Heresy By Definition
We are living at a time in history when more and more people are highly skeptical about the notion of objective truth. Is anything objectively (or absolutely) true, or is everything simply a matter of perspective and opinion? Our culture is beginning to accept the possibility that NOTHING is objectively true. Everyone is right and no one is wrong, just so long as the truth they hold has been earnestly derived from their own personal cultural and linguistic perspective. In a world like this, few people are willing to draw a line in the sand and claim that some things are simply wrong and some things are ‘objectively’ right.
But relativism has never been part of the Christian tradition. The Christian worldview has always claimed that truth has a nature and character that demands exclusivity (more on that HERE). Christians have always maintained that there are some truths about God that are simply NOT up for negotiation. And in a similar way, there are some views about Jesus that are simply FALSE. The earliest believers felt so strongly about the exclusive nature of truth and were so convinced that the scriptures taught exclusive, absolute truths about the nature of God, Jesus and Salvation, that they declared these truths in a number of creeds (more on this HERE). For these believers, there was no platter of theological ‘choices’ from which one might pick what they like. Instead, there were objective truths that must be believed if one wanted to call him or herself a Christian. And those who did NOT uphold these truths were called HERETICS because they believed in mistruths known as HERESIES. The word “Heresy” comes from the Greek word “Hairesis”
Heresy = “Hairesis (Greek) = “Choice”
It is interesting that this word that simply describes “choice” is now universally accepted as the term that confers ERROR and inaccuracy. This is truly a reflection of the nature of truth, in that truth is exclusive. Let me give you an example. Imagine I were to walk over to a tree and pick an apple and then hold it up and say, “This is an apple”. Do I have the choice to say, “This is an orange”? Do I also have the choice to say “This is a cantaloupe”? No, I don’t have a lot of CHOICES here. There is only ONE kind of fruit that this red thing in my hand happens to be. All other choices would simply be WRONG. The fact that “Heresy” (meaning “choice”) has come to be used to describe “error” is a reflection of the fact that truth is exclusive and there are NOT multiple choices available to us:
“Heresy is an opinion or doctrine in philosophy, politics, science, art, etc., at variance with those generally accepted as authoritative” (Oxford English Dictionary)
Heresies are those ‘choices’ that are incorrect, based on some generally accepted authority. From a Christian perspective, heresies are those claims that exist in opposition to the clear objective truths described in the Bible.
The Need to Seek and Teach the Truth
From the earliest days of the Christian era, believers recognized that the scriptures taught specific objective truths about the nature of God, Jesus and Salvation. In spite of this, a number of teachers arose promoting claims and teaching ideas that were NOT consistent with the teaching of scripture. The Bible itself predicted these teachers would arise, and the scriptures warned believers to be cautious of false ideas:
But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed.
2 Corinthians 11:13-15
For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their deeds.
2 Peter 2:1-2
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves.
1 John 4:1
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
1 Timothy 1:18-20
This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith. Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered over to Satan, so that they may be taught not to blaspheme.
A man that is a heretic after the first and second admonition reject.
The early Christians had been warned by Paul, Peter and John to be careful about TRUTH. The Apostles warned their followers that truth WAS objective and that Christian truths were not simply a matter of ‘choice’, and their followers were diligent to heed these warnings. The Apostle John’s disciple, Polycarp, had a disciple of his own named Irenaeus. This second generation disciple of John took the apostolic admonition about truth very seriously. He confronted the Christian misinterpretations and lies of his day in a work that he titled, “Contra Haereses” (Against Heresies). Irenaeus understood the apostolic teaching that truth is exclusive and that error (while it is often carefully disguised) must be confronted:
“Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in on attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than truth itself.” (Against Heresies 1.2)
The Christian faith has always held truth in incredibly high regard. As Christians, we are called to seek and teach the objective truths of the Christian Worldview, while rejecting the open falsehoods of errant teaching. Irenaeus modeled this aspect of the Christian life brilliantly.
So, What Do We Call the Truth We Are to Protect?
Irenaeus made careful distinctions between what he referred to as ‘heresies’ and the truths that were taught by the Apostles. In “Against Heresies”, Irenaeus laid out the heretical claims of some of his errant contemporaries, and compared these claims to the truths that he had been taught by Polycarp, as a disciple of the Apostle John. Irenaeus referred to his own beliefs as “orthodox”. The word is also derived from Greek root words:
“Orthodox” = “ortho” (‘right’) + “dox” (‘belief’)
In essence, Irenaeus used the word to describe those beliefs that could be supported by the apostolic, Biblical teaching. The idea that there can be a ‘right belief’ presumes that there are some objective truths of the faith, and that claims that contradict these truths are false; they are NOT ‘right beliefs’! And the Bible is the authority upon which we claim something to be true. Like all humans, we Christians generally ground truths in something authoritative. We’re not alone in this approach to truth. Everyone does this to one extent or another. Not every truth can be verified from the perspective of some sort of empirical experiment or observation. You and I accept many truths on the basis of authority. This is particularly true when it comes to beliefs about what has occurred in the past (historical events). Since none of us were there at the time of an event in the past, we have to trust that a historian is accurate in his or her description. We have to trust an authority. As Christians, we trust the Bible as our authority. We trust that it is a reliable eyewitness account of what actually occurred, and we trust that it is true in its description of the nature of God, Jesus and Salvation.
The Case for Objective Biblical Truth (Orthodoxy)
The word “orthodox” does not actually appear in the Bible, but it can hardly be denied that its meaning is affirmed throughout the scriptures. The Bible DESCRIBES the existence of objective Biblical truth and PRESCRIBES that this truth must be taught and defended
Objective (and Exclusive) Biblical Truth Exists
We are presently in an age where it is stylish for Christians to be involved in an open ‘conversation’ about the questions of the faith, without ever comfortably coming to any concrete conclusions about what is TRUE about the faith. Many Christians have embraced the secular philosophy of relativism and allowed it to influence their view of Biblical truth. But for the earliest believers (those closest to the original authors of scripture) truth was objective and exclusive in nature:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.
Objective Biblical Truth Must Be Taught and Promoted
And for the earliest believers, it wasn’t enough that this objective truth was to be sought and understood; their faith also called them to teach and promote the exclusive Christian worldview to the world around them:
But as for you, speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine.
Objective Biblical Truth Must Be Defended
There was no hesitancy on the part of the first believers and leaders of the faith when it came to taking a stand for a singular objective truth about the nature of God, Jesus or Salvation. This exclusive truth was actually cherished as a precious gift and those who believed where called to guard it with their lives:
2 Timothy 1:13-14
Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you.
In a relativistic world in which all truths are deemed equally valid and true, a call to seek singular, objective truth and then defend it to those around you seems ridiculous. But this has always been the nature of the Christian faith. The Bible assumes that some things are true about God and some things are false. The Bible recognizes the importance of faith, but also recognizes that faith in and of itself has NO power. It is only when we place our faith in the correct and true OBJECT of faith, that God credits us with Salvation. The truth matters to God.
But Doesn’t the Heretic Think That Everyone Else is a Heretic?
One common challenge to the notion that Orthodox truth exists, is the fact that heretics don’t think that they’re heretics at all. Doesn’t the fact that a heretic thinks that HE is orthodox demonstrate that truth is only relative to any given majority that holds it? After all, it sure seems like the majority gets to determine what is orthodox. In most cases, it’s the majority who becomes the authority by which minority views are called heretical! Who is to say which side is actually orthodox and which side is heretical?
Once again, it all comes down to authority, doesn’t it? The fact that two sides may argue about whether or not an objective truth exists does NOT negate the existence of that objective truth. In fact, it affirms the existence of such a truth (after all, both sides are claiming to hold it). And just as every truth relies on some authority, we, as Christians, should not accept a claim purely because some group accepts it. As Christians, we can never let a group be our authority. The Bible alone must be our authority and each of us has been given the ability to read and determine what the Bible says on key issues.
As a Christian, I believe there ARE certain core objective truths related to the Christian Faith. I believe there are some truths in the Bible that God requires us to understand with accuracy. These particular “essential” truths have been clearly described. They are available to us, even with our limited ability to understand. These essentials are repeatedly taught by the scripture for a reason. They are important to God. As a result, they ought to be important to us. If nothing else, we ought to see the orthodox essentials of the faith as the defining characteristics of our identity as Christians. If we believe what the Bible says on these key points, we can call ourselves Christians. If we don’t, we simply ought not use the title to identify ourselves. There are only two options for us: orthodoxy or heresy, the truth or a distortion. As we examine the Apostle’s Creed together (HERE), let’s remember the high value that God holds for these essentials of the faith.