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From time to time I read a blog or hear someone call another person a “heretic.” Recently a blogfriend asked me how I would define “heretic” or “heresy.” I’ve been asked this about two people, and I won’t use names but it wouldn’t be hard to figure out about whom it was asked. How do you define “heretic”?
Let me suggest that the term “heretic” is used in three ways, only one of which (I believe) is justifiable — though I have little hope that the mudslingers will learn to use terms as they are supposed to be used.
Before I get there, though, let me add an emerging point: it is too bad we don’t have such an evocative term for praxis. Jesus’ focus was on “hypocrisy” more than “heresy,” and it might just be an indication of how far we’ve strayed for us to give so much attention to “heresy” and not enough to failure in praxis. As far as we can see, failure in practice is just as bad as failure in theology. But this is not what this post is about. We are concerned here with the term “heretic.” In Peter Rollins’s forthcoming book, How (Not) to Speak of God, he makes a case for “orthodox” meaning “someone who engages with the world in the right way — that is, in the way of love (66). But, again, this is not what we need to talk about just yet.
Now to the three uses of this term that I routinely hear:
First, there is the slipshod use: a “heretic” is used here for anyone who doesn’t believe something we might think important. As when someone uses this term for someone who is amillennial or a preterist or a partial inerrantist or paedobaptistic or trans-substantialist … or a host of other things.
Those who use the term for such things ought to stop. It is unfair, it is volatile, and it really does damage to what is central to the faith and what is not. When I hear someone call another a “heretic” for something that is not central to our faith, I wonder more about the name-caller than the one being name-called. It tells us something about a person to hear them pronounce such denunciation and damnation on someone who genuinely is a believer.
This slipshod use of the term leads to the current rave about the “orthodoxy of heresy” and the “heresy of orthodoxy.” Some scholars are trying to get people to realize that traditional orthodoxy is today’s heresy and clear heresy is today’s orthodoxy. Others are trying to get genuine orthodoxies trivial by suggesting that minor issues are more important than they really are.
Second, there is the extended use: a “heretic” is used here for anyone whom someone else thinks is skirting with danger on a central theological concept. I’m hearing this now about those who affirm the New Perspective with respect to Justification by Faith. There are a variety of topics here — including one’s theory of the atonement, one’s view of Jesus’ self-consciousness, one’s view of Scripture … or one’s view of Hell and final judgment.
Now, before I go further, let me explain “extended.” I use this term because by and large folks here “extend” someone’s theological claims to suggest that, if they follow through in their logic (which as often as not they don’t), they will end up with some belief that is inherently no longer orthodox. Sometimes this is true. Example: some of those who deny final judgment end up denying a host of things — like God’s holiness or the ultimacy of Christ and the like — but some don’t, and we need to let each person speak for him- or herself.
And here’s something else that is very important to realize. “Heresy” was an interactive term, and as often as not it was a term used by both Jews and Christians for the other as they gradually broke off relations. Heresiologists and heresiology is the study of this time and those who definitively shaped how we now understand the term. In other words, the days of Irenaeus and the emerging proto-rabbinic class defined themselves over against one another. (A good book on this is D. Boyarin, Border Lines, though his prose will give his readers more than a few head spins. If you don’t know everything he does you could end up wondering what he is talking about.)
Third, the proper use: a “heretic” is someone whose teachings or beliefs extends beyond legitimate doctrinal difference to “undercut the very basis for Christian existence”. I here quote my friend and former colleague, Harold O.J. Brown’s book, Heresy.
Most importantly, heresy pertains to the central doctrines of God and Christ. Heresy is established by orthodoxy and orthodoxy was established by the classical creeds (Nicea, Chalcedon, etc). The interactive development of our term then is that interaction of Christians both with Judaism and with doctrinally, dangerous dissent by those who claimed to be Christians (like the gnostics or the docetists).
Here’s the rule on the proper use of the term “heretic” or “heresy”: anything that denies Nicea or Chalcedon, etc., is heretical; anything that affirms them is orthodox. We should learn to use the term for such affirmations or denials.
Example: Atheists are not heretics — they are not advocating the Christian gospel and deviating seriously from it but instead don’t believe in any of it. I once wrote of someone that they were so far removed from orthodoxy they could no longer be called a heretic. We need to see this important clarification: heresy has to do with those who claim to be Christians and are teaching something that fundamentally attacks the entire basis of the gospel.
See this article for a good online discussion.

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