The problem with the term “heresy” is…

The Reformation.

Why, you ask? Well, as Tim Perry might say, we, as Protestants, are all schismatics. But that’ s not really what I’m getting at.

What I am getting at is this: heresy, it seems to me (correct me if I’m wrong), has to do with departing from the church’s official teaching . Prior to the Reformation it was quite easy to say, “This is heretical belief” because there was one church (I’m speaking purely of the West). Now that X number of denominations have been established and we’ve got splits of splits of splits, it’s not clear to me how we can speak of “official church teaching” in any way apart from the ecumenical creeds.

As a result, for a Reformed type to call an Arminian, for instance, a “heretic”; or a Baptist to call a Pentecostal a “heretic”, apart from Creedal doctrines, is really quite moot. Apart from the Creeds, the denominations are nuanced in a way that puts them in different theological camps. Prior to the Reformation, and post-Great Schism, the same might be said of Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.

Don’t get me wrong–I believe in “the one, holy, catholic church”–but we are no longer in a position where one particular theological position can claim to be the voice of the Church Universal. There is no one theological scheme that can be turned to as the litmus test for orthodoxy.

The term “heresy”, therefore, really only applies to those who claim to be among your particular Christian sect.

Which is why, in my opinion, the notion of Rob Bell’s reformed detractors dropping the word “heresy” in terms of what he (allegedly) believes is really quite silly, because from what I know, Bell isn’t claiming to be one of them.

10 thoughts on “The problem with the term “heresy” is…

  1. Rick Wadholm Jr

    Should we perhaps differentiate between the objective and subjective dimensions of “heresy”? The objective being that which is actually outside of proper confession and right worship (orthodoxy) of God according to God’s own self-revelation and the subjective being that which is determined by individuals and movements, but may or may not in reality be correlated to the objective sense of the term. The problem is that we are always approaching this from the subjective (something inherent from our perspective), but is there not a sense in which the objective is still a reality and may still pertain to a given belief and practice?

  2. Matt

    Thanks for that, Marc. Really! You articulated this really well, in my opinion. I’ve been thinking and saying this for quite a while but your expression helped fill in some gaps for me and definitely raises some good, stimulating questions:)

    Rick, as far as objective and subjective go, the tricky part is how one determines to be in the ‘objective know’ with regard to any given belief and practice. That is a whole other discussion but definitely a worthwhile one, for sure!

  3. Marc Post author

    Don’t get me wrong. I still think that heresy is possible. I’m just not sure it’s appropriately used outside of the Creedal statements or outside of one’s own Christian sect. My point is not to suggest that heresy is impossible, but that we perhaps use the term in ways that it cannot really be used. I think, for instance, to deny the full humanity and full deity of Christ is still technically heresy, but that’s a Creedal issue. On the other hand, for an Arminian, for example, to say a Calvinist that his belief in predestination is a heretical is not an appropriate use of the term, in my opinion.

    Also: I’m not talking about truth claims in general, but specifically about the language of doctrinal essentials within the church. This post isn’t about whether or not the Church should make universal truth claims (I believe it should), but about the internal language of the Church–the way churches within The Church speak to and interact with each other.

    Neither am I suggesting total subjectivism. But there is always the problem of interpretation, and there is more than one view of what God’s own self-revelation says (assuming we mean specifically the written word, which witnesses to the Incarnate Word). I struggle with the notion that one sect within the church can claim an “objective” part of “orthodoxy” even while it is not agreed upon by all parts of the church as a central and essential point of faith.

  4. Toni

    For some reason I understood heresy to be a belief that was sufficiently wrong to cause you to lose your salvation. Wonder where I got that from?

    I’d suggest that heresy might usefully be seem as a departure from the fundamental truths of the Christian faith – denying the humanity and deity of Jesus is a good example, as might be denial that salvation is through faith in Jesus. The hard part may be agreeing where the essentials stop and the frilly parts start.

  5. Jeff Wheeldon

    What’s hilarious (and awful) about heresy is that it’s a human notion that proclaims condemnation on people – something only God can really do. The more I learn about theology, the more I realize how little we actually know about God. “Objective heresy” is very much beyond our understanding, so the subjective variety is all we have. If it were only used to define our beliefs, then it’s fine; but when it’s used to condemn those who disagree with us, then it’s precisely as Marc has eloquently explained.

  6. Phil L

    Good post. Being part of the Evangelical Covenant – a non-creedal denomination that doesn’t require much beyond the historic creeds, we don’t hear the word heresy used often. At the same time I believe it’s important to keep asking “where is it written?” and I guess we should all wait for Rob Bell’s book to come out before deciding that he is espousing unscriptural ideas/heresies/apostasy.

  7. Marc

    An additional problem with the term heresy, of course, is that it is easily used to dismiss a person (or smear their reputation) without actually arguing a position.

    You’re right, though, Phil. We should all (whether we’re fer or agin’ Bell generally) wait for the book to come out before we make any sort of call.

  8. Toni

    Now here’s a thought: could the traditional church really be both schismatic and heretical, having moved away from the intentions and teachings of the earliest church to become something quite different?

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