How does one who does not believe in the teachings of the Bible describe himself or herself? Often the designation employed is that of agnostic. Others have taken up the term atheist. Others are now embracing the term heretic.
What is the difference with these three words of unbelief? An agnostic claims to not know if God exists. An atheist denies that God exists. Both of these terms are similar in the location of the person – outside of the circle of those who claim faith in God.
But what about a heretic? Let’s take a look at two recent “coming out” articles written by two women in the religious studies field.
The first article, Coming Out as a Heritic: Not Religious, Not Spiritual, Not Atheist – What’s Left?, is written by Kate Blanchard, a professor at Alma College in Michigan.
Blanchard describes herself this way:
I once counted myself among the über-faithful but then “fell away” in my twenties. Despite marrying a clergyman and spending lots of time in theological school, I never made it back to the one true way.
The second article, ‘Heretics’ or ‘Atheists’? A Response is by Rachel Ozanne. Ozanne is doctoral candidate in the History Department of the University of Texas.
Ozanne provides this self-description:
I too grew up in a Christian family, and, despite very intense Christian devotion and deep soul and scripture searching, I “fell away” from the faith in my early twenties. I have been “unchurched” for about six years now and have often struggled to identify my current relationship to the Christian faith.
Both writers aptly describe their position with the words fell away. Herein lies the difference between claiming to be an atheist or an agnostic. As already indicated, those two positions provide a present location of being outside of the circle of the Christian faith. The heretic descriptor implies a position or location that is away from the previous position of the circle of the Christian faith. It involves movement.
Atheists and agnostics are making no claim of a previous position when they use those terms. Their position may be the result of a heretical journey, but it makes no such claim in title alone.
At times the word apostate is used to identify the person who has moved from the circle to away from the circle. This is an important term because it will help us see that both article writers make a serious mistake in describing the movement to unbelief.
The word apostate is from the word meaning to stand with a prefix meaning away from. So an apostate stands away from a previous position. An important element in understanding a heretic is that we must determine the previous position.
Blanchard identifies her previous position as among the über-faithful.
Ozanne uses a lengthier positional description with, I too grew up in a Christian family, and, despite very intense Christian devotion and deep soul and scripture searching.
This where the two authors are mistaken. They describe their previous positions as being “in” the circle of the Christian faith. However, apostasy is to stand away from. This means that they were near the circle but not in the circle. They might have been as near as being right on the edge of the circle, but that edge was still on the outside of the circle. Had they been in the circle, the term would be ecstasy. The literal definition of ecstasy is to stand out of. That is once have been in the middle of the circle, they are now outside of the circle.
Heretics are apostates not ecstates. They were near but not in. As Jesus said,
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’
And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
(Matthew 7:21-23 ESV)
Jesus emphatically declares that he never knew them. They were never “in”. They were near enough to do Christian works and near enough to refer to Jesus as Lord. But they were not known by the one who is at the very center of the Christian faith circle.