Tuesday, March 3, 2015

What Does "Heresy" Really Mean?

“Heresy” is a term that is thrown about far too easily. Some defend the use of the word as denoting some belief or teaching that is not in the Bible, or contradicted by the Bible. Essentially, this is any belief that is rendered incorrect by another belief about Scripture. So what’s the problem? Well, if this is how heresy is defined, then one of three results can occur.

First, you can insist that everyone around you hold precisely the same set of beliefs as you do, and find yourself with no one to be around. This is because virtually no two free Christians find themselves holding a 100% match with someone else. Pry long enough, and there will eventually be some disagreement. But on the definition of heresy, you should regard those who disagree with you as being incorrect. Presumably, you will regard them as incorrect, or else you should join them! But then everyone else will be a heretic. Second, you can insist that everyone around you hold precisely the same set of beliefs as you do, and find yourself a cult leader (or member, if you look in the right places and adjust your own beliefs accordingly). But that’s not good.

Finally, you can divest “heresy” of most of its force. That is, you can take this definition and apply to it anything you disagree with, and anyone who disagrees with you is a heretic (since, after all, you wouldn’t believe it if you thought it was false!). Does the verse that says “the love of Christ constraineth us” mean Christ’s love constrains us or our love for Christ constrains us? If you take a position, then the other one is heresy for you. But most of us recognize it would be crazy to break fellowship over such a thing, so “heresy” and “heretic” just don’t express more than “I disagree with this person.”

So these are your choices when you define “heresy” so poorly. Either you are isolated, join a cult, or heresy means nothing. None of these options is good. Instead, “heresy” should be reserved mostly, if not exclusively, for those beliefs, the embracing of which means one is not a Christian. This way, we can finally cut off calling Calvinists, Arminians, Molinists, and most all Christians “heretics.”


  1. Great post. James S. Spiegel in Philosophia Christi, Volume 15, Number 2, 2013: Ramified Natural Theology gives Stump's definition of heresy and heretic as follows:
    Relative to a worldview W, it is heretical for person S to reject a view X if and only if each of these conditions is true:
    (1) X constitutes a central claim W.
    (2) S claims to embrace W, but rejects X
    (3) There is a long-established consensus affirming X by experts in the W tradition [such as the Apostles, Church Fathers, etc].
    (4) S recognizes that (3) is the case but rejects X anyway. I have read Jordan Wessling in Christology Ancient & Modern: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics give PA* God would not allow a state of affairs as bad as the erring of an ecumenical council on matters that are central to the faith, but he would allow conciliar error on peripheral matters (e.g., matters that don't significantly undermine the gospel or the church's worship) if he had sufficient reason for doing so. He also gives CUP: The (evangelical) Christian is free to reject a conciliar pronouncement if this pronouncement is not taught or implied in Scripture., if one wants to give more epistemic weight to scripture he gives instead T-Cup: The (evangelical) Christian is free to reject a conciliar pronouncement if this pronouncement is neither central to the Christian faith, nor implied by scripture.

    These things I think you would agree are hard to judge so one must be very cautious in calling a heresy or heretic out so to speak but thought I'd shared these with you, not sure if I agree with them but found them interesting and very helpful. Great post (:

    1. I really like Spiegel on several things (even if he is more or less Reformed), and his initial formulation is at least plausible for sure. Thanks for the reference!


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