Filippino Lippi – Triumph of St Thomas Aquinas over the Heretics (detail) – WGA13118 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
From a Christian standpoint, heresy is “any teaching rejected by the Christian community as contrary to Scripture and . . . to orthodox doctrine. The term heresy is generally reserved for any belief that claims to be Christian and scriptural but has been rejected by the church as sub-Christian or anti-scriptural.”1
When we talk about heresy, we are not referring to atheism because atheism does not make its claim from within Christianity. We are also not talking about schism, which refers to division or faction within Christian fellowship or the sowing of discord among the brethren (both of which can happen as a result of heresy), but does not in and of itself have false doctrine as its root. As for heresy, Origen, the early church father said: “Heretics all begin by believing, and afterwards depart from the road of faith and the truth of the church’s teaching.”2
What makes heresy such an evil is that it comes from within the body of true believers from someone who had been viewed as a true believer. According to Pelikan:
“The presupposition of those works [the writings of the Ancient Church orthodox theologians against heresies] was that the primitive deposit of Christian truth had been given by Christ to the apostles and by them in turn to the succession of orthodox bishops and teachers, while the heretics were those who forsook this succession and departed from this deposit.”3
For Irenaeus, heresy was a deviation from the standard of sound doctrine. Augustine ultimately defined “heretics as those who ‘in holding false opinions regarding God, do injury to the faith itself.’”4
A.W. Tozer wrote:
“Perverted notions about God soon rot the religion in which they appear. . . . So necessary to the Church is a lofty concept of God that when that concept in any measure declines, the Church with her worship and her moral standards declines along with it. The first step down for any church is taken when it surrenders its high opinion of God.
“Before the Christian Church goes into eclipse anywhere there must first be a corrupting of her simple basic theology. She simply gets a wrong answer to the question, ‘What is God like?’ and goes on from there. Though she may continue to cling to a sound nominal creed, her practical working creed has become false. The masses of her adherents come to believe that God is different from what He actually is; and that is heresy of the most insidious and deadly kind.
“The heaviest obligation lying upon the Christian Church today is to purify and elevate her concept of God until it is once more worthy of Him—and of her. In all her prayers and labors this should have first place. We do the greatest service to the next generation of Christians by passing on to them undimmed and undiminished that noble concept of God which we received from our Hebrew and Christian fathers of generations past.”5
1 Stanley J. Grenz, David Guretzki, Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 58.
2 Origen, Exposition of the Song of Solomon, 3.4, quoted by Jaroslav Pelikan in The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 1, ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971) page 69.
3 Pelikan, page 69. I think one of the things that makes heresy difficult to deal with is that it can seep into the Church so subtly and, since it comes from people within the body, it comes from people we likely esteem! As to the idea of the “succession of Bishops” etc., a case can be made that it was the onslaught of heresy that helped to hasten the Church’s catholicity, forcing it to solidify its continuity with Christ and the apostles thereby closing the door on heresy. So, apostolic succession becomes a byword and ultimately even a mechanism of control.
4 Pelikan, page 69, quoting Augustine in On Faith and the Creed and On Heresies.
5 A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), page 4.