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).