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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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The primary meaning of αἵρεσις is ‘taking,’ used especially of ‘taking a town’ (Herod. iv. 1). Its secondary meaning is ‘choice,’ ‘preference.’ From this it passes to ‘the thing chosen,’ and so ‘a plan,’ ‘a purpose.’ In later classical usage it comes to mean a philosophic school of thought, and hence a sect.

In the passages in which the word occurs in the Acts, it has the meaning of a religious party, e.g. Acts 5:17 ἡ αἵρεσις τῶν Σαδδουκαίων; Acts 15:5; Acts 26:5 : κατὰ τὴν ἀκριβεστάτην αἵρεσιν τῆς ἡμετέρας θρησκείας ἔζησα Φαρισαῖος. Thus it is used of the Christians not by themselves but by others, e.g. Acts 24:5 : πρωτοστάτην τε τῆς τῶν Ναζωραίων αἱρέσεως; and again, v. 14: κατὰ τὴν ὁδὸν ἥν λέγουσιν αἵρεσιν (see also Acts 28:22). In the Epistles it is used of the evil principle of party spirit, division, and self-assertion. Thus in Galatians 5:20 it is classed among the works of the flesh in company with ἐριθεῖαι and διχοστασίαι. In 1 Corinthians 11:18 f. St. Paul uses αἱρέσεις as the natural outcome of σχίσματα: ἀκούω σχίσματα ἐν ὑμῖν ὑπάρχειν, καὶ μέρος τι πιστεύω. δεῖ γὰρ καὶ αἱρέσεις ἐν ὑμῖν εἶναι, ἴνα οἱ δόκιμοι φανεροὶ γένωνται ἐν ὑμῖν. So that, bad though these things are, they may serve a providential purpose in testing men’s characters and showing those that can stand the test.

These divisions destroyed the harmony of the Agape. The brotherly spirit which should have characterized the common meal was absent and the sacredness of the Communion was lost in general disorder. In this passage ‘heresy’ and ‘schism’ (q.v. [Note: quod vide, which see.] ) approach very nearly to becoming synonymous.

As St. Augustine says: ‘Haeresis autem schisma inveteratum’ (c. Crescon. Don. ii. 7). And Nevin quoted by Trench (NT Synonyms8, 1876, p. 359) says: ‘Heresy and schism are not indeed the same, but yet they constitute merely the different manifestations of one and the same disease. Heresy is theoretioschism: schism is practical heresy. They continually run into one another, and mutually complete each other. Every heresy is in principle schismatic; every schism is in its innermost constitution heretical.’

So far we have found no trace of αἵρεσις being used in connexion with false doctrine but simply with divisions and factious party spirit. But in 2 Peter 2:1 a new meaning is introduced, and from the idea of a party or sect we pass to the principles and teaching which characterize the sect. αἱρέσεις ἀπωλείας must refer to doctrines which lead to destruction; indeed the following words, ‘even denying the Lord that bought them,’ point to a specimen of such false teaching, implying either a rejection of Christ as the Son of God, or a denial of His redemptive work. As this Epistle was written at a much later date than the Acts, it marks the gradual transformation that was going on in the meaning of ‘heresy’ as it passed from party or sect, first to schism and finally to erroneous teaching.

There is no trace in the NT of either αἵρεσις or σχίσμα denoting a party that had separated itself from the main body. Pharisees and Sadducees were sects in Judaism, not withdrawn from it. Such sects were, so to speak, recognized, not deprecated. Again, the parties in the Corinthian Church which called themselves after the names of Paul, Cephas, Apollos, and Christ were divisions in the Church, not separated from it. It was the harm done by strife and the absence of that spirit of unity and charity, which is the very essence of Christianity, that called for the Apostle’s rebukes. By the time that we pass into the sub-apostolic period, αἴρεσις connotes theological error and false teaching, and the sense of a sect or party gradually recedes till it passes away entirely. Two passages from Ignatius may be quoted in support of this: ὅτι πάντες κατὰ ἀλήθειαν ζῆτε καὶ ὅτι ἐν ὑμῖν οὐδεμὶα αἵρεσις κατοικεῖ (ad Eph. vi.); and παρακαλῶ οὖν ὑμᾶςμόνῃ τῇ Χριστιανῇ τροφῇ χρῆσθε, ἀλλογρίας δὲ βοτάνης ἀπέχεσθε, ἤτις ἐστὶν αἴρεσις (ad Trall. vi.).

Morley Stevenson.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Heresy'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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