I have been talking about various forms of Gnosticism and that now has led me to move into a broader discussion about early Christian “heresy” in general.  I’ve talked a lot about non-canonical books, and various forms of Christian belief and practice, and so on over the years, but to my surprise it’s been a very long time since I addressed one of the most fundamental questions of early Christian history, the relationship of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” in early Christianity.

The understanding of this relationship has long been much debated, and the debate begins with the terms themselves, which, as it turns out, are notoriously tricky.

Part of the issue has to do with their literal or etymological meaning.  In terms of etymology, the word “orthodoxy” comes from two Greek terms that mean something like “correct opinion” or “right belief.”   The word “heresy” comes from a Greek word that means “choice.”   And so someone subscribes to orthodoxy if they hold to the right belief, but they hold to a heresy if they have “chosen” to believe a wrong belief.

Throughout the history of Christian discourse, these terms were taken to be non-problematic.  Orthodoxy was the correct view of things and heresies were false views of things.  Heretics were the ones who held those false beliefs.  And they did so either because they were evil, or inspired by demons, or stupid, or

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