Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy

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ORTHODOXY AND HETERODOXY . The concepts of orthodoxy and heterodoxy are found within all the major religious traditions, expressed by a variety of terms. In relation to religious life, orthodoxy means correct or sound belief according to an authoritative norm; heterodoxy refers to belief in a doctrine differing from the norm. The two terms originated in the patristic period of Christian history, when emphasis on belief rather than practice distinguished the concerns of Christian theologians.

Each of the major religious traditions has its own modes of determining orthodoxy. The extent to which heterodoxy is considered a serious deviance varies across traditions, and also within traditions at different phases of their history. From the perspective of an overview of the history of each tradition, one can discern that differing beliefs and/or practices have been considered of vital significance over the course of time. Further, some traditions allow for a wide variety of different perspectives within a wider unity, whereas others tend to split up into smaller groups competing as to which shall be considered the bearer of the authentic message or teaching.

Every major religious tradition has had to establish criteria for the acceptance or rejection of its members. In some cases, the civil power has supported the religious authorities, whereas in other cases, it has remained neutral or disinterested. Sometimes a group has insisted on rigid criteria of purity and conformity, whereas at other times, a great diversity of opinion and practice has been acceptable. Diversity of attitudes on such matters has existed at different times within each of the major traditions.

The scriptures normally serve to delineate the characteristics of acceptable, as opposed to unacceptable, persons. Later theological or philosophical or legal schools often take the scriptural indications as a basis for outlining systems. Elaborating the fixed systems usually involves decisions as to the canon of scriptures and the modes of authority, as well as the establishment of training institutions for those who are to impart and uphold the particular orthodoxy. The self-conscious articulation of an orthodox perspective tends to occur several generations after the establishment of a new perspective, or the successful renewal of an older tradition that has been challenged. The usual process is to project the newly proclaimed orthodox position backward onto the beginnings of the community's life.

In the past century, two opposite tendencies have manifested across traditions: There is both an active fundamentalism in every tradition and a new interest in reconciling divergent streams of thought and practice. The spread of literacy has enabled lay people to evidence new forms of interest and participation in religious leadership.

Those who lean toward fundamentalism tend to think the identity for the members of the community requires one exclusive interpretation of the tradition, and that particular interpretation must be imposed. The more traditional thinkers and the modernists, however, see the traditional tolerance of diverse interpretations as a source of strength rather than weakness.

Nonliterate Peoples

Nonliterate peoples commonly affirm their group identity through myths that legitimate social relations within the group and orient the group toward the wider universe. Shamans or equivalent figures serve as mediators with sacred powers. Knowledge of the sacred mythology may be shared in diverse ways by members of the group. Changes in the mythology may come about through visions or insight. Ritual practice serves to maintain coherent identity among members.

Deviance usually involves breaking codes of behavior, particularly with respect to sexual or family matters. Deviants can sometimes be readmitted into a normal relationship with the group through rituals of purification, but sometimes they leave and join another group. Deviants are generally understood to be offending the sacred powers, and are therefore required to undergo rituals to transform them into acceptable persons.


Classical Hindu philosophy of religion divides religious schools of thought into two types, āstika (usually translated as "orthodox") and nāstika (usually translated as "heterodox"). Those characterized as nāstika are the Jains, the Buddhists, and the materialists. The word āstika indicates the affirmation of being, whereas nāstika suggests nihilism, or denial of being.

The Maitri Upaniad expresses the importance of avoiding teachers of false doctrines. The same Upaniad uses the term nāstika, translated here as "atheism," to designate one of the characteristics emanating from the dark aspects of the unenlightened self in every individual.

There are no available sources available from the materialist or atheist schools of thought of ancient India, therefore the views of these schools are only known from the writings of their adversaries. But in the case of the Jains and the Buddhists, the sources still exist. The classical Hindu view is that the nāstika schools of thought are to be condemned because of their failure to accept the authority of the Vedasa refusal that in practice means the rejection of their hereditary function as preservers and teachers of the Vedas, as well as in their duties as the priests responsible for ritual performances.

In time a principle of interpretation of the scriptures was developed that allowed for diversity: The interpretations varied according to which affirmations were deemed central. Hence more or less emphasis might be laid on ritual or other forms of religious life. Acceptance of the scriptures was, however, a necessary precondition for acceptance within the community. In his History of Hindu Philosophy (Cambridge, 1963), Surendranath Dasgupta has written: "Thus an orthodox Brahmin can dispense with image-worship if he likes, but not so with his daily Vedic prayers or other obligatory ceremonies."

The coherence of Hinduism derives from the discipline of the brahmans as transmitters and preservers of Vedic ritual and wisdom. The classical view is that the ancient seers (is ) who received the primal wisdom set in motion the oral transmission of the Vedas that is passed on through the educational system of the brahmans. The primary revelation is thus oral, śruti. The secondary level of sacred literature, smti, comprises the commentaries that explain the primal wisdom and give instruction on moral conduct and related matters.

Deviance within Hindu life can take many forms. The usual procedure for readmitting offenders is purification through ritual administered by a brahman. Offense is perceived as impurity that must be removed through the restorative power of ritual.

By the tenth century ce, the Buddhists had gradually disappeared from India, although their teaching had taken root in other countries. The Jains remained as a distinctive group, sometimes supported by local rulers. When the Abbé Sean-Antoine Dubois, in his Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies (Oxford, 1928), wrote about India as he observed it in the late eighteenth century, he formed the impression that the Jains had been on occasion dominant in certain parts of India. By the twentieth century this was no longer the case: The Jains formed a relatively small minority community. Before the Muslim conquests of India, the local rulers probably helped determine whether the people tended toward the Buddhist, Jain, or Hindu perspectives. The last-named seems to have won out and to have remained dominant during the period of Muslim rule.

Diverse processes are taking place as the Hindu tradition confronts modernity. In the early twentieth century, several effective religious personalitiesnot all brahmans attempted to articulate interpretations of Hinduism that would be acceptable to the modern age. Such writers as Vivekananda, Radhakrishnan, Tagore, Aurobindo, and Gandhi have exercised a great influence over modern Hindus.

A number of groups advocating particular interpretations of Hinduism also have come into being, such as the Brāhmo Samāj and the rya Samāj. These groups advocated reform of Hindu social practices. A fundamentalist interpretation of Hinduism has appealed to certain segments of the Hindu population, as evidenced most dramatically by the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi. India is a secular state; in practice, therefore, no religious group receives favored status from the government.


Buddhism emerged as one of the protest movements against orthodox Hinduism around the sixth century bce. The monks and nuns who followed the teachings of the Buddha took those teachings as the only guide necessary for enlightenment. Present historians acknowledge that Buddhists held councils to resolve disputes, but because the various groups have their own versions of what occurred at those councils, there is no consensus now as to what councils were held and what issues were decided. The teachings were transmitted orally for several centuries. It is impossible to say when the oral tradition was written down. The Buddha taught that missionaries were to speak in the language of those they addressed. As a result, Buddhist teaching has moved rapidly from one language to another, and many varieties of the teaching have been handed down.

Tradition says that a council was held immediately after the Buddha's death. This council was concerned with the composition of the monastic discipline, Vinaya. A second council, held at Vaiśālī, is said to have been concerned with disputes about the severity of the monastic rules. A third council was reportedly called by the emperor Aśoka about 250 bce. Some versions of the tradition say that this council completed the ratification of the canon of Buddhist scriptures and sent missionaries to various countries.

As source material for understanding the relationship between Buddhism and the state, and also the issues of orthodoxy and heterodoxy within Buddhism, the chronicles of Sri Lanka, whose earliest written form dates from approximately the fourth century ce, are useful. The norm for the monastic practices was the Vinaya, the code for monastic life believed to have been transmitted directly from the Buddha.

With respect to sectarianism, the Vinaya provides that, when four or more monks within a monastery differ from the others, they may leave and found their own monastery. This has made possible the development of many perspectives within Buddhism. It is the discipline of the order that maintains the unity. In Sri Lanka in the early period two large monasteries tended to dominate Buddhist life and practice: the Mahāvihāra and the Abhayagiri. In his History of Buddhism in Ceylon (Colombo, 1956) Walpola Rahula writes: "The Mahāvihāra was faithful to the very letter of the orthodox teachings and traditions accepted by the Theravādins. The Abhayagiri monks, therefore, appeared in the eyes of the Mahāvihāra to be unorthodox and heretic" (p. 85).

At certain points in the history of Sri Lanka, one or the other of the major monasteries might be in favor, depending on the predilections of the ruler. These incidents indicate that in Buddhism, as in other traditions, the political leaders have exercised considerable control over what shall be deemed orthodox or acceptable. On the other hand, if the rulers unduly outrage the traditional values of the people, they can be in difficulty.

The sixth great Buddhist council was held in Rangoon, Burma, in 19541956. It reedited the Buddhist scripture and promoted movements of mutual understanding among Buddhists from different historical traditions. An ecumenical movement among Buddhists has developed, as indicated by the founding of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in 1950. Lay followers are more active in the modern period. Historically the monastic orders have dominated education and the transmission of the scriptures, but under modern conditions this is no longer the case.

Fundamentalism has been a prominent feature of the twentieth-century Sōka Gakkai. This group follows Nichiren's teaching as to the importance of one scripture only and advocates political activism as a way of imposing Buddhist virtues.

Chinese Religion

Religious life in China has been shaped since the earliest known dynasty (Shang, c. 1600 bce) by cults of devotion to ancestors, and by a worldview that has affirmed the necessity of directing human activities toward harmony with the forces implicit in and beyond nature. Almost all schools of Chinese thought have assumed that an encompassing reality, the Dao, maintains balance and harmony among the divergent processes that constitute existence.

The emperor became a central legitimating figure, because he sanctioned the divine order and created or elevated new gods. Unlike in India, then, in China the legitimating power did not lie with priests.

The formative period of religious ferment was that of the Hundred Schools (sixth to third centuries bce). The issues debated were generally concerned with how to develop individual character so as to overcome the divisive forces that led to social chaos. The two major schools of thought that emerged from these debates, the Confucian and the Daoist, shared the premise that the encompassing Dao existed, and that humans must learn to balance existence appropriately. They differed as to how the balance should be acquired, though neither perspective necessarily excluded the other.

The school that insisted on an exclusive orthodoxy of belief and practice was that of the Legalist, in power during the Qin dynasty (221206 bce). During this rigid regime, Confucian scholars were killed and books of traditional learning were burned. After this regime's collapse, the succeeding dynasties encouraged Confucianism as the state doctrinea role it retained until modern times. During the Han period, Confucianism provided the government with a standard code of ritual and moral norms that regulated behavior among persons. Books were preserved, and provided a perspective from ancient days different from the immediate needs of the state. Under the emperor Wu (14087 bce) efforts were made to institute a national system of schools and a civil service examination system. Textual orthodoxy was established. The curriculum of the schools consisted of the Confucian classics. The aim was to produce Confucian sages to serve the emperor and the society as civil servants and moral exemplars.


Around the beginning of the fourth century bce the religious leader Ezra, a priest and a scribe, returned from among the exiles in Babylon to Jerusalem, where he effected a religious reform that shaped subsequent Judaism. These events are recorded in the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The reconstitution of Judaism that occurred at this time made the scriptures available through the institution of schools and the use of public occasions as opportunities for adult education. The Bible says: "And Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding and the ears of the people were attentive to the book of the law" (Neh. 8:23).

This reconstitution of Judaism gives a teaching function to the scribes (the scholars of the Law), but it also implies that the people are to appropriate the teachings by their capacity to hear with understanding. Ezra's reforms are said to have reached a climax when the people engaged in solemn covenant to enter into no more mixed marriages, to refrain from work on the Sabbath, to support the Temple, and in general to comply with the demands of the Law. The school of scribes established by Ezra, or in his name, probably instituted a framework of orthodoxy that led eventually to the canonization of the Hebrew scriptures after the destruction of the Temple in 70 ce.

Subsequently, the locus of Judaism became a rabbinic program that stressed study of the scriptures, prayer, and works of piety. Under the leading rabbi, Yehudah ha-Nasiʾ (135220?), an effort was made to standardize Jewish practice. The result was the collection of rabbinic lore titled the Mishnah, which became the primary source of reference and the basis around which the Talmud was later compiled.

Modern Hebrew uses the word orthodox, taken directly from the English, because no such term exists in earlier Hebrew. The word for heterodox is min, which tends to mean "individual deviant." Procedures exist for readmission of deviants. The philosopher Spinoza was excommunicated by rabbinic authorities in Holland in 1656 because of his allegedly dangerous attitudes toward biblical authority. The idea that individuals or groups might have beliefs and practices that threaten the well-being of the tradition has existed in Judaism as far back as is known. In Ezra's times, individuals and groups were excluded from the Temple for various practices considered impure, such as mixed marriages. However, the extent to which exclusion was exercised varied considerably in different historical periods. After the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis rarely excommunicated anyone. In the modern period, exclusion is not considered a significant problem.

Reform Judaism developed in Germany in the 1840s and later appeared in the United States, where it spread widely. The Reform Jewish group first used the term Orthodox Judaism to characterize their more traditional conservative opponents. Reform Judaism stressed the individual observance of the moral law rather than strict observance of the traditional legal codes.


In the pastoral epistles of the New Testament, the members of the church are called upon to live "in all holy conversation and godliness, looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God" (2 Pt. 3:1112). They are warned against "false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them" (2 Pt. 2:1).

These and similar passages indicate divisiveness within the early generations of Christians. During the first three centuries, factionalism resulted from conflicts as to purity of conduct, steadfastness under persecution, gnosis, Christology, and practical matters such as the date of Easter. When the emperor Constantine became Christian in the fourth century, he attempted to further unite his territories by promoting a unified perspective among Christians. Under his auspices the Council of Nicaea was summoned in 325, and agreement was reached on disputed matters. Dissident opinions were held to be anathema.

Eastern orthodoxy

A schism took place in 1054 between the Roman Catholic church and the churches of the Eastern Byzantine Empire. The Eastern churches see themselves as a fellowship of churches governed by their own head bishops. Today there are fifteen such churches. They claim to have preserved the original apostolic faith, which they believe to have been expressed through the common Christian tradition of the first centuries. They recognize seven ecumenical councils.

Roman Catholicism

The perspective that emerged as orthodox envisaged the bishop of Rome as the primary authority. The authority of the bishops was legitimated by apostolic succession. The importance of the priesthood was linked to the centrality of the ritual of the Eucharist. The historian Eusebius, a contemporary of the emperor Constantine, wrote a history of the church that for centuries legitimated the view that the structures and doctrines of the fourth-century church were equivalent to the original practices and beliefs.


Reformers in the sixteenth century claimed to replace the authority of the Roman Catholic hierarchy with the authority of the Bible. They denied the doctrine of transubstantiation and held ministers to be competent to interpret the scriptures. The teachings of the church councils were to be supported only insofar as they conformed to the scriptures.

With the passage of time, the relationship between the state and the churches in Protestant countries became one of increasing separation. Therefore the differences among Christians were not linked to the need of the state for unity. If Christians differed, they had the option of leaving to establish different forms of Christianity. In the tract A Plain Account of the People Called Methodist (1749), John Wesley describes the early Methodists' protest against hierarchical authority legitimated by doctrine: "The points we chiefly insisted upon were four; First, that orthodoxy, or right opinion is, at best, but a very slender part of religion, if it can be allowed to be any part of it at all." The chief business of religion, according to Wesley, was to effect the transformation of consciousness, so that the believer might come to have the mind of Christ.

The Council of Trent

At the Council of Trent (15451563) the positions of the Roman Catholic church were reaffirmed. Many of the abuses that had preceded the Reformation were done away with, but the authority of the church hierarchy, the role of the priesthood, and the doctrine of transubstantiation were reasserted. At the same time, anathemas were pronounced against the respective Protestant opinions.

The modern period

Efforts have been made toward further mutual understanding among diverse Christian churches. At the Second Vatican Council (19621965), a number of studies reconsidered the roles of clergy and laity, and of biblical teaching with respect to the nature of the church. The forum for Protestant discussion of similar issues has been the World Council of Churches, which meets every six years since its establishment following World War II. It is attended by representatives of the majority of Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches. Those who established the World Council held that mutual respect might better arise out of mutual knowledge and common action. They have envisaged a long-range process out of which a greater sense of mutuality may emerge, as a result of which historic conflicts may eventually be resolved.

Fundamentalism among Protestants usually affirms the inerrancy of the Bible and insists on one particular interpretation of scripture. Fundamentalist attitudes exist within all the major Protestant denominations.


One of the Arabic words used as an equivalent for orthodox is mustaqīm. It comes from the first surāh of the Qurʾān in which the believers are asked to follow the straight path, al-sirā al-mustaqīm. In this respect, the straight path is primarily a way to live. Deviance would be a matter of rejecting the divine commands. From the Qurʾanic perspective, one who denies is called kāfir ("unbeliever," from kufr, "ingratitude; unbelief").

The first disputes among Muslims took place about thirty years after the death of the Prophet. These differences centered around the legitimate leadership of the community. After a brief civil war the members divided into two groups, Sunnīs and the Shīʿīs. The former acknowledged the actual leaders of the community to have been legitimate. The latter did not accept any leader apart from the caliph Ali, but rather waited for a divinely appointed leader to reappear and establish justice on the earth. A third group, the Khārijīs, attempted to enforce a strict puritanism as a criterion for membership in the community, but they failed to persuade the majority. With the passage of time, their perspective became insignificant.

Sunnī Islam and Shiism have each developed their own systems of religious law and theology, but neither explicitly excludes the other from Islam. Rather, each sees the other as misguided in its interpretations of particular aspects of Islam.

In one of the Sunnī theological statements commonly used as a basis for training scholar-jurists in the Middle Ages, and in traditional schools todaythe Commentary of al-Taftāzānī on the Creed of al-Nasafī (trans. Edward Elder, New York, 1950)heresy is characterized as bāin (esoteric interpretation of the Qurʾān). Such heresy is said to be equivalent to unbelief. The theologians commenting on the Qurʾān also equate unbelief with despair and with ridiculing the law. They are stating which attitudes they find unacceptable, rather than defining the characteristics that would lead to exclusion. Al-Taftāzānī deals with including great sinners in the community and affirms the Qurʾanic emphasis on the forgiveness of God. The community tended to leave final judgment of sinners to God's decision on Judgment Day.

The responsibility for guidance on matters respecting membership in the community lay with jurists rather than with theologians. On occasion, if the civil power was willing to support the opinions of particular scholar-jurists, persons were condemned for their views. More often, the condemnations of scholar-jurists with respect to dissenting opinions carried little force.

Deciding which practices and opinions were considered most adequate was a slow, informal process. There were no equivalents to the Buddhist or Christian councils. Only after the fact could it be determined that a particular perspective had gained widespread support. Even so, adherents of differing opinions were not normally excluded from participation in the community. Scholar-jurists often used abusive language about one another, but such rhetoric did not usually cause persons to be excluded from communal life.

The procedures by which the religious law, sharīʿah, was elaborated involved an appeal to chains of transmitters to legitimate the traditional narratives respecting the words and deeds of the prophet Muammad and his companions. This process of legitimation was similar to the Christian and Buddhist appeal to an unbroken line of trusted transmitters of the original teaching.

In the twentieth century Muslims threw off foreign domination in every major Muslim nation. The newly independent Muslim states varied in the ways by which they adapted the medieval religio-legal codes to modern conditions. A number of individuals wrote interpretations of Islam for modern times; two of the most influential were Syed Ameer Ali and Muammad Iqbal.

An active form of Muslim fundamentalism has developed in the Arab world, Iran, and the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent. Such groups affirm the urgency of agreement on one interpretation of Islam, and of imposing this interpretation by means of a state controlled by morally upright persons.

See Also

Canon; Expulsion; Heresy; Orthopraxy; Schism; Theology, article on Christian Theology; Truth.


Peter Berger's The Heretical Imperative (Garden City, N.Y., 1979) offers a recent discussion of the issues of orthodoxy in the context of modernity across all traditions. With respect to ritual processes in the conflict between orthodoxy and heterodoxy among nonliterate peoples, see Victor Turner's The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (1969; Ithaca, N.Y., 1977). A comprehensive survey of Indian religious thought is contained in Surendranath Dasgupta's History of Indian Philosophy, 3 vols. (19221940; Cambridge, 1963). For modern India, see Religion in Modern India, edited by Robert D. Baird (New Delhi, 1981). Sukumar Dutt's Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India (London, 1962) offers a survey of Indian Buddhism. For Chinese thought, Wing-tsit Chan's A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton, N. J., 1963) is excellent. Robert M. Seltzer's Jewish People, Jewish Thought: The Jewish Experience in History (New York, 1980) is a good source for Jewish intellectual history. Three books combined together give an excellent introduction to the complex issues of early Christian development: Robert M. Grant's Augustus to Constantine (New York, 1970); Robert L. Wilken's The Myth of Christian Beginnings (Garden City, N.Y., 1971); and Elaine H. Pagels's The Gnostic Gospels (New York, 1979). Kenneth Scott Latourette's A History of Christianity (New York, 1953) gives a comprehensive survey. With respect to Islam, Fazlur Rahman's Islamic Methodology in History (Karachi, Pakistan, 1965) explains the processes of Islamic reasoning. W. Montgomery Watt's Islamic Philosophy and Theology, 2d ed., rev. & enl. (Edinburgh, 1984) describes the main schools of thought. Noel J. Coulson's A History of Islamic Law (Edinburgh, 1971) discusses the religio-legal structures. For the modern period, see Change and the Muslim World, edited by Phillip H. Stoddard, David C. Cuthell, and Margaret W. Sullivan (Syracuse, N.Y., 1981).

New Sources

Metz, Johann Baptist, and Edward Schillebeeckx, eds. Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy. Edinburgh, 1987.

Sheila McDonough (1987)

Revised Bibliography