Heresy, Sacrilege, Blasphemy, Apostasy

By Kersley Fitzgerald

Heresy, sacrilege, blasphemy, apostasy. These are four words that are thrown about somewhat casually when a believer is faced with an unbiblical interpretation of Scripture. They're all serious claims, but they're not always used correctly. How to tell when a false teaching is heretical, sacrilegious, blasphemous, or apostate — with much help from

A teaching is heresy (noun) or heretical (adjective) if it contradicts the orthodox beliefs of a school of thought (like a religion or denomination). The word found its beginning in the Proto-Indo-European ser, to seize; swam through the Greek with haireisthai, to take, and hairesis, to deliberately choose, as a philosophical school; was morphed to the Latin hæresis, a school of thought; and on to the French heresie, which has the definition we know today (but in the 12th Century also meant sodomy and immorality).

The meaning of the word "heresy" was initially neutral; it simply meant choosing one's own interpretation. It developed to mean the inevitable conflicts which arose as groups with differing opinions confronted one another. Now it refers to any belief that is outside the established norm. In this, any religion is heretical compared to other religions.

Heresy is not necessarily a rejection of the core tenets of a religion, although it can include that. It's the rejection of any part of the stated, orthodox beliefs of a church or denomination. In some denominations, it would be heretical to teach evolution or gay marriage or open communion, while in others, there wouldn't be an issue. Heresy can also be committed by accident. If a teacher doesn't understand the truth out of ignorance, he or she may spread a false belief or interpretation — which is why James 3:1 warns teachers so harshly. Determining what is heretical to the Bible is the reason we have so many denominations — too many interpretations lead to too many orthodoxies.

Where heresy can apply to any school of thought, sacrilege is the disrespect of something sacred. "Sacrilege" originated in the Latin sacrum, which means something that is sacred, and adds legere, to steal. The literal definition is the "crime of stealing what is consecrated to God."

In modern times, we would apply that to stealing the honor due God, as opposed to, say, a candlestick from the lectern. It is sacrilegious to needlessly deface a Bible or spray-paint graffiti on a Bible-teaching church. It's sacrilegious to take the Lord's name in vain or to abuse someone in a way that ignores that they are made in the image of God. Basically, any time we act in a way that takes the honor due God, that is sacrilege. But, if you were freezing to death, and the only fire-starter you had was the thin pages of a Bible, it would not be sacrilege to rip out pages to start a fire. If you were decorating a new teen room in the church basement, spray-painted graffiti might be appropriate. The weight behind sacrilege is the intent of the heart, not necessarily the action.

Blasphemy is basically sacrilege spoken. The word originated in the Proto-Indo-European bha, to speak or say. The Greek came up with blasphemein, to speak evil of, which was adopted by the Latin blasphemia, speak ill, slander.

Unger's points to two primary ways to blaspheme God. The first is to blame God for evil or deny Him credit for good. Job's wife comes to mind (Job 2:9). I think we do this all too often, however. We get many questions demanding to know why God has withheld some blessing or rescue, as if God is holding out, out of spite. And how many times do we receive blessings and find some way to credit ourselves? The second aspect of blasphemy is attributing aspects of God's character onto something else. This is the fuel for idolatry and the crime with which the Pharisees accused Jesus when He claimed to be God.

In the Old Testament, careless blasphemy could be forgiven, while blasphemy "with a high hand," or in rebellion against God, was punishable by stoning (Leviticus 24:11-16). In the New Testament, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the only unforgiveable sin.

Apostasy is similar to heresy, but stronger and all-encompassing. Instead of rejecting a particular idea from an established school of thought, it's the whole-hearted rejection of the entire philosophy. It comes from the Greek apostasies, which means a revolt or defection, with a swing by the Latin apostasia, which is the "renunciation, abandonment or neglect of established religion." Unger's notes that the word is also used for a political defection.

In Christian terms, apostasy is the deliberate rejection of the core tenets of the Christian faith. The apostate knows and understands the gospel, and retains the outward appearance of a believer, but he has rejected Christ's authority and disowned His name. Signs include accepting and teaching demonic philosophies (1 Timothy 4:1), and the long list of things in 2 Timothy 3:1-7, including heartlessness, pride, brutality, and "having the appearance of godliness, but dying its power."

The differences are subtle but important. It would be heretical to teach the Bible is not God's word. It would be sacrilegious to us the Bible in a work of art that disrespected God. It would be blasphemous to say the Bible was written by men with no influence by God. And it would be apostate to teach that the Word of God does not lead to salvation when you fully understand that it does. The major difference between the four — heresy, sacrilege, blasphemy, and apostasy, is that there is no forgiveness for apostasy. A true believer cannot commit apostasy (1 John 2:16). An apostate understands the gospel and deliberately rejects its power while using it for selfish gain.

Online Etymology Dictionary
Unger, Merrill F.; Unger's Bible Dictionary; Moody Bible Institute of Chicago; 1957.

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Sin-Evil  | Theological-Beliefs

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Published 11-23-15