Maybe it’s the rebel in me, but I’ve always been a fan of the heretics. I’m fascinated by the stories of those who openly disagreed with church tradition: Origen, with his allegorical speculations, Pelagius, dedicated to ridding Rome of its moral laxity, Tertullian, who descended into asceticism. For a long time, heresy was clear. There was one governing church body that dictated orthodox belief and could declare any disagreeing factions to be heretical. Alas, the onset of hundreds (thousands?) of denominations after the Protestant reformation has made it much harder to define heresy. So today, the fastest way to dismiss one’s theological opponents is to simply declare their view “heresy.” Yet this leads to confusion, anger, and frustration rather than resolution of the theological disagreements. I propose that Christians carefully monitor their use of the term heretical for the sake of charitable discussion and church unity.

In one sense, heretical simply means departing from orthodoxy. Little o orthodoxy is generally defined as the views held by the early church, specifically those elaborated in a variety of councils. Yet in that sense, a great number of beliefs we hold today are heretical. Under this view, all evolutionists are heretics. Depending on the year you use to define orthodoxy, all Protestants are heretics.

Clearly, this isn’t the definition that Protestants today use. I think Protestants tend to use the term “heresy” to indicate that a belief is in contradiction of the gospel. The problem is that Protestants don’t have a very good definition of the gospel either.

The good news for us is that Paul gives a decent definition of the gospel in two places:

According to 1 Corinthians 15: 3-5, the gospel is that “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.”

According to Romans 1:2-6, the gospel was promised by God through the prophets and is “concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.”

Putting these two things together, we can see that the gospel is something along the lines of:

  • Jesus is the Messiah
  • Jesus is descended from the line of David
  • Jesus died for our sins
  • Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures in the process of dying for our sins
  • Jesus was buried
  • Jesus was resurrected
  • Many witnesses, including the apostles, saw Jesus after his resurrection
  • Jesus is the Son of God
  • We receive grace through Jesus
  • Apostleship is received through Jesus
  • We are called to bring about the obedience of faith
  • This is for all the nations, not just the Jews

This is a pretty exhaustive list of what we can glean from those two chapters (but maybe I missed a point or two).

Note that Paul doesn’t say that the gospel is:

  • Belief in salvation through faith alone
  • Belief in salvation through baptism
  • Particular beliefs about models of atonement
  • Particular beliefs about hell
  • Particular beliefs about interpretations of Genesis
  • Particular beliefs about Biblical inerrancy
  • Particular beliefs about the eternality of souls
  • Particular philosophical beliefs about the nature of reality

The fate for heretics is also supposed to be pretty terrible; in Inferno, Dante places them in the 6th ring of hell. Heresy is a very serious accusation.

This list could go on forever. Yet when I see accusations of heresy leveled by Protestants today, they are always over issues from the second list, almost never from the first. Granted, Paul devoted a lot of time and thought to things not explicitly in the first list. Circumcision is not in the first list, eating with Gentiles is not in the first list. Paul makes it clear, however, that certain behaviors are inconsistent with the gospel (like demanding that Gentiles become Jews when the gospel is intended for all nations). Again, many of the issues that Protestants label heresy don’t even fall into this category.

Basically, heresy becomes a label for all views that a particular Protestant disagrees with, rather than for a view that contradicts the gospel. This deeply troubles me because heresy is an extraordinarily loaded term, implying that the person who holds that belief is not Christian or not “really” Christian. So it becomes easy to simply label opponents as “heretical,” to not actually examine their disagreements, and to divide the church over issues irrelevant to the gospel. Just because a view doesn’t fit with your interpretation of the Bible doesn’t meant that it’s heretical. Just because you find a view inconsistent with your view of God doesn’t mean it’s heretical.

I find, for example, Calvinism to be a morally offensive doctrine; its notion of God is one I find deeply disturbing and in conflict with the God I see in the scriptures. However, I do not think that Calvinists are heretics. Instead, I would simply say that Calvinists are in error. I would reserve the term heretic for those who deny the doctrines in the first list, like the historicity of the resurrection or the doctrine of grace through the death of Jesus Christ.

When we cheapen the term heresy by using it for doctrines that are not heretical, we make it even more difficult for the laity to discern what the gospel really is. We make Christianity revolve around secondary doctrines instead of around the gospel. Obviously, in the vast sea of beliefs held by Christians, some of them are going to be wrong. But a false belief is not the same as a heresy.

If we disagree with someone on a non-essential doctrines (i.e. not pertaining to the gospel alone), we should declare them to be “in error” rather than resorting to a polemical accusation of heresy. If we do not, we risk being schismatics – dividing the church which was intended to be one – a position nearly as bad (if not worse than) heresy itself.