What is Heresy?!

her·e·sy /ˈherəsē/ Belief or opinion contrary to orthodox religious (especially Christian) doctrine.

Okay…so what is orthodox?

or·tho·dox /ˈôrTHəˌdäks/ Conforming to what is generally or traditionally accepted as right or true; established and approved.

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Questions of orthodoxy and heresy began to really occupy my mind several years back as I was beginning to investigate the claims of the Catholic Church. Essentially, I began to realize that even though I had been raised with the idea that certain Christian beliefs were “orthodox” and certain Christian beliefs were “heretical,” I really had no way within my Protestant tradition to say which beliefs were orthodox, which were heretical, or why. Everyone seemed to rely on their own personal interpretation of Scripture to determine right from wrong – orthodox from heresy. Within this context, notions of orthodoxy and heresy devolved into mere personal opinion, and in the interest of unity were typically surrendered as “non-essentials.” Orthodoxy became shorthand for “generally accepted” while heresy became shorthand for “generally condemned.”

When I was a Protestant, if I were to have read the definition of orthodox listed above, I would have been on board with the vagaries of “generally accepted” – but “traditional?!” Church traditions aren’t generally received very favorably within the Protestant movement. Most Protestants tend to exhibit a fierce individualism when it comes to their own personal interpretations of the Scripture. In fact, many Protestants today feel no particular need to hold to the traditions and doctrines espoused by the fathers of the Reformation – much less the patristic fathers of the Church in the first several centuries after Christ.

“Established and approved?” That gets even dicier. Established and approved by whom exactly?

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Orthodox or Opinion?

And yet, these are critical questions. Orthodoxy assumes that truth is absolute and non-relative, and furthermore, that because of God’s self-revelation of Himself to man we can know the truth.

Feel free to check out my post: Thoughts on Absolute Truth and Certainty in a Post-Modern Relativistic World for more thoughts on this subject. And yes, if you thought the title was long, wait till you see the actual article 😉

“Generally accepted” is obviously too vague. Are we really to assume that truth is simply a matter of popular opinion? That morality is merely a matter of taste? If not, then we must engage with the historical and traditional perspectives while also asking the question, “Who, ‘establishes and approves’ that which is true? Who determines orthodoxy?”

And in spite of the critical nature of these questions, these are questions which Protestantism can’t answer.

Orthodoxy has become opinion, and heresy is dismissed in the elevation of personal conscience and the desire for Christian unity. [Tweet This]

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I read an interesting article the other day by author Ben Cabe, who is a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. The article is provocatively titled, “Is Protestantism a Heresy?”, but in spite of the title, the author attempts to answer the question graciously and with love. In the article he points out that, “It is natural that a Protestant understanding of the church, and church unity, would consist in a ‘least common denominator’ model since such a model is the only unity any Protestant church achieves. Due to this phenomenon, there will always be a variety of opposing views within the walls of any given Protestant church. Many Protestants may wonder why Orthodox and Roman Catholics will not accept such a model of unity where we can ‘agree to disagree’ on things they consider to be ‘non-essential.’ The biggest problem with this way of thinking is that, for the church of history, those other things are essential.”1

I make a very similar point in my post, Altar Calls and Other Protestant Traditions There is a feeling among Protestants that as, “long as we agree on the ‘essentials’ we can disagree on the ‘non-essentials.’ [But] Nowhere in Scripture do we read that parts of Christ’s gospel are ‘essential’ and that other parts are ‘non-essential.’ To the contrary, none of Christ’s Gospel is nonessential, up for spurious opinions, or of a contradictory nature.”

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Roadguides to Orthodoxy

In trying to get beyond this, “least common denominator model” Ben goes on to suggest three rules which can help guide us in our search for orthodoxy: Antiquity, Universality, and Consensus. In fact these three could be restated to fit the definition of orthodoxy above.

  • Antiquity = Traditionally Accepted
  • Universality = Generally Accepted
  • Consensus = Established

You will notice however that we are still missing one point from the definition above – Approved.

We’ll return to this concept shortly.

In the article Ben goes on to say, “So is Protestantism a heresy? Forgive me, but I will not answer this question. I cannot answer the question…It seems clear, however, that Protestantism is not, and cannot, be considered grounded in history—something that both the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics can claim. With respect to this, and the sayings above, this is a serious reality. But does this mean that there is an absence of God’s grace in Protestantism? I do not think so. After all, ‘All Truth is God’s Truth’ as Augustine tells us. Certainly there are some, however, that are closer to the Truth than others.”

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A Better Way

And here I believe that Catholicism can answer the question in a way that perhaps Orthodoxy cannot. Here we see the necessity of the approved concept above. Without the authority of the Bishop of Rome, a first among equals, we are left with a general consensus but without a formal and binding stamp of approval. In fact, Eastern Orthodoxy struggles with this very issue today.

The Eastern Orthodox are only able to look to the past for answers to questions of today. They accept the ecumenical councils of the early Church, but in breaking from the authority of the Bishop of Rome they are left without the means to call new ecumenical councils or indeed formally “approve” the decisions of the various Orthodox patriarchs today. This lack of final authority – of binding approval – makes it increasingly difficult for them to determine what is orthodox and what is heresy in spite of the three guidelines which Ben proposes. Without this final and binding authority there remains much disagreement on issues ranging from contraception, divorce and remarriage, and yes, even on whether or not Protestants are heretics 😉

In contrast, the Catholic Church is very precise in her definition of heresy and makes a clear delineation between heresy, apostasy, and schism.

“Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”2

With that in mind, does the Catholic Church consider Protestants to be heretics? The following is taken from the catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 817-819.

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In fact, “in this one and only Church of God from its very beginnings there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly censures as damnable. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church—for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame.”3 The ruptures that wound the unity of Christ’s Body—here we must distinguish heresy, apostasy, and schism – do not occur without human sin:

Where there are sins, there are also divisions, schisms, heresies, and disputes. Where there is virtue, however, there also are harmony and unity, from which arise the one heart and one soul of all believers.4

“However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers.… All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.”5

“Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth” are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: “the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.”6 Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to “Catholic unity.”7

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An Obligation to the Truth

Here we see the Catholic Church making a clear distinction between material and formal heresy. According to canon law, Formal heresy is the obstinate denial of a truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith. Material heresy is holding to heretical doctrines through no fault of one’s own. Material heresy, therefore, does not necessarily constitute a sin.

This was indeed my own experience. Having grown up Protestant, many of my beliefs were objectively wrong from a Catholic perspective. But since I was unaware that they were wrong, indeed since I sincerely held to these beliefs in good faith, there was no sin involved on my part.

From a Catholic perspective, the answer to the question of, “Is Protestantism a Heresy?” is this:

Some Protestant doctrines are objectively heretical, most Protestant individuals are not.

It is only when we are made aware of the error of our beliefs that we are then obliged to follow the truth where it may lead us.

May all of us be led by the Spirit of Truth further from heresy and closer to orthodoxy as we follow the One who is Himself Truth!

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  1. Ben Cabe, Is Protestantism a Heresy? Conciliar Post, Sept. 03 2015 

  2. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 2089, 2nd Ed., p. 507. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference 

  3. Unitatis redintegratio 3 

  4. Origen, Hom. in Ezech. 9, 1: PG 13, 732 

  5. Unitatis redintegratio 3 

  6. Unitatis redintegratio 3 § 2; cf. Lumen gentium 15 

  7. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 817-819, 2nd Ed., p. 216, Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference 

  3 comments for “What is Heresy?!

  1. October 1, 2015 at 2:00 PM

    I like Heresy with almonds. Oh, wait.

    • Adam N. Crawford
      October 2, 2015 at 7:34 AM

      The corollary being, if you’re not careful Hershey can lead you to hell…

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