Re: Heresy

From: George Murphy <>
Date: Fri Jan 02 2004 - 12:58:47 EST

wallyshoes wrote:
> As you all may know by now, I am a serious defender of the dictionary as
> the proper usage of words. Upon hearing so much ado about heresy
> recently, I consulted my dictionary. I was surprised to see:
> "a dissenter from established church doctrine: especially a baptized
> member of the Roman Catholic Church who disavows a revealed truth."
> This does not strike me a fair because it was my mother's idea to have
> me baptized as a Roman Catholic and I did not get to vote.
> Regardless, I am a 100% bona fide heretic and am therefore qualified to
> judge the situation. You may submit your qualifications to me
> (preferably off-line) and I will make a call. Until then, you all may
> consider yourselves merely to be invincibly ignorant ;)
> No offense to any RCs on the list!

Walt -
        A general purpose dictionary is OK as far as it goes, but sometimes it doesn't
go far enough when you get into some specialized area. A person who insisted on
discussing "stimulated emission" or a "Kerr black hole" in terms of a general dictionary
definition could quickly get into trouble. The same is true with theology. _The
Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology_ (which has a 1/2 page article on "Heresy"
by the Anglican Stephen Sykes) would be a useful resource to have available. Of course
there are others.

        In the definition you cite you should note the word "especially." The concept
of heresy is by no means limited to the RC church, though the formal definition of it
developed in RC canon law during the Middle Ages has been very influential. The idea
that all those baptized in the RC church are responsible to that church for their
orthodoxy does seem problematic, especially in a case like yours. But there are a
couple of truths that ought to be retained.
        1st, only a Christian can, properly speaking, be a heretic. Pagans are wrong,
but they aren't heretics.
        2d, individual Christians have some responsibility to the whole Christian
community for their beliefs, and that people can't simply believe whatever they want to
and expect to remain members of the Christian community. Of course the whole American
spirit of individualism that has pervaded churches in this country hates that idea, but
so much the worse for it.

        Here's another point worth noting. Conservative Christians who take the ideas
of orthodoxy and heresy seriously tend to think it's an all or nothing matter: A
statement or belief is either orthodox or heretical. The RC tradition has a more
nuanced spectrum: A statement can, e.g., be said to be "temerarious," which your
dictionary may define as "unreasonably venturesome, rash, reckless." I.e., "Watch your
step!" OTOH, heresy - denial of a specific doctrine - is not the same as "apostasy,"
which is denial of the entire Christian faith. I don't think that a lot of hair
splitting or name calling is helpful, but it might be good for us to pay a little more
attention to such nuances.


George L. Murphy
Received on Fri Jan 2 13:02:10 2004

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