What is the difference between a Heretic and an Apostate? And how does one become an Apostate? Karl Rahner S.J. answers these questions in his provocative essay What is Heresy? printed in his Theological Investigations, Volume V: Later Writings. Rahner defines the formal difference between heresy and apostasy this way: "Heresy is only possible among brothers in the Spirit". (p.470) and this means that only Christians may become Heretics and therefore it is wrong to call anyone a heretic who has never been a part of the Christian Faith. So calling someone a Heretic is a backhanded and ironic way of calling them a Christian! But what separates a Heretic from an Apostate? Rahner's answer may surprise you!
Rahner says that denying Christian propositions is not enough to become an Apostate! This is an alarming statement to many Evangelicals who are quick to label anyone who disagrees with them a heretic, even on inconsequential issues. Rahner in the following quotation explains that it is not enough to merely deny a proposition to become an apostate, but one must completely leave all Christian environments to truly become an apostate. If a person denies Christian propositions, but is willing to continue to living under the moral reality of those Christian propositions, have they truly denied Christianity? Rahner says in a way, these people who deny Christianity are Heretics, not Apostates! Rahner will go so far to say in the essay (not quoted below) that Christians are expected to have intentional and unintentional heretical beliefs: in other words, we all have heretical beliefs no matter how hard we try to purge them! Rahner says that we are all pluralists because the idea of acquiring universal knowledge ended in the 19th century and we must all assimilate conflicting knowledge. Ironically, these same Evangelicals that might be offended by Rahner's position are also the quickest to deny that a professing Christian is truly a brother or sister in Christ because they do not hold the exact belief sets, or if a Christian holds one belief that is deplorable to another Christian. By denying that a person is what they say they are, one only proves that a person may remain a Christian while denying Christian propositions!
Rahner's answer brings into question the possibility of Apostasy entirely, because at this point in history and with the globalization of Christianity, it is arguably impossible to completely free oneself from Christianity's influence on the world. Is it possible to live without the benefits of Christianity today? In the following quotation, the answer is not explicit, but unavoidable conclusion that if apostasy is a possibility today, in the near future the possibility of apostasy may vanish from the Earth, since all non-Christians live in some way or another as an Anonymous Christian.
If this is remembered, then it will become clear that one of the differences between heresy and apostasy—a difference which is perhaps still quite important in practice but which theologically speaking is not an essential one—consists in whether a person accepts certain (specifically Christian) propositions by an in itself purely human conviction, or whether these propositions are present for him only as a co-determining factors of the spiritual situation in which he inevitably finds himself. Where, when and as long as someone lives unavoidably in an environment which in a thousand ways (even though perhaps quite anonymously and unsystematically) is co-formed by Christianity and by the reality manifesting itself in the (rejected or still accepted) Christian propositions of faith, such a person has always still a chance of coming perhaps quite unconsciously into contact with this reality and of (perhaps quite unsystematically) becoming a Christian. This process is not essentially different in the theological sense from one in which someone takes hold of the full nature of faith and of the reality of salvation by surrendering himself to the inner dynamism of certain Christian propositions to which he had previously adhered in a merely human formation of opinion. In the one case he surrenders himself to the force of the propositions of his environment—to the external, 'public' opinion—and in the other case, to the force of the propositions of his inner, private opinion.
Hence, only where the defection can take place in such a way that the person who defects leaves the historical environment of Christianity altogether—and no longer (as far as the historical dimension is concerned) has to be in a dialogue of 'yes' or 'no' with Christianity—only then would there be a pure apostasy. Whether there can be such a case in those cultures which were at one time Christian, is a question of fact and of basic principles of theology; moreover, it is inevitably perhaps a question which today is already outdated by events. For if there is today anything like a unified planetary civilization, i.e. if today the elements and structures of every culture with their history have become—even though up till now still in different degrees of intensity—co-determining factors of this unified planetary civilization and thus of all individual cultures of the world, and if Christianity continues to exist in the world at all, then no one at all in the world today (although of course, in different but on the whole growing degrees) can withdraw himself from the outset from the dialogue with Christianity (no matter what may be the outcome). To this extent, therefore, no one can any longer live in a purely withdrawn, apo-static relationship to Christianity, but is forced to contradict it by explicitly separating himself from it by heresy. In a theological understanding, everything non-Christian and all non-Christians are somehow moving into a permanent and unavoidable role of explicit opposition towards Christianity and thus precisely of being oriented towards it. For gradually Christianity is coming to belong everywhere in the world to the roots of that (universal) history in which one still remains rooted even while in opposition. Seen in this life, we are completely justified in preferring to call the present-date world—terminologically—heretical rather than apostatical.
Rahner S.J., Karl. "What Is Heresy?" Theological Investigations, Volume V.: Later Writings. Trans. K. H. Kruger. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1966. 486-87. Print.
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