In Christian theology, “orthodoxy” combines the Greek roots “ortho,” meaning “straight,” “right,” or “true,” and “doxy,” derived from “doxa,” meaning “opinion” or “belief.”
This term, therefore, signifies adherence to the correct or accepted beliefs and teachings within the Christian faith. Christian orthodoxy is about maintaining and following the doctrines and practices that align with the teachings of the Bible, the early Church, and the magisterial ecumenical councils. It upholds key principles such as the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the resurrection, ensuring that these central tenets remain unaltered and are passed down accurately through generations. Hence, in Christian context, orthodoxy is the commitment to the ‘right belief’ or ‘true opinion’ as defined by the foundational Christian doctrines and traditions.
As an aside, it is important to distinguish between the term “orthodoxy” and the tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy. While “orthodoxy” (lowercase) broadly denotes adherence to accepted beliefs and practices, Eastern Orthodoxy (capitalized) specifically refers to a particular one of the three historic Christian traditions, alongside Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism. Eastern Orthodoxy has unique theological, liturgical, and ecclesiastical characteristics. The capitalization helps to distinguish the general concept of right belief (“orthodoxy”) from the specific historical and theological tradition of Eastern Christian churches (“Eastern Orthodoxy”).
Many, including myself, would define all three major Christian traditions as orthodox, since they all proclaim and defend the central aspects of the person and work of Christ.
Heresy, then, is a proclaiming Christian sect or individual, that departs from orthodoxy in an essential doctrine. It is technically reserved for those who proclaim (not simply accept) an unorthodox position about the historic Christian understanding of the person and work of Christ. Although, there are some less common exceptions.
Heterodoxy, in contrast to heresy, refers to beliefs, opinions, or doctrines within Christianity that diverge from established historic orthodox teachings, yet do not fundamentally contradict essential Christian truths. Heterodox views often involve interpretations or perspectives on non-essential or non-central aspects of Christian doctrine. While these views may differ from traditional orthodoxy, they typically do not challenge the core tenets of the Christian faith, such as the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, or the nature of salvation. Understanding tthe terms this way helps in distinguishing between disagreements on non-cardinal doctrines (heterodoxy) and outright departures from the foundational beliefs of historic Christianity (heresy).
A heretic, in traditional Christian context, is a strong denunciation of someone who actively promotes beliefs that qualify as heresy, not heterodoxy. A schismatic would be someone who does the same with heterodox views.
Many individuals within the Christian community may unknowingly hold beliefs or opinions that align with heterodoxy or even heresy. However, the label of “heretic” is traditionally reserved for those who consciously and publicly proclaim these divergent beliefs, particularly when they pertain to fundamental Christian doctrines. The process of labeling someone a heretic typically involves a formal ecclesiastical judgment and is not used lightly. It’s important to recognize that having differing interpretations on non-essential matters does not automatically classify someone as a heretic; rather, it’s the active and public advocacy of views that contradict central Christian doctrines that defines heresy.
In addition to heretics and heterodox, the terms schismatic and cult also play significant roles in Christian theological discourse. A schismatic is an individual or group that causes or commits a schism, separating from the established church over non-essential issues such as governance, authority, or liturgical practices. While they may uphold core orthodox Christian doctrines, their division stems from disagreements on ecclesiastic and/or lesser theological matters. Schismatics normally maintain much of the original central theological doctrine but differ in their approach to church structure and leadership.
On the other hand, a cult, within a Christian context, refers to a group or movement that, while often claiming adherence to Christian beliefs, fundamentally departs from essential Christian doctrines. Such groups are characterized by deviating from the central teachings of Christianity, often following unique interpretations or additional revelations that contradict historic Christian faith. This deviation places them in alignment with heretical views rather than orthodox teachings. Examples of organizations often classified as cults in Christian theology include the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. These groups, despite their self-identification as Christian, are seen as having deviated from key Christian doctrines, leading to their categorization alongside heretical movements rather than as part of the broader Christian church.