With our previous definition of heresy in the bin (a doctrine or opinion at variance with the accepted or orthodox doctrine), we are ready to take a step closer to the way the Bible defines the term. Ironically, we will see that the definition that we have rejected is not merely incorrect, but in fact an excellent display of heretical thinking.
We will also see that it has stood the test of time so well because it looks very much like the real thing indeed…
Heresy in the New Testament
So how does the Bible use the word? Whilst the Greek term hairesis (αἵρεσις) sounds very much like our English “heresy”, it actually means something else. Before we discuss this, let us note that the word appears 9 times in the New Testament, and that 6 thereof are found in Acts:
- Luke uses the word to refer to the Sadducees (5:17) and the Pharisees (15:5).
- Tertullus uses it in his case against Paul, in reference to the Nazarenes. (24:5)
- Paul uses it in his defense against Tertullus’ accusations, referring to the manner in which the people were speaking about “the Way”, that is, Christianity. (24:14)
- Paul uses it in reference to the Pharisees, and his former life as one of them. (26:5)
- The Jewish leaders in Rome used it in reference to the Christians, when they request Paul to share his views with them. (28:22)
At first glance it feels like we are on familiar ground: Everyone accuses everyone else of heresy. But a closer inspection of these verses reveals that the word refers to the people – the actual movement– not just the doctrine held by them. Which is why English Bibles typically translate hairesis as “sect” throughout Acts.
The word is used in a similar way in Paul’s famous teaching on the Lord’s supper: “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions (hairesis) among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.” (1 Corinthians 11:18-19)
The “works of the flesh” list in Galatians 5 also includes the word: “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions (hairesis), envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19-21)
The last reference comes from Peter, and provides us with the only Biblical example where the word appears to be used as we understand it: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.” (2 Peter 2:1)
We will return to Peter, but let us note for now that the New Testament authors did not think of heresy purely as a cognitive exercise gone wrong – an “incorrect belief” that did not conform to an established, accepted doctrine. Rather, they thought of it in terms of something that caused division. Heresy had to do with factionalism.
If we look at the etymology of the word, it becomes clear why. Derived from the Greek hairein (to choose, take, grasp), hairesis means “choosing or taking for oneself.” Thus, it refers to a “self-chosen opinion” (Strongs) that separates the person from the group and causes division. According to some scholars, it derives from the Indo European root ser which means “to seize”, and is linked to the Hittite saru and the Welsh herw. Both these words mean “booty.”
Thus, the error is not to be found in an incorrect or incomplete understanding of a matter, but in the choice to settle on an opinion that will lead to division. Out of the 9 references in Scripture, 8 carries this clear connotation.
Whilst the reference in Peter may seem like an exception, the context makes it clear that the “heresy” of the false teachers had nothing to do with theological issues, and everything with “greed”, “sensuality”, “lust”, “passion” and the like.
The problem with the “heresies” in Peter is clear from the adjective – they are “destructive.” Likewise, the problem with the false prophets who will spread them is that “many will follow their sensuality.” As above, the heresies will lead to a schism among the flock of Christ, and the outcome will be detrimental for those who have been torn away. The problem of the “false words” of verse 3 is not that they fail to conform to a correct credal construct, but that they enable the false teachers to “exploit” their hearers.
Again, note the focus on the “self” and its opinionated choices.
False Doctrine in the New Testament
Does the Bible then say nothing about doctrine that deviates from Biblical doctrine and becomes “false” in the process?
It does, but in a manner that accords with the way it defines hairesis.
For instance, Paul tells Titus that an elder “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (Titus 1:9)
Churches love this verse and do everything to follow it to a T. Which is why I was once banned from a Pentecostal pulpit after telling two senior elders that I no longer believed that people who do not speak in tongues have never received the gift of the Holy Spirit. I had forsaken sound doctrine, as sound doctrine was understood in my classical Pentecostal congregation, and could no longer give instruction in it to my congregants. Thus, I no longer qualified as their pastor.
When I convinced my best friend to get baptised with me in the summer of 82, his Dutch Reformed dominee wanted to administer censure against him. Many godly elders in South Africa suffered that fate in the seventies and eighties as a result of their decision to be baptised as believing adults. They had contradicted sound doctrine and suffered public rebuke, in accordance with Titus 1:9.
And so we can go on, which brings us back to the problem of defining a heretic as someone who has embraced a doctrine at variance with the accepted or orthodox doctrine: Orthodox according to who?
If we carry on reading in Titus the problem resolves itself. Those who contradict sound doctrine are empty talkers and deceivers who teach for shameful gain (note the corelation with Peter), devote themselves to Jewish myths, and profess to know God whilst denying him by their works.
On the other hand, to “teach sound doctrine” (2:1) is to teach the older men to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. It is to teach the older women not to slander or become alcoholics, but to train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure. It is to teach the younger men to control themselves. It is to teach bondservants to respect their masters, not be argumentative and refrain from stealing, so that in everything they may “adorn” the doctrine of God. It is to teach people to submit to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.
At this point you may ask, “Where on earth is the doctrine in all of this?”
The answer is rather disturbing: The word “doctrine”, as we understand it (a systematic codification of beliefs, along with its verb form “indoctrination) does not appear in the Bible. The Greek word is simply “teaching” (didaskalia). And the content of the teaching in Titus is the application of the Christ-lifestyle to males and females, the young and old, and bondservants.
This, believe it or not, is “sound doctrine.”
The Heretic in Titus
Interestingly, it is in Titus where we run into the “heretic” (hairetikon), the only place in the entire Bible where the word appears.
By now you should know what to expect. He is contrasted with those who hold to the “sound teaching” by virtue of their “good works” (a term that appears 6 times in Titus’ 3 short chapters and characterizes sound teaching better than any other term), and is identified as follows: “But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division (hairetikon), after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” (Titus 3:9-11)
Interesting, isn’t it? The heretic is the one who gets involved in religious controversies and quarrels about the law, who draws conclusions and stirs up division as a result. The one who embraces sound teaching is the one who avoids these things, who does not quarrel, who refuses to be argumentative, and who channels his/her energies into becoming a “model of good works” (2:7).
If this does not shake you to the core, then perhaps you are unaware of what goes on in the inner circles of the denominational universe, and behind the closed doors of theological faculty boardrooms.
Does the rest of the New Testament concur with Titus? We will explore this in the posts to come.
(PS: I am aware that the above raises a myriad of questions, and lends itself to a number of misinterpretations and caricaturizations. But let’s stick with Scripture and trust it to address these issues as we continue to explore this theme.)