Theological debates can be tiring. Indeed – most of the time I take no delight in them, as necessary as they are. Going into one, however, one must take notice of the significance of the issue in question – is the debated theological topic essential, or peripheral, serious, or simply a case of nit-picking? Further, we can avoid much grief if we grasp the difference between error and heresy, so that we can also avoid unnecessary offense.
One helpful way to think about this issue is what I offer here. We may draw the distinction between errors and heresies from a more basic distinction between creeds and confessions.
A creed, roughly, contains the contents of the faith that are essential for a basic Christian identity, and as such, creeds are ecumenical; they transcend the divisions within the Christian church. This includes Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Lutheranism, and the Protestant Reformed. No matter how serious are the differences between these branches of the faith, they are still united by a basic confession regarding the deity of Christ and the Trinitarian character of God. The creeds include, for example, the Nicene and Chalcedonian – I may not agree with the Roman Catholic understanding of the Lord’s Supper, but I can acknowledge that we confess the same things about the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
A confession, then, is that which presupposes the content of the ecumenical creeds, but further delineates the differences between the branches of Christianity I mentioned above. Rome has the two Vatican councils and their catechism, and the Protestant Reformed have the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity. These documents contain the elaborate statements regarding the distinct theology of each branch – they go much further than a basic Trinitarian confession. They outline one’s view of salvation, of sin, of the authority of the church, and of a proper use of Scripture, and even whether one can know if one is saved. Of course, confessions also detail the differences within Protestantism, between the baptists, charismatics, etc.
Now, what’s the difference, roughly then, between an error and a heresy? An error is determined by whether the person in error goes beyond the bounds of one’s confession. I may consider congregationalism to be an errant form of church government, but I will not denounce a congregationalist as a heretic. I may be considered to be one who commits an error by a baptist (because I believe that the infant should be included within the covenant, and thereby be baptized), but a baptist will not deem me a heretic. I may consider Arminianism to be a serious error, but I will not call Arminians heretics.
Heresy, therefore, is a step above an error – it connotes that one who commits heresy is actually beyond the faith – outside the bounds of creedal, and therefore churchly, orthodoxy. A heresy is committed when one transgresses the content of the most basic creeds that unite even the Roman Catholics and the Protestants – it concerns the most basic and core matters of the faith. So there is a moral connotation when one commits a heresy, in a way that there is not when an error is done. A heretic’s Christian identity can be called into question; we can ask whether their faith can be in the same category as, say, Mormonism.
Arminianism, again, may be an error, but it is no heresy. On the other hand, denying Christ’s divine nature would be heretical, and denying the co-substantiality of his human nature with ours would be as well. Affirming continuationism, for some, may be an error, but it is no heresy. But denying the Holy Spirit’s divinity is no mere error, this is heresy.
Keeping this distinction in mind is thus crucial. Someone charged with heresy cannot be defended by saying that “nobody’s theology is perfect.” That’s true enough – precise theological knowledge does not save – believing in the right Christ does. But that’s the point: heresy, if committed, questions if one does believe in the right Christ.