An old saying is that “heresy is the mother of orthodoxy.” In other words, what we call orthodoxy, correct Christian belief, arose largely in response to the challenges of heresies. This is an assertion Roger Olson puts forward in his book Counterfeit Christianity: the Persistence of Errors in the Church. This can sound confusing on its face. Let us not conclude there was no informal orthodoxy about God, Jesus Christ, and salvation before Heresies arose. Orthodoxy predated heresies, but heresies forced the church to make them explicit.
Maybe defining terms up top would be helpful.
Orthodoxy- Ortho (right, true, straight) + Doxa (praise, glory, opinion). In the Christian church, Orthodoxy means: right praise, true glory, straight opinion. “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” - John 4:24
What we say about God matters.
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas likes to say, “We can only act in a world we can see, and we see by what we say”. If I ask a four-year-old child “where’s your Mother?” they might say, “ober der” or “I don’t know”, but they understand the question and can offer a rational response. If I ask that same child if she thinks that carbon emissions are the leading contributor to climate change? She might say “I don’t know what carmen wishes?” She has no context for the periodic table of elements, or the understanding of the consequence of human action upon the environment. Hauerwas continues, “To speak Christian is an exacting discipline. It has taken the church centuries to develop habits of speech that help us say no more than needs to be said.” How do we speak truly, saying what we mean, without saying more than we need to, or speaking falsely about God? That’s the concern of Christian Orthodoxy. Learning to speak Christian.
It may be helpful to keep that child in mind when we talk about the concept of Heresy and Heretics. I won’t hold it against that child when he can’t answer a question that goes beyond his depth. When does life begin? It may even be entertaining to hear them opine on the subject. It’s quite another thing if he knows what I’m talking about and refuses to tell the truth. Did you take the cookie from the cookie jar?
Heresies are dependent on orthodoxy, on known established standards. A heresy is a choice to go in a different direction than the known standard. The root of the word means “to take, to seize, to choose”. A heretic is not only one who chooses another opinion over the established norm; they are one who teaches others as well. So a heresy is an in-house argument (amongst Christians in this context) where a teaching goes contrary to established norms of right belief, and a heretic chooses and teaching others to choose a different way from that standard.
Not everything rises to level of heresy though. For this conversation, we are talking about formal ecumenical heresies. Formal, as in, established by the church universal through a process of prayer and discernment called the ecumenical councils. This in contrast to theology, which could be any number of ‘opinions’ that individuals or branches of the church called denominations hold as valuable. A Baptist may think you have to be of a certain age and have a typical depth of water for a proper baptism. This is not something the church universal has codified. A Methodist may think it's proper for the Jell-O salad served at the church luncheon to be the proper color for the liturgical season...but that's not a matter of heresy. There is liberty over the amount of water used in the practice of baptism or whether you serve Jell-O salad at all. If instead we were talking about signing up new members to a class to be baptized in the name of ‘Father God’ because Jesus was just a man who lived 2,000 years ago and a man can’t save you. Then we would be talking about something entirely different.
“In essentials Unity, In non-essentials Liberty, In all things Charity (love)”
So let me pose the question: “What things do you think are the essential beliefs of the Christian faith?”
That’s what we’re talking about when we talk about Heresy and Orthodoxy. There were a lot of things floating around out there, and the church took steps to formally outline the essentials, and leave a lot of space for liberty around non-essentials. Jesus calls us to love in all things.