A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, August 29, 2011

What Is Heresy? #1

Today we begin a series of posts on heresy, drawing from Alister McGrath's wonderful book, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth.
A heresy is a doctrine that ultimately destroys, destabilizes, or distorts a mystery rather than preserving it. Sometimes a doctrine that was once thought to defend a mystery actually turns out to subvert it. A heresy is a failed attempt at orthodoxy, whose fault lies not in its willingness to explore possibilities or press conceptual boundaries, but in its unwillingness to accept that it has in fact failed.-- Alister McGrath

This quote captures well the reasons why the categories of orthodoxy and heresy are necessary. It is important to note of first importance is that all religions have orthodoxy and heresy as operating categories. Indeed, McGrath notes that every worldview, religious and secular, holds to both concepts. In biology, for example, Darwinianism is orthodox. A rejection of such Darwinian evolution is heretical; for it tears at the very fabric of the modern scientific endeavor and how we have come to understand the world rendering its inter-related investigations unintelligible. In the same way, political parties too have their "orthodoxies" and "heresies," which may indeed shift from time to time, but they are there nonetheless. Current Republican orthodoxy centers around low taxes, while increased government spending is an orthodox doctrine among Democrats. In others words, orthodoxy and heresy are about drawing boundaries; for without them groups have no identity nor do they have guidance on how to proceed in their endeavors, whether they are religious, political, or scientific.

McGrath notes that in theology, doctrine "preserves the central mysteries at the heart of the Christian faith and life" (p. 30). That these central affirmations are mysteries is important. Doctrine is not, nor has it ever been, an attempt to explain and understand God exhaustively, as if that were possible. When St. Augustine says that if we can explain it, it isn't God, he is not suggesting that theological investigation and doctrinal explications are insignificant and unimportant. He is reminding us "that the human mind struggles and ultimately fails, to cope with the grandeur of God" (p. 29). But while our doctrine cannot disclose God exhaustively in his grandeur, it can and must disclose God decisively in his character.

Thus the first part of McGrath's quote above suggests that heresy is any particular doctrine or understanding of a doctrine that does not protect the mystery of God, but in fact undermines it. The First Council of Nicaea rightly rejected Arius' christological claims because they undermined the mystery of salvation and the necessity of affirming God's exclusive right and ability to make possible that salvation and offer it to the world. Arianism destabilized the central mysteries at the heart of the Christian faith and life and thereby threatened to make Christianity in its entirety unintelligible.

Second, heresy becomes such, not in exploring and pushing at theological possibilities and doctrinal boundaries, but in the refusal of its theologians to accept that such exploration has indeed failed. Thus the church does not and should not discourage theological probing and the imaginative working through the implications of doctrine, particularly throughout the movement of the church in history. But once such work has proven itself wanting, those who refuse to acknowledge it to be so, then become heretics. This point is extremely important. All theological and doctrinal heresies are originally attempts to preserve the integrity and identity of Christianity. In other words, there are attempts to further affirm and defend orthodoxy. Once such doctrines are understood to have the opposite effect, they become unintelligible in the theological enterprise. Thus, to persist in promoting such doctrines is to move from defending the faith to undermining it. Heresy is then upon us.

Of course, the question is rightly raised as to how orthodoxy and heresy are determined. That is a question that must be addressed in a future post, but first we must concern ourselves with the origins of the idea of heresy. Where did it come from and what did it mean?


Gary Lyn said...

Uh, I hate to offer a dissenting comment right out of the gate, but I think it illustrates one of the problems with the distinctions of orthodoxy and heresy.
"Current Republican orthodoxy centers around low taxes, while increased government spending is an orthodox doctrine among Democrats."
I, for the most part, identify with the stances of the Democratic party, and I am opposed to increased government spending, and I am not treated like a heretic when I espouse that stance. In fact, I find a lot of support for it. And I know that there is at least one plan to address the deficit, offered by a Republican, that includes an increase in taxes. I don't know how other Republicans feel about that.
It illustrates the problem that comes with the categories of orthodoxy and heresy. Blanket statements by one side (orthodox) about the other (heresy). Stances that originally were heresy but over time have become orthodox (I've known that to happen as well).
I'm not against the categories and I look forward to hearing more. But I think it shows some of the problems, even dangers, of this process.

Jason E. Vickers said...


A couple of thoughts here. First, we may want to make a distinction between heterodoxy and heresy. It seems to me that the former is a softer term. For instance, to say that a person's belief x is heterodox seems to be a somewhat less stinging charge than to say that the belief is heretical. And the difference may have to do with a person's disposition and level of critical self-awareness with respect to said belief. In my experience, most Christians hold a variety of heterodox beliefs. They do not do so maliciously or to make some avant garde statement in the name of "progress" or being progressive. For example, I suspect that many Christians are Docetists or Modalists, or tri-theists or Unitarians at least some of the time.

Second, the danger with the term "heresy" is that we use it to quickly and too often. In my mind, heresy requires not only critical awareness that one holds a heretical postion but also a willful persistence in opposing what the church has declared orthodox/canonical//dogmatic. What I really want to say here is that people need space and time to think things through, to wrestle with the Orthodox/Dogmatic faith of the church. Moreover, we need to give the Holy Spirit time to work with people, illumining their minds and hearts concerning the wisdom and truthfulness of the Church's faith. Branding folks heretics the minute that we discover that they aren't so sure about Chalcedon or Nicea (for example) can interfere with the work of the Holy Spirit over time with respect to persons' theological and intellectual formation in the faith. I suppose I believe that God calls us to be patient and temperant not just at the dinner table but in matters theological and doctrinal as well. Indeed, I think we would do well to remember that the early and medieval church only taught the basics prior to baptism, reserving the deep and more difficult things for the mystagogical catechesis that followed baptism -- a form of catechesis that might rightly be said to take a lifetime (at least).

Finally, my instinct is that there should probably be a different set of expectations here for people who are already ordained and for laity or those on their way to ordination.

Thanks, Alan, for a wonderful post.

John Meunier said...

The first two comments reflect, I think, a problem with McGrath's operational definition of "heresy."

For most people the definition of the word has to do with rejection of accepted church doctrine or dogma. The mark of heresy is not an attack on "mystery" but a conflict with authority.

McGrath may be offering a good apology for authority - it maintains mystery - but this is not what most of us hear when we hear the word.

Allan R. Bevere said...


In some ways the political party reference is not a good one. I pondered whether to include it when I was writing this post. Nevertheless, my point in giving the two examples was to say that every group argues and debates over what identifies them as that particular group and when is that line crossed. Thus orthodoxy and heresy are intelligible categories, and I think we do err when we fail to use them where appropriate.

Moreover, we need to understand how both categories should function so they are not abused and used in the extreme ways that concern you. In other words, we must retain both concepts, but they must be used appropriately and carefully.

More to come...

Allan R. Bevere said...


Yes, the term "heresy" is applied too often and too loosely, but that does not mean we should not use it. Part of the purpose of this series of posts is to make the case that heresy is a necessary concept, but has too often been employed in unnecessary ways.

If some want to employ the word heterodox, that's fine with me, but heresy has worked for a long time now and I am still content to use it.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Actually, I see it the other way around. The problem is not with McGrath's definition, but with our misunderstanding and misemployment (is that a word?) of the notion of heresy. I would also say that his definition essentially implies that there is an authority in operation. When McGrath refers to heresy as a failed attempt, someone has to make a judgment that it has indeed failed.

You raise a good point, and I will certainly deal with the authority issue in a subsequent post. I appreciate your thoughts on what you are "hearing" as you read.

Jason E. Vickers said...


Thanks for this response. I have no trouble using the term. My main concern is that we use the term very cautiously and not precipitously. I am a strong proponent of the Nicean-Chalcedonian faith of the Church. I have argued in numerous places for the recovery of Dogmatic theology/tradition within Methodism. At the same time, I believe that a good case can be made that, when we approach and advocate for the Dogmatic faith of the Church, we should be careful that we not be like that over-zealous disciple on the night of Jesus' arrest. Dogma (which is the obverse of heresy) is crucial to the life of the church *when it is presented in humility and with patience and all grace and with a view toward healing/salvation*. When it is bandied about as a weapon to cast out the theological lepers from among us, it can become counter-productive to the long-haul work of evangelism, missions, and catechesis. That's my two cents anyway. (I am not suggesting that *you* are doing this sort of thing; simply trying to add a little to the conversation.)

Allan R. Bevere said...

Jason, you and I are on the same page.

PopLid said...

As a layman, I find it astonishing that your post so sterilizes the concept of heresy. My own impression of heresy is more of a hated, irrational, lethal weapon; a condemnation, or more accurately, a damnation, without justification, by authority against those that differ with authority. It is not just the declaration of difference between two civil parties, but the excuse for some of the most divisive, horrifying, punative actions by orthodox authority that the world has had to suffer through. I find it as antiquated and repulsive as the rack, thumbscrews, and burning stake used for its enforcement. It has no equivalent in modern discourse. Let’s rather discuss something more positive, like the appropriate use of waterboarding in prisoner interrogation.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Hey, Pop... thanks for your comments. I do not deny the abuse of the notion of heresy and its terrible effects. My series of posts is not an attempt to defend that, but to explain why heresy is indeed an important notion in the history of theological reflection.

So, stay with me on this as I post more and we will see where the discussion takes us.