First of all, I wish to stress that I am not trying to ban the word heresy by Catholics when speaking of Protestants out of some wishy-washy ecumenical latitudinarianism, as if dogmas are merely matters of opinion without objective truth value of their own. Nor I am denying that there are genuine doctrinal disputes that have become church-dividing. I have no doubt that the prospect of eventual ecclesial unity can only be achieved when, among other milestones, consensus is reached about the dogmas that separate Christians.
So, in a way, heresy can be the appropriate word to use to describe dogmatic disputation but only provided one first gives priority to its etymological meaning, which comes from the Greek word for “choice.” But of whom does that not apply? As Peter Berger observed in his fine book The Heretical Imperative, not many people in this multicultural setting of ours can keep to the religion they were born into without a lot of conscious choices being made along the way. Even orthodoxy is, in that sense, a choice, a “heresy.”
But that (essentially sociological) observation of Berger’s doesn’t really get at my point either. After all, in ordinary language heresy does not mean just any old choice but usually denotes doctrinal error. But that doesn’t get us too far either. For if that’s all the word means, then we’ll never find anyone who has declared himself a heretic. To do so would be as nonsensical as someone saying, “In my–of course entirely wrong–opinion, I am convinced that…” Lutherans no more call themselves heretics than Catholics do. That means that to call someone else a heretic will be to use, as they say, a “fighting word.” So, naturally enough, in the warm glow of ecumenical good feelings, the H-word will be avoided. But, as I said above, that’s not my point, nor why I am calling Catholics of a conservative bent to ease up on the word.
To see what I am driving at, let me use two extreme examples: docetism and Martin Luther’s views on justification.