What is Heresy?
HERESY! HERESY! THEY ALL CRIED HERESY!
So many Christians (Western Christians) are throwing around this term these day. It has been used to describe everything from a deviation of the Trinity to a rejection of 19th Century hymns. It is used so often that we don’t even remember the original meaning of the word. You or I may be deemed a heretic simply because we prefer Pepsi over Coke. Even if Pepsi drinkers will spend a significant amount of time in Purgatory, can we really call them heretics? I mean they eventually get to heaven, right?
So what is heresy anyway? Webster defines it as “teachings held by religious parties which deny some aspect of establish [Orthodox] doctrine”. The definition applies particularly to Christianity, but it can hold true for any religion (i.e. Judiasm, Islam, etc). Bridgeway Bible Dictionary describes it as a false teaching or false belief of orthodoxy. However, it also states that there is really only one instance in the New Testament where it is used in that context. Typically, it is used to describe what is called a sect or party, such as the Pharisees and Sadducees were sects of Judaism. Instead, the New Testament uses the idea of heretic to reference anyone who denies Christ (2 Peter 2:1, 1 John 2:2, 1 John 2:26, 1 John 4:1-3). The rest of the time is is used to describe factions within the Church (1 Cor. 11:19). These would be similar to our Christian denominations today.
We can read “Heresies of the Church Thru the Ages” and discover the 50 most well-recognized heresies of the early church. Many of them fall into similar categories with the greatest number of heresies pertaining to the sacraments. Some of these heresies would become the foundation to the Reformation and the Protestant movement. Paulicianism (heresy) denied five of the seven sacraments of the Catholic church giving credence only to the Eucharist and Baptism. So, by these definitions, all Protestant Churches are teaching heresy.
However, the majority of early heresies fell into one of the following categories: denial of Christ’s humanity, denial of Christ’s deity, denial of the Trinity, or a deviation of grace (i.e. limited atonement, works over grace, etc). Therefore, the early Church recognized that true heresy was a deviation from or denial of God’s divinity or method of salvation. Some might narrow the term and call it “The Gospel”.
What has happened? How have we come so far? We have moved from the basic teachings of Salvation and distorted them. We have made any variation, any difference of opinion, the basis for heresy. But true heresy is only that which challenges/denies Christ and His work of salvation. The rest is at best a difference of opinion and at worst a gross misinterpretation of scripture.
The early Church was so overwhelmed by the variations of teachings that they came together to write a statement of faith. It became an agreed upon set of standards. And whenever they encountered some new teaching, they would simply ask, “do you believe the Creed”?
These are the agreed upon beliefs of the Christian faith, nothing more, nothing less:
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy apostolic and universal Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.