Heterodoxy is a doctrine at variance with an official or orthodox position. As the opposite of orthodoxy, heterodoxy is naturally defined by those who consider themselves to be orthodox. The term heterodoxy thus came into general usage in the struggle of "orthodox" Christians against theological views they considered to be false. In a non-religious context "heterodox" refers to a scientific, social, or other opinion which goes against a prevailing norm. In some recent cases, when a previous or current norm is considered to be false or oppressive, heterodoxy has been championed as a positive good.
As an adjective, heterodox is used to describe an opinion, theory, or person that departs from accepted beliefs or standards. The noun heterodoxy is synonymous with unorthodoxy, while the adjective heterodox is synonymous with dissident. Heterodox can also be synonymous with heresy, although it is often a less harsh term, sometimes implying an unorthodox opinion held in ignorance.
The concept of heterodoxy is most easily understood in relation to its opposite: orthodoxy. The word orthodox, from the Greek ortho ("right," "correct") and doxa ("thought," "teaching," "glorification"), is typically used to refer to the correct worship or the correct theological and doctrinal observance of religion, or other intellectual activity, as determined by some overseeing body. The term came into frequent use with the advent of Christianity in the Greek-speaking world, although the word does occasionally show up in ancient literature.
Heterodoxy ("other teaching") is thus the opposite of orthodoxy. However, heresy—from hairesis, derived from the Greek verb to choose—is a more extreme form of orthodoxy's opposite, involving a conscious choice against right teaching, rather than simply a mistakenly held opinion. People who consciously deviate from orthodoxy by professing a doctrine considered to be false are most often called heretics, while those who deviate from orthodoxy by removing themselves from the perceived body of believers (i.e. from full communion, are called schismatics). A person holding a heterodox opinion, on the other hand, may sometimes be allowed to remain in a church body or other institution, even though he or she disagrees with some of its doctrines.
The concepts of heterodoxy and orthodoxy are most prevalent in monotheistic religions, although heterodox beliefs are certainly present in nearly all religions. Christianity historically placed a great deal of emphasis on right belief and developed a system of creeds, affirming essential orthodox beliefs and weeding out those with heterodox faiths. Religions which stress right practice seek to eliminate heteropraxy and affirm orthopraxy.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the term is used to refer to Christian churches not belonging to the Eastern Orthodox communion and holding doctrines different from those of Orthodox Christianity, but not as different or thought to be as erroneous as heresy. It is synonymous with heresy in that it is a departure from Orthodox doctrine, but it is distinct in that heresy includes a specific choice to embrace and teach heterodox doctrine, usually accompanied by a formal anathema (condemnation) from a synod (church council).
Heterodoxy in orthodox tradition is also distinct from theologumena—a doctrine not specifically taught as orthodox, but not specifically condemned as heretical.
Heterodoxy in the Roman Catholic Church refers to views that differ from Church tradition, but retain sufficient faithfulness to the original doctrine to avoid heresy. Many Roman Catholics profess some heterodox views, either on doctrinal or social issues. For example, the orthodox Catholic position on unbaptized infants is that their fate is uncertain, and "the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1261). A heterodox Catholic might profess the belief that unbaptized infants are offered the option to accept or deny salvation by God at their judgment. The belief is not orthodox, as the Church does not profess a belief as to what happens to unbaptized infants; however, it is also not heresy, as the Church accepts that such a scenario might be possible. By contrast, a denial of the doctrine of "Original Sin" (thereby negating the necessity of baptism for children would be considered heretical.
The Catholic Church considers the Orthodox Church to have adopted a position of heterodoxy on the issues of Papal Infallibility, and the Papal Supremacy, the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the existence of Purgatory, and the filioque clause affirming the the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as the Father. It considers many Protestant churches to have adopted similarly heterodox positions, and condemns a number of Protestant positions as heretical.
The term heterodox is occasionally used by some Christians to refer to themselves when they are in disagreement with orthodox understandings, but voice this disagreement while still maintaining the overall value of the tradition. The heterodox Christian therefore remains in the tradition and attempts to stimulate constructive dialog around issues with which they disagree. For example, Christians who affirm the doctrine of believers baptism, thereby rejecting infant baptism, might admit this to be a heterodox view and yet seek to dialog with those who practice infant baptism. Conversely, they also might declare infant baptism to be a heresy and refuse to communicate with those who practice this tradition.
A number of Protestant denominations consider the Catholic Church to be both heterodox and heretical, in that it allegedly added doctrines and practices to church tradition which were not instituted by Jesus and the apostles, and that in some cases run contrary to biblical teaching. By the same token, the Catholic Church considers both the Orthodox and Protestant churches to be heterodox on certain issues.
In recent years, many denominations have moved away from labeling other churches heretical, and some have sought to avoid even the term "heterodox" in an effort to build bridges of common understanding.
Non-Christian religions tend to be less concerned about orthodoxy vs. heterodoxy than the Christian tradition has been. This is large due to the history of Christianity defining itself in the context of Neo-Platonism neo-platonic philosophy as a religion of truth, particular regarding such questions as the nature of Jesus, the true definition of the Trinity, and the means by which salvation may be attained.
Judaism, from the time of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. onward, tended to emphasize orthopraxy more than orthodoxy. In other words, it defined a "true" Jew more in terms of how he lived than what he believed—although certain heterodox beliefs were certainly deemed unacceptable. This basic orientation of Judaism resulted in a wide variety of beliefs—ranging from denial of an afterlife, to the acceptance of various Messiahs, to esoteric mystical beliefs—all being embraced by persons virtually universally recognized as practicing Jews. Today even atheists and agnostics may be recognized as Jews by many of their religious fellow Jews.
Buddhism and Hinduism likewise emphasize right action over right belief as the means to attain enlightenment. However, it should be noted that if one fails to accept the Buddha's teaching of the Eightfold Path, for example, such a person might be considered to be heterodox, or not actually a Buddhist. In Hinduism, the denial of Hindu teachings by those whose ancestors or themselves were once Buddhist is known as Nastika, a term somewhat similar to heterodoxy.
Heterodoxy can also be used in non-religious sense. Scientific theories are sometimes called heterodox when they go against the prevailing academic consensus, or when they diverge from the view of a specific institution. Einstein's rejection of the theory that "ether" carried light waves, for example, was initially considered heterodox. In contemporary science, it is considered heterodox, in some scientific circles, to deny that global warming is a serious problem, and especially to deny that human populations are a significant factor in this phenomenon. It would also be considered heterodox today to affirm that the world is flat, while in the medieval period, it was considered heterodox—indeed heretical—to affirm that the earth moved around the sun.
In social theories, a similar principle applies. To affirm that slaves were legally "persons" was once a heterodox opinion in the United States, while today those who defend slavery at all are expressing an extremely heterodox view. In the history of Marxism and Leninism was considered heterodox by classical Marxists, while Trotskyism was considered heterodox by official Soviet standards.
In some fields, heterodoxy may be considered as a positive good. For example, "heterodox economics" refers to a variety of economic theories which share in common a rejection of at least some aspects of neoclassical economic theory. Similarly, the iconolclastic neo-conservative writer David Horowitz and others have championed the cause of political heterodoxy by challenging the orthodoxy of "political correctness" on college campuses.
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