Orthodoxy, heresy and aberrancy

This article is adapted from a longer piece, Thinking about orthodoxy: defining terms and asking questions.

If we are to understand one another and avoid talking at cross purposes, it is necessary to define our terminology. Unless we do this, we risk erroneously assuming that we have understood what someone else means when they use a particular term.

I shall therefore provide several definitions that I believe are in line with generally accepted usage. In any case, you will at least know with precision what I intend when I use a word:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’

‘The question is, said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’

(Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll)

Orthodoxy

The Oxford English Dictionary defines orthodox as meaning ‘right in opinion’. A person thus adheres to orthodoxy if he maintains right opinion. The word derives from two Greek words: orthos, meaning ‘straight or right’, and doxa, meaning opinion or glory. (The English word ‘doxology’ also derives from the latter; it means ‘the speaking of praise or glory’.)

In his book, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church, Harold O.J. Brown (Ph.D. Harvard University, and professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical International University) writes (p. 1):

“Orthodoxy” is derived from two Greek words meaning “right” and “honor.” Orthodox faith and orthodox doctrines are those that honor God rightly, something that ought to be desirable and good.

I like Brown’s statement because he gets to the heart of the rightness of orthodoxy: something is right (and therefore orthodox) if it honours God and brings Him glory (or ‘honour’, as Brown puts it).

As our almighty, everlasting and holy God is perfect in all His attributes and ways, any statement made of Him is honouring only if it portrays Him and His work accurately. To portray God other than as He is is de facto to dishonour Him by detracting from His perfection. Since the Scriptures are the sole source we have of authoritative self-revelation from God – that is, they are the only place where we can presently discover with certainty what He is really like – it follows that we honour God by our belief, teaching and confession only if they accord with the Scriptures.

My definition of Christian orthodoxy, then, is this: belief, teaching and confession that is in full accordance with the Scriptures.

In an earlier post, I asked the question, What is the activity we call discernment really all about? I argued there that Christian discernment is built upon the foundation of paying close attention to the Great Salvation that is only to be found in Christ. I said this:

Discernment thus begins and ends with Christ. It is always about Christ, His person, His work.

Discernment abides in Christ. It feasts richly on His Word, for in the Scriptures alone do we find authoritative revelation of the person and work of Christ. All the Scriptures speak of Him, and in them we encounter God in human flesh, crucified for our sin and raised for our being declared righteous.

It therefore follows that orthodoxy is especially concerned with right belief, teaching and confession concerning the person and work of Christ.

Heresy

Brown (ibid., p. 3) has this to say about heresy:

The word “heresy,” as we have noted, is the English version of the Greek noun hairesis, originally meaning nothing more insidious than “party.” It is used in this neutral sense in Acts 5:17, 15:5, and 26:5. Early in the history of the first Christians, however, “heresy” came to be used to mean a separation or split resulting from a false faith (1 Cor. 11:19; Gal. 5:20). It designated either a doctrine or the party holding the doctrine, a doctrine that was sufficiently intolerable to destroy the unity of the Christian church. In the early church, heresy did not refer to simply any doctrinal disagreement, but to something that seemed to undercut the very basis for Christian existence. Practically speaking, heresy involved the doctrine of God and the doctrine of Christ—later called “special theology” and “Christology”.

Corruptio optimi pessimum est, says the proverb: “the corruption of the best is the worst.” The early Christians felt a measure of tolerance for the pagans, even though they were persecuted by them, for the pagans were ignorant. “This ignorance,” Paul told the Athenians, “God winked at” (Acts 17:30). But Paul did not wink at him who brought “any other Gospel” within the context of the Christian community. “Let him be accursed,” he told the Galatian church (Gal. 1:8).

My definition of heresy is therefore this: belief, teaching or confession contrary to the Scriptures that is sufficiently intolerable as to destroy the unity of the church.

Heresy presupposes orthodoxy. It sets itself up in opposition to the teaching of Scripture and thereby traduces God by painting a false picture of Him and His work. Heresy is divisive, because it comes from within the church and God’s people properly react to it in horror, not wishing to see God’s name defamed, and unwilling that anyone should perish through a corruption of the Gospel.

Not withstanding the hazard that heresy poses to the cause of the Gospel, the disunity that it brings is in damnable opposition to the repeated commendation of Christian unity and exhortation towards it found throughout the Scripture (e.g. Ps. 133:1; John 17:21; Acts 1:14; 2:1, 46; 5:12; Rom.15:5; 1 Cor. 11:17–33; Eph. 4:3, 13; Phil. 2:2–4).

Note well that it is the one bringing heresy who is responsible for the division that it causes, not those who oppose him by holding fast to sound doctrine. Thus, Paul instructs Titus that he is to:

‘Reject a divisive [hairetikon (αἱρετικὸν)] man after the first and second admonition, knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned.’ (Titus 3:10–11)

Paul had previously told Titus that it is a positive responsibility of every elder (pastor) to be ‘holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict’ (Titus 1:9).

Indeed, Paul shows that standing firm in the traditions received from the Apostles is the natural implication for all believers of our having been chosen and called by God for salvation and sanctification:

But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth, to which He called you by our gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle. (2 Thess. 2:13–15)

Notice how Paul connects the proper giving of thanks to God (that is, expressing the glory and honour due to Him) with our election, calling, salvation and sanctification. Observe that these things are all ‘for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ’. ‘Therefore,’ Paul says, ‘stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle’. The whole process of salvation, being worked in us for the glory of Christ, has as its inevitable implication our standing fast in the teaching that we have received from the Apostles.

All believers are thus commanded to cling to orthodoxy, and elders are especially called to ‘exhort and convict those who contradict’. The proper response to heresy is therefore to identify it and warn the person advocating it. If the person persists in his divisiveness after two admonitions, he is to be rejected – he condemns himself by refusing to submit to the truth revealed in Scripture and by spurning its call to stand fast in the faith.

Aberrancy

If orthodoxy is that which is in full accord with Scriptures, and heresy is that which is contrary to it in an intolerable way, it is clear that there is a category between the two: doctrine that is not properly orthodox, but which is not sufficiently egregious so as to undermine the Faith fatally and be a cause for division. This lesser category of error is called ‘aberrant’, meaning simply that it is ‘straying from the accepted standard’.

Some use the term heterodox (‘other opinion’, not conforming to that which is orthodox) in a similar way, but that term seems to me be to be wider, potentially encompassing even heresy in a way that aberrancy does not.

Thus, aberrant belief, teaching or confession is that which is not in full accord with the Scriptures, but which does not pose an immediate threat to the unity of the church.

That which is aberrant must, of course, be corrected, not least because we are commanded ‘to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3). But also because such errors tend to multiply, and aberrant doctrine can very quickly descend into full-blown heresy. Nevertheless, aberrancy is not in and of itself so serious as to call for separation between those who are in error and those who are holding fast to the full counsel of the Scriptures.

Conclusion

Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.

(Heb. 10:19–23)

Further reading