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Heresy: Material and Formal

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Written by Basil on 05/14/2003 3:12 PM. Filed under:

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Dmitri’s been stirring up muddy waters talking about heresy. In the old days, the EOC catechism by Randall Evans borrowed from the Roman Catholic tradition in distinguishing between formal heresy and material heresy. I still find this distinction useful, and especially important in the pluralism of contemporary American Christianity.

EWTN has a definition of heresy, apostasy and schism, and it notes the distinction between material and formal species of each. Essentially, material heretics hold heretical beliefs but only as a result of being raised that way. They have never been taught what is true, and they could not have come by the knowledge except through the Church, because it is Christian revelation. In other words, they do not know any better. Formal heretics once knew better, and then willfully accepted false teachings.

As you can see, the same distinctions can apply to schismatics, as well.

It is very important to understand this distinction. However, perhaps more important is to understand, as Scottish mentioned, the extremely negative connotations surrounding the word. It’s like shouting, “N——!” in a crowded Harlem theater.

I’m just waxing pontifical here, so take my hot air for whatever you think it’s worth. Perhaps the only safe place to talk about heresy, calling it what it is, in the context of the Church. In catechism, people are already aware that what they’ve known previously isn’t working. Even in inquirer’s class, people might not be so receptive to being told they’re heretics, true or not.

As Peter Parker likes to say, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

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3 Responses to “Heresy: Material and Formal”

  1. pete Says:

    another consideration that ought to be made by anyone referring to anyone else as a heretic (in either a matter-of-fact or condemning way) is that the person labeling the other as heretic occasionally sounds as self-righteous as he/she claims not to be. perhaps it’s only a matter of semantics, but would be more helpful to offer grace without labels?

  2. James Says:

    I was trying to come up with something like that Basil, but I couldn’t put it into words. Thank you.

    Pete, what exactly do you mean by grace w/o labels?

  3. pete Says:

    I mean that it’s a lot more convenient and easy to label someone a heretic (or apostate, or schismatic, or witch, or pervert, or whatever–pick the label that best suits those outside your situation) and THEN present them with grace. How many people have you met who have experienced real lasting change because of an altar call like that? Very few, I imagine, particularly in postmodernity. I would posit that name calling (again, pick a name that best suits those outside your tradition/faith/etc) is probably not going to convince many “outside” that being “inside” is better. (For example, is anyone really that impressed with the Rev. Fred Phelps? I somehow doubt that his praxis is that beneficial to fundamentalism, let alone Protestant Christianity.) I’m not suggesting that person X isn’t more correct theologically than person Y–I’m suggesting that if person X believes that they are more theologically correct than person Y they are less likely to convince person Y of their position by labeling person Y [insert label]. We are all in need of grace, regardless of our theology or practice–perhaps that (“Person In Need Of Grace”) should be enough label for anyone? Just a thought.