You might think – and many people do think – that as Christianity developed, every Christian more or less went along with the “standard” or “orthodox” Christian beliefs that emerged. The term “orthodoxy” literally means “right beliefs” (or correct opinions); the word “heterodoxy” means “other opinions” (that is, other than the right ones!). A term often used alternatively for the latter is “heresy,” which literally means “choice,” used for people who “choose” to believe the wrong things. (!) As you might imagine, these are highly subjective terms A view is “right” (that is, orthodox) for you depending on what you personally believe. That’s because no one chooses to believe something they know is wrong. If they think it’s wrong, they change their view to what is right. But that means that everyone necessarily believes they are right, i.e. orthodox. Or as one wag put it, “orthodoxy is my doxy, and heterodoxy is your doxy.”
That also means that it’s impossible to say that one group within early Christianity was absolutely right about everything (i.e. “orthodox”) and everyone else was wrong (“heretics”) – unless you assume that people with the theology that you happen to agree with were the ones always right (“orthodox”). Of course lots of people do think that. But that’s a personal, subjective evaluation. Is it possible then to use the terms “orthodoxy” and “heresy” in something more like an objective, descriptive way, to mean something other than views that I agree with and those I don’t?
Yes, scholars do use these terms in descriptive rather than evaluative ways when talking about early Christianity. In this historical usage, “orthodoxy” refers to the side that won the various theological debates (whether they were actually on the side of truth or not); “heresy” refers to all the other sides.
That will be important to bear in mind as I continue my discussion of how Christians came to think of the relationship of Christ (who was for them God) with God the Father(who was also God) (even though there was one God). Heresies thrived in antiquity. Just as they do today.
I will devote several posts to the question of how Christians after the New Testament period understood Christ in “heretical” ways. I have drawn this one from my book How Jesus Became God, edited a bit for our purposes here.
One of the most interesting features of the early Christian debates over orthodoxy and heresy is the fact that views that were originally considered “right” eventually came to be thought of as “wrong,” views originally deemed orthodox came to be declared heretical. Nowhere is that more clear than in the case of the first heretical view of Christ that we will consider here.
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