What’s the Difference Between Heresy and Orthodoxy?

What’s the Difference Between Heresy and OrthodoxyWhile we may be in a “post”-postmodern world, there are still many people who resist objective truth claims, particularly when these claims are moral or metaphysical in nature. Is anything objectively true, or is everything simply a matter of perspective and opinion? Christianity, as a worldview, rejects relativism. The Christian worldview makes specific claims about the character of God, the person of Jesus and the nature of Salvation. These truths are grounded and described in the Bible, and while we may not always agree on tangential issues, some truths are simply not negotiable. Some views about Jesus, for example, are true, and some views are false.

The earliest believers felt so strongly about the exclusive nature of truth (and were so convinced the scriptures taught objective facts about the nature of God, Jesus and Salvation) they declared these truths in a number of creeds. These believers rejected the notion of a theological smorgasbord, arguing, instead, for a number of minimum objective truths. Those who rejected these minimum truths were called heretics because they embraced inaccurate choices. The word “heresy” comes from the Greek word “hairesis”.

Heresy = Hairesis (Greek) = Choice

A word once describing choice is now accepted as a term conferring error and inaccuracy. This seems to reflect the exclusive nature of objective truth. Let me give you an example. Imagine picking an apple from a tree. As we begin to identify the fruit with a single word, how many options do we have? To be accurate, we would have to say, “This is an apple.” Do we have other accurate choices? Could we say, for example, “This is an orange” or “This is a cantaloupe”? No, if we want to be precise in our one word description, we don’t have a lot of choices; only one word describes the fruit. Heresies are inaccurate choices in light of non-negotiable realities:

“Heresy is an opinion or doctrine in philosophy, politics, science, art, etc., at variance with those generally accepted as authoritative” (Oxford English Dictionary)

Heresies are incorrect choices, based on some generally accepted authority. From a Christian perspective, heresies are claims contradicting the clear objective truths described in the Bible. Irenaeus (the ancient apologist and disciple of Ignatius and Polycarp) made careful distinctions between heresies and apostolic truth. In “Against Heresies”, Irenaeus laid out the heretical claims of some of his errant contemporaries, and compared these claims to the truths he had been taught by Polycarp (the disciple of the Apostle John). Irenaeus referred to his own beliefs as “orthodox”. This word is derived from two Greek root words:

Orthodox = Ortho (Right) + Dox (Belief)

In essence, Irenaeus used the word to describe those beliefs supported by the apostolic, Biblical teaching. The idea of a “right belief” presumes there are objectively accurate Christian truths, and the Bible is the authority upon which we discover these “right beliefs”. Like all humans, Christians ground truths in an authoritative text. We’re not alone in this approach to truth, by the way. As an atheist, I grounded my beliefs in the texts of scientists I accepted as authoritative (even though I had never performed experiments or conducted research on my own). Everyone bases their beliefs in authoritative texts of one kind or another; not every truth can be verified by of some empirical experiment or observation.

The authoritative text of the Bible is the standard by which Christians must ultimately measure and assess claims about God, Jesus, and Salvation. When our views are aligned with the teaching of Scripture, we are said to be orthodox; we possess “right beliefs”. When we choose options other than those described in Scripture, we are said to be heretical; we’ve chosen heresies. In both cases, our accuracy is determined by the authoritative text of scripture, rather than our own biased opinions. That’s why it’s so important to become good Christian Case Makers. Sometimes we’ll need to make a case for Christianity to an unbelieving world; sometimes we’ll need to make a case for orthodoxy to a misbelieving Church.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity and ALIVE

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