Heretical versus unorthodox: What is heresy?

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Puritan Board Freshman
NOTICE: On the advice of another member, I am splitting my questions up (Smart 2012) into three separate posts, allowing "folks to more easily focus the discussion on one point" (Lindsay 2012, par. 2). This is the first of three posts; the other two are "Heretical v. unorthodox: Does heretic mean non-Christian?" and "Heretical v. unorthodox: Confessional or not?"


I present the following questions for the sincere and thoughtful consideration of Presbyterian members here—although it is open to those of other traditions as well—because I am looking for answers drawn and cited from recognized Presbyterian sources, be they scriptures, confessions, catechisms, general assemblies, synods, or otherwise books and articles by theologians who are Presbyterian or whose material is generally accepted by Presbyterians; and, come to think of it, perhaps in that preferential order. (The theological opinions of members here are also welcome, of course, but I am looking for sources and materials which I can cite in a research paper.)

1. What is heresy? That is, when is a belief regarded as not just unorthodox but actual heresy? For example, it is my understanding that there are many Presbyterians who accept and believe evolutionary creationism and an earth that is billions of years old, even though the Westminster Standards speak of creation out of nothing in the space of six days. Although they might be regarded by some as holding an unorthodox view, they are not considered heretics.

I raised this question with both the senior and associate pastors at my church (which is Baptist and thus neither helpful or relevant for resolving this in a Presbyterian context) and, at the end of our discussion, we were agreed that the only beliefs subject to the charge of heresy are those which touch upon the nature and character of God, his word, or the gospel. As such, affirming evolutionary creationism and an earth that is billions of years old is plausibly unorthodox but not necessarily heretical; unless one also denies that Adam was a real figure in history, which would be heretical given his import to soteriology (federal headship and imago Dei, original sin and the nature of man, contrast with the "last Adam," etc.). And so the late Harold Brown: "In the early church, heresy did not refer to simply any doctrinal disagreement, but to something that seemed to undercut the very basis for Christian existence. Practically speaking, heresy involved the doctrine of God and the doctrine of Christ—later called special theology and Christology" (Heresies [Doubleday, 1984], p. 2).

This is all well and good for an independent Baptist congregation, but I wish to explore this question in a Presbyterian context (for it is a Presbyterian with whom I am engaging these issues) so I am looking for answers from recognized Presbyterian sources that I can cite. As for the holy scriptures, I know that the apostle Paul considered it heresy to preach a different gospel contrary to apostolic preaching ("not that there really is another gospel"), such that those who did so ought to be cut off and condemned (anathema esto; Gal. 1:6-9). What else do the scriptures have to say regarding heresy? What about Presbyterian confessions and catechisms and so forth?

I appreciate your careful and thoughtful contributions to answering this question. Please remember to cite the references that your answers draw from, if any, so that I may examine them for myself and include them in my research.
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