Heretical versus unorthodox

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Puritan Board Freshman
(I am not sure that I have placed this in the correct forum here at PuritanBoard. Feel free to move it to a more appropriate forum if this is not the correct one.)

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?

2. Are the terms heretic and Christian mutually exclusive? In other words, does it follow that to call someone a heretic is to call them a non-Christian? This question is admittedly a bit sticky. For example, the Protestant faith is heretical on the Roman Catholic view; and yet Protestants, perhaps most effectively by those of the Reformed faith, would argue that they enjoy union with Christ and are thus Christians, notwithstanding the opinion of Romanists. So there is one sense in which the terms heretic and Christian are not mutually exclusive.

But I am inquiring after a Presbyterian context, so I am looking for an answer that is consistent with the five solas of the Protestant Reformation and the confessional standards of orthodox Presbyterian churches. For example, suppose a Reformed Baptist called a Presbyterian heretical over the issue of infant baptism, given that the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (LBCF) militates against such a practice—even though the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) and catechisms affirm it. Has the Reformed Baptist misapplied the term, or did he use it rightly (thus rendering the Presbyterian a "Christian heretic")? What I mean to ask is this: Is there a definition of heretic that transcends competing confessional orthodoxies which all Reformed churches acknowledge?

Surely the matter is not so muddled that all Christians are thus inevitably heretics (since every Christian body will violate the orthodoxy of another Christian body). It must be the case that the Reformed Baptist in our hypothetical scenario has misapplied the term, for even his own confession subordinates itself to holy scriptures, the only infallible rule of Christian faith and practice (LBCF chapter 1, articles 1, 2, 6, 9, and 10). As Philip Schaff notes in The Creeds of Christendom, "The value of creeds [and presumably confessions and catechisms] depends upon the measure of their agreement with the Scriptures. ... The Bible has, therefore, a divine and absolute [authority], the Confession only an ecclesiastical and relative authority."

There must be a set of orthodox dogmas to which all Reformed churches are agreed as delineating heresy, such that all other contentions permit communion of these saints as Christian brothers. And it is my hope that there is some record of this in sources from, or recognized by, orthodox Presbyterian churches confessing the Westminster Standards. (For my purposes there is no need for an orthodoxy that will include the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, so that can be left to the side. Those of the Protestant Reformation need only apply, so to speak.)

3. Can a Presbyterian properly identify as confessional if he does not subscribe to every single item of the Westminster Standards? I believe that in order to hold a teaching office in the Presbyterian church one must subscribe to the entirety of the Westminster Standards; however, I am led to understand that such is not required of the laity. For example, if a member in good standing of a Presbyterian church subscribes to the Westminster Standards excepting one part (which is not related to the nature and character of God, his word, or the gospel), then can he properly identify as confessional? Or was I misled and the laity, in fact, must subscribe to the entirety of the Westminster Standards in order to identify as confessional?

I appreciate your careful and thoughtful contributions to answering these questions. 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.


Puritan Board Graduate
Hi brother, great to have someone from Kelowna on the board. I used to live in the Lower Mainland (and the Island) and always enjoyed spending time in the interior. There are a few other folks from the Okanagan on the Puritan Board.

As to your questions, they are good ones. But there is a lot there. You might consider creating a separate thread for each of the three headings. This will allow the folks to more easily focus the discussion on one point.


Puritan Board Post-Graduate
Hi brother, great to have someone from Kelowna on the board. I used to live in the Lower Mainland (and the Island) and always enjoyed spending time in the interior. There are a few other folks from the Okanagan on the Puritan Board.

As to your questions, they are good ones. But there is a lot there. You might consider creating a separate thread for each of the three headings. This will allow the folks to more easily focus the discussion on one point.
I agree with Tim but I will answer one question "what I as a Presbyterian believe to be heresy". The Dictionary defines heresy as: “Theological or religious opinion or doctrine maintained in opposition, or held to be contrary, to the ‘catholic’ (universal) or orthodox doctrine of the Christian Church.” that is the universal truth of the Christian church which maintain the truths taught by the Protestant reformers.
I am a Presbyterian and I believe the greatest heresy the church faces today is superficiality. That is Doctrines which depart from biblical truth and the 5 solas of the Reformation; Grace alone, Faith alone , Christ alone, Scripture alone, all for the greater glory of God alone. I believe any doctrines with no biblical foundation such as the RC teaching of “The Immaculate Conception” as Dogma , the Assumption of Mary and distorted sacramental beliefs such as The RC teaching of Transubstantiation regarding the Lords supper is heresy. Basically any and all teachings that go beyond the bible , and especially teachings which defy the truth of the Gospel such as the Roman catholic mass which says Christ is re sacrificed daily and the priest offer s a sacrifice of the body and blood of Jesus , the bread and wine which he has magically turned into Christ’s actual body and blood, this is a blasphemy and an abomination because it defies the truth of the Gospel that Christ dies once for all the sins of man and we are saved by nothing we do or any work we do but by Faith alone in Christ alone. I would just see these as still some o the heresy heresies today as they were at the time of the glorious Protestant Reformation.

The following is an excellent piece relating to what I am saying. It is from Reformation 21

The Scots Confession
by Liam Goligher

Today I've been working on a lecture I'm due to give in Cambridge next Monday commemorating the 450th anniversary of the Scottish Reformation. Dairmid MacCulloch of Oxford University calls the Scottish Reformation the most successful of all the reformations of the period. It was driven primarily by the Word of God itself rather than by great personalities.
Though more often than not associated with the towering firgure of the anglified John Knox it would be true to say that things were far advanced before his final return on May 2nd 1559. He began to tour the country and found a thirst for the gospel among all sorts and conditions of people. He virtually exhausted himself as he travelled and preached leaving barely four hours a night for sleep. Already there had been a steady drip feed of exposure to written Scriptures since the time of Wycliffe that made men and women question the corruptions and abuses of the church heirarchy. The reading of Scripture in the vernacular had been permitted by Parliament. Even illiterates were able to grasp the gospel. One Robert Maule became 'very penitent of his former life and embraced the reformed religion.' He had learned it from his son 'a godly person given to reading of the Holy Scriptures' who 'nightly' instructed his father in 'the chief points of religion.'
By 1558 the Protestants were calling for 'a just reformation according to God's word' and wished for 'Christ's religion to be returned to its original purity,' so that 'the grave and godly face of the primitive church' might be restored, ignorance dispelled, and tue doctrine and good manners appear again 'in the churches of this realm.' In August 17th 1560 the Confession of Faith was ratified and approved by Parliament as 'wholesome and sound doctrine grounded upon the infallible truth of God's word.'
The godly humility and stubborn fidelity to the authority of Scripture can be seen in this extract from the preface:
'Protesting, that if any man will note in this our Confession any article or sentence repugning to God's holy word, that it would please him of his gentleness, and for Christian charity's sake, to admonish us of the same in writ; and We of our honour and fidelity do promise unto him satisfaction from the mouth of God (that is, from his holy Scriptures), or else reformation of that which he shall prove to be amiss. For God we take to record in our consciences, that from our hearts we abhor all sects of heresy, and all teachers of erroneous doctrine; and that with all humility we embrace the purity of Christ's Evangel, which is the only food of our souls; and therefore so precious unto us, that we are determined to suffer the extremity of worldly danger, rather than that we will suffer ourselves to be defrauded of the same. For hereof we are most certainly persuaded, "That whosoever denies Christ Jesus, or is ashamed of him, in presence of men, shall be denied before the Father, and before his holy angels." And therefore by the assistance of the mighty Spirit of the same, our Lord Jesus, we firmly purpose to abide to the end in the Confession of this our Faith...'
We are standing on the shoulders of giants!
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Puritan Board Senior
The term heretic is normally reserved for someone who departs from the Faith in ways that are demonstrably at odds with the either the Apostles, Nicene, Athanasian or Chalcedon creeds.

---------- Post added at 10:25 PM ---------- Previous post was at 10:20 PM ----------

A Church that teaches something that is a serious doctrinal error, I would not call heretical or cultic. If a Church's baptism is valid, I would call it an apostate Church, not a heretical Church or a cult. Thus the Church or Rome, with its denial of justification by faith alone, should be called apostate.
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