What is the classic definition of a Christian Heretic? That is a good question. The title seems to be used liberally today and has turned into a word that must be defined. For these definitions, we must turn to the issues behind the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed. There will be some big words in this post, but if you follow with me, I will explain them and how they interact with today.
The main core of heresies is that which teaches a non-Apostolic teaching of the Trinity or Christ. With this as the core, we can see why certain teachings were rejected. To understand it better, we’ll look at heresies of the first 500 years of Church history.
One of the first heresies was Gnosticism, which was a Greek philosophy that was transplanted into Christianity. It led to many assumptions, but the problematic one was that there had to be a separation of divine and human. This led to problems in that a Gnostic Christian could not call Jesus fully divine and fully human at the same time. We can see how this is problematic, since Scriptures are prevalent with implication towards Jesus’ divinity and explicit to his humanity. This is generally accepted as the earliest form of heresy in the Church and possibly dated back to the New Testament church.
Another group formed by the second century was the Ebionite group. They were mainly Jewish and worshipped Jesus. However, they denied the divinity of Jesus, which was problematic since they worshipped Jesus.
Docetists were another group. They formed by the end of the first century and taught that Jesus was not human, but only appeared to be Human. One reading of Hebrews can show us the problem of this. Another point would be to think of the fact that if one is not really human, he cannot truly be put to death as a human, and, in this case, that means that the sacrifice of Christ never happened.
Arianism was another sect. Here is where you get into heresies that are Trinitarian and Christological. In this teaching, Christ was not always around, but was created (clearly against John 1). It teaches that Christ is a subordinate entity to God the Father (not to be confused with Christ’s submission to the Father). This steps into the territory of denying the divinity of God. Though it was hotly debated, Arianism finally was labeled a heresy.
Appollinarians congealed in the fourth century and taught that Jesus was a human that the divine logos came into and replaced the human mind. This denies the divine conception in the original Incarnation. Though an attempt to logically affirm the human and divine of Jesus, it did not accept the full humanity of God.
The fifth century brought the Nestorians, who thought that the two natures were not completely combined and that the divine controlled the human without being human. But the apostolic teaching was that the redemption from Christ must be as a divine being also.
The last main heresy of the age was Eutychians. This belief was that the divine engulfed the human and morphed into a new being. This made Jesus into neither God nor man, making Him a useless character in what God was wanting to do for us.
All of these confusions of Jesus humanity and divinity have had implications for our history of interpretation. We can also see aspects that are heretical in the following: Unitarianism, which separates the trinity, Sabellianism, which makes the trinity into modes of expressions, and Tri-Theism, which has three different God’s as trinity and can become polytheism very quickly.
At this point some are asking what about hell, atonement, works and salvation, and other important doctrines. That’s the thing about this topic called heresy. It is so narrow and focused that we cannot say the certain things, like hell, atonement, etc., are heretical in and of themselves. They have to say something about Christ or the Trinity that is harmful to the identity of the person in question. Sometimes, the things we say about salvation or other doctrines can say something about the Godhead that is against Orthodoxy; but other times it does not. To label heretics, we need to be specific and very unsure to label someone as such. We have seen many labeled heretics, everyone from Rob Bell to Dallas Willard, who still technically adhere to orthodox belief acceding to the early church.
So let’s be careful and precise, lest we become guilty in false accusation and bad judgement. The early church was precise because they focused on King Jesus, so we should seek that same pursuit.
What do you think of heresy? What is not heresy? Why? What is your proof? Are you labeling heresy out of love for God? What about live for others?