On Heresy and Heretics

Something disconcerting that I have noticed in my interactions with various people about what I am writing here – especially in relation to Karl Barth and T.F. Torrance – is how frequently the terms ‘heresy’, ‘heretic’, and ‘heretical’ get thrown around for just about anything and everything. Just recently I was permanently banned from Facebook group because of my supposedly ‘heretical’ posts. Now heresy is a serious charge in that effectively places a theological view, or those who hold said theological view, as beyond hereticthe pale of Christian orthodoxy. Yet ‘orthodoxy’ is simply another way of saying ‘the things that we must believe in order to be Christians’. So in other words, affixing the label of ‘heretic’ to someone essentially means to call him or her ‘reprobate’.

My concern arises not from the fact that I shy away from identifying heresy when I see it (which I don’t) or that I get upset with other people when they do (which, again, I don’t), as long as said ‘heresy’ is actually heretical. The problem, to me, seems that there are significant number of people who call ‘heretical’ anything that differs from their own views. So those who deny inerrancy are ‘heretics’, those who affirm miraculous spiritual gifts are ‘heretics’, those who are neo-orthodox are ‘heretics’, those who deviate in the slightest degree from a single phrase of the Westminster Confession are ‘heretics’. The list could go on and on. However, when any or all of these things become ‘heresies’, then I would contend that we seem to have lost the proper conception of what heresy truly is.

In his highly accessible book Know the Heretics, Justin Holcomb provides a great service by clarifying for us what heresy actually entails:

Following the apostles, the early church maintained that heresy means directly denying the central orthodox beliefs of the church. Early church creedal statements codified orthodoxy into a widely accepted form. Even before important Christian beliefs such as the canon of Scripture…and the Trinity had been carefully articulated, the mainstream of Christian believers and leaders had a sense of the essential truths that had been handed down from the apostles and the prophets, and passed along to each generation of Christians through Scripture, sermons, and baptismal creeds. Before the developments at Nicaea and Chalcedon regarding proper beliefs about the Trinity and the dual natures of Christ, the early church possessed what is known as the “rule of faith”….The rule of faith gave birth to more precise statements of the essentials of the faith, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. These widely accepted formulations of the essential “right doctrine” (orthodoxy) handed down from the apostles were crucial for combating heresy.

It is important to note, however, that the early church did not consider every potential wrong belief to be heretical. Rather, only those beliefs that contradicted the essential elements of the faith were to be labeled heresy, not disagreements on nonessential doctrines….It is important to bear [this distinction] in mind…since there are those who think that heresy is anything that does not agree with their own interpretation of Holy Scripture. These people fail to differentiate between the primary and secondary elements of the Christian faith and make every belief they have into a pillar of Christianity.[1]

Holcomb is right on here. A heresy is not a denial of a secondary but a primary element of the Christian faith. These primary elements find expression in the ecumenical creeds of the early church, in particular the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, and the Chalcedonian Definition. Other aspects of biblical teaching not articulated in these creeds, although not unimportant, are to be considered ‘secondary’ and therefore not subject to being labelled as ‘heresy’.

It is no small irony that many of those who seem to abuse the word ‘heresy’ the most (at least according to my own personal experience) are those who claim to belong to the Reformed tradition. Why is this so? Richard Muller explains:

In his preface to his treatise on “the use of the fathers in the decision of controversies,” [Jean] Daillé argued the point that the debate between “the Church of Rome and the Protestants” was, at heart, a debate over “necessary articles” and “fundamentals of religion.” The Protestant churches, he argued, accepted as fundamental articles of belief those teachings that are “both clearly delivered in the Scriptures, and expressly admitted by the ancient councils and the Fathers; and … indeed unanimously received by the greatest part of Christians in all ages, and in different parts of the world.” Daillé’s argument in large part parallels that of Calvin in his response to Sadleto—perhaps because both writers assumed that the Protestant churches fully respect the standard of catholicity enunciated by the fifth century teacher, Vincent of Lerins, namely, what has been believed “everywhere, always, and by all.” Daillé notes the basic articles: that there is one supreme God who is the creator of all things; that he created human beings according to his image; that human beings revolted against the divine demand of righteous obedience and fell into sin; that redemption from sin is accomplished in Jesus Christ who is the eternal Son of God the Father, incarnate of the virgin Mary; that Christ made satisfaction for sin on the cross; that Christ ascended in to heaven and will ultimately return as the judge of all mankind; that Christ sent the Spirit, who proceeds from both the Father and the Son, for the sake of salvation; and that these three persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, are one God; that the Apostles preached this doctrine throughout the world, planted churches, and conveyed to the churches two sacraments—baptism, “the sacrament of our regeneration,” and the Lord’s Supper, “the sacrament of our communion with Christ; that Christians are obliged to love God and neighbor and to accept as true the teachings of the Old and New Testaments. Daillé concludes that these are the articles that Protestants accept as true and fundamental and that “if all other Christians would but content themselves with these, there would never be any schism in the Church.”

Not content with these fundamental truths, the “adversaries,” namely, the Pope and the teachers of the Roman Church, adds a series of doctrinal claims as necessary doctrines, without the acceptance of which “there is no possible hope of salvation.” Daillé enumerates: “that the Pope of Rome is the head and supreme monarch of the whole Christian Church throughout the world,” “that he, or at least the church which he acknowledges a true one, cannot possibly err in matters of faith,” “that the sacrament of the Eucharist is to be adored, as being really Jesus Christ, not a piece of bread,” “that the mass is a sacrifice, that really expiates the sins of the faithful,” “that our souls after death, before they enter into heaven, are to pass through a certain fire, and there endure grievous torments; thus making atonement for their sins,” “that none but the priest himself that consecrated the Eucharist is bound by right to receive it in both kinds.” Such doctrines are identified as fundamental by the Roman Church, despite the inability to draw them from Scripture, as necessary for salvation and as believed throughout the whole course of Christianity; but even here, Daillé notes, the Roman Church errs, inasmuch as these are hardly the universal teachings of the fathers, inasmuch as the fathers themselves often failed to agree on such questions, and inasmuch as the fathers, in any case, are not the final authority in doctrinal matters.[2]

This is extremely important. The Reformed orthodox who followed on the heels of the Reformers themselves understood their ongoing quarrel with Rome to hinge on the distinction between the primary and secondary articles of faith. Characteristic of the Catholic Church was its tendency to define as necessary truths the accretions that had accumulated over time. Thus, a person was a heretic who not only denied one of the affirmations of ecumenical creeds (the Trinity, the deity of Christ, etc.) but who also denied, for example, the absolute authority of the pope or the doctrine of purgatory or the transubstantiation of the Eucharist. In other words, it was a hallmark of the Protestant tradition, in contrast to Rome, to take care in delineating between the primary and secondary articles of faith so as to recover and properly emphasize the historical orthodox teaching of the ancient catholic church.

Thus, it is a bit of historical irony that some who claim to stand in the Protestant tradition would make flippant and indiscriminate use of the word ‘heresy’ and thus fail to distinguish between the essential truths of the Christian faith identified in the universal consensus of the church fathers in a way not dissimilar from the Catholic tradition from which they supposedly differ. Even more serious, however, is the fact that those who accuse others of heresy for espousing views which, according to the ecumenical creeds, are not actually heretical are themselves, in my view, guilty of committing an error just as destructive as any actual heresy, for they effectively anathematize those who truly belong to the body of Christ. Moreover, if the views that such persons condemn as ‘heretical’ were found to actually be fully orthodox in keeping with the ancient creeds (here I think especially of the views of Karl Barth, T.F. Torrance, et. al), what would that mean for the views of those who do the condemning?

All this to say, we need to use great caution in using the terms ‘heresy’, ‘heretic’, and ‘heretical’. Theological debate can be extremely healthy and helpful for the body of Christ. Doctrinal disagreements are sure to arise. But let’s be careful to reserve ‘heresy’ for that which is actually heretical.


[1] Holcomb, J., 2014. Know the Heretics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. pp.14-15, 17.

[2] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. pp.421-422.


10 thoughts on “On Heresy and Heretics

  1. John 10 October 2016 / 17:55

    Thank you writing this. It is one of, if not the clearest definition of heresy I have read. I’ve been guilty of this though hopefully not too often. I would, however, like your opinion on what appears to be a huge segment of the church. That would be the word of faith and/or new apostolic reformation movements. Many in leadership appear to believe that Christ gave up His divinity while a human and was essentially born again at the resurrection. As a result, we, too, can perform the same miracles as He did since we’ve been born again and filled with the Spirit. Without being long winded in this post, this Christolgy has serious negative implications. To me, it goes beyond simply heresy and becomes blasphemy. Would you mind commenting on that?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan Kleis 10 October 2016 / 18:02

      You’re very welcome John! Thanks for your encouraging comments.

      Regarding your question, it is undeniably heresy to say that Christ gave up his divinity at any point. One of the main reasons why the Nicene fathers fought so hard against the Arian heresy that denied Christ’s divinity was because they realized, rightly so, that only God can save us. Thus, if Christ was not fully divine and equal to the Father at any point, then he would have been utterly incapable of saving us. So for this reason, any denial of Christ’s divinity in any way is absolute heresy.

      You asked, however, about blasphemy. I would say that as a term, ‘blasphemy’ isn’t as clear-cut. I think it’s an example of a something that’s difficult to define precisely but recognizable when we see it. In this case, I would consider this not only heretical but also blasphemous inasmuch as it reduces Christ to the level of a mere human being and disjoins him from his place in the Triune being of God. Jesus was very clear to his critics that whoever denies him also denies his Father, and so I can’t help but say that whoever denies Christ’s divinity in essence denies the very nature and being of God himself. If that’s not blasphemy, then I don’t know what is!

      Liked by 1 person

      • John 10 October 2016 / 21:16

        Thanks Jonathan

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Bobby Grow 10 October 2016 / 21:12

    Where were you banned? Pub? For linking a post?


    • Jonathan Kleis 10 October 2016 / 22:03

      No, not the Pub. I’ve actually been banned from a few now (four I think), but this last one was one of the many “Calvinism Defended” groups. I forget the exact name. I wasn’t in very long. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

    • Hugh McCann 10 October 2016 / 23:34

      QUOTE: A survey of 3,000 people conducted by LifeWay Research and commissioned by Ligonier Ministries found that although Americans still overwhelmingly identify as “Christian,” startling percentages of the nation embrace ancient errors condemned by all major Christian traditions. These are not minor points of doctrine, but core ideas that define Christianity itself.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jonathan Kleis 11 October 2016 / 10:50

        Very sad indeed! What is being taught in our churches?


    • Jonathan Kleis 11 October 2016 / 10:49

      Hi Hugh, I’ve seen this too, and if true, it’s tragic.


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