I cannot tell you how many times I have been called a heretic. It simply comes with the territory of teaching theology. I have been called a heretic by anti-dispensationalists, Catholics, egalitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and, of course, my anti-Calvinistic friends. The word “heretic” seems to be well worn these days. With so many different beliefs out there, people automatically assume that those who fall outside their belief system are heretics.
We need to be careful about how we use this word.
The 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), when it is not heretical in the historic sense. To be a historic heresy, it must 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. Some will say someone is a heretic for being too strong of a Calvinist, for being too nice to Catholics, for believing in theistic evolution, for saying that drinking alcohol is not a sin, for denying inerrancy, or for denying their version of free will.
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 it carries with it an important rebuke with the implications of grave consequences. Here are some qualifications:
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 (heresy)
2) One who departs from a non-essential belief (heterodoxy)
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.).
If one is a historic heretic who departs from a non-essential, this belief does not mean that it is not serious. 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 when I don’t believe that a departure necessarily undermines the very essence of Christianity, I do believe that many departures necessitate a strong rebuke.
There are also three different reasons for heresy:
1) Minor departures: Some may just deny some minor historic detail of expression. For example, I know many, including myself, who do not agree with the historic articulations of the “eternal generation of the Son” for reasons that are not connected to the essence of the doctrine (Christ’s deity).
2) Heresies held in ignorance: Many times people hold to heresies simply because they have never been taught orthodoxy. For example, some, in ignorance, deny Christ an equal place in power with the Father while believing that Christ is God (a subordinationalist view which amounts to bitheism or tritheism). More common, many hold to a modalist view of the Trinity (i.e. that there is one God who shows himself in three ways instead of one God who eternally exists in three different persons).
3) Defiant heresy. This is the type where people are well familiar with the orthodox understanding of a doctrine, yet deny it anyway. For example, many are familiar with orthodox view of the Trinity yet deny Christ is eternal or that the Holy Spirit is personal. The defiance can be both willful and/or intellectual.
I think that these are all different in view of their centrality.
Those in category one have to do with language and concepts that have defined orthodoxy by means of a particular articulation which is more negotiable, but, nevertheless, has been held by the historic faith. So, by definition, it is a heretical departure from the faith, but I would not call someone who denies the eternal generation of the Son as a formal/historic heretic.
Two is more serious, but normally comes from ignorance. Those who are not discipled in the faith can easy find themselves here. It needs correction, but it is also somewhat innocent. In other words, it is not a sinful departure from the faith in the same way as number three.
Three is the most serious as it represents a willful and informed departure from that which provides the essence of an historic confession.
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.
Heresy is a rich term that can be very constructive and very destructive. It is important to know what it really means before we use it. Sometimes people call others heretics when they only disagree with a minor traditional bent. Sometimes people call others heretics when, at worst, it is heterodoxy. And sometimes people lack the courage to identify when others have departed from a cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith. All of these are wrong.