Defining Terms: Liberal and Conservative, Heterodox and Orthodox

Carlos Overstreet's picture

Defining Terms: Liberal and Conservative, Heterodox and Orthodox

In many conversations about church life and teaching, people often carry over terms from civil political discourse: Conservative and Liberal, Progressive and Traditional to name a few. The problem with adopting them for our ecclesial discourse, is their imprecision, and their false dichotomies if we look at the word root. What I’d like to do is look at the meaning of these words, how they are employed, and try to find more accurate alternatives for our ecclesial conservations.

Lets start with the word: 

The word comes from the Latin liberalis, meaning freedom. Before the late 19th century, the use of this word was understood by most Christians in a positive sense. Christ after all had come to set man free from slavery to sin and the devil. Not only was this applied in a virtuous and spiritual sense, but following the abolitionist movement, Christians came to use liberal to describe those persons who viewed mercantile slavery as wicked. The Code of Justinian in the sixth century upholds this view, confessing man’s true nature is one of Freedom. By the end of the 19th century though, the term liberal had come to be associated not with Christian freedom, but rather, freedom from Christ himself. The secularists of the early 20th century championed its use in academic circles, and so pulled the word away from the Christian conception of Freedom. A liberal then, was the freeman, emancipated from even the Great Emancipator himself. As Bertrand Russell, the prominent twentieth century atheist sums up: "Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.” This is not to say that liberals are wrongheaded about everything, but without a standards of truth, they cannot but run up against each other as both seek freedom all authority, including one another. GK Chesterton says as much: “The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right.”


Also a latin root, progressus, literally means to advance. As a political term, it came into popularity as a result of the populist reform movement of the 1890s. Christianity need not be antithetical to progress, certainly all of the Church Fathers would have agreed that the decrease of Infanticide and Abortion in the Roman Empire as a result of Christianity was real human progress. Progress can only be good, and adequately measured if there is a rule by which we can observe its movement in relation to that point. So while we could once have said (and can still if we clarify our definition) that a progressive was a Christian, that is not the case with the contemporary understanding of the term. The modern use of the term progressive is just as antithetical to Christianity as the contemporary use of the term liberal. Modern progressives advance without a goal. Or if they do, its always changing so as to make measurement useless. Movement then, in any direction is at best pointless, and at worst a blunder if we do not have an aim. This is precisely what modern progressivism has become. Science despite its firm methodology, cannot be an adequate substitute to ground progress since by its nature, it always seeks further understanding. It is always changing to incorporate new insights and discoveries about our universe. The truth of Christianity on the other hand, is unchanging.


Comes from the latin, conservatus, which means to preserve. At first glance this might seem to be a good term, but its association with secular politics will probably exclude it from ecclesial use. The modern term came into use in the mid nineteenth century amid political debates regarding democratic principles of government. On the one hand, a Christian could be a conservative if we are to understand ourselves as preservers of the faith of the Apostles as Saint Paul told Timothy (2 Timothy 2:2). However, in the greater social context, we have seen Christianity as decidedly liberal, seeking to bring society out of past, which had not seen the light of Christ. The Emperor Julian the Apostate (4th C.) was viewed by many Romans as the embodiment of Conservatism. Baptized a Christian, he renounced his faith, and restored the worship of the pagan gods. In a modern context, we have seen numerous so called Conservative political figures in this country seek not to preserve what is good, but rather things for the sake of them having been the status quo before sentiment turned against them. The healthcare debate would be one of these issues. The modern term is also contextual, seeking to preserve what came before in a specific instance. What might have been worthy of preservation in one time, might have long been passed in another debate where conservative now includes concessions and blunders. Like the other two terms, Conservative is a poor term to employ in a Christian context.


From the latin, traditio, meaning to hand over. Christianity is by its nature traditional (contrary to what the protestants may think). We’ve seen Saint Paul’s exhortation to Timothy, and amongst the Prophets, Patriarchs, Kings and Judges we see the faith being passed down from one generation to the next. The Iconodules (Icon venerators) held lovingly to the tradition they had been given during the grievous years of the Iconoclast persecution. With these in mind, if we understand a person as holding to the faith of the Church, passed through the ages, than we could safely use the term Traditionalist in discussions. However, I would caution against employing the term in a way that opposes Christian progress. In many quarters (most notably the SSPX) there are Christians who understand this term in an inaccurate sense. One that incorrectly adheres to traditions not of our faith. Heretics for instance might rightfully be traditionalists, in relation to progressives but in actuality as with conservatives, they are preserving things that aren’t in fact part of the truth of Christianity.


Since I brought up this term in the last section, it might be helpful to see its use. Heretic comes from the greek hairesis, which means to choose as in a personal decision. If we consider Christ’s prayer for unity (John 17:21), then any real division, that is a division over truth, would be a negative thing, impairing the Church’s ability to minister to the peoples of the world, and sow distrust and endanger the faithful. The Presbyter Arius (3rd C.) was one such person who followed his personal choice over the teaching of the Apostles. His belief that Christ was only man (a created creature), meant salvation was not possible for humanity. Not only did he not recant his position, but actively sought to spread his errors. A public action requires a public response. Arius was summoned to the Ecumenical Council in Nicea where his theology was debated amongst the bishops. In a public decision by the bishops, he was formally cut off from receiving sacraments in the Church until he repented and recanted. Arius was rightfully called a heretic, for he sowed division in the church, even after being fraternally corrected. He eventually died in exile. A heretic then, is one who contends their faith is right, even after formal correction and insists on teaching it against the faith of the Church. There are many Christians who are simply poorly catechized and confused about what the Church believes (a very real problem) but that does not make them heretics.


Composed of two words: orthos, greek for right or correct; and doxa, which is greek for honor or glory. The Fathers of the Church use this term often to describe the faith of faithful. This term is often misunderstand as right teaching or true faith. While its close, it’s helpful to look at this passage from John’s Gospel: “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” (John 4:23) Christ himself asks not for a correct intellectualization of his teachings, but rather a person worship, or in greek, honor and glorify, God rightly. How does Jesus show us this? In Spirit and in truth. The truth passed down by the Apostles and guarded by the Church, and by acquiring the Holy Spirit in our lives. These are the marks of Orthodoxy. The Fathers are concerned about right understanding and teaching, not for its sake in of itself, but because that is how we come to know God. Christianity is ultimately experiential and seeks for everyone of us to know God, through the persons of the Holy Trinity. A person who is not Orthodox, cannot know God fully, and therefore cannot worship Him in “Spirit and Truth.” The Church seeks for everyone to know God, and that is why she cuts off heretics, so that they cannot teach what is not right honor to the faithful, leading more souls astray. It is medicinal, and not punitive. Jesus himself says to cut off your bodily members if they cause you to stumble.


Composed of two words: heteros is greek for other or different. Doxa is greek for honor or glory. What other glory could be given to God that is better than right glory? That is heterodoxy. It is anything that does lead a person to worship in “Spirit and in Truth.” Heterodoxy need not be permanent, nor does it need to be public. Take the case of Pope Honorius. In the seventh century, there was an attempt to reach out to the Monophysite Churches (Copts, Armenians…) on the part of some bishops, and Pope Honorius in his private correspondence with these churchmen encouraged a teaching that Christ had only one will, a Divine will. This did not reconcile the churches, and at the Sixth Ecumenical Council, Honorius’ writings on the Divine will of Christ were declared anathema. This was not a pronouncement on a person’s relationship to the Church as was the case with Arius, but rather, a formal review of his writings on this particular matter. Anathema in greek means roughly to dedicate to evil or accursed. Thus, Honorius’ works on the nature of Christ’s will are considered not correct and are to be avoided. Honorius died in communion with the Church. A person can be wrong in some manner, and not actively sow dissension (in the case of Honorius, the clarification of Christ’s wills was not made until after his death, so he was not called to recant his views), or they may not have known it was wrong at the time, despite it being false. There are many teachings being taught by folk that are heterodox, but Christ himself says there will be teachers who will teach false things and offer a different worship than true worship (Matthew 7:15). Given the multitude of terms, Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy seem to be, because of their strictly ecclesiastical use, much more appropriate toward church discourse than bringing in secular terms, which are relative to each other and toward the current state of affairs. Whereas what is Orthodox, will always be right. And what is Heterodox, will always be false.

Share this: