The word “heresy” has a very specific and serious meaning. It should not be carelessly used to label and dismiss any view with which we strongly disagree. Calvinism, for example, is not a heresy, even though it is a theological system with which Wesleyans have significant disagreement.
Peter warned, “There will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Pet. 2:1). This biblical instance of the word “heresy” is closest to the sense in which the Church has used it throughout the centuries: “a belief deviating from established doctrine in major areas like the Trinity, Christology, and soteriology” (LBD). In other words, something that deliberately strikes at the heart of the Christian faith and leads to the destruction of those who persist in holding it.
A heresy deliberately strikes at the heart of the Christian faith and leads to the destruction of those who persist in holding it.
The most famous heretic in the ancient Church was Arius. He claimed that Jesus was the first and greatest being created by God; therefore, Jesus was believed to be of a similar substance (homo-i-ousios) with the Father, not of the same substance and thus fully divine. The Nicene Creed rejected Arianism by affirming that the Son is “begotten, not made, being of one substance [homo-ousios] with the Father, by whom all things were made.” The Arian heresy is still alive and well. It is promoted by groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Heretics deliberately depart from the Church’s consensual understanding of cardinal doctrines. The word “heresy” (hairesis) originally meant “choice.” W. B. Pope emphasizes that “heresy is the self-willed choice of some particular error and consequent departure from the Christian Confession. Every church which renounces the fundamental doctrines of Christianity is out of the unity of Christendom” (272). A heresy differs from a schism, which is “strife within the community itself, separation from it, whether by voluntary act or as cast out” (Pope 272). The most famous schism is that between the Eastern and the Western Church over whether the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father only or from the Father and the Son (filioque), as stated in AD 589 revision of the Nicene Creed.
If heresy strikes at the heart of the Christian faith, orthodoxy safeguards the essential truths on which salvation rests. Consider the opening lines of the Athanasian Creed: “Whoever desires to be saved should above all hold to the catholic faith. Anyone who does not keep it whole and unbroken will doubtless perish eternally. Now this is the catholic faith: That we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons nor dividing their essence.” Unitarians, for example, blend the three persons into one (uni-) person. Because Unitarians persist in this heresy, they are not Christians.
The word “heresy” has a very specific and serious meaning. It should not be carelessly used to label and dismiss any view with which we strongly disagree.
To come back to the opening example, Wesleyans would argue that Calvinism has serious practical and pastoral consequences, but Calvinism is clearly not a heresy by definition. Calvin (and Augustine before him) may have been wrong about unconditional predestination, but the nature of predestination is of secondary importance to the Christian faith, and it is not against the rule of faith (e.g., Apostles’ Creed). On the other hand, some staunch Calvinists have accused Arminians of being heretics for embracing the heresy of Pelagianism, but this is based on a myth (see Roger Olson, Arminian Theology, especially Chapter 6). Wesleyan Arminians in particular are as strong as Calvin on man’s total depravity after the fall (see “Do Wesleyan Arminians Believe in Total Depravity?”).
Be careful what you call heresy. Unless someone is responsible for “obstinate advocacy and propagation of error directly attacking the foundations of the faith” (Oden 315), accusing them of heresy is a serious violation of the law of love and what Wesley called the “catholic spirit.” Christians of various traditions—whether Protestant or Catholic, Anglican or Eastern Orthodox, Methodist or Baptist—should seek to understand and learn from one another (see “Your Tradition and the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church”). Unlike heretics, who are outside the “one holy catholic and apostolic Church” (Nicene Creed), we are members of “one body” (Eph. 4:4) along with all who confess Jesus as Lord according to “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
This article was originally published on April 9, 2021. It was republished with minor corrections (e.g., to correct a typo and remove an unnecessary sentence).