Heresy and the uses of orthodoxy


The question of what is acceptable and what is not in Christian doctrine is one with a long history and is also one that continues to be important in various contexts even where people avoid the actual word “heresy”.

  • One dimension of the ongoing controversies about sexual ethics must be doctrinal and it can be argued that those who regard this as a question that warrants division in the Church are implying that those from whom they wish to separate are heretical.
  • Rob Bell’s recent book in which he seemed to defend or at least entertain a universalist approach to salvation lead some to suggest explicitly that this is heretical.
  • On the URC’s Facebook page a number of discussion threads have engaged with Unitarianism and its relationship to Christianity.
To know what is heretical one needs to know how orthodoxy is defined and make a decision about where the limits are drawn. It cannot be that the orthodox will all agree about everything and this has never been the case. Defining orthodoxy has historically been more about what is unacceptable than what is correct. This apparently negative approach (anything is orthodox that is not shown to be heretical) is actually much more generous and open than the positive approach which seeks to define exactly what is to be  believed.
The creeds do make positive statements (“I believe …”) but these are always broad and capable of a variety of interpretations. This is a strength and not a weakness. The process of defining ever more exactly the content of the faith (seen in documents like the Reformed confessions and catechisms) is sometimes necessary be can often become unhealthy.

I have written here on my conversion to Christianity. This brought me into a changing relationship to orthodoxy. As part of my preparation for baptism and confirmation I sought and received an assurance that orthodoxy was not required for me to be received into the Church. There were aspects of the creed I could not understand or accept at that point and I needed to be clear that the minister preparing me knew this to be the case and was still comfortable with proceeding.

At this point I did not see the authority of the Church or any part of it as binding on my reason. If something didn’t make sense or seem true to me then I would not believe it. This covered some pretty fundamental aspects of the faith. I struggled with the idea of a human being who was also God. The Holy Spirit made no sense to me. I was strongly drawn to the IDEA of incarnation but saw no real reason to accept the unique and eternal significance of the man Jesus of Nazareth. My actual beliefs were quite close to those of classical rationalist Unitarianism.

However as I participated to a growing extent in the life of the church my views on all of this shifted. Around five years or so ago I realised that orthodoxy had come to mean something important to me.

The Church is at least 2000 years old (I like Diarmaid MacCulloch’s suggestion in the title of his wonderful one volume history of Christianity that it is 3000 years old). During those millennia it has explored and tested a wide range of options on almost everything. Those paths it has rejected as beyond the bounds of the acceptable, has defined as heretical, it has done so, I have come to think, for good reason and under the guidance of the Spirit.

It is unwise to think oneself better equipped, cleverer and wiser, than the accumulated experience of those thousands of years. If something is clearly anathematised by the Church catholic then one should avoid it, I have come to think. Equally if something like the idea of of Jesus as one person with two natures or the trinitarian character of God is mandated then one is obliged to accept it.

An important part of this submission, though, is that it is to the Church catholic, the universal Church. No fragment of the divided church has the right, in my view, to declare a heresy or to expand the canons of orthodoxy. This raises particular issues about when such definition should be seen to end. Which division in the Church marks the end of the unified catholicity?

MacCulloch is inclined, as I read him, to see Chalcedon as beyond this historical limit and to include Oriental Orthodoxy in the Church Catholic. This is an unusual position in the Western tradition which has normally seen Chalcedon as central and to have adopted two natures Christology as definitive of orthodoxy.

I’m not sure what to think about this but as one deeply attracted to Nestorianism and inclined to see it as compatible with and in fact the origin of the Chalcedonian formula I’m inclined to reject MacCulloch’s suggestion.

However as one who also likes the idea of as generous an orthodoxy as possible I think I should accept it. After all we’ll always have Nicaea.

Personally I’m still struggling to align myself with orthodoxy. It looks to me, for example, that the virgin birth is inescapably part of orthodox belief but I find it very difficult to grasp hold of it as my own. The interpretation of the “life eternal” remains a somewhat tricky area for me on which I’m working.

On the other hand I have satisfied myself that my attraction to a Nestorian interpretation of the two natures Christology and to a qualified version of hope for universal salvation (modelled on that of Karl Barth) are both compatible with orthodox belief.

Orthodoxy as I have come to see it is an orientation and a struggle more than it is a simple subscription to formulae and I’m distressed when I see some fragment of the Church (whether organisational or party) strive to define for themselves a new orthodoxy with which to exclude or reject those with whom they disagree.

Where we differ on matters outside the smallest possible range of questions (let’s say acceptance of Nicene formulae) we should find ways of living together while the Spirit in-forms us all.


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