Jon Stovell’s Notebook


On the meaning of orthodoxy and heresy

Words like “heresy” and “orthodoxy” often trigger a distrusting response when people hear them, and for good reason. Many people have abused them as bludgeons, as though orthodox meant “I’m right and good” and heretical meant “You are wrong and evil.” But there are other ways to use those terms that are better, proper, and truer. Maybe the following will be helpful.

Orthodox doesn’t mean “this idea is right.” It means “this idea helps us stay rightly oriented toward Jesus.” Gregory of Nazianzus (old dead guy, pretty important in the history of Christian theology, but don’t worry if you’ve never heard of him) once said it this way: “To be only slightly in error is to be orthodox.” Orthodoxy isn’t “right,” it is just “getting close(r).” The truth remains still mysterious and beyond our ability to fully grasp. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.1

Heresy likewise doesn’t mean “this idea is wrong,” let alone “this idea is evil.” It means “this idea interferes with one’s ability to follow Jesus well.” It means there is something about the idea that is fundamentally incompatible with the gospel of Jesus, and so holding that idea will trip us up as we try to follow him.

For example, the idea that Jesus was the first creature God made is a problem because it distorts the gospel fundamentally. If Jesus is God (the orthodox view), than all the things Jesus did were the gracious acts of God to save us. We receive them as his lavish gifts of love that he poured himself out to give so that we could receive abundant life, not as something we earn by our efforts. And so following Jesus’ way means pouring ourselves out, even and especially when it costs us, in order to lovingly benefit and give life to others. But if Jesus is the first creature, then salvation is precisely something earned from God by a creature. It isn’t God’s gift, but a reward. To be like Jesus then is nothing other than a matter of being perfectly righteous (in the worst sense). It is no longer matter of love and gift, but a matter of rights and rewards.

So, don’t think of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” as weapons—and call people out if they are using them that way!—but rather as terms indicating “helpful for fostering Christian discipleship” or “unhelpful for fostering Christian discipleship.” I think you’ll find this to be a much more life-giving way to engage with the matter.

[Slightly modified from the original here]