Believe it or not, Christians owe a lot to heretics. The word “heresy” comes from a Greek word meaning “choice.” A heretic is someone who chooses to believe something that is in contradiction to official church doctrine. But church doctrine has developed gradually over time, and some of the most important doctrinal developments were made precisely in order to exclude particular heresies.

Christian doctrine is like a set of rules that help us to faithfully proclaim the gospel. Doctrine sets up boundary markers that tell us when our teaching is on safe ground, and when we're “out of bounds.” If everyone always stayed on safe ground, we wouldn't need the boundary markers! Sometimes the boundaries of faithful Christian teaching are identified specifically because someone has wandered “out of bounds.”

For example, in the 2nd century, Marcion was a popular teacher who rejected the Old Testament and issued his own “canon” of scripture, which included only 10 of Paul's letters and part of Luke's Gospel. The problem was that Christians had not yet established an official list of biblical books. Of course, orthodox Christians knew which Scriptures were authentic, because they used them regularly in worship and as standards of teaching. But thanks to Marcion's errors, orthodox Christians were forced to begin the process of making a clear list of accepted biblical books. In the process, Marcion officially became a heretic.

Why should we worry about this today, since heretics like Marcion have already been dealt with centuries ago? Are Marcion's ideas still a threat to the gospel?

Knowing the history of heresy is important because heresies have a habit of cropping up again and again, sometimes in less obvious forms. Some psychologists argue that otherwise mentally healthy people struggle with so-called “shadow disorders”—mild forms of serious mental illnesses that show up in subtle ways most of us wouldn't even recognize. Knowing the history of heresy will help us to identify the “shadow heresies” that may crop up in our own thinking and teaching from time to time.

For example, the Old Testament is virtually ignored in many Christian pulpits. The lack of Old Testament preaching and teaching could give the impression that it is not authoritative for Christians today. This doesn't mean the contemporary church is full of Marcionites. But revisiting the story of Marcion should remind us to emphasize the continuity between the two Testaments, and the unity of God's purpose from Genesis to Revelation.

The example of Marcion also shows how heresy is not merely an “academic” issue. Heresies can affect how we proclaim and live out the gospel message. Heresy is serious, and we should take it seriously.

On the other hand, we shouldn't be overzealous about hunting for heretics. We need to remember that, in the past, many people were falsely accused of being heretics, and they often faced severe consequences.

Thankfully, we no longer burn suspected heretics at the stake. We have learned that it is possible to disagree on many issues without compromising the gospel message. Within the orthodox Christian faith, there are many legiti-mate theological perspectives. Wesleyans disagree with Calvinists about the nature of human freedom, but we don't consider Calvinists to be heretics. And we certainly wouldn't want Calvinists to call us heretics!

The English reformer Richard Hooker offers a wise warning on this subject: “Let us beware, lest if we make too many ways of denying Christ, we scarce leave any way for ourselves truly and soundly to confess him.”

So, we need to be keenly aware of the dangers of heresy, but this awareness shouldn't leave us paranoid. The early Salvationists had this balance of concerns in mind when they established the Army's doctrines. By limiting the doctrines to 11 articles of faith, they created a clear standard on essential matters of Christian faith, while leaving plenty of breathing room on questions of secondary importance.

Over the next five articles in this series, I will be reviewing five major heresies from the Early Church, and showing how the rejection of these heresies shaped Christianity's central beliefs about creation, the Trinity, Jesus and human sinfulness. I will also explore potential “shadow heresies” that may crop up in contemporary Christian thinking. Cultivating this awareness can help us to faithfully proclaim the gospel today.

James Pedlar is a doctoral student at Wycliffe College, in the Toronto School of Theology. He works part-time as assistant co-ordinator of faith and witness at the Canadian Council of Churches. Visit his blog at


On Monday, December 19, 2011, James Pedlar said:


Thank you for reading the article and responding with such a substantial comment.

I’m sure it will not surprise you to know that I respectfully disagree with your interpretation of Christian orthodoxy – both your contention that the gospel is a set of contradictory assertions, and your charge that orthodoxy is about holding logical contradictions together.

It is certainly true that there are varying emphases within the different streams of orthodox Christian belief, and to a certain extent we can find varying emphases within the different books of the Bible itself.

But these differing emphases are not contradictions, even though we might perceive them to be in tension with one another at times. The tension reflects the fact that the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ is a profound mystery which stretches human understanding and language beyond its limits.

We can certainly make true statements about the gospel, but we can never exhaust its meaning in a definitive statement. We can never “freeze” its significance in a definition once and for all, or contain it in a system of our own design. That is why I say doctrines are like “rules of speech” rather than “definitions.” The depths of the gospel are inexhaustible. We could talk about it forever and we’d never be done. We could write an endless number of books about it, and we would only need to continue writing more.

Therefore it is not surprising that, at certain times and in certain places, one aspect of the gospel may be emphasized more than another. Sometimes this is a reflection of different audiences and contexts. Other times we need to offer a corrective check, when people are emphasizing one aspect of the gospel over another. Sometimes these over-emphases remain within the “rules” of Christian orthodoxy, but other times they cross the line into heretical territory. Christian doctrine helps us to know the difference.

Regarding your claims about consistencies and inconsistencies: heretics might appear to be “consistent,” but that is often because they have fallen victim to the assumption that God’s dealings with humanity can be contained in a simple system. If someone thinks that the God of the gospel can be fully explained by any human mind or tradition, then they are certainly running the risk of heading towards heresy.

Finally, I would say that it is rather strange to dismiss all orthodox believers as simply “inconsistent,” given that the orthodox Christian tradition includes some of the greatest minds in the history of Western civilization. Is someone like Thomas Aquinas really just “inconsistent”? Having read some of his work, I’d say that you would have a hard time making that charge stick.


On Tuesday, December 6, 2011, rey said:

"Christian doctrine is like a set of rules that help us to faithfully proclaim the gospel."

That's NOT the case AT ALL. The reality of what Christian doctrine is, is what Harnack explains in he first few pages of his book Marcion: The gospel of the alien God, namely that it is a set of contradictory assertions that are meant to be contradictory and the purpose of the 'c'atholic church is to hold these contradictions together. The catholic or universal church has as its task holding together the disparate dogmas that no one individual can ever truly believe all at once. Individuals who try (but ultimately fail) to hold all the contradictions together into a coherent system are called 'orthodox' as also are individuals who really believe what they will but keep their mouths shut and leave the impression that they to to hold all the contradictions together into a coherent system. But individuals who seek to make the system consistent by taking one side on an issue or another rather than holding both contradictory sides at once, these are called 'heretics.'

To demonstrate. Paul says in some places that we are justified by faith apart from works--yet in others he clearly teaches the necessity of works, such as 'know you not that adulterers shall not inherit the kingdom...' or when he speaks of baptism. Or sometimes Paul says the Law justifies as in Romans 2 "the doers of the Law shall be justified" whereas others he says the Law cannot justify as in Romans 3 "by the works of the Law shall no man be justified." The 'orthodox' are those who juggle these contradictory statements (or at least convince themselves that they do, generally hopping from one to another at different points, like when I'm reading this verse I believe in works but when I read this one I believe in faith only)--the 'heretics' are those who pick a side and stick with it.

So the 'orthodox' maintains that somehow, someway, justification is by faith alone....and yet somehow also requires works. Whereas the 'heretic' says either justification is strictly by faith to the complete and total exclusion of works (as in you go rape and kill and everything and still be saved [although in modern times this is less and less recognized as heresy]) or that you are saved by works almost to the exclusion of faith.

'Heresy' is simply consistency. 'Orthodoxy' is inconsistency. If your doctrine is convoluted because you have to juggle contradictory positions and consider two opposites true at once, you are 'orthodox.' If your doctrine is totally consistent and has no internal inconsistency at all, you are a 'heretic.'

But why should it be so? Harnack explains that because the goal of the catholic church is to be the universal religion--it designed a religion that accepts every possible religious dogmas all at once, so that everyone can fit in it. But this, in turn, requires that so many logical inconsistencies be held together at once that it is truly impossible for any individual to do it alone, and so the job of juggling the incoherent system was given to the church which of course came to mean a professional caste of theologians.

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