What Is “Heresy” and Who Is a “Heretic”?

Rob Bell is a heretic. Rob Bell is not a heretic. You are a heretic. I am proud to be a heretic. Everyone is a heretic.

heresy, heretic, decisions, choices, ethics, morals, moral choices

I hear statements like these all the time. The fourth one prompted yesterday’s question: “Why is it popular to be a heretic?” And, we’ve had a good discussion around the extent to which cultural tendencies might contribute to the popularity of describing oneself as a “heretic.” But, such statements raise two other important questions: (1) What is heresy? and (2) What does it mean to be a heretic? Interestingly, people often answer only the first question without recognizing that the second is a different and equally important question.

Today I’d like to start pressing more deeply into what these terms even mean.

What is heresy?

According to Alister McGrath, the term heresy (hairesis in Greek) originally referred to any “act of choosing,” and over time came to include broader ideas like “choice” or “school of thought” (Heresy, 37). So, the term itself wasn’t necessarily negative. It wasn’t until the second century that Christians began using the term in a more pejorative sense to refer to a “school of thought” that needed to be rejected for some reason.

But, that still doesn’t answer the question of what qualifies something as a heresy? And, that is where the challenge lies. That question actually implies a number of other related and equally difficult questions:

  • What distinguishes a heresy from something that is merely incorrect or questionable?
  • What distinguishes heresy from “orthodoxy”?
  • Who determines when something qualifies as a heresy?

It should come as no surprise that people have offered a variety of answers to these questions. So, instead of trying to define “heresy” in one quick post, I’m going to do a short series on different ways that people have tried to define heresy. When I’m done, I hope that we’ll have come to a better understanding of what heresy is.

5 Common Approaches to Understanding Heresy

Specifically, we’re going to look at five different ways that people have defined heresy. I’m sure there are more, but these are among the more common approaches. Over the next few posts, we’ll take a look at each of these and see if they can help in the process of understanding heresy.

  1. The Conciliar Answer: Heresy is whatever one of the seven ecumenical councils said it was.
  2. The Power Struggle: Heresy is just the position of the “loser” in the debate.
  3. The “Other” Answer: Heresy is an exclusionary process used to establish the identity of some group.
  4. Sugar in My Coffee: Heresy is whatever corrupts the essence of Christianity.
  5. Just Shut Up!: Heresy is rejecting church authority.
  6. What Is Heresy? Final Answer

I’ll link the posts to each of these as we go. So, stay tuned for more.

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  1. says

    I’m excited to follow along with this series. Certainly “heresy” is a word that gets tossed around far too much, even outside of polemical debates. Thanks, Marc!

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    • says

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