be misunderstood, and clearly affirms that he does not adhere to a doctrine of relational subordinationism within the Trinity, but does see a subordination of roles within the divine mission.  The final section discusses two contradictions between Origen’s theology and that of the Arian doctrine that was linked to him.

An Introduction to the ‘Letters to Serapion on the Holy Spirit’ by Athanasius of Alexandria: Abstract and Paper

I wrote my final paper on the often ignored Letters to Serapion on the Holy Spirit written by Athanasius of Alexandria which he wrote to combat the heresy of the “Tropici” who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Although it is a useful source for early Christian pneumatology it has often been ignored. This is likely because it is overshadowed by a very similar work written by Basil the Great (On the Holy Spirit). The abstract for the paper is this:

The Letters to Serapion on the Holy Spirit were written by Athanasius to address the heresy of the Tropici. These letters have been neglected by many scholars of early Christian theology. In my paper I will seek to introduce this work to a first time reader. This will include discussions on authorship, the context, the audience, and the opponents against whom this was written. Since these letters were written to combat the teaching that the Holy Spirit is a created being it is a primary source for early Patristic Pneumatology. It describes the Spirit as being closely related to the work of the Son who is the image of the Father. In other words, this is an apologetic for preserving the Trinity as Trinity.

You can download the PDF form here: LePort. An Introduction to The Letters to Serapion on the Holy Spirit by Athanasius of Alexandria