Chapter III:17: Denial of Fundamentals--Heresy, Part 1

2. Heresy, which words is Greek in origin from αἱρέω and αἱρέομαι, especially in the sense of choosing, and of apprehending anything with the embrace of the will. In the common and neutral sense it denotes an opinion, belief, doctrine, to which many men are addicted, or even a society of men, as the multifaceted Heresy of the ancient Philosophers was known: TERTULLIAN, de Resurrectione, chapter XI, page 331, “Among the Philosophers you have those that maintain that this world is without beginning and not made: but much better, that almost all Heresies, granting that the world was begun and made, ascribe the founding to our God.” JEROME, Commentary on Galatians 5:20,[1] page 195, “Now, αἵρεσις/heresy in Greek receives its name from choosing, namely because each man chooses for himself that teaching which he esteems to be best:” and on Titus 3:10,[2] page 256, “Heresy in Greek receives its name from choosing, namely because each man chooses for himself that which appears to him to be best. The Philosophers also are named Stoic, Peripatetic, Academic, Epicureans, after this or that Heresy.” Hence Constantine and Licinius, granting to Christians the liberty of keeping their Religion, brand it with the name of Heresy without any infamy, in EUSEBIUS’ Historia Ecclesiastica, book X, chapter V, Κεκελεύκειμεν τοῖς τε χριστιανοῖς, τῆς αἱρέσεως καὶ τῆς θρησκείας τῆς ἑαυτῶν τὴν πίστιν διαφυλάττειν, we had given orders to the Christians also, to preserve the faith of their heresy and religion.[3] In the passage of time, however, the word Heresy passed from this neutral signification to signify erroneous opinion and society. And thus generally whenever it denotes any Error concerning the faith, not even with the Infidelity/Unbelief of the Jews and Gentiles excluded; just as BALSAMON[4] on Canon IV of the Council of Chalcedon[5] makes two sorts of Heretics, those that receive the Christian mystery; and those τοὺς πάντῃ μὴ δεχομένους τοῦτο, καὶ ὄντας ἀπίστους, Ἰουδαίους δηλονότι καὶ Ἕλληνας, not entirely receiving this, and being unbelieving, namely, Jews and Pagans. Nevertheless, everywhere Heresy is set over against Infidelity, and Jews and Pagans are distinguished from Heretics, just as in Chalcedonian Canon IV just now cited, the Fathers prohibit one from giving in marriage, συνάπτειν πρὸς γάμον αἱρετικῷ, ἢ Ἰουδαίῳ, ἢ Ἕλληνι, to a heretic, or to a Jew, or to a Pagan. Neither do we here understand by the name of Heresy a slight Error, just as TERTULLIAN in the beginning of his book de velandis Virginibus, page 172, calls Heresy, whatever has a sense contrary to the truth: but we refer Heresy to the principal, necessary, and fundamental Heads of Christian doctrine; so that it is to be attributed to those retaining the Christian name, but τοῖς κατ᾽ αὐτὴν τὴν πίστιν ἀπηλλοτριωμένοις, with respect to faith itself estranged, as BASIL stated in his Epistola ad Amphilochium, opera, tome 3, page 20; and it is to be defined an Error against fundamental doctrine or practice of the true Church, a fundamental doctrine or practice in conformity with the Scriptures, introduced and defended by men professing the truth faith of the Church. AUGUSTINE, in the preface of his book de Hæresibus, to declare the solemn signification of this word in the Church, well writes: “Not all Error is Heresy, although all Heresy that is set in vice is not able to Heresy except by some Error.” The origin of the term Heresy does not differ from this depraved signification; if indeed, as I said, the language of Heresy denotes one’s own Choice, which in the matter of Religion and faith, in which we are commanded to follow the guidance of God and His Word, is not permitted, as TERTULLIAN observes, de Præscriptionibus, chapter VI, page 204. In this sense, concerning more grievous Errors in doctrine, Peter relates that αἱρέσεις ἀπωλείας, damnable heresies, are going to be introduced by ψευδοδιδασκάλοις, false teachers, 2 Peter 2:1; whoever holds these heresies Paul says are to be rejected as αἱρετικοὺς/heretics, Titus 3:10: compare our AUTHOR’S Exercitationes Miscellaneas, Disputation I; STAPFER’S Theologicas polemicas, tome 1, chapter V, § 1901-1948; WALCH’S Miscellanea Sacra, book III, Exercitation IV, § 2, pages 625, 626; BUDDEUS’ Theologiæ Moralis, part I, chapter I, section II, § 31-34, pages 59-62. Now, just as on the Definition of Heresy our AUTHOR was saying that it is an Error…introduced and defended by men professing the truth faith of the Church; so in his Exercitationes Miscellaneas, Disputation I, § 10, he advises, “They commonly add, in calling something Heresy, with the grievous error a contumacy in defending it: not error, as they observe, but stubborn obstinacy makes a heretic. Although there are those that rather think that that obstinacy and impudence of disposition are signified by the Greek termination of the word αἱρετικοῦ/heretic: among whom is the Most Learned Cameron,[6] who on the Pauline text in which he wills that a heretical man be shunned, observes (in his Myrothecio Euangelico on Titus 3:10), that this is the character of Greek nouns ending in ικος, that they are not only used to designate a quality, but also to indicate the delight that one takes in that to which that quality is adheres.” Whence it happens, adds CAMERON, that he that is imbued with a heretical error is not continuously a heretic nor to be held as a heretic. A man of a simpler nature is able by seducers to be imbued with Heresy, that is, with a fundamental Error concerning the doctrine of the faith, to which he gives assent for a time; who nevertheless does not foster Heresy, that is, a sect, by propagating error and drawing disciples after himself; but who by giving place to instruction, when he is better educated, with little difficulty is brought back to belief of sounder doctrine: which sort then does not deserve to be marked with the name Heretic. But we call a Church heretical, say the Theologians of Leiden in Synopsi purioris Theologiæ, Disputation XL, § 39, that in articles weighty and fundamental so errs that it rejects all correction, and obstinately perseveres in error. For Obstinacy belongs to the formal reckoning of Heresy. This quality of Heresy and the Heretic in Paul BEZA explains at length in his tractate de Hæreticis a civili Magistratu puniendis, Tractationes theologicas, page 90, whom it is helpful to hear: Some, says he, dissent from the Orthodox, not so much in manners, as in doctrine, and that sometimes either by infirmity of nature, or negligence, or some inveterate and generational habit of erring: or finally by the deceit of some that entice souls not yet sufficiently confirmed in the truth, 2 Peter 2: sometimes by perfidy and dishonesty, when we straying are seized by hatred of God, greed, ambition, wantonness, and the other lusts of this sort that repel the Spirit of God, Galatians 5:19, 20…. These adulterous Christians we may divide again into two sorts. For some allow themselves to be taught: and, although they are not able immediately to be led away from their opinion, they are not so settled in themselves that they excite any commotions in the Church. Others, with invincible obstinacy and dishonesty, because they are (as Paul calls them) αὐτοκατάκριτοι/self-condemned,[7] not only resist the truth, but also destroy the peace and concord of the Church. The Scripture is wont to say that both sorts are erring: but the former he specifically calls weak in faith, Romans 14 and 15, and he commands that they be tolerated for the present, while the Lord reveals to them those things of which they are ignorant, Philippians 3. But the latter Paul, in Titus 3:10, calls Heretics, and after one and another admonition decrees that they are to be shunned by the Bishop. Now, when inquiry is now made by us concerning these things, we shall accurately and carefully distinguish them from the rest. Heretics, therefore, if one call them infidels, ignorant, apostates, erring from the truth, broken off, he would indeed adorn them with true titles, but which they have in common with many others, in whom either religion, or life, or both are deservedly reprehended. But this is a proper and peculiar mark whereby they are distinguished from the others: that they afford an opportunity to their perfidy (which they resolutely maintain) as if it were a game, and introduce into the Church a faction of a different doctrine, as far as in them lies, or foster one introduced by others. For otherwise, if it be a conflict of personalities, not of beliefs, men of that sort you will call schismatics, not heretics: although those that are heretics are also schismatics, that is, they are destroyers of ecclesiastical concord and agreement. But these are distinguished in 1 Corinthians, and indeed in such a way that heresy is held as the greater crime. For thus I also interpret that passage, 1 Corinthians 11:18, 19, where the Apostle thus writes: I hear that there are schisms among you, and I partly believe it: for there must be also sects among you:[8] as if the Apostle would say that he easily believes that they are not of the same consent of mind, since they were also liable to a more grievous evil of the Church of God, namely, dissension of opinions, which he calls heresy. Elsewhere he also manifestly distinguishes διχοστασίας/seditions, that is, dissensions, from heresies, Galatians 5:20: so that διχοστασία means the exact same thing as σχίσμα/schism: unless you bring in that which the Apostle added in another place, indeed, not calling them heretics by name, but manifestly specifying them. For, when he had admonished the brethren that they should mark those that cause divisions and offences, he also adds, contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, Romans 16:17. When these two things happen together, it will be heresy according to the Apostle’s definition, than which we are obliged to seek none better. For also elsewhere he portrays it with marks altogether the same, as in 1 Timothy 6:3, If any man ἑτεροδιδασκαλεῖ, that is, teach otherwise, and does not consent to wholesome words. You see…that in addition to obstinacy, and that properly in doctrine, not in manners, ἑτεροδιδασκαλίαν/ heterodoxy is also required. In 2 Timothy 2:18, speaking the same concerning the heretics, Philetus and Hymenæus, he says that they have not only erred concerning the truth, but have also subverted the faith of some. On which account just a little before he compared their speech to gangrene.[9] For otherwise to err is human: but to split the Church after just and repeated admonition only belongs to those that the Apostle in 2 Timothy 3:13 calls πλανῶντες καὶ πλανώμενοι, that is, deceivers, and inducers of others to error. Peter also, indicating heretics, says that unstable souls are enticed by them: and he delivers a full definition of them completely agreeing with that of Paul, 2 Peter 2:1, Among you there shall be false teachers, who privily shall bring in deadly heresies or sects. From which words, so that we might gather all into a few words, we may conclude that he that indeed makes a pretext of piety, but nevertheless, having not only been admonished by the sound words of the Church once and again, does not acquiesce, but also, with false doctrine set forth or received from others, breaks up the peace and agreement of the Church, is a Heretic. And that the very notion of the word demonstrates. For Heresy is a Greek word, which indeed was initially of approval, such that elsewhere Paul does not repudiate its application to him (Acts 24:14): but at length by a tradition of speech it began to be used in the case of vice, for vicious dogma and faction, which one might choose to follow, with the judgment of the Church of God despised (1 Corinthians 11:19).

[1] Galatians 5:20: “Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies (αἱρέσεις)…”


[2] Titus 3:10: “A man that is an heretick (αἱρετικὸν) after the first and second admonition reject…”


[3] The Edict of Milan, issued in 313, granted toleration to Christians in the Roman Empire.


[4] Theodore Balsamon (twelfth century) was Patriarch of Antioch; he was an expert in ecclesiastical law.


[5] The Council of Chalcedon (451) is most remembered for settling the controversy concerning the relationship of the two natures in the one person of Christ.


[6] John Cameron (1580-1625) was a Protestant divine of great distinction, serving as Professor of Philosophy at Sedan, Professor of Divinity at Saumur (1608) and at Glasgow (1620). He is the father of the Amyraldian doctrine.


[7] Titus 3:11.


[8] Greek: ἀκούω σχίσματα ἐν ὑμῖν ὑπάρχειν, καὶ μέρος τι πιστεύω. δεῖ γὰρ καὶ αἱρέσεις ἐν ὑμῖν εἶναι.


[9] 2 Timothy 2:17: “And their word will eat as doth a canker (ὡς γάγγραινα): of whom is Hymenaeus and Philetus…”

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Dr. Steven Dilday holds a BA in Religion and Philosophy from Campbell University, a Master of Arts in Religion from Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), and both a Master of Divinity and a  Ph.D. in Puritan History and Literature from Whitefield Theological Seminary.  He is also the translator of Matthew Poole's Synopsis of Biblical Interpreters and Bernardinus De Moor’s Didactico-Elenctic Theology.

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