How does one determine if someone is a heretic? Is this a word that should be used today when Christianity seems to be so pluralistic with regards to levels of commitment, beliefs, and practices?
Today’s theological word of the day (which I write 🙂 ) says this about heresy:
“An opinion, belief, or doctrine that is in variance to an established belief of a particular tradition. In Christianity, a heresy can have a historic value (more serious) or traditional value. In other words, a belief can be considered heretical to Baptists (e.g. paedeobaptism), but is not heretical in the historic sense. To be a historic heresy, it would have to be in variance to that which has been believed by the majority of Christians of all time (e.g. the deity of Christ).”
Because many of us use the word heresy in such a cavalier or domineering way, it has begun to lose its value. At least once a day, it seems, I hear someone calling someone else a heretic for something that is not really deserving of the term. These will say someone is a heretic for being too strong of a Calvinist, for believing theistic evolution, for saying that drinking alcohol is not a sin, for denying inerrancy, or for denying their version of free will. Soon, I am sure I will hear that jumping too high on the trampoline will be considered heresy.
Calling a person the “h” word should be done with great fear, qualification, and thoughtfulness. I don’t think we should call a moratorium on the word since I think it can carry with it an important rebuke with the implications of grave consequences. Here are the qualifications that I suggest:
Traditional heretic: those who depart from the faith of a particular tradition (e.g. Catholic, Protestant, Reformed, Dispensationalist, etc.) or denomination (Baptist, Anglican, Methodist, etc.).
Historic heretic: Those who depart from the faith with regard to a belief that has been held by Christianity from the beginning. There can be two different types of historic heretics:
1) One who departs from an essential belief (which I believe should be limited to the person and work of Christ)
2) One who departs from a non-essential belief
Simply because one is a historic heretic who departs from a non-essential belief does not mean that it is not serious or that they don’t deserve the title. For example, I believe that Open Theists have departed from a historic Christian belief about the nature of God and I believe that it is a serious departure. Even if I don’t believe that their departure necessarily undermines the very essence of Christianity, I do believe that their departure deserves a strong rebuke.
Putting this into perspective, I think we should also understand how God uses heresy to advance his kingdom. This is not to say that heresy is good, but it may be a necessary evil on the path to truth and revival. When the church is immature, doctrinally lazy, or simply apathetic toward truth, often heresy serves to help people take up arms in defense of the beliefs that provide the foundation for our faith. In this, heresy is good.
Enough on this now, I have to go. Hope you enjoy and have some good thoughts.