The Meaning And Use Of This Historical Word
You might be a heretic if you say something like, “There was a time when Jesus was not.”
This statement is perhaps the most famous early church heresy. A church leader named Arius said these words in the 4th C. AD and sparked a grand debate over the divine nature of Jesus of Nazareth, how Jesus could be both God and born to a woman. In wrestling with his logic, he concluded that there was a time when Jesus could not have been, reasoning that he could not have existed before being born to Mary.
The early church responded by addressing Arius’ view in 325 AD at the Council of Nicaea, where his view was declared to be wrong, against the teaching of God’s Word. He wasn’t seeking to be a heretic but has been remembered as one ever since.
But what do we mean by Arius’ statement being heretical and is that a helpful category for false teaching? It’s best to begin with defining our term heresy.
What Do We Mean By Heresy?
Webster’s Dictionary gives a beneficial understanding of heresy: “An opinion or doctrine at variance with the orthodox or accepted doctrine, especially of a church or religious system…and the maintaining of such an opinion or doctrine.” According to this definition, heresy is anything that does not line up with accepted orthodox understanding.
If that’s the case, who decides what is orthodox and right and what is not?
In Peter’s second letter he gives us great clarity to that question:
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. (2 Peter 2:1-2)
If heresy is being at odds with what is orthodox, Peter helpfully reminds us that what is right is not what the church declares to be correct, for as Luther has said, “church councils so often err,” but instead what God has said is right in His Word. “False teachers” are continually repudiated in Scripture as being those who go against what God has already declared to be true, those who try and either misconstrue the teaching of God or flat out deny it.
When a person holds onto so-called teaching at the expense of what God has declared is right and sound, Peter calls it destructive heresy. It is destructive because others can be tripped up by it, believing in new truths and living contrary to what God says is best.
For example, Arius stood fast in his understanding that Jesus did not always exist, going directly against the declaration from John 1:1 that “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” That Word is declared to be Jesus, the second person of the Trinity. Arius knew this and yet maintained his denial and interpretation of God’s Word. This is why Arius’ phrase has been declared as heresy.
Historically there have been two kinds of heresy.
First, there were those who thought something a bit different than the broader church around them, theological explorers we might call them, who were later deemed heretics. They weren’t seeking to be heretics in what they believed. Arius wasn’t trying to be wrong; he was trying to find and understand the truth.
Many theological explorers unpacked biblical truths in new ways that have benefited the church. Take for example Luther’s exploration in the Reformation of faith as the only means by which a person is saved. But many have sought a new understanding of truth that later has been found to be at odds with God’s word, heresy. We can empathize with these theologians trying to unpack the truth in a new way and later being found as wrong. But there’s another category of heresy historically.
Secondly, there were those who thought something a bit different than the broader church, and realized that what they believed was at odds with Scripture and believed it anyways. They refused to accept what God’s Word stated and favored their logic and ideas instead. They also refused to be corrected by the broader church around them. These heretical ideas were less exploration of seeing truth in a new way and more an intentional decision against established truth. So yes, Arius was trying to find truth, but when the church council encouraged him he was wrong and refused to repent of his thoughts, he entered this category of a willful heretic. When we think of heresy, we most likely think of this category historically.
But is heresy a helpful term? Perhaps and perhaps not.
Is Heresy A Helpful Term?
Historically, heresy is a very beneficial term. It has helped the church understand what is right and wrong regarding the teaching of God in the Scriptures.
Yet because the term is often associated with excommunication and being burned at the stake, it is a loaded term. It is not a term to be used lightly. A part of me wants to argue that it should never be used for how hate has been associated with it, but it’s a biblical term and, therefore, a helpful one.
When a denomination or network of churches declares something to be heretical, such as abortion, that’s understood. But when individuals use the term in conversation or on social media, we squirm. Because isn’t that part of what we’ve seen historically? Declaring what is right and wrong is less and individual right and moreso to be sought in corporate understanding of truth, in connection with the Scriptures, church history, and the broader church. John Donne certainly got it right, “No man is an island.”
When the church, broadly, declares something to be false teaching, a heresy going against the orthodox norm, that can be tremendously helpful to the church in understanding what to believe. Heresy is a useful term in so much as it is used wisely, seeking truth, and not as a personal bludgeon against another who thinks at odds with our own understanding. I would even go so far as to say that heresy is used best when it is aimed at a false idea rather than a person. After all, so much of the hate and vitriol against fellow Christians who think slightly different from us is a terrible witness and can lose the person who thinks false ideas about God.
Most heretics throughout church history didn’t aim to be heretics. They wanted truth. But there is a danger when in the search for truth, we fail to consider the Truth of God’s Word above our logic, interpretation and the historic agreement of the centuries of church leadership on the topic.
Let us be truth seekers to the end of our days, but do so with the bumpers of both God’s Word and the centuries of Bible teaching.