Monday, January 21, 2008


I've been thinking a lot lately about his word "Heresy" or its more accusative brother, "Heretic," and it has lead me to a conclusion: We shouldn't use the word Heresy (or Heretic) anymore.

Here is why.

1. The word is too strong

The word heresy is an old word, dating back to the 2nd century CE and Irenaeus. It comes from the Greek word meaning choose, referring to a choice of held beliefs. Now, we all know that a word can have a denotative meaning (the literal meaning, what the word's definition is) and a connotative meaning (the emotion that the word stirs up and what it is associated with). A classic example of this, and a word that I am intentionally using as an example for this discussion, is the word Nazi. The word Nazi denotes a member of the National Socialist German Workers' Party that was strong in Germany in the 30's and 40's. The word Nazi has a connotation that is much different, and is associated with the killing of 12 million people, 6 million of them being Jews, and the racism, war, and destruction that went with the world events in the late 30's and 40's. So, then, to call someone a Nazi is not to accuse them of identifying with the National Socialist German Workers' Party, but with the other events and emotions that went with that word.

The word heresy, to a lesser degree, of course, has a similar effect. Though the word is very old and means (denotes) a challenge of the prescribes system of belief, the word is associated with the time when the Catholic church was at its height (of both power and evil), and would often burn heretics at the stake. Therefore, the word heresy, or calling someone a heretic, can't help but conjure up images from stories and movies of what they did to heretics in the middle ages. We should not wish that fate on anyone. So, though the word denotes a valid concept, it also has a connotation that is negative and violent.

2. The word has little or no meaning

Secondly, though the connotation is extremely negative, even if taken at face value, the word has very little usefulness. Essentially, calling someone a heretic is to assert that you disagree with that person. If I am an Armenian and you are a Calvinist and I call you a heretic, all I am saying is that we have different historical views about certain aspects of God, and that I think I'm right. You could easily assert the same. And, here is the point, neither of us would really be saying anything useful. The face of Christendom today encompasses a kaleidoscope of views with only a very few "non-negotiables" at the center. From my experience, it is generally on the peripheral matters that the term heresy is used, which seems all the more inappropriate. Why, then, use the word heresy, when disagreement is so obvious?

3. The word is divisive

Lastly, but clearly most obvious, the word heresy is so very divisive. It is the trump card in an argument. When this word is used, one is no longer involved in a conversation, but it has become slander.

Furthermore, calling someone a heretic certainly does not make friends, but only enemies. By doing this, the speaker has drawn a line in the sand and judged (rather than letting God judge), automatically creating two sides, mine and theirs, "us" and "them." This is in no way productive.

In addition, using this word is narrow. It is not graciously considering another's opinions, wrestling with it, and agreeing to disagree. Rather, it is defining orthodoxy based upon ones' own personal view. May we thank God for the heresies (and heretics) throughout the generations, for those who have challenged our incorrect views of God have made us into better thinkers (Luther comes to the front of my mind, as does Dr. King, on this day in which we celebrate his life).

In conclusion, let me say that I am not against discernment, disagreement, or even orthodoxy. But may we always keep in our minds the sentiments of Tony Campolo, that we are all heretics in some sense, because no theology is perfect, nor can mere words capture the nature of an infinite God. They all fall short. May we have the humility to avoid this word, and may we always be thinking and seeking God for truth.


Nate Watson said...

nick, you have many valid points, but I think your word study is lacking. 2nd century? Acts 15:5 "harieseos." That is the root of the word. The good doctor used it to refer the Pharisees. In the BAGDT lexicon of the New Testament, one of the definitions given as would apply in the NT setting is, "false party or teaching." The word entails connotive element of divisiveness...isn't that what deviation from the truth does...DIVIDES?

Or what about 2 Peter 2:1 (haireseis)? Were the writers of the NT wrong in using a "divisive" word?

Nick said...

Hi Nate,

Not according to the article I referenced. Heresy does not appear in english translations, and though that Greek word that the word comes from would have been used earlier, the term was not made popular until Iraneus in the 2nd century. I guess I could have been more clear, as the article says It was given wide currency by Irenaeus in his tract Contra Haereses (Against Heresies) to describe and discredit his opponents in the early Christian Church.

And certainly the biblical writers were not out of line to the terms they did, you could tell that was not my point. They did call people false prophets, an idea that dates back to the OT. But, I think you would agree that the first generation of aposteles is quite different from 21st century pluralistic America. That was my context of my point.


Nate Watson said...

I would disagree with the article than...the english is a TRANSLITERATION of the Greek...there is no differece between the two.

And I would agree that there is quite a difference between pluralism in America 2008 and that which the apostles encountered in the first century AD, except there was more acceptance of "more than one path" in the time of the Apostles. Syncretism abounded and bulstered pluralism. Consider Paul's sermon at Mars Hill...pluralism was actually convenient in his conveying of the gospel (the altar to the unknown god).

In my opinion, there is nothing new under the sun of the apostle Paul and the preacher, Tony Campolo.

Chip Burkitt said...

Though I seldom use the word myself, I won't agree that it ought never to be used.

1. Heresy is not too strong when you are talking about error being promulgated as truth, particularly as saving truth. Any gospel other than the gospel of grace through faith in Jesus Christ is heresy.

2. The word has no meaning only to those who use it loosely to castigate those with whom they disagree. In the context of scripturally-based, well-reasoned argument, it may have just as precise a meaning as that which the New Testament writers and church fathers intended when they used it.

3. The word is indeed divisive. But haven't you read that Jesus himself said, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn
'a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law&mdash
a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.'"
Wherever the truth is upheld, division is bound to occur because some people love "darkness rather than light."

Nick said...

Fair enough, Chip. Although, when a word is abused to this level, in order to redeem it, it must be put to death for a period of time before it is resurrected, in my humble opinion.

As for the divisiveness, Jesus was talking about those in the kingdom vs those who were not in the kingdom, whereas this word is often used to divide those in christianity, when the division over the issue is totally bogus. If the word was used properly, i suppose the divisiveness wouldnt be that big of a deal, but as i have argued, that is not the case.

Matt Brinkman said...

I would also vote to keep the word.

In defense of "heresy" I would concur with all of Chip's points. Also the pack rat in me hates to throw anything away while it still has use. Unless you have some method of disposing of false doctrine and teachers of the same, "heresy" and "heretic" will still have utility.