“Beware of writing books. Almost anything can get you called a ‘heretic’ these days.”
I often give aspiring Christian writers this piece of advice. Though its a bit tongue-in-cheek, there is more than a nugget of truth buried inside. Many Christians–disproportionately hailing from certain subsets of the faith–use the label to dismiss, bludgeon, and marginalize those who espouse notions with which they disagree.
But what is a heretic? How do you know if someone deserves the label? And why does it matter either way? I discussed these questions and more with Justin Holcomb, episcopal priest, author of “Know the Heretics” who teaches at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary. He provides interesting food for thought on what he calls “a fighting word.”
RNS: Some Christians seem to throw around the word “heretic.” How do you define it?
JH: A heretic is someone who has compromised an essential doctrine and lost sight of who God really is, usually by oversimplification. Literally, heresy means “choice”—that is, a choice to deviate from traditional teaching in favor of one’s own insights.
For Christianity, the Nicene Creed is a historic, globally accepted creed that encapsulates the Christian faith in a short and rich summary. If someone holds to the Nicene Creed, we should not call them a heretic. Not even if we believe they are in error on the details or on other doctrines. I think a good shorthand for heresy, is to ask, “Can they say the Nicene Creed and mean it without their fingers crossed?”
RNS: You argue that “not all theological errors are equally serious.” Who gets to decide what is serious enough to be heresy? The majority?
JH: The groups that ended up being considered orthodox were not always those who had the support of the institutional church or the greatest influence. During the Arian controversy, for instance, not only did most of the clergy take the heretical side but the state persecuted the group that we now refer to as orthodox. A similar thing happened during the Monothelite controversy, when the heresy was contained to a small group but happened to include the emperor and the highest church officials. So orthodoxy and heresy can’t be measured by the numbers of those who embraced a given theory.
Sometimes, a leader in the church would counter the heretical teachers through books and pamphlets. Frequently, popes or bishops held a council to discuss controversial teachings. Creeds were developed from these councils to codify orthodoxy into a widely accepted form. With each new heresy, the church was forced to study the Scriptures, wrestle with intellectual problems, and articulate more clearly the “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.”
RNS: Who is a heretic that we may not have heard of but is important to know about?
JH: Faustus Socinus (1539–1604) is probably the least known heretic. My summary of Socinus’ heresy is: “The Trinity is irrelevant and Jesus’ death is only an example.”
Socinus held a unitarian view of God: only God the Father is truly and fully divine. He believed Jesus, “the Son of God,” received a unique divinely appointed office that deserves respect and even worship. However, for Jesus, that respect and worship were limited to his office and did not extend to his person, which Socinus argued was not divine. Socinus argued that the doctrine of the Trinity could not be defended.
Socinus also argued that because Jesus was not divine, his death could not have been intended to make satisfaction or to pay a penalty on behalf of other humans. Instead, Socinus understood Christ’s death to serve as a way for God to model true love and devotion and to demonstrate the way of salvation.
RNS: What are some modern thoughts that you consider to be heresy?
JH: I think many of the old heresies are repackaged today. For example, there is plenty Sabellian Modalism—the belief that God is one actor wearing three hats—floating around today. Also, I think a repackaged version of Pelagianism is most “live” today. (My summary of Pelagius’ heresy is “God has already given us the tools we need.”)
Pelagius correctly saw human nature as something good created by God, and there is no such thing as original sin. Adam’s sin in no way makes humans guilty or corrupt. Humans by nature have a clean slate — a state of neutrality — according to Pelagius. Potentially, then, one could live a sinless life and merit heaven, for there is nothing intrinsically sinful about humans. To me, this sounds like lots of the gobbledygook that is passed around today in popular Christian TV, radio, and publishing.
RNS: Why should we learn about the heretics? Is there a practical reason?
JH: I’ll give three. First, while there is certainly ambiguity in the Bible, the Creator has decided to reveal himself to us and even to live with us. It is important to honor that revelation. Ambiguity or not, uncomfortable or not, it is vital that we are obedient to what we can know about God.
Second, when we have a flawed image of God, we no longer relate to him in the same way. What you believe about God affects how you love, work, live, parent, evangelize, purchase, and worship. It is surprising how much our beliefs about God impact our daily lives, which is partly what makes theology so rewarding.
Third, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Learning about the heresies of the past help us avoid them today.