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What’s Your Favorite Heresy?


There’s something attractive about every heresy. Otherwise, no one would had bothered with it in the first place. People didn’t come up with the ideas that eventually came to be labeled as heresies because they were bored and wanted to rile the “powers that be.” No, heresy comes from an earnest attempt to answer life’s most difficult questions. Although the answers heresy offers were eventually found to be inadequate and/or unacceptable, that doesn’t change the fact that they were honest attempts at good theology – attempts that many people found compelling for some reason.

So every heresy has some attraction. For example, consider the following. (These are over-simplifications, but you get the point.)

  • Adoptionism: The belief that Jesus was born as a regular human, and was adopted into the divine life at some specific point (e.g. baptism, resurrection). With this one, we get an obviously human Jesus. He can empathize with our weaknesses, because he lived a frail human life just like ours, untainted by some divine nature lurking behind the scenes. And we also get the image of a relationship with God that can be achieved through faithful living. If Jesus did it, so can we.
  • Docetism: The belief that Christ’s physical body was an illusion and that he didn’t really die on the cross. In one fell swoop you eliminate all the difficult questions surrounding the incarnation (since it never happened) and how the divine nature can suffer (it didn’t). 
  • Marcionism: The belief that the god of the OT is a separate (and rather nasty) being from the loving God of the NT; so, Christians shouldn’t have anything to do with OT scriptures or those aspects of the NT that have been corrupted by OT influences. Forget about all those troubling OT passages about wrath and violence, and get rid of some difficult NT passages at the same time. And you get a God who is all about love and forgiveness. Sounds good to me.
  • Modalism: The belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit are simply three “aspects” of the one God (kind of like the idea that I am one person who is a father, a husband, and a teacher). The Trinity is confusing. So forget about notions of God somehow being both three and one. Let’s just go with oneness. That’s much easier to understand.
  • Arianism: The belief that the Son was the first of all the created beings and the one who serves as the intermediary between the infinitely transcendent Creator and the rest of creation. This one is particularly helpful because it does away with so many problems at once. The incarnation isn’t an issue because the Son is a created being to begin with. There are no trinitarian problems because there’s no real Trinity. And you get to keep your completely transcendent Creator without worrying about how he can be involved in the suffering of a fallen world (he’s not). 
  • Apollinarianism: The belief that in the incarnation the Son only assumed a physical, human body and not a truly human soul (i.e. the Son puts on a human body kind of like I might put on a costume). With this view, offers a more readily understandable view of the incarnation. It’s not that you really have a union of two natures (divine and human), but you have a divine person simply clothing himself in human form for a time. That’s a picture I can wrap my mind around.
  • Nestorianism: The belief that the incarnation involves the union of two complete persons: the eternal Logos and the human Jesus. This one is basically the inverse of Apollinarianism. Instead of solving the problems of the incarnation by basically denying that there’s a fully human person involved, Nestorianism solves the problem by making the “union” more of a partnership. You’ve got two full person who just work really closely together. I can get on board with that.
  • Pelagianism: The belief that God has already graced us with everything that we need to achieve salvation; we simply need to be disciplined and use these God-given gifts to walk the path laid out for us. This one is great because it so clearly teaches the goodness of God’s creation (especially humans), avoids the difficulties associated with the concepts of total depravity, original sin, and predestination (by denying or significantly redefining them), emphasizes the importance of discipline and godly living, and decries any form of “easy-believism.

I could go on: Adoptionism, Gnosticism, Montanism, Monarchianism, Donatism, and more. Every one of them offered something compelling: an approach that made difficult questions understandable. And they all thought they were defending Christianity against ideas that would ultimately undermine Christian faith, life, and ministry. Although they all went on to be condemned, that doesn’t change the fact that they each have their attraction.

What’s your favorite heresy? Which of these, or some other, do you find most compelling? 

I have to admit that I can see the attraction of several of these heresies. But, if I were to pick my favorite, it would have to be Adoptionism (though Pelagianism is a close second). I think I just grew up on so many stories of the human Jesus, and so much emphasis on how important it is that he was truly human. So, I don’t find myself gravitating toward heresies like Docetism or Gnosticism. Their Jesus is too transcendent and otherworldly to tempt me much. But the earthy, faithful Jesus of Adoptionism is someone I can get behind. And I suppose that Adoptionism and Pelagianism both tempt because they both play to my own achievement mentality. At its core, the Christian life is about disciplined faithfulness. Just follow Christ’s example: be disciplined, work hard, and live faithfully. That’s all it takes.

I like that. Of course, that’s because deep down I really want the story of salvation to be about me and what I can achieve.

What about you? What’s your favorite heresy?

What is Heresy? Final Answer

What is heresy? This has proven to be a remarkably difficult question to answer. Along the way, we’ve tested a number of possible solutions:

And, with each, we saw that there were good reasons for rejecting it as an adequate definition of heresy. So, we still don’t seem to have a particularly good answer to our question.

But, instead of trying to take each as an adequate definition in its own right, what if we took the strengths of each and used them all to build a definition of heresy? What might that look like?

1. Heresy requires an exercise of authority.

Both the Conciliar Answer and the Just Shut Up! approach recognize that some kind of authority is inherent in the idea of heresy. After all, someone needs to make the final decision as to what does and doesn’t qualify as heresy. I’ve already explained why I don’t think authority alone suffices to define heresy, but that doesn’t mean authority isn’t part of the equation.

Now, as a good evangelical Protestant, the question always arises: Whose authority? Alister McGrath suggests that heresy requires the authority of ecumenical gathering (Heresy: A History of Defending Truth). In other words, unless Christians everywhere can agree that something is heretical, we shouldn’t use the term. And consequently, he pretty much limits heresy to the first few centuries of the church. But, he fails to mention that even these earliest councils weren’t as “ecumenical” as we think (a few hundred bishops from mostly Greek-speaking churches hardly qualifies as fully representative of the whole church, regardless of how good their conclusions might have been). And, as I’ve argued before, such an approach necessarily robs us of the ability to deal with any possible heresies that arose after this time.

But, if I can’t appeal to ecumenical gatherings or to an official magisterium, where can I turn? I’m comfortable saying that the authority in view here is the authority of whatever ecclesial body you are a part. I realize that this makes “heresy” a bit messy in that something might qualify as heresy for one group of Christians and not another. But, complex issues like heresy and orthodoxy are rarely simple.

What this primarily means is that my view would reject the idea that heresy can be a purely individualistic affair. I can’t determine by myself what “heresy” is, though I can certainly offer opinions as to what some group should declare to be heresy.

2. Heresy necessarily involves power and exclusion.

If heresy involves the authority to identify something as “off limits,” then it necessarily involves both power and exclusion. I don’t mean the power to physically coerce someone into believing what you think is correct, though power has often been used that way in the history of heresy. I’m simply talking about the fact that any authoritative declaration that something qualifies as heretical is inherently an exercise of power. And, when that power gets exercised, it necessarily identifies some group as an “other” who lies beyond the pale of orthodoxy.

And, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with either of these. In and of themselves, neither power nor exclusion are bad. Church leaders sometimes need to use both for the benefit of the body (e.g. excluding a dangerous person from a children’s ministry).

But, I think it’s important to be clear that when we use the label “heresy” we are wielding the power to exclude. My fear is that if we don’t make this explicit, we’ll wield the power without being aware that we’re doing so. And, that is exceptionally dangerous. It’s like giving someone a box and not bothering to mention that there’s dynamite inside. We can’t wield carefully what we don’t know that we’re wielding.

So, we must always be mindful that calling something “heresy” is necessarily an exercise of power that should be done with care, prayer, and great hesitation.

3. Heresy undermines the Gospel.

As I mentioned in Sugar in My Coffee, the idea that heresy at its core is something that undermines the essence of Christianity is the approach I resonate with the most. And this for two reasons. (1) Heresy is about essential, rather than peripheral, matters. Granted, it’s not always easy to tell the difference. But, it’s still important to emphasize this throughout. And, (2) heresy comes from within. We make a mistake when we see heresy as something that attacks Christianity from without. Instead, we must realize that heresy is always something that arises from within the body and must be dealt with as such.

But, although I like this approach, I think it needs to be strengthened in several important ways. First, it needs to make the appeal to authority/power more explicit as I’ve done above. Rather than simply presume that heresy is self-evident, we need to recognize that sifting heresy from orthodoxy is a difficult process that will often require a final decision to be made by those entrusted with the authority to do so. Second, we need to realize that the “essence” of Christianity is more than a set of beliefs. (It’s not less than that, but it is more.) So, I wonder if it would be worth exploring whether “heresy” is a concept that could be applied to lifestyles as well as theologies. If a group’s lifestyle runs contrary to the essence of Christianity, wouldn’t it be worth calling it heresy even if that group maintained the outward form of right belief? In other words, can we have a heretical counterpart to orthopraxy as well as orthodoxy? And, finally, I think the idea of Christianity’s “essence” is far too vague. I’d rather say that heresy is something that undermines the Gospel itself. I realize that gets us into a discussion of what the Gospel is. But, I’d rather have a productive discussion about the nature of the Gospel than spin our wheels chasing some abstract “essence.”

So, What Is Heresy?

This is far from final, but here is what I would propose at this point as a definition of heresy:

Heresy is any form of Christianity (in practice or belief) that undermines the Gospel (explicitly or implicitly) and is determined to be such by the recognized authority in a given ecclesial body.

What do you think?

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What Is Heresy? Just Shut Up!

Blank, white space. Just staring at me. Mocking me. Daring me to write what I really think.

I know perfectly well what I’m supposed to write. I paid attention in class and studied hard for the test. More importantly, I know how this prof works. He’s not looking for anything creative, interesting, or, heaven forbid, new. He just wants the “answer.” You know, the one he gave in class. The one that’s “right.”

One problem. I disagree.

To be honest, I’d probably want to write something else, anything else, even if I didn’t disagree. That’s just who I am. But, this time, I really do think there’s a better answer. And, I’d love let it free, tracing the contours of something different with the tip of my pen.

But I can’t. I need the grade. And, in this class, rejecting the teacher’s authority is the only real heresy.

photo credit: Roujo (via Flickr)

In one of our earlier posts on the meaning of “heresy,” we looked at the idea that the early church created the concept of heresy by using its power to crush the opposition and claim the label “orthodoxy” for itself. And, we saw that one major flaw of this approach is believing that the early church had the kind of institutional and social power necessary for this narrative to work. It didn’t.

But, the situation was far different in the Middle Ages. By that time, Christianity had been the official religion in the west for hundreds of years, and it operated with the (often begrudging) support of rulers and people alike. With money, land, titles, and influence, the Church had power. And, as Alister McGrath points out in Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth, this led to a different view of the nature and function of “heresy.” Heresy came to mean anything that went against the established authority of the church.

Some of the heresies in the Middle Ages looked surprisingly like earlier ones. The Cathars, for example, recapitulated many Gnostic beliefs. So, to find them labeled “heretics” is not surprising. But, other movements seem different. Were the Waldensians really that bad? Sure, they criticized the corruption and materialism of the church, called for significant reform, and embraced the ideal of poverty. But, was that very different from what the Franciscans did a short while later? Yet the former were excluded as heretics, while the latter became one of the most enduring institutions of the Catholic Church. What was the difference? Although this is oversimplified, the key difference is that the Waldensians not only criticized the church, but they rejected its authority. The Franciscans, on the other hand, though vocal critics at times, remained in full submission to the ecclesial hierarchy.

You can see the same dynamic at work with Martin Luther. If you search the writings of the early Luther, you will find very little that had not been said before, and by people who retained their good standing in the church. But Luther, as we all know, did not. And the key shift came not with his 95 Theses but at the Heidelberg Disputation where he clearly refused to submit to the authority of the medieval Church.

The fastest way to be declared a heretic in the medieval world was to reject the authority of the Church. Indeed, you could believe and teach an impressively broad range of ideas at that time. But, if you got the attention of Church leaders for some reason, and they told you to shut up, you’d better shut up. Otherwise, things would get very unpleasant.

photo credit: Teddy Lambec (via Flickr)

But, although this became a common way of using the term “heresy” in the Middle Ages, it is not a particularly helpful approach to defining the nature of heresy.

1. It fails to distinguish heresy from schism. At the very least, this is a rather different use of the term than what we found in the early church, which operated with much less clearly defined authority structures. Indeed, the difference is so significant, that many scholars prefer not to use the term “heresy” for these movements, instead describing them as “schismatic” – i.e. movements whose overall theology does not seem heretical, but who rejected Church authority and either left the Church or were kicked out. Indeed, even the Catholic Church seems to recognize this distinction, having backed away from the language of “heresy” in recent years when describing Protestant churches. We’re definitely more schismatic than we are heretical – at least, most of us are.

2. It turns any rejection of church authority into heresy. Yet, this simply is not the case. Suppose, for example, that a Catholic priest becomes convinced that the celibacy requirement is a mistake, rejects church authority, and gets married. He will certainly come under severe censure, and he won’t be able to serve as a priest anymore. But, he would not be viewed as a heretic. And, I’m sure we could come up with countless other examples. But, if rejecting church authority is not sufficient to make you a heretic, then rejection of authority alone cannot serve as our definition of heresy. It could be part of the definition, but not the whole thing.

3. It depends on a problematic view of church authority. I won’t say too much here because I don’t want this to become a discussion of competing views of the Church and the nature of ecclesial authority. But, at the very least, we should recognize that if we’re not careful, we could develop a definition of “heresy” that would silence the prophetic voice in the church entirely. I think you can operate with a high view of church authority without making the mistake of thinking that anyone who rejects that authority is necessarily a heretic.

So, although “heresy” in the Middle Ages often referred simply to a movement that rejected church authority, I don’t think that is an adequate definition of heresy in itself.

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

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.

Heresy.

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 “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’?”]

What Is Heresy? The Power Struggle.

From the dawn of time we came; moving silently down through the centuries, living many secret lives, struggling to reach the time of the Gathering; when the few who remain will battle to the last.

That’s a quote from Highlander (1986), a movie about a group of immortals destined (doomed) to fight and kill one another until only one is left. One by one, they all get killed off, many of them by Kurgan, the strongest of them all, who wants to bend the entire world to his evil desires. Eventually, the only two still standing are Kurgan and Connor MacLeod, the charming Scottish hero. And, of course, the movie ends with the titanic clash between them as they struggle to see who will be the One.

Because, in the end, there can be only one.

What does this have to do with heresy, you ask? Good question. There are actually two connections. First, after this movie, they made Highlander II, which was a heresy all by itself. But, second, and more pertinent for our purposes, many people understand the development of heresy in exactly the same way as Highlander.

The story goes like this. In the beginning there were many different kinds of Christianity. They weren’t better or worse, just different. And, in some other world, maybe they could have all gotten along. But not in this one.

In this world, there can be only one.

At least, that’s how one group viewed things. They simply couldn’t accept the fact that Christianity might come in different flavors. It was their way or nothing.

Unfortunately for the others, this group quickly grew in strength, numbers, and organization. They were the Borg of early Christianity, assimilating everything in sight. No one could stand against them. And, eventually, they were the only ones left. The others had fallen. And, they became the One.

But, even this wasn’t enough. They weren’t simply content with being the One. They wanted everyone to believe that they were destined to be the One all along. The others had been wrong even to try to stand against them. So, they re-told the story and re-wrote the books. And, in this new story, they were the Orthodox who held faithfully to the truth handed on from Jesus. All those who differed from or disagreed with them were the Heretics, who tried to dilute or distort the truth.

As they say, it’s the winners who write history. And, the Orthodox won.

This is a common way to view heresy today. Heresy isn’t really a thing-in-itself; it doesn’t have any essential characteristics that can help you identify it when it comes along. Heresy is simply a label that some dominant group applies to those it wants to dominate (or already has dominated). So, the statement, “You’re a heretic!”, isn’t really about things like truth or doctrine. It’s about power. Pure and simple.

Now, the first thing that we need to say about this approach is that there’s a lot of truth in it.

 1. The early church was diverse. Just look at the NT itself. The churches in Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, and Rome were very different. Peter, Paul, and John all spoke about Christianity in diverse ways. And, moving on from the NT, the diversity grows. Alexandria, Edessa, Ctesiphon, all developed ancient forms of Christianity that were noticeably different from what we associate with “orthodox” Christianity. So, however we tell the story, we can’t slip into a simplistic understanding of the early church, which assumes a single Christianity at the beginning, from which all other groups diverged. As with anything that involves humans, the truth is messier than that.

 2. The early church was far from perfect. God’s people are broken. We have been since the Garden. So, we should not be surprised that our story includes things we’d rather not see. And, the early church was no different. A close look shows the church involved in power struggles, personality clashes, manipulation, and maneuvering. In that way, they were just like us. (If you doubt, just think of some of the church business meetings you’ve attended.) So yes, the story of orthodoxy/heresy is also a story of power struggles.

 3. “Heresy” is often a power label. One of the concerns that people have with the label “heresy” today is that it often gets tossed around as a power play. Want to shut someone up? Call them a heretic. And, this is often the case. Labels have power. So, it’s easy to use them when we want to control (or end) a discussion/debate. It happens today, and I’m sure it happened then as well.

 So, there are some good things here we can learn from. But, ultimately I think this approach to defining heresy fails.

1. It sometimes relies on bad history. Most commonly, people associate the power of the orthodox party with the rise of the church in Rome and its consolidation under Constantine. (Thank you Walter Bauer.) The problem with this is that orthodoxy was well-established long before Constantine. Let’s be clear: Constantine did not create orthodoxy. He played an important role in the development of orthodoxy. But, he comes too late in the story to explain orthodoxy’s “victory.” Another common argument claims that in certain areas, “heretical” forms of Christianity developed first. They were the original forms of Christianity in those areas, with orthodoxy coming along later to squash these indigenous movements. Unfortunately for this view, there is relatively little evidence that this is true. With few exceptions, the existing evidence supports the idea that such “heretical” ideas came only after more orthodox approaches had already developed. Of course, people often argue that this is exactly what we should expect given that “the winners write the histories.” But, that’s simply to dismiss the existing evidence in favor of the story that you prefer. When lack of evidence becomes evidence, you’ve got a creative argument. But not a convincing one.

2. It overemphasizes diversity. Although we should embrace the existence of diversity in the early church, we can’t go overboard. Early Christian churches were not isolated communities that developed idiosyncratic forms of Christianity with little or no input from other churches. Instead, they all shared a common identity as “Christians,” and worked together to grow in their understanding of what that meant and how they should go about living as Christians in the world. Recent studies have demonstrated how extensively early Christians communicated, partnered, and networked with one another. That doesn’t eliminate diversity, but it does put it in context. It was diversity within a shared identity. And consequently, it was diversity with limits. Those limits were not well understood at first. But, everyone seemed to agree that you could go too far. And, they communicated constantly as they struggled to understand the implications of that idea.

3. It overemphasizes power. This probably fits under #1 as well, since it reflects a historical misunderstanding. The idea that any Christian group in the first few centuries had enough authority and power to oppress some other Christian community is anachronistic. That certainly became true later, but not in the beginning. We need to remember that early Christian groups were small, oppressed minorities within a larger Roman power-structure. They simply didn’t have the wherewithal to oppress others overtly.

4. It makes “heretics” the innocent victims. For this argument to work, the heretics have to be the poor victims crushed by the mean orthodox party. So, people often go out of their way to emphasize the good qualities of the heretical groups (i.e. they were egalitarian, open-minded, creative, etc.). But, the sad reality is that the heretics were no better (though probably no worse). They could be just as hierarchical, closed-minded, and oppressive as anyone else. If they eventually “lost,” it wasn’t because they were too nice to win.

So, wherever the concepts of orthodoxy and heresy came from, they aren’t simply labels that we apply to the winners and losers of some ecclesial power struggle. We should recognize the diversity and acknowledge the power struggles. But, there’s more to the story than this.

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

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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’?”]

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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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Why is it popular to be a heretic?

“I’m a heretic and proud of it!”

That’s a popular thought these days. Many are proud to align themselves with ideas and beliefs rejected by the church as heresy. Why is that? What motivates us to self-identify with those once condemned?

I’m sure that everyone has their own complicated reasons for making such a statement, but in Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth Alister McGrath offers several interesting reasons for the ongoing popularity of heresy.

1. Heresy is creative and innovative. McGrath quotes Will Herberg: “Today, people eagerly vaunt themselves as heretics, hoping that they will thereby prove interesting; for what does a heretic mean today but an original mind, a man who thinks for himself and spurns creeds and dogmas.” Heresy is novel. By contrast, orthodoxy seems stale, moribund, even boring.

2. Heresy is the underdog. With our pervasive tendency to suspect that some kind of power play is at work in nearly every situation, it is all too easy to believe the various narratives suggesting that what we call “orthodoxy” is really just the version of Christianity that gained power and succeeded in crushing its competitors. So Walter Bauer, Bart Ehrman, and even Dan Brown come along with their stories of an oppressive orthodoxy, and many are quick to believe, because it fits our own narrative of oppressive power. Consequently, we see the heretic as the oppressed underdog. And, we love the underdog. Just consider all the movies that involves some oppressed individual standing on his/her own against the system. We revel in the uprising of the individual who fights against the odds and overthrows the oppressor. So, placing the heretic in that role, is it any surprise that many relish the thought of being a heretic, the hero in their own movie?

3. Heresy challenges authority. This one is similar to the last. But, here the emphasis isn’t so much on the underdog resisting the oppressor, but just the challenge to any kind of authority. And, as with the previous one, this resonates in a culture that praises those who challenge authority.  We resonate with the image of the heretic who refuses to bow before orthodoxy and instead stands up and shouts even more loudly. Orthodoxy is “the man,” and heresy refuses to give in to the man. We love that.

4. Heresy is free. The term “heresy” itself has strong associations with “choosing” or “choice.” And, as we all know, we like our choices, our freedom. So, the heretic is the one who freely explores all the various options, refusing to be bound by old ideas, and boldly striking out in new directions. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, is trapped, locked behind the walls of its own convictions. And, who wants to be stuck in orthodox when you can be the free heretic? That’s not a terribly difficult choice.

So, according to McGrath, heresy’s popularity derives largely from the fact that we picture it in ways that resonate with powerful ideas in contemporary culture. The heretic is the innovative underdog who challenges authority and freely chooses for himself what he will believe. The orthodox person is the oppressor who refuses both to see other possibilities and to allow others to explores those possibilities for themselves. Which would you rather be?

What do you think? Is this an accurate picture of how people view heresy? Do you agree that these are the reasons so many people like the idea of being a “heretic” today? Or, do you have a different explanation for why it seems to be so popular these days to call yourself a “heretic”?

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The lure of heresy

“Never has there been such interest in the idea of heresy. Ancient heresies, seen by earlier generations as obscure and dangerous ideas, have now been sprinkled with stardust. The lure of the religious forbidden never seems to have been so strong. As Geoffrey Chaucer shrewdly observed back in the fourteenth century: ‘Forbid us something, and that thing we desire’. For many religious alienated individuals, heresies are now to be seen as bold and brave statements of spiritual freedom, to be valued rather than avoided. Heresies are the plucky losers in past battles for orthodoxy, defeated by the brute power of the religious establishment. And since history is written by the winners, heresies have unfairly lost out, their spiritual and intellectual virtues stifled by their enemies. The rehabilitation of heretical ideas is now sees as a necessary correction of past injustices, allowing the rebirth of suppressed versions of Christianity more attuned to contemporary culture than traditional orthodoxy. Heresy has become fashionable.”

Alister McGrath, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth (HarperOne, 2009), p. 1