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).
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.