The Two Aspects of Heresy

NB: I don't actually think we should roast the people we disagree with.

Heresy is, much like the word Christian, a term that is used to make an argument without saying much in particular; it is a convenient label, cunningly attached, and at this point so frequently misused that it is near to finding itself void of content. This emptying has so progressed that, today, identifying yourself as a ‘heretic’ is perceived as a badge of honor. As if calling yourself an idiot, fool, charlatan, or deceiver were a thing worthy of praise.

Let’s set the record straight and get a handle on this thing called ‘heresy’ so that we can know why we don’t want to be one. It will help to know, first, that heresy and orthodoxy are antonyms. If you are a heretic you are not orthodox, and vice versa. And this simple contrast sheds light on the cultural popularity of heresy today, because orthodoxy (right, traditional thinking) represents authority, and the rejection of authority is considered praiseworthy. To accept authority—orthodoxy—without reservation is to open yourself to the ironic accusation that you are small minded and unthinking. Authority and orthodoxy being the social pariahs that they are, any ‘thinking’ person who believes in orthodoxy is thus left with two alternatives: he must tacitly question authority (to prove that he isn’t a theological lemming), or rework it in such a way that while the beliefs are still orthodox, all the language of orthodoxy is eschewed (i.e., phrases like “I’m not a ‘Christian’ I’m a Jesus follower,” or, “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship,” or some other such hogwash).

Our word ‘heresy’ comes from a form of the Greek word ‘haireo’ which means ‘to choose’. Implicit, therefore, in the idea of heresy is this ‘choosing’ of an opinion which deviates from what is straight—i.e., ‘orthos’ (hence, orthodoxy). Heresy is deviation. But it is also willful deviation. And if you are a heretic, it is because you have chosen, in the face of all the authority the Church has to offer you—the Traditions of the Church, the Scriptures of the Church, the Dogma of the Church, the Reasons of the Church, and the History of the Church—in the face of all this you have chosen your own way against the way of the Church. And unless you are part of a tradition that has, as a whole, chosen its own way, nobody is ever a heretic by accident; you are always a heretic by choice. That in itself—the idea of choosing our own way—once again sounds appealing in our world today. Accusing voices thus resound with statements like: “Do you just do what people tell you?” “Are you just going to trust these unknown authorities?” But there is no virtue in choosing your own way if your own way leads to certain doom. Bridges are there for our benefit. Ignoring the bridge and driving off the cliff is not ignorant, blind submission to mysterious authority. You may not know who built the bridge, you may not understand its physics, but your personal understanding has no impact on the importance of that bridge for your ability to cross. Of course, learning the history and physics of the bridge may enrich your experience, and in the event that you must ever construct your own bridge it will certainly help you to have some experience of these. But my main point is that to remain orthodox—on the straight path—is simply good common sense.

The prevalence and acceptance of heresy today has created a culture of theological anarchy. Every blogger and pedant who wishes can feel free to spout off whatever they like theologically without reference to the historic, orthodox faith. This practice is obviously flawed. If you needed brain surgery, you wouldn’t appeal to a pianist, and if you needed to construct a bridge you wouldn’t contract a line cook. If you need theology, you need to listen to someone trained in the laws and history of theology. Otherwise the surgery will go horribly wrong, the bridge will fail when traffic begins to drive on it, and the theology will fail when tested against life. None of this means that questioning the reasons and history of orthodoxy is wrong. In fact, that process is precisely how one becomes a theologian in the first place. But the theologian who doesn’t respect orthodoxy is one not worth listening to. He’s like a theoretical physicist who thinks Einstein, Newton and Galileo are idiots because they lived in a previous time and are therefore archaic.

Heresy is occasioned by difficulties which the Church encounters in the world. As a consequence there are two aspects, or faces, of heresy because there are two categories of difficulty which the church faces. The first category is primarily cultural in nature. The second category is apparent difficulties in Christian theology. Heresy, to its credit, is always an attempt to resolve one of these difficulties. To its discredit, it always resolves it wrongly.

The first aspect of heresy is cultural, and the word which highlights this difficulty is compromise. Here, the church falls into heresy because it accommodates culture rather than holding firm to Christ. Here we allow the tides of culture, in all their vigor, to shape our theology more than what we know about God in Christ. We become very temporal Christians, with temporary, popular theology. The claim, quite popular in the last century, that the historical Jesus was irrelevant while the Christ ‘of faith’ (whatever that meant) was what counted, was long entertained by a great many theologians and became very popular. It was, however, a product of a culture of religious skepticism and historical doubt. To the degree that Christianity caved to the demands of that culture (i.e., Schleiermacher), we fell into heresy. Today there is a claim that globalization demands a rethinking of the exclusivity of the gospel, a temporal claim resulting in a popularization of “Universalism.” There is also a claim today that research into human sexuality demands that we rethink our biblical ethics of sexuality, and this has resulted in a popularization of theologies which bend sideways to embrace homosexual behaviour. In each of these cases we are judging Christ by the standard of culture, rather than culture by the standard of Christ. We have compromised, and compromising (to resolve the difficulty of faithfulness in a hostile culture) we have become heretics.

The second aspect of heresy is more directly theological. Here heresy arises when we reject mystery and explain away a key difficulty in Christian theology. The key word here is false resolution. Within Christian theology there are, as I see them, three big categories of difficulty: first, that we believe in the Trinity—God three and God one; second, that we believe in the two natures of Christ—that he was fully God and fully man; and third, that we believe in the fallen nature of man, which creates distrust in all our knowing and effort. Heresy in relation to these difficulties has always followed from the false resolution of something that is meant to remain mystery. Heresy, then, is the denial of mystery. Regarding the Trinity, heresy is either demanding that God is one and not three (Modalism), or demanding that God is Three and not one (Tritheism), or demanding that God is one and Jesus is a creature (Arianism). Regarding the two natures of Christ, there are some who have claimed that he only appeared to be a man but didn’t really suffer (Docetism), and others that he was fully man but not God (Nestorianism). And regarding the sinful nature of man, we have people who believe the work of man is necessary for salvation (Pelagianism), and those who believe that man is so corrupt that he has no part in salvation whatsoever (Strict Calvinism. Yes, Calvinism—and to the degree that as a system it resolves the theological mystery of the interaction between God’s Will and human wills by denying the human will it is a heresy).

There is genuine danger in deviation.

It is worth observing, briefly, that the orthodox and heretical, in both aspects, are present from the earliest days of the church. The danger of compromise runs throughout the entire bible, and the danger of the false resolution of Divine mysteries is equally present. Nothing is new in the fight for orthodoxy in the Christian life. That, at least, ought to give us some confidence.

And so orthodoxy, the straight road, is the difficult path of avoiding compromise with culture while holding firm to the mysteries of the faith. It is not an easy path, but it is certainly the right path, and it is the only path that is safe. It is my pleasure to seek to tread it.

16 comments on “The Two Aspects of Heresy

  1. Adam says:

    I think the popular mind (i.e. the modern meaning) has for the semantic of heresy, a meaning that brings to mind: burning at the stake, abuse of justice, and Protestantism (writing this before seeing your intro image, I see you probably agree). The word only occurs once in the King James Bible in Acts 24:14 which, in the Greek, is /hairesis/, but many versions of the Bible translate it as “sect”. So, the original meaning is probably quite different than the one in today’s mind. In the context of this verse, Paul is saying they call the way he worships God, heresy. Even in Paul’s case the word is used with the semantic of abuse of justice as he is being accused of it.

    Thus I probably would avoid the word “heresy” altogether as you provide a much needed warning. One of the things I do to find a solution to “a” problem, is I assume I’m not special and that other folks have encountered the same thing. They usually have more than 99% of the time (maybe 95%), and in software engineering they post the solution; even getting my furnace lit with its thermo-coupler I found some nice person posted good information. In the same way, theologically and spiritually, I think there are people before me who have encountered the same questions and difficulties, and knowing I’m not omniscient or smarter/wiser than every human before me, I would dig to find how they resolved them before me. Once you humble yourself in the timeline of history of all people, you open yourself to the possibility that a solution exists prior to your encounter. When I say “humble” in this context, I mean consider that your assumptions, reflections, judgements, could be incorrect. Most folks believe someone who is arrogant (the modern mind’s antonym of humble) “always thinks they are right”.

    A common phrase to some folks’ chagrin is “bear with me”. It’s a verbal filler for “listen more, hold your judgement”. Judgement means using your automatic response to make a quick decision in this context.

    Following is what I hope is helpful rhetoric in the context of such a dry text in the above.

    If everything is relative, who relates to you most? (relative ethics, relative truth, relative theology, relative justice, but let’s not forget what this word means. Whom relates to you most you most aspire to? My answer can only be Christ, but I know that’s not possible. And yes, I thought of many secular and fictional characters).

    Jesus says you can tell a tree by it’s fruit. This is at once empirical and phenomenological (among other things; that’s just more evidence of his prodigious brilliance (words chosen carefully here). Is the fruit not a product of the tree: the authoritree?

    Tracking or hunting animals, you will notice well-worn paths. They are there as signs of how helpful those who’ve gone before us are. If you are an animal lover you will immediately respect authority.

    Oh, you write with grace, intelligence, and have authority. I do consider and am helped by your guidance. But I do so willingly not under duress :)


    • jmichaelrios says:

      Thanks, Adam. You are kind.

      I really like the image of the ‘authoritree’, and the language of “knowing a tree by its fruit” is important here. Many churches which have abandoned orthodoxy are barren wastelands now. Ironically, in tearing down the walls that gave them definition, they have blurred to the point where they have lost all definition. Check out, again the Laodiceans in Revelation 3. They are neither hot nor cold–both of which are good, by the way–because they have compromised with their surrounding culture. Having lost definition, they are now corrupt, and Christ vomits them from his mouth. A powerful warning indeed.

      Part of what you mention above is the problem of the locus of authority, which has truly plagued us since the Protestant Reformation and the fall of Christendom. Then again, even before the Reformation the issue of where authority lay was in full swing (for a great summary of the changes, check out Charles Williams’s “Descent of the Dove”–one of my favorite church histories). I like what many theologians have said, but in particular Barth (I believe) who says that in Christ we have God speaking for Himself–that is what it means to have the Word of God as our authority. And it seems to me that as long as we are genuinely seeking Christ with all our intention, we are on the path least likely to lead into heresy.

  2. Adam says:

    Also, help me, why does that icon/banner remind me of Eastern Orthodox? (remember when the said no man was an authority, but God is? Heh. Those were the days.)

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Well, the banner reminds you of E. Ortho because it’s an Ikon, which is Eastern Orthodox Art! It is, in part, inspired by the Flannery O’Connor story “Parker’s Back.” If you get a chance to read it, it’s quite good.

  3. Andrew Jones says:

    I’m with you when you say that heresy shouldn’t be considered a badge of honor. But I can’t follow your statement that heresy “always resolves it wrongly.” Sometimes heresy is right–Galileo, for example.

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Well, in response I think I would say that there’s no such thing as ‘right heresy’. It’s an impossibility since I’m speaking in objective terms. Jeff touches on this below when he says that the ‘orthodoxy was wrong’, but that’s an impossibility too.

      I don’t know Galileo’s situation all that well, but from what I remember a significant part of the problem was his bucking of authority more than his scientific theories. In fact, I also remember hearing that some of his theories, which he demanded to publish, were just plain wrong (like his analysis of the reason for the tides). My understanding is that the Vatican Scientist asked for more time to research. Galileo’s heresy was therefore more about disobedience than it was about science. But I don’t know the situation all that well.

      But I think your broader point is that the authoritarian structure of the church has been wrong in the past (for example, the short period of time in the early church when Arianism almost won the day). But it is fair to say that whatever missteps the Church has performed temporally, she has almost infallibly corrected them in the long run. Galileo, after all, is no longer considered a heretic. Arius still is.

      • Andrew Jones says:

        I’m using “heresy” in the typical sense of “a belief condemned by a certain religious community.” It seems you’re using it to refer to “a false belief as judged against reality.” It seems to me that using that way makes it too easy to conflate the belief system of some specific, earthly religious community in some specific time and place with ultimate truth. If so — which community? And why? Nobody’s perfect.

        And regarding the long run — what if 2000 years turns out to be 1% of the history of the church? Heliocentrism, for example, has only been around for 25% of Christianity’s history. How do we know when it’s safe to say that “the long run” has been given a sufficient chance?

        • jmichaelrios says:

          I hope I haven’t given the impression in any sense that I think orthodoxy is in any way separable from history. What we believe is grounded in what actually happened in Judea 2000 years ago. If our ‘orthodoxy’ is disconnected from those historical realities it of necessity becomes a heresy.

          I think the history of theology upholds my thesis. Time has been a helpful corrective in allowing us to see which heresies were cultural and which were false resolutions. The Galileo issue was clearly a cultural issue, especially since it didn’t touch on any of the major mysteries of the Church. Although it did touch on the Church’s approach to science, which, in the long run, revealed that the Church had been the heretical body at the time. Ironic, eh?

          Regarding the period of time necessary to reveal error, I think that most popular theologies are exposed for what they are in a relatively short period of time. When the cultural influence that gives rise to it fades, so does the theology (like turning down the gas ring, it no longer has anything to feed off of). Furthermore, I think we find that as we read orthodox theologians throughout history their words ring true and have a timelessness about them (Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Lewis). But when we read the heterodox theologians they sound (because they are) nutters (Schleiermacher, Bultmann, Rob Bell, etc.). I mean, just think again about how popular Bultmann was 100 years ago. Today who cares? But people do read Barth.

      • Jeff Fuller says:

        I think you’re on very dangerous ground there, Jer. “But it is fair to say that whatever missteps the Church has performed temporally, she has almost infallibly corrected them in the long run.” You’ll have plenty of people seizing on that admission to say, “And why shouldn’t the Church’s position on x and such be wrong today, and subject to correction in the future – or better yet, right now? We’ll all look back on our ignorant dogmatism one day and laugh.” The fact is, Galileo was pretty royally screwed by a church that had already made up its mind on a non-spiritual, non-Scriptural matter. They had tied themselves to a geocentric solar system – not even a Christian invention – and backed their losing horse to the end. I think I’d much rather hear Reagan here, “Mistakes were made,” than to try and defend the Church’s treatment of Galileo. That’s more what I meant by saying that the orthodoxy was wrong. Among much undeserved company, that’s a true example of what Biblical scholars dismissively call ‘human accretion.’

        • jmichaelrios says:

          I’m not sure I meant to defend the Church’s treatment of Galileo; only to identify that the story is not as clear-cut as we have been led to believe.

          I do think that orthodoxy has won the day in the end. All the major heresies were invented, after all, by Christians, and the orthodox path (that preserved the mysteries of the faith) has always won out in the end. I might even propose that it is in the nature of reality that what best reflects the truth has the best lasting power in our world. That, I think, is a theologically observable event even today.

          As to the potential weakness of my above position, I think I will highlight the differences between cultural and false-resolution heresies. Those heresies which fall into the latter category (the classic heresies) have been proven. No new information will be forthcoming, and the Church’s position on the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, and the Sinful nature of Mankind is set, as it were, in stone (albeit a stone that preserves mystery!). The cultural heresies take time to sort out, of course. Ironically, our knowledge of history is once again terribly instructive–I would say invaluable–to addressing cultural heresy. Knowing that the early church dealt equally with the two main theological struggles of our era (that is, sexual ethics and the exclusivity of Christ), tells us that our fight is nothing new. These issues also have been determined. They just feel new.

  4. Jeff Fuller says:

    Viz Galileo, his ‘heresy’ was only ‘right’ because the orthodoxy was wrong. That was Christians making a dogma out of something that has virtually no theological basis – a question of interpretation that should provide a cautionary note on our own interpretations.
    Jer, I’m guessing you were predicting apoplexy over the Calvinist comments. You’re right with Chesterton there. Have you read Heretics and Orthodoxy? You really should if you haven’t. I just taught on both, and, though his approach didn’t do as well with the more literal/scientific-minded in my group, I learned an awful lot from it.
    I did have one quick laugh, which was on your ‘Christ-follower’ comment, since on your page here, you’re a self-described ‘Christ-follower.’ I know what you mean, though.
    Nice article. I really have been feeling lately like I need to get away for some personal retreats and write some articles. There is just too much noise and bustle in my day-to-day life. No time for peace, and too much distraction. I’d love to write on Chesterton, and my book on ex-Commies is also providing much food for thought.

  5. Matt says:

    Great article. This section particularly resonated with me:

    “To accept authority—orthodoxy—without reservation is to open yourself to the ironic accusation that you are small minded and unthinking. Authority and orthodoxy being the social pariahs that they are, any ‘thinking’ person who believes in orthodoxy is thus left with two alternatives: he must tacitly question authority (to prove that he isn’t a theological lemming), or rework it in such a way that while the beliefs are still orthodox, all the language of orthodoxy is eschewed (i.e., phrases like “I’m not a ‘Christian’ I’m a Jesus follower,” or, “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship,” or some other such hogwash).”

  6. disfrontman says:

    Jeremy! I appreciate the blog post. Any time I read or hear of a man taking a firm stand for Truth (capital “T” intentional) in the age of postmodernism/revisionism, my heart is lifted.

    Have to say, though, that after wrestling with issues of the Sovereignty of God for the 26 years since I received Christ as Savior, and in the light of the overwhelming historical evidence for the complete and utter depravity of man, I find that the assertions of Calvin win out. I guess I’m stuck on that “heresy”, but I’m not at all thrilled about it. It is like the old rock ‘n’ roll adage “the only thing worse than touring is NOT touring.” Calvinism is an awful conclusion, as it seems to completely undermine the idea of real evil (as all of us, from Hitler to Mother Theresa, even Satan himself, are merely reading our lines in God’s grand play of the ages). But anything that adds one whit of human agency to the equation is even more loathsome to me, for it introduces the fickle whims of human will into God’s world and designs. Anything that dilutes God’s omniscient, omnipotent sovereignty one bit troubles me.

    I know there are plenty of scriptural references that clearly imply human agency, and proponents of Calvinism must do some incredible contortions to bend those passages to convey the pure determinism that “heresy” demands. But the theology does at least have a very strong internal logic to it. Still something I wrestle with.

    • Jeff Fuller says:

      Forgive my interloping, not having been introduced to you. Since you mentioned the contortions of human agency Scripture references yourself, I guess the question I have is: What was God’s purpose in creating humans, then? As a non-Calvinist, I’ve always believed that God created us so that we could come to him freely, and acknowledge his goodness and worthiness in a way that mere brutes cannot. If all our agency is removed, that obviously cannot be the answer. So what is? Why did God create us? A high-flown display of divine mercifulness is all I can think of, but that requires a lot of contortion to validate as well. It requires a fair bit, from my point of view, not to regard God as a filthy sadist, consigning hordes of hapless sinners to Hell merely to reinforce His right of choice. Thoughts?

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hey Bart! Great to hear from you!

      Well, I’ll say a couple of things in response. First, that you have solved the problem of the mystery of the interaction of human will and the Divine will by abolishing the human will. I recognize that this is a popular approach, but it doesn’t solve the real problem. It is the same solution as denying Christ’s divinity to preserve God’s unity, or denying Christ’s humanity to preserve God’s holiness. You haven’t really solved anything; you’re just ignoring half the equation; instead of solving for x, you’ve just deleted x.

      Second, lots of problems come from removing human will of course. In this frame God is a moral monster. He is the author of evil. His character, far from being unchanging and consistent, becomes arbitrary and capricious. If God is the author of evil then He violates His own character and is not worth worshipping. To paraphrase St. Anselm, “If he is not good, then he is not God.” Amen.

      A third problem is that the Calvinist view is thrust into a position where God’s glory is emphasized at human expense, where He is made to look greater by making us look worse. But this, in addition to being terrible epistemological method, is a direct violation of the Creation God made, declared good, then saw fit to enter into as a human. Total Depravity, in my understanding, violates the Incarnation.

      Lastly, I like to remind my reformed friends that there is only one verse in the entire bible in which the words ‘faith’ and ‘alone’ occur. I’ll give you a clue where it is: the book that Luther wanted to get rid of. And that impulse alone, to expunge a scripture because we find it disagreeable, is a terrible alarm bell as to the nature of the theology in question.

      All that said, I affirm the sovereignty of God. I also affirm the human will. Both statements together represent the orthodox faith. And I furthermore believe (and believe this is orthodox) that the work of salvation, though accomplished solely by Divine effort, must be met with human faith (which is a comprehensive life of response to the revealed truth of God).


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