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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? 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’?”]