One of my former teachers used to say that we are all allowed one pet heresy. I am not sure that this is generous enough, but his point is good. I believe that we each have beliefs that are wrong. If we knew which ones we would change them so yours is something you are probably going to defend, and so is mine. Some of us also have beliefs that fall outside the orthodox way of thinking in certain areas. (I am going to keep mine a secret for now!)

How does one know if they have crossed that line?

Well, this is quite a question: Are you orthodox or heretical? Let me offer some rules of engagement for dealing with this issue.

In order to be a heretic, you have to fall outside the orthodox circle in some essential area.

In order to be heterodox, you have to fall outside the orthodox circle in some non-essential area.

Obviously, it all depends on your definition of “orthodox.” What does it mean to be orthodox?

It has more than “right teaching” tied to it. It has to do with “right teaching according to a particular established historic tradition.” In other words, there is really no such thing as a “new orthodoxy.”

However, we need to be careful here as the term “orthodox” can be defined in several ways:

Historic Orthodoxy
Traditional Orthodoxy
Denominational Orthodoxy

1. Historic Christian Orthodoxy: This refers to the sine qua non (the “without which not”) of the historic Christian faith. This belief is held, “by all Christians, of all time, everywhere.” In other words, it is not limited to time, geographical region, tradition or denomination. Therefore, to deny a tenet of the historic Christian faith is unorthodox from every perspective. Included in this are doctrines such as the deity of Christ, the Trinity, a belief in the physical resurrection of Christ, and a belief in the physical future return of Christ.

2. Traditional Orthodoxy: This is different than historic orthodoxy as it focuses upon the beliefs that are unique to a particular Christian tradition, whether implied or dogmatized. As a doctrine develops, people began to part ways in their interpretation. Traditional orthodoxy takes time to develop since it comes primarily as a result of controversy and challenge. There is a Catholic orthodoxy, Protestant orthodoxy, and Eastern Orthodoxy orthodoxy. For example, part of Catholic orthodoxy is a belief in Purgatory and the assumption of Mary. Protestants and Orthodox do not hold that belief. Protestants believe in a sixty-six book canon (books of the Bible), Catholics do not.

3. Denominational Orthodoxy: Finally, there is a further division that can be identified as Protestants continue to further define each of these core areas. Calvinists, for example, would further define issues of salvation, election, security, and God’s sovereignty. Arminians, on the other hand, would do the same emphasizing God’s universal atonement and God’s providential sovereignty. Baptists would add issues such as believers baptism and congregational style of leadership within the local church. 

So if you are trying to figure out if you have crossed a heretical line, it depends on what you mean. My thoughts are that we need to define our terms and be very careful. One can be unorthodox with regards to a particular traditional or denominational orthodoxy, but this does not necessarily make them unorthodox in the proper sense (historically).

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    70 replies to "Crossing the Heretical Line"

    • Lisa Robinson

      Joe, I believe the “holy apostolic catholic church” was in reference to the invisible church consisting of the universal body of believers and not the institution later known as Roman Catholicism. The fact that institutional development was in play is not signficant with respect to purpose of creedal formation.

      All believers belong to the catholic church (small “c”)

    • rick


      The creeds always must be held up to the light of Scripture, since they are relying on Scripture (as they should).

      I think one difference between us would the view of the role of the Holy Spirit in helping the church get off and running. Is it an accident that the issue of God (the central point of Scripture and life) is the at the heart of the creeds?

      You stated, “Who God is” for those people included the things they didn’t feel the need to creedalize, but it was nevertheless just as much a part of their faith as the doctrines in the Creeds.”

      Those other “things” may have been important to their faith, but there are no indications that they took priority (or even equal weight) over the issue of “who God is”. Would the church not need to be uniform on that key issue?

      Finally, I am all for looking at the context in which the creeds were written. However, having a context does not make them wrong. The creeds in Scripture were written in certain contexts as well. Were they wrong?

      So I ask, how do you determine essential doctrines of your faith?

    • Joe

      Lisa R:

      We might feel that institutional development was not significant to what you regard as the “true” purpose of creeds. But still, we find such motivations finding their way into the creeds, at least as incidentals.

      In the time of Nicea etc. for example, there were already conflicts between various Christian churches; Roman and Asian/Orthodox/Byzantine, etc.. And the word “Catholic” was already, a politicized term. While the Apostle’s creed they say did not appear in present form till c. 650 AD. Well into the era where “catholic” was a loaded term.

      Granted, I like your idea of catholic better.

      In any case, what do we do with the remark by Jesus, telling us not to invoke any “oaths” at all?

    • EricW


      The Eastern Church doesn’t use the so-called Apostles’ Creed. It uses the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, and recites it at every Divine Liturgy (without the filioque, of course!!). The Apostles’ Creed has no official standing/authorization by a Council, as far as I know.

    • Joe


      My point exactly: the creed was used by the Catholic church … over and against Eastern orthodoxy, etc..

      The creed may or many not have any official standing; though official or not, it has often been used in various forms, and for various reasons, by various churches.

    • EricW


      How was The Apostles’ Creed used “over and against Eastern Orthodoxy”?

      I’m not sure there’s anything in The Apostles’ Creed that conflicts with the teachings of the EOC; it just doesn’t enjoy Conciliar standing and authority.

    • Joe

      Eric: I’m not sure, but if memory serves, the origin of the word “Catholic” was a very old controversy about which church or churches should be considered the core, authoritative church. It was decided by some, that the group that claimed to be more inclusive – “catholic” – was the more definitive one. As opposed to the other more separatist or exclusivist churches.

      The term “Catholic” therefore, was not neutral; but stood for a particular (if allegedly inclusive) position, as to which church(es) were authoritative.

      It might be therefore, that if the EOC did not give this Creed extraordinary status, it was because of the word “catholic” in fact. Though I’m speculating here, it might be that the word “Catholic” was levied specifically against EOC. Or inserted as a word that could be read as that, in one reading.

      To be sure, the complexities of ancient ecclesiastical West vs. Byzantine East, internecine (PS?) conflicts, were in part the reason why the word “Byzantine” has become a synonym for being hopelessly convoluted and inscrutably complex.

      Especially when the Eastern Church takes on Dan Brown’s Catholic Church.

    • EricW


      The presence of the word “catholic” would not be the reason the EOC doesn’t use The Apostles’ Creed, for the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, which is The Symbol of Faith (To Symbolon Tês Pisteôs) for the Orthodox Church, includes the phrase: “[I believe] in One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” – Eis mian hagian catholikên kai apostolikên ekklêsian. I suspect its non-use by the EOC is because The Apostles’ Creed was not formulated or decreed by an official Council.

    • Joe


      Thanks as always, for your thorough research.

    • rick

      Ericw and Joe-

      The issue with the Apostles’ Creed in the East appears to be more centered on the fact of the lack of specifics in regards to the deity-humanity of Christ. It is mainly held to be of Latin origin, and although the A. Creed is not troubling by itself, the East sees the Nicene as much more comprehensive in spelling out the important idea of the God-Man.

    • rayner markley

      Creeds are simple concise statements of basic doctrine that believers can resort to and recite and keep themselves on track. With creeds available to us, the Holy Spirit no longer needs to have direct control over instruction and doctrine, and that is why many Protestants have traditionally avoided them. Just say the words which the church has formulated for you. They will protect you from heresy, as well as from those other groups who say other words.

    • rick

      Rayner #62-

      Sorry you see it purely as a power play.

      Again, I agree more with Scot McKnight:

      “…creed-like NT statements gave rise to the classical creeds. The classical creeds are not inspired; they are not infallible. Instead, they are claims made by wide segments of the Church that say these statements express what the Church thinks is at the heart of the Bible in light of challenges to the faith. Creeds were used for confession at baptism and in liturgy, they were used for instruction in the faith, and they were useful for theological debates.”

    • Joe

      The problem with creeds in general though, is that 1) they are often not from the Bible; and 2) they are church-centered.

      The Apostle’s Creed for example, begins with “I believe in one holy apostolic catholic church.” Leaving aside the infinitely complex subject of who or what is really “catholic,” the important thing to focus on here, is that we begin with an oath of allegiance to … a “church.”

      The first thing we see here, is an oath of allegiance to a church ….instead of beginning with God. That’s the problem.

      And in fact, in many churches, “heresy” is defined as failure to obey not God’s rules, but a church’s.

    • EricW

      The first thing we see here, is an oath of allegiance to a church ….instead of beginning with God. That’s the problem.

      Actually, it’s the Protestant Evangelical churches that have the problem. The first statement in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed is:

      “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…
      “And in one Lord Jesus Christ…
      “And in the Holy Spirit….

      “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” comes after all those statements.

      However, in most statements of faith of Evangelical Protestant churches, the first statement is not about God, but about the Bible. See, e.g.:

      There are, of course, exceptions:

    • Joe


      I might indeed agree with you, that the (I would add, Catholic and) Protestant evangelical churches, are more to blame than the Eastern Orthodox Church’s creed, for fixating on the church, and not on God.

      At least as far as their formal Creeds are concerned. Though doesn’t the EOC otherwise, elsewhere, rather radically emphasize the authority of itself? Of its patriarchs?

      What’s wrong with churches or fathers emphasizing their own authority? Someone has suggested that all churches tend to become minister “cults”; typically a minister has so much power, that he can and does usually mold the thought of everyone around him, into his own personal, often idiosyncratic idea, of a church.

      Even major denominations intrude all-too-human misconceptions, into their picture of God, no doubt.

      For that reason, I have no very great confidence in any church at all, whatsoever. There might be a good one out there; but we won’t know until judgment day, which one it was.

    • Joe

      Correction of myself: the “believe in the … church” clause is not the first sentence in the Apostle’s Creed, even in the Catholic verision; its later on.

      But in my defense, I’d have to honestly say that the way I was introduced to the Creed, was in short excerpts … headed by the “believe … in … Church” clause.

      Honestly, the way it was presented to me by the Church, gave me the impression that loyalty to the church was indeed, first on the agenda.

      Glad to be reminded that the Creed itself, put its values in a slightly different order.

      Still, believing in the Church is right there in the Creed, later on. And eventually, Church-worshiping, becomes a central element; displacing the worship of Christ.

    • Mike

      All –

      The definition of a heretic is someone who was properly baptized and who rejects a single Dogma of the Catholic Church.

      I list the Dogma of God the Holy Ghost in Section 3 of

      Section 8 – describes why heretics are not Christians.

      Section 7 – shows the Dogma on water baptism

      Sections 1 and 2 – the Salvation Dogma

      Our Lady of Conquest
      Pray for us

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      Mike: “All –

      The definition of a heretic is someone who was properly baptized and who rejects a single Dogma of the Catholic Church.”

      A perfectly acceptable definition as far as I am concerned.

      And by this definition, I am a heretic. No doubt about it.

      But… BUT! I don’t think I’m damned to hell.

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