I often see words and terms tossed about on social media without clarification that I feel should be clarified. It is my firm belief that we all need to be careful about how we use words and phrases when we write or speak, and we need to seek to understand how others are using terms when we’re reading and listening. How terms are defined and used make all the difference when seeking to understand or be understood.
The terms I want to address with this post are orthodoxy, heterodoxy, and heresy. These are words that are not always easy to define or describe and yet the differences between them are very important. Misunderstanding these terms leads to miscommunication and, often, unnecessary strife.
I have a couple of further disclaimers before I give my descriptions and uses of these three terms.
- In my definition of orthodoxy, I am not using this term to address what is known as the Orthodox (capitalized) churches, such as Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc. I am writing about the basic definition of the word orthodoxy (lowercase) as it relates to followers of Christ.
- These are not easy terms to define or describe as they seem to have some ambiguity built in, especially as they deal with people’s belief systems. What one person considers orthodox, another may consider heterodox, and what is heretical to some is orthodox to others.
With those disclaimers out of the way, here is my take on these words.
- Orthodoxy (from Greek “correct belief”)
- The true and correct teachings of Scripture. In my position, orthodoxy is the body of teachings of the Evangelical church so far as it corresponds to the truth of Scripture. The belief that Jesus is fully God is an orthodox belief.
- Heterodoxy (from Greek “different belief”)
- Beliefs or teachings that differ from orthodoxy but not so much as to be categorized as heresy. Those who hold to heterodox beliefs are still within the fold of Christ and are saved, though they are mistaken about some non-essential issues. The age-old debate between Calvinism (or monergism) and Arminianism (or synergism) is an example of what may be a heterodox belief. These systems are opposed to one another and therefore cannot both be orthodox, but neither is heretical.
- Beliefs or teachings that differ from orthodoxy to such a degree that they can no longer be called beliefs of Christianity. Those who hold these beliefs, properly understood, fall outside of the fold of Christ and are not saved. The belief that Jesus did not physically die on the cross (e.g., Docetism) is an example of a heretical view.
Everyone who traffics in truth (which should be every true believer in Christ) believes that their understanding of Scripture is the correct understanding and is therefore orthodox, so there is obviously a blurry line between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. However, I believe that every true believer holds some heterodox beliefs. Throughout our Christian lives we seek to grow in our understanding of what Scripture teaches, correcting our heterodox beliefs when we become aware of them. In this way we grow more and more orthodox, more and more in line with the true teaching of Scripture.
I also believe that there are some who are truly saved that hold to some heretical view because of ignorance or misunderstanding only. This is simply a matter of training or education for such brothers and sisters. They hold to views that they do not fully understand. Given the correct understanding, those who are true believers will abandon heretical beliefs.
Regarding mistakes with the word heresy, I have seen two extremes:
- I have seen people say of someone with whom they disagree that he or she is a heretic but still saved. I believe that is a contradiction; a true heretic is outside of Christianity.
- I have also seen people say of someone with whom they disagree that he or she is not saved because of a belief that they hold which should rightly be called heterodox. They would say that anything beyond orthodoxy, as they understand it, disqualifies the person from being saved. I disagree with this position based on the word descriptions above.
One more thought on the word orthodoxy. Some will disagree with my definition, claiming that the classic definition of orthodoxy is that which the church has taught down through the ages. The problem I have with that definition is that the teachings of the church through the ages has been erroneous in some cases, having been corrected later. This makes the classic definition somewhat useless, in my opinion.
In closing, let me say that these are very basic descriptions of these words as I see them. Some will certainly disagree. Regardless of the positions we hold, as we discus and debate them we should be careful with how we use the words we use, giving and asking for definitions where needed.
I hold to some beliefs that others—even most—would consider heterodox. I have been in debates and discussions that have challenged my beliefs on many issues. These encounters have forced me to re-evaluate those beliefs. I have studied what Scripture says about those beliefs and have either come away having changed my belief or having a firmer hold on my belief. Both have happened and I imagine both will continue to happen. It is in this way that we grow in our knowledge of God and his word.