If people now have trouble with creeds, as some of us do, many have even much more trouble with the idea of heresy. In fact, heresy is now generally seen as something so odious it is seldom mentioned in "polite" Christian circles.
"Whatever Became of Heresy?" is the title of one subsection in my forthcoming book "The Limits of Liberalism." As I write there, "throughout most of the history of Christianity, the treatment of heretics has been so harsh and so many 'heretics' have suffered so much that most of us in this age of tolerance and humane treatment for all naturally shy away from those pathetic practices of the past." But should we do away with the concept of heresy altogether?
Carl E. Braaten is a contemporary theologian who has dared to write about the necessity of keeping the concept of heresy. Braaten (b. 1929), an eminent Lutheran theologian who is conservative but not a fundamentalist, is the author of "That All May Believe: A Theology of the Gospel and the Mission of the Church" (2008). (I have a review of that book in the July 2009 issue of "Missiology: An International Review.")
In his book Braaten forwards what he calls “Evangelical Catholicism.” With that emphasis, he speaks for many (conservative) theologians and church leaders who believe that everything is not permitted. He thinks there are scriptural and creedal norms that must be regarded with utmost seriousness. I agree.
If there is a central Christian Story, as I have repeatedly affirmed on this blog, then believing Christians, as opposed to cultural Christians, can surely be expected to agree with the basic expression of that Story--as, perhaps we could say, expressed in the creeds. Those who do not or cannot in good conscience agree with that basic expression may then rightfully be labeled with that odious word "heretic."
Then the question becomes, What does the church, or what do Christian institutions, do with regard to those who appear to be "heretics"? Certainly, I do not believe that they should be punished, mistreated, or harmed in any way. Regardless of what people do or do not believe, they should be treated with respect, kindness, and consideration.
Because of all the negative baggage carried by the word “heretic,” perhaps a different term should be used altogether. But surely there needs to be some way to distinguish between those who are Christians because of what they believe and those who are Christians because of their cultural identification but who do not, or who no longer, hold to the central Christian beliefs.
One final caveat: it must be remembered that while the word "creed" comes from the Latin "credo," meaning "I believe," the New Testament perspective on belief has far more to do with a life commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord than to intellectual assent to doctrinal propositions.