HERESY, (Lat. ficeresis, Gr. ;:qeg-“, from atveu, 1 chuse,) signifies an error in some essential point of Chris tian faith, publicly avowed, and obstinately maintained ; according to the legal definition, Sententia rerun divinarum hunzano sensu excogitata,fialanzdocta,et pertinaciter dcfensa. Particular modes of belief or unbelief, therefore, which have no tendency to overturn Christianity itself, or to sap the foundations of morality, cannot be held as falling within the above definition. It is properly the obstinacy, and not the error, that is considered as constituting the character of heresy. When a man embraces any opinion, however er roneous, hut is at the same time humble and ingenuous, ready and desirous of receiving farther light and luso ac tion, and of giving its due weight to every argument that is urged against him, he is not guilty of heresy. Errare possum, hercticus csse nolo, is a celebrated maxim of St Augustine.
Among the ancients, the word heresy appears to have had nothing of that odious signification, which has been attached to it by ecclesiastical writers in later times. It only signified a peculiar opinion, dogma, or sect, without conveying any reproac.b ; being indifferently used, either of a party approved, or of one disapproved, by the writer. In this sense, they spoke of the heresy of the Stoics, of the Peripatetics, Epicureans, &c. meaning the sect, or pe culiar system, of these philosophers. In the historical part of the Ncw Testament, the word seems to bear very nearly the same signification, being employed indiscriminately to denote a sect or party, whether good or bad. Thus we read of the sect or heresy of the Sadducees, of the Phari sees, of the Nazarenes, &c. See Acts v. ]7, ch. xv. 5. ch. xxiv. 5. ch. xxvi. 5. cb. xxviii. 22. In the two former of these passages, the term heresy seems to be adopted by the sacred historian merely for the sake of distinction, without the least appearance of any intention to convey either praise or blame. In Acts xxvi. 4, 5, Paul, in de fending himself before king Agrippa, uses the same term, when it was manifestly his design to exalt the party to which he had belonged, and to give their system the pre ference over every other system of Judaism, both with re gard to soundness of doctrine, and purity of morals.
It has been suggested, that the acceptation of the word in the Epistles, is different from what it has been observed to be in the historical books of the New Testa ment. In order to account for this difference, it may be observed that the word sect has always something relative in it ; and therefore, although the general import of the term be the same, it will convey a favourable or an unfa vourable idea, according to the particular relation which it bears in the application. When it is used along with the proper name, by way of distinguishing one party from ano ther, it conveys neither praise nor reproach. If any thing reprehensible or commendable be meant, it is suggested, not by the word itself, but by the words with which it stands connected in construction. Thus we may speak of a strict sect, or a lax sect ; or of a good sect, or a bad sect. Again, the term may be applied to a party formed in a community, when considered in reference to the whole. If the community be of such a nature as not to admit of such a subdivision, without impairing and corrupting its consti tution, a charge of splitting into sects, or forming parties, is equivalent to a charge of corruption in that which is most essential to the existence and welfare of the society. Hence arises the whole difference in the word, as it is used in the historical part of the New Testament, and in the Epistles of St Peter and St Paul ; for these are the only apostles who employ it. In the history, the reference is always of the first kind ; in the Epistles, it is always of the second. In these last, the apostles address themselves only to Christians, and either reprehend them for, or warn them against, forming sects among themselves, to the prejudice of charity, to the production of much mischief within their community, and of great scandal to the uncon verted world without. In both applications, however, the radical import of the word is the same ; and even in the latter, it has no necessary reference to doctrine, true or false.