My Troubles with Heresy and Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy and heresy are interesting things.

Over the past year or so, I’ve come to believe that the limits of true Christianity are often inscrutable. That is, I’m willing to count not only the orthodox as true believers, but also many heretics, as well. I’m finding that this position is becoming increasingly hard to hold without some measure of doublethink. On the one side of things, the weight of church tradition stands firmly on the side of a sharp distinction between heresy and orthodoxy, with only the orthodox being counted as true believers. But on the other hand, the weight of church history stands firmly on the side of pluralism, because if only the orthodox are true believers, then no one is a true believer.

On the one hand, church tradition. Ever since Justin Martyr’s denunciation of Marcion in the second century, extending all the way to contemporary culture warriors, the church has had a strong tradition of heresy-hunting. This view makes sense for two reasons. First, in order for an ethnos (a “people,” which is the way the early Christians saw themselves — as a race) to be a true ethnos — that is, for all the members of the ethnos to share common practices — ethnic boundary markers must be in place. It must be very clear who is and who is not part of the Christian people. By necessity, that entails defining what is right practice (orthodoxy) and wrong practice (heterodoxy/heresy) and setting those up as religio-ethnic distinctives. Second, this view is the most scientific. According to the scientific method, a hypothesis is either right or wrong — there is no “maybe” in a rigorous description of how the world works. Likewise, since God is knowable and has revealed himself objectively, it is possible to determine exactly what modes of worship and service he finds acceptable and which he finds unacceptable. Therefore, we may distinguish very easily between right and wrong worship.

On the other hand, church history. Since 1054 CE, every Christian has been a heretic. (1054, of course, was when the Great Schism took place, with the Eastern and Western churches excommunicating each other.) To an Eastern Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholics and Protestants are heretics. To Catholics, Protestants and the Orthodox are heretics. To Protestants, Catholics and the Orthodox are heretics. Each subgroup of Christianity has claimed to be the only right way to worship God. The problem, of course, is that each side uses the same text (the Bible) to support their views, and each side is deeply convinced of their own superiority over the others. So, among the Christian churches, it is impossible to distinguish between right and wrong worship.

Thus, the two sides rage inside me. It is intensely difficult to believe, based on church tradition, that there is a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable worship, while also believing, based on church history, that it is impossible to know what that distinction is.


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6 responses to “My Troubles with Heresy and Orthodoxy

  1. I think there’s a few things worth keeping in mind in a heresy / orthodoxy discussion.

    First, there are particular things that are essentials of the faith, and there are other things that aren’t. The Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed cover some essentials, which is why neophytes had to profess faith in such creeds during their baptism into the Church. Membership in the Church came to be defined by baptism. Heretics who denied the Trinity, for example, were not baptized into the name “of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” and thus their baptism was illegitimate. Some groups, like the Donatists, took this principle to extremes and would demand that all sorts of people get rebaptized no matter what their error or sin, which is why the Church formatted ex opere operato to maintain the once-for-allness of baptism in the face of heresy / apostasy. So the short version is, some things are essentials and some aren’t.

    Second, there is a distinction that needs to be made between the simply ignorant and the heretic. Many Christians may not understand aspects of complex theological doctrines (like the Trinity) early in life. Heck, theologians don’t fully understand the Trinity (it is to some measure ineffable). Laypersons may therefore hold erroneous views about it, perhaps a form of tritheism or modalism etc. But when confronted with the truth, a faithful Christian will let go of false belief and embrace the truth. Heretics, on the other hand, are stubborn and unrepentant. This is why people like Augustine and Aquinas would emphasize a moral component to theology – a person living in unrepentant sin is not going to be able to pursue theological work properly. Sin skews the mind. To do theology properly we have to depend on God’s help.

    Third, we know from Scripture that there are such things as apostates, false teachers, troublemakers, and what we’d today call heretics. The lines between orthodoxy and heresy are more difficult to see without an externally unified Church, but there are still lines.

    Fourth, schism and heresy aren’t quite the same thing. I’m willing to count Roman Catholics as Christians even though I very much disagree with them, just as I’m willing to count Baptists as Christians. Certainly the Spirit is grieved when the Church is split asunder. As a theologian, however, one can appreciate the unity and diversity of the Church today. Different Christians / churches approach the faith and emphasize different things. There are areas in which each denomination could learn from the other. This is what Abraham Kuyper would call multiformity – neither uniformity nor total pluralism but unity and diversity within Christian freedom.

    Just some thoughts. I don’t know if that was an all out digression from your post or helpful in any way.

  2. P.S. My M.Th dissertation was somewhat focused on this topic of the messiness of Church History and the question of doctrinal development. I was wondering some of these same questions, and spent some time reading John Henry Cardinal Newman as I searched for answers. Here’s the link, though I don’t expect anyone to bore themselves by reading it! But its there to skim if anything in the TOC looks helpful.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Shep.

    First, your M.Th. dissertation looks helpful. I think I’ll work through it over the next few weeks (I’m downloading it now to transfer to my Kindle).

    I’d agree with you that there are boundaries to Christian belief. For instance, one cannot deny that Jesus is Lord and still be a Christian; however, the categories of believer/unbeliever and heretic/orthodox are different. By definition — or at least by etymology — a heretic is a schismatic. In order to be a heretic, one must be within the Christian community. Otherwise, one is not a heretic, but an unbeliever.

    The main think I’m trying to think through right now is that most every sub-community of Christianity claims, at heart, to be the real continuation of Christian orthodoxy. (The easiest caricature is Old Landmarkism, tracing Baptist Christianity all the way back to John the Baptist. Chuckle.) I’d be okay if they all recognized each other’s claims to the same thing. But as it stands, there’s no unity, only rival schisms. Each αἵρεσις denies the ὀρθότης of the other αἵρεσεων.

    Aside from the Great Schism and the Reformation, what got me thinking about the issue is the Oriental Orthodox church (the Ethiopian, Coptic, Armenian, Eritrean, Syriac, and Malankara Syrian churches), who split from the Orthodox church at Chalcedon. They’re monophysites, which means that they’re heretics. But can I responsibly say that the Ethiopians and the Copts aren’t Christians, even though they’re technically heretics? No. But, in acknowledging the claims to orthodoxy of other sects (αἵρεσεις) of Christianity, that means I also, to a certain extent, have to give up the differences between heresy and orthodoxy.

  4. I’m sympathetic to your concerns here. I probably should clarify that when I say “schism and heresy aren’t the same” I mean that the current schisms between denominations does not necessitate that, say, Baptists view Methodists as heretics. While heresy and schism are related, heresy has a more nuanced meaning, which I tried to summarize above as erroneous, unrepentant, and schismatic / troublemaking. The question of the Ethiopians and the Copts is a difficult one to answer in particular, and I’m afraid that this is because the current state of the Church is quite messy. I don’t think that means that we need to let go of an understanding of the importance of tradition, or of the boundaries of orthodoxy previously noted. If efforts are made to bring the truth to Ethiopians and Copts and they maintain their heresy unrepentantly, then I’m afraid I’d have to consider them heretics in that situation. But that would take a sustained dialogue with them from other traditions that in this era isn’t occurring, as far as I’m aware.

    I hope you find my dissertation helpful. I think John Henry Newman has some powerful insights to share, even if I wind up disagreeing with some of them. Even though the current situation of the Church can appear to be quite messy, I think we need not be too pessimistic, nor react too strongly to our present situation. Life itself is messy, and sanctification is a messy process, and the Church as a whole is right in the thick of it and will be until the parousia.

  5. “I mean that the current schisms between denominations does not necessitate that, say, Baptists view Methodists as heretics.”

    Ahh, yes. I’m with you there. To nuance what I said above: all heretics are schismatics, but not all schismatics are heretics (though I would say that schism or division within the Church catholic is still a very serious problem, with which I think you agreed above).

    On further research, I found this quote on the Great Fount of Knowledge, Wikipedia, regarding dialogue between the Roman Catholics, Easter Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox:
    “This miaphysite position, historically characterised by Chalcedonian followers as ‘monophysitism’ though this is denied by the dissenters, formed the basis for the distinction from other churches of the Coptic Church of Egypt and Ethiopia and the ‘Jacobite’ churches of Syria and Armenia (see Oriental Orthodoxy). Over the last 30 years, however, the miaphysite position has been accepted as a mere restatement of orthodox belief by Patriarch Bartholomew I of the Eastern Orthodox Church and by Pope John Paul II of the Roman Catholic Church.” (Source. [Emphasis added.])

    Finally, I’m with you. I think pessimism about divisions in the church is misplaced; instead, I think we need some form of ecumenism — what one could describe as inter-denominational humility, grace, and love.

  6. Huh. I’ll have to do some reading on miaphysitism.

    Definitely agree some form of ecumenism is needed.

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