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What is Heresy?

Updated on August 24, 2010

Originally "heresy" was a neutral term used to describe a school or religious party like the Pharisees (Acts 15:5, 26:5). It is derived from the Greek word hairesis, meaning "choice." Among early Christians die term soon took on the negative meaning of a dangerous deviation from the normative faith (II Peter 2:1), which is the generally accepted definition today. In less doctrinally oriented religious such as the Islamic, Buddhist, and Hindu, the question of heresy in this form does not arise, although there are disputed interpretations. As for Christianity, the specific standards for its normative faith such as the canon of scripture, the early creedal statements, and the monarchic episcopacy were themselves the product of long controversies regarding the Christian character of such movements as Gnosticism, Marcionism, and others. Thus every distinction between true faith (orthodoxy) and heresy necessarily reflects the historical results of doctrinal struggles in which one form of the Christian faith prevailed over another and henceforth claimed to represent the mainstream of Christianity.

Those who were branded as heretics often continued to live as Christians in fringe groups, some of which have survived to this day. After the legal establishment of dogmatic norms by papal and imperial decrees, heresy was defined as the subjective act and objective content of a denial of an official dogma. The stress fell on doctrinal error as distinct from the crime of schism and apostasy.

In modern times, the stubborn persistence in such denial has became an essential factor in a charge of heresy. Roman Catholic theologians such as Karl Rahner emphasize the positive role of heresy as a challenge to clarify the church's position. Protestants such as Friedrich Schleiermacher consider heresy a distortion of the essence of Christianity or, according to Karl Earth, the absolutizing of "side centers" of the faith. Rejecting heresy is one of the tasks of ecclesiastical confessions of faith.

The major method of dealing with heretics in the Catholic Church has been excommunication. Christian emperors like Theodosius and Justinian declared heresy a civil offense punishable under criminal law. Most churches in barbarian domains applied ecclesiastical sanctions only, but a wave of heterodox movements in the 12th and 13th centuries and the reception of Roman law in the West led to the novel institution of the Inquisition: heresy charges were investigated by special church courts; the convicted heretic was then handed over to the secular authorities for execution. The notion of heresy as a civil crime was abandoned in the wake of the Reformation, although even Protestants initially called upon the secular arm to punish heretical dissenters.

Today heresy charges, though rare, may still serve as a basis for disciplinary action against clergymen in most denominations. However, the Enlightenment ideology of tolerance and religious liberty has rendered even such limited sanctions problematical. Heresy charges or trials in the United States have aroused vigorous protests from liberals inside and outside the churches. Many critics of the ecclesiastical establishment have celebrated the heretic of ancient or modern times as a religious hero of the true, hidden church.


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    • Property-Invest profile image

      Property-Invest 7 years ago from London

      Thanks for the very interesting and challenging hub!