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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Heresy Defined

In an earlier comment, a reader used a dictionary defintion of heresy. An example would be from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, as follows:

1a: adherence to a religious opinion contrary to church dogma
b : denial of a revealed truth by a baptized member of the Roman Catholic Church
c : an opinion or doctrine contrary to church dogma
2 a : dissent or deviation from a dominant theory, opinion, or practice
b : an opinion, doctrine, or practice contrary to the truth or to generally accepted beliefs or standards

They've got it wrong. Of course, the dictionary is, really, a terrible place to find out what words mean. They can't even restrict themselves to proper English (examples: "orientate" and "irregardless"), so how can we expect a dictionary to restrict the meaning of the word to what it actually means, instead of how we use it?

Part one of our dictionary definition uses two words that have no place there: opinion and dogma. Neither is of any relevance. 1b uses the Roman Catholic Church as the source of the dogma - also irrelevant. Part Two continues with the same thoughts - relativism by using the words "dominant", "opinion", "generally accepted" and "theory".

Essentially, the dictionary defines heresy just as the mass of non-Christians do - something you believe that isn't what the current authority says is right. Thus, heresy becomes a relativistic term. This occurs because they want it to be relative - if heresy is relative, prior claims of heresy can be mocked as culturally backward. If heresy is relative, then anyone who claimed the authority to declare others as heretics were real Christians - after all, anyone who claims to be one is one, right?

Wrong. See the Firefighter Parables.

If you have looked at my quotes from the church fathers closely, you may have already realized where heresy lies.

When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but vivâ voce:... But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth...It comes to this, therefore, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition.
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book III Chapters 1 & 2.

In order, then, as we have already stated, that we may prove them atheists, both in opinion and their mode (of treating a question) and in fact, and (in order to show) whence it is that their attempted theories have accrued unto them, and that they have endeavoured to establish their tenets, taking nothing from the holy Scriptures-nor is it from preserving the succession of any saint that they have hurried headlong into these opinions;
-Hippolytus, A Refutation of All Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 1

Subsequently, however, they have styled themselves Gnostics, alleging that they alone have sounded the depths of knowledge.
-Hippolytus, Book 4, Chapter 1

All who believe and are assured that grace and truth were obtained through Jesus Christ, and who know Christ to be the truth, agreeably to His own declaration, "I am the truth," derive the knowledge which incites men to a good and happy life from no other source than from the very words and teaching of Christ. And by the words of Christ we do not mean those only which He spake when He became man and tabernacled in the flesh; for before that time, Christ, the Word of God, was in Moses and the prophets. For without the Word of God, how could they have been able to prophesy of Christ? And were it not our purpose to confine the present treatise within the limits of all attainable brevity, it would not be difficult to show, in proof of this statement, out of the Holy Scriptures...Every one, therefore, must make use of elements and foundations of this sort, according to the precept, "Enlighten yourselves with the light of knowledge," if he would desire to form a connected series and body of truths agreeably to the reason of all these things, that by dear and necessary statements he may ascertain the truth regarding each individual topic, and form, as we have said, one body of doctrine, by means of illustrations and arguments,-either those which he has discovered in holy Scripture, or which he has deduced by closely tracing out the consequences and following a correct method.
- Origen, De Principiis, Preface

Now this heresy of yours does not receive certain Scriptures; and whichever of them it does receive, it perverts by means of additions and diminutions, for the accomplishment of it own purpose; and such as it does receive, it receives not in their entirety; but even when it does receive any up to a certain point as entire, it nevertheless perverts even these by the contrivance of diverse interpretations. Truth is just as much opposed by an adulteration of its meaning as it is by a corruption of its text.
- Tertullian, The Perscription Against Heretics, Chapter 17.

It is clear what heresy is: promoting a doctrine contrary to Scripture. This can take two forms - either a supposition of a doctrine that comes from entirely without the scriptures, or an exposition of the scriptures that is not in order with the "tradition" of the church.

Now, unfortunately, just as the word "heresy" has been twisted, so has the word "tradition" been twisted to suit the user. Tradition in this sense is not something we have done for a while - it is the unbroken chain of interpretation of the apostles and early church bishops through the third century. While Dan Brown was wrong on a lot of things, he was right in this - Constantine changed the dynamic of the church by making it a source of political power, and the traditions developed after the Edict of Milan are of little value and no doctrinal importance. In fact, any doctrine that sprung up after the 4th bishop of Rome, (Peter, Ignatius, Polycarp, then Irenaeus), is likely no tradition at all in the sense of a doctrinally binding precept.

Heresy has the two forms, but it is of the same spirit. While Hippolytus addressed over an hundred heresies, the fact is that they were, and are, all gnosticism. While early gnosticism had mystical elements, they were not crucial. What gnosticism has that is the creator of the previous mystical systems, and any current ideas, is its central precept that an individual can have their own personal knowledge of the doctrines of God, which is not contained in the Scriptures.

The atheist, the "fundamentalist", the liberation theologian, the "Christians" who deny the truth of Scripture and claim that some parts are true while others are not - those are the heretics, as they not only deny God's truth, but claim that their idea is ascendant. In this they place themselves above Him and His revleation of the Word. Heretics were never supposed to be met with threats of the stake, but with a thorough refutation of their illogical tenets that are, at their root, based upon their own personal ideas. Oftentimes, they are not even worth that, as casting pearls before swine will get your pearls stomped. Save the pearls for those who are seeking pearls.

Thus, the seeker is not a heretic, however. The person who questions the truth of Christianity, honestly, without simply dismissing it based upon their own ideas without examining the historical validity or the logical validity of the actual Scriptures and the doctrines of the early church, are those whom we must meet with the truth and love in action.

I hope there are questions. I intend to follow this post with a further refutation of the DaVinci Code, based upon my minimal grasp of history, and a post on the Catholic Church and heresy.


  • Over the centuries our knowledge of the physical world has grown dramatically. How is a non-heretic to deal with situations where the Bible, or at least the Traditions of which you speak, contradict our modern understanding of physical reality?

    Were Galileo and Copernicus heretics? If not, why not? Why would Darwin be different, if, indeed, he is?

    The fundamental problem with non-heretical Christianity is it eventually forces us to choose between science and the Bible. If forced to choose, science wins, no contest.

    "...because they have discovered the unadulterated truth..."

    I understand this line of reasoning, but the problem I speak of has nothing to do with individual ego or even belief, but the simple statement of fact that humans have learned a great deal over the past 2000 years. This knowledge may not be wisdom, but it is knowledge and the facts we have discovered about our universe cannot be ignored.

    Many years ago I tried to make all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. They don't. Eventually I decided what I have called "fundamentalist" but you would call "non-heretical" Christianity is the correct Biblical view. And thus, it is also wrong.

    I'm still open for a good heresy, though. One that assumes the authors of the Bible were just human like the rest of us and made plenty of mistakes just like we would make in attempting the same task. And the next logical step is to assume the authors of most of the other religions also were inspired by the same spirit and made their own best attempts at uncovering the truth. But what is left isn't exactly Christian, is it?

    By Blogger Mark, at 10/19/2005 01:03:00 AM  

  • Hey, I have a very specific question. If someone claims to have "the gift of prophesy", does that make him a heretic basically be definition.

    In particular, I'm talking about David Reagan, a guy my cousin (whom I've pointed to this site, btw) likes to quote.

    By Blogger Mark, at 10/19/2005 03:16:00 PM  

  • On what basis, other than your dislike of imperial Christendom, do you deny that the Church from Constantine on ceased to be the pillar and ground of truth? Why at that point did the Church lose it's right to define "what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all?"

    By Blogger Scott, at 10/19/2005 08:20:00 PM  

  • an individual can have their own personal knowledge of the doctrines of God, which is not contained in the Scriptures.

    Given that the scriptures were compiled partly to attack heresy (particularly strains of gnosticism), isn't your definition viciously circular?

    Additionally, it doesn't tell us much: most heterodox groups will assert that their reading is actually in line with scripture.

    By Blogger jpe, at 10/19/2005 08:41:00 PM  

  • Wow, what great comments!

    First, to Mark, a definite non-heretic. Galileo and Copernicus may have been declared heretics by the Catholic Church, but if you mean that they discovered things such as the rotation of the earth and the planetary systems that 'contradict Scripture', I would simply say: No - because they do not contradict Scripture. I am unaware of Galileo and Copernicus' belief systems (I haven't progressed that far in church history with my studies yet). That is where heresy lies - not in the head, but in the heart.

    I disagree with the assertion that science and the Bible are ever at odds. Empirical science, as a study involving observation and experiment, is not in the same arena as faith. The "science falsely called" warned against in the Bible is that exposition of science into a worldview - after all, isn't evolution the only "science" we speak of here?

    Evolution fails to be science because it takes a known mechanism, and claims that mechanism produces something - something which it has never been seen to produce. It conflicts with faith because, by definition, it is unguided. To believe that an unguided mechanism has produced something it has never been seen to produce (that is, an organism of greater complexity), and that it has done it literally millions of times, yet it has not ever been observed to do so in 125 years of Darwinism, is a faith statement, not science.

    My discussion on the Bible as inspired is here .

    David Reagan? I went by his web site, and aside from his not-particularly-unique-or-bold statement that we are "in the end times", I'm not sure what he means by prophecy. If it is the spiritual gift of prophecy, which simply means the public exposition of scripture, then there is nothing heretical abou t it. If he means that he alone knows the mind of God, and we can only know those things by following David Reagan's plan, then he would be a heretic indeed.

    Good question. Unfortunately, we'll have to wait for my post on the Catholic Church and heresy for the details. The short answer is that it was not the assimilation of the church into the state that ended the line of "tradition" that is worthy of doctrinal weight, but the departure of the Church from that tradition. After all, "what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all" is valid only if true! When we see the departure of the mid-thrid century from the doctrines held since the apostles, we see tradition fail us.

    Not at all. Wouldn't something compiled to fight heresy be the best source of non-heretical data? Furhtermore, there were other reasons for the compilation of the New Testament - specifically, the dying out of eye-witnesses, evangelism, and theological unity.

    I do agree that heretical group will say that their doctrines are in line with scripture. That is why we must rely upon the doctrinal "tradition" of the early church to guide us in such discussions.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 10/20/2005 03:11:00 PM  

  • You talk about honest seekers. What about someone who looks at the historical and logical validity of scriptures and comes to a conclusion different than yours?

    By Blogger Hallq, at 10/20/2005 08:49:00 PM  

  • I brought up Galileo and Copernicus because the Church at the time believed them to be heretics and thought their discoveries conflicted with the Bible.

    And I'm not just talking about evolution, as cosmology, geology and other sciences are also in play, here.

    I disagree with you on evolution, of course. It is no different than other observable sciences. Did you know there is no direct way to measure G, the gravitational constant? Yet we believe we know it's value to a great accuracy because all of our observable keep pointing back to the same value. Only theories that are valid hold together like that. Evolution is one of them.

    Today, of course, it isn't even about just making observations. Genetic algorithms have been used to solve problems the programmers had no idea how to solve. The evolutionary algorithm works, beyond a shadow of a doubt. No faith required.

    (Shoot, I wasn't going to get into that right now.)

    Genesis is simply incompatible with what we know about our world. If the creation story was just that, a story, and the Bible was only about faith and the spirit we would have no conflict here. But as soon as you call the Bible inerrant, including all the physical stuff, we have a problem.

    In many ways I'm not sure why I asked the question, as I knew your answer before I started. Since you won't let yourself the Bible can be wrong, it is by definition not going to be in conflict with "correct" science.

    But if you could let yourself pretend for a moment, how would you deal if you ever were convinced a physical fact were in conflict with the Bible?

    By Blogger Mark, at 10/21/2005 03:47:00 AM  

  • (Ignore the part on G, it's measured a bit more directly than I suggested. I thought I remembered those dumbbell experiments never working that well. I should remember to Google before posting, not right after!)

    By Blogger Mark, at 10/21/2005 03:53:00 AM  

  • Mark,
    Maybe you can do a post on the evo on your blog. We can discuss it at length there, if you decide. You already beat me to the gravitational constant of G - I though it odd that you got that incorrect, since you have an MS in physics and all (quitter!)

    To answer your question, if a fact was presented, incontrovertibly - that it, it required no extrapolation or faith of its own, but stood on its own merits and the merits of supporting facts - and it did not fit in with Christianity, I would have to abandon my faith.

    There are some who would not, or say they would but don't mean it. As I believe that true faith, which places dependence of everything upon the object of faith, must be historically and factually based, I can come to no other conclusion.

    Great question! I would like to discuss two things with them: which historical evidence and logical methods they used. If they included the same ones as I have, I would like to hear their position. There would be three possible results: I would alter my position, they would later theirs, or we would agree to disagree. The third case is the worst - after all, there is only one truth, and one of us would not have it!

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 10/21/2005 11:25:00 AM  

  • Hammer,

    Interesting post. Let me throw a few things out there and get your response. I am going to post your section on "tradition" in its entirety:

    Now, unfortunately, just as the word "heresy" has been twisted, so has the word "tradition" been twisted to suit the user. Tradition in this sense is not something we have done for a while - it is the unbroken chain of interpretation of the apostles and early church bishops through the third century. While Dan Brown was wrong on a lot of things, he was right in this - Constantine changed the dynamic of the church by making it a source of political power, and the traditions developed after the Edict of Milan are of little value and no doctrinal importance. In fact, any doctrine that sprung up after the 4th bishop of Rome, (Peter, Ignatius, Polycarp, then Irenaeus), is likely no tradition at all in the sense of a doctrinally binding precept.

    Let me just make a quick correction that may or may not make an impact (in your mind) on your larger point. The four bishops of Rome that you list are not, in fact, bishops of Rome at all. Peter is the one we could discuss, I suppose, seeing as certainly some Christian traditions (there's that word again) place him as the first bishop (as indeed did Eusebius), so I am OK with placing him at the top of the list, but let us have no illusions that his region of authority was very large. Quite the contrary, I would think. But that is of no matter, really; I am just aiming for closer definition. The second on your list, Ignatius, was the bishop of Antioch. He was on his way to Rome to be martyred (as far as we know, he actually was martyred), but he was a bishop of the Syrian church. Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor and his sole extant writing is his Epistle to the Philippians which is of questionable value when it comes to the passing on of tradition, although this could be debated I should think. Finally, Irenaeus was the bishop of Lyon whose work against heresies you have already made mention of.

    So does the fact that these gentlemen were not bishops of Rome participating in some form of doctrinal/traditional succession matter? Peter never knew any of these men (although he may have known Clement of Rome who is often viewed as bishop #2, but that is neither here nor there, I guess); Polycarp and Ignatius were contemporaries, but only the vaguest assumptions about there general agreement on doctrinal/traditional issues can be made; finally, Irenaeus knew none of these men but certainly has a notion of what is and is not correct belief.

    Another question worth asking is whether those such as Marcion or some of the gnostics did not see themselves to be equally in the tradition of Jesus, Paul, etc.? We know that gnostics and Marcionites often attended the same "sevices" as proto-orthodox Christians, so it would seem that they did not feel discomfort about their doctrinal traditions vis a vis those of the proto-orthodox.

    Bottom line: I think that you are right to say that there is a line of tradition that begins with Jesus and extends through Paul (more than Peter) which extends (with some enhancements of understanding that modern day Christians would not see as outside the orthodox position) to the 4th century terminus that you suggest. As is my wont, though, I want to make sure that we understand that the picture is murkier than you suggest in some ways. The chain of continuity is not as linked as we might wish (and pray tell, what is going on in Alexandria between ~50 - 150 AD/CE? This is a rhetorical question.) nor are the lines quite as clear "on the ground" as the heresiologists might suggest.

    By Blogger Pelty, at 10/21/2005 01:07:00 PM  

  • Focusing on historical evidence - really needed to establish the truth of Christianity over mere Deism - we have the Gospels, Paul's letters, and supporting material about Paul's martyrdom, the authorship of the Gosepls, etc.

    Basically, the claims for the Gospels being written by eyewitnesses are based mainly on Iranaeus c. 185, too long after the Gospels were written to be reliable. There is also a mention of something written by Mark in the early 2nd century, but it is unclear if this was in reference to the Gospel of Mark that we know.

    If these claims are unreliable, the Gospel stories likely passed through many retellings before being written down, and the potential distortions become too great to have a firm historical basis for any beliefs.

    By Blogger Hallq, at 10/21/2005 01:19:00 PM  

  • That's what I get for writing from memory!

    The gentlemen named were not, as Pelty describes, bishops of Rome. Peter was - but bishop meant theological and pastoral leader of the believers in the area, not some kind of wide-ranging ecclesiastical authority.

    The three I names are church fathers of whom we have their writings preserved, and who attest to the succession of bishops - not just in Rome, but elsewhere in the known world. They were also all martyred for their faith - a supporting statement in itself. I should have included St. Clement as well, who was the fourth bishop of Rome, and the first of whom we have his own writings.

    The emphasized relationship is not one of who personally knew who, but what they believed. When considering the value of tradition, we must examine - was there an unbroken series of doctrine that was kept by the early church? Polycarp and Ignatius being disciples of John , yet holding the same doctrinal ideas as St. Clement, strenghtens the position of doctrinal tradition.

    The gnostics and the Marcionites called themselves Christians, just as many sects today do the same. The difference (as Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Augustine, etc show in their descriptions of the Marcionites) was their departure from known doctrine, and denial of the Scriptures. Since Marcion eliminated all of the Gospels from consideration except a truncated portion of Luke (taking out all OT references and anything that reflected positively upon the Jews), we see his heresy immediately. Anti-Semites are hardly of pure doctrine.

    Alexandria vs Antioch? A fascinating discussion that we can address at a later date. Suffice it to say for now that the church was made more complete through the contirbutions of the Alexandrian school of thought.

    "Basically, the claims for the Gospels being written by eyewitnesses are based mainly on Iranaeus c. 185, too long after the Gospels were written to be reliable. There is also a mention of something written by Mark in the early 2nd century, but it is unclear if this was in reference to the Gospel of Mark that we know."

    Oddly enough, when this test is applied for any other historical document, the NT wins HUGE. Check out my post in the sidebar on "Biblical Inerrancy" for internal and external evidence.

    Furthermore, you seem to have missed the references I have available. The Mauritanian fragment, dated 170 lists almost every current NT book as canonical - hardly likely if they had just been produced in the recent past. It also predates Irenaeus' work.

    Furhtermore, Marcion himself selected a canon that included his truncated version of Luke, and rejected Matthew and John. This occured in 144. He also included almost all of the Pauline epistles, but none of the other apostolic writings. Why would a true follower of the apostles reject their work, when the vast majority of the church, except him, accept them as authoritative?

    I don't claim that the Gospels were written in AD34. I claim they were written by four eyewitnesses, who used their own experiences as well as references at hand to construct them. I would like to avoid a lenghty discussion of NT canon and the date and authorship of the Gospels, all of which can be concluded by reasonable historians to be prior to AD 70, with the exception of John, which could have been as late as AD 90.

    I appeal that in evaluating the date and composition of the Gospels, we apply the same tests we use for other historical documents.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 10/21/2005 03:34:00 PM  

  • Justin Martyr, in abotu 150 AD, quotes all four "Memiors of the Apostles", which he tells his non-Christian readers are called "Gospels".

    The only argument against the Gospels as authentically written and dated in in first century is the argument from silence - a fallacy.

    Pelty - I hold that the evidence is a powerful as it can possibly be, as it has been two thousand years since. Incontrovertible? No. The most reasonable answers? Yes.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 10/21/2005 03:38:00 PM  

  • I'll eagerly await that post. In the meantime I'd wonder, unless new teachings are exposed to be in manifest contradiction of what has been espoused previously, and accepting that tradition is usually defined only when heresy arises, how are we to draw the line of binding vs. non-binding.

    By Blogger Scott, at 10/21/2005 05:52:00 PM  

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