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What Is Heresy?

What makes someone a “heretic”? Have you ever used that word to describe a person or a belief, and if so, what did you mean by it?

Justin Holcomb (who, you may recall, we interviewed earlier this month about the importance of creeds) thinks that Christians ought to be more careful and precise in the way we employ the h-word. Rachel Held Evans has an extensive interview with him about what “heresy” means.

The entire interview is worth reading, but I thought it was especially interesting to read his explanation of the different “shades” of theological difference that Christians have historically recognized:

Because there is always some room for mystery and speculation, both the Roman Catholic and Reformed traditions have been careful to distinguish three “zones” between strict orthodoxy and outright heresy.

In Catholicism, to bluntly deny an explicitly defined church doctrine is heresy in the first degree. It has to be a severe contradiction, like saying that Christ is not God. A doctrine that has not been explicitly defined by one of the church’s articles of faith but diverges from the received majority view is considered an opinion approaching heresy (sententia haeresi proxima) — for instance, to say that Christ can be found in other religions. One who holds a position that does not directly contradict received tradition but logically denies an explicitly defined truth is said to be erroneous in theology (propositio theologice erronea). Finally, a belief that cannot be definitively shown to be in opposition to an article of faith of the church is said to be suspected or savoring of heresy (sententia de haeresi suspecta, haeresim sapiens).

Similarly, the Reformed tradition has traditionally distinguished three kinds of doctrinal error related to fundamental articles of the faith: (1) errors directly against a fundamental article (contra fundamentum); (2) errors around a fundamental or in indirect contradiction to it (circa fundamentum); (3) errors beyond a fundamental article (praeter fundamentum).

The point is that, historically, both the Roman Catholic tradition and the Reformed tradition have understood that not all theological errors are equally serious.

Read the full discussion here.

Filed under History, Theology