What Is Heresy?


It’s a terrible sounding word. A word no one wants to be associated with.

After all, who wants to be called a ‘heretic’? For most of us, those are fighting words. We all like to see ourselves as the good guys. So, no one likes the word ‘heresy’ or ‘heretic.’

And yet, it’s a word that Vincent of Lérins insists on using in his Commonitorium. Vincent seems unable to talk about orthodoxy without also talking about heresy. 

He regularly refers to certain ideas as ‘heresy’ and to their advocates as ‘heretics.’ And he seems to have no shortage of them: Novatian, Sabellius, Donatus, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, Nestorius.

So, what exactly is heresy? What do we mean by it?

The word itself seems to have a short and simple history.

Heresy is from ancient Greek: αἵρεσις. And at its root, its most basic meaning is “choice, choosing for oneself.”

Which would explain why the word often shows up in the New Testament and other writings as a simple word for a political party or religious sect. So, for instance, in Acts 5:17 the high priest and his followers are referred to as “members of the party (αἵρεσις) of the Sadducees.”

The author isn’t making a value judgment on their particular beliefs. He is just noting to which party they belong. Are they Sadducee or Pharisee? In this case, they belong to the Sadducee party (αἵρεσις).

However, even in the New Testament, the word can have less neutral meanings. So, for instance, in Galatians 5:20 Paul is giving one of his famous lists of sins and vices, and at the end of the verse he lists: factions (αἱρέσεις).

Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 11:19 Paul is chastising the Corinthians on their behavior at church during the Lord’s Supper, and he says:

17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions (σχίσματα) among you, and to some extent I believe it.

19 No doubt there have to be differences (αἱρέσεις) among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 

Note the interesting connection between ‘divisions’ (σχίσματα) in vs. 18 and ‘differences’ (αἱρέσεις) in vs. 19. In context, the two are either synonyms, or the differences are the source of the divisions. That is, to put it more bluntly in English, the heresies are the source of the schisms.

Then, there’s 2 Peter 2:1 where we find an even more pointed use of the term:

1 But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies (αἱρέσεις), even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves.

2 Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. 3 In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping. 

Note again the connection between ‘false teachers’ (ψευδοδιδάσκαλοι) and ‘heresies’ (αἱρέσεις). Even if one were to tone down the translation to mean ‘factions’ or ‘religious sects,’ still the context demands that the teachings of these false teachers be viewed negatively and condemned.

Clearly, in these last two examples we see the beginning of the early church’s usage of the term. ‘Heresy’ for the early church, and in particular for Vincent, is more than just a religious sect or an ideological faction.

Rather, these are religious deviants who have led people astray by their teaching and threaten to tear apart (schism) the church by their actions.

So, in this context, what is heresy?

Simply put, heresy is their personal theological opinion in contrast to the Church’s stated theological opinion.

That is, to go back to the original idea of the word, they have made a personal choice. They have chosen for themselves how they will interpret the Bible and what they will believe over against how the Church interprets the Bible and what the Church says we should believe.

For Vincent and most all of the early church, that kind of personal choice is heresy. It is simply out of bounds.

According to the early church, we are not allowed to make a personal theological choice over against the Church’s stated view.

We may discuss. We may question. We may even debate. But, once the Church has definitively spoken on the matter, it is settled. That is the orthodox view.

Any other view is simply ‘heresy.’ It is my personal theological opinion over against the Church’s stated view.

But, in the Church, I am not supposed to preach and teach my personal theological opinion or my particular sectarian views. I am supposed to preach and teach the orthodox Christian faith handed down from the apostles.

In fact, that whole “handed down” idea is what we mean by Tradition. It is the Church’s way of safeguarding the Christian gospel against my personal opinions or sectarian views.

Or the latest theological fad. Or the most recent social concern. Or the newest political trend.

You get the idea.

Heresy is when I say that I am right in spite of 2000 years of Christian teaching on the subject. It is the height of arrogance. Because I know better.

This is why Vincent wrote the Commonitorium. To safeguard against dangerous personal theological opinions like that. To point to the Church’s truth, the orthodox Christian faith.

Perhaps we need more Vincents in our day, because heresy seems to be making a comeback.



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