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Heresy: Christian Concepts


Heresy is one of the most explosive terms in Christian vocabulary. Although the term has served a constructive role in Christian self-definition almost from the first days of the movement, modern sentiments have tended to view this label as offensive, unhelpful, and unnecessary.

The problem is that terms of self-definition are coined to describe perceptions of boundaries from the viewpoint of insiders, and, in the customary use of the terms, from the perception of the winners. The terms, then, are not neutral and unbiased, nor do disinterested observers determine their use. The debates between heretics and the orthodox are disputes over the adequacy and accuracy of a tradition's essential boundaries by those who have a vested interest in the tradition. The losers will protest any label that marks them as outsiders. Such disputes are customary in the process of self-definition of ideologically defined systems.

In religious communities, the inside is frequently labeled orthodox, which in the Christian tradition has tended to identify Roman Catholic (including its breakaway subspecies, Protestant) and Eastern or Greek Orthodox churches. In the discussion that follows, this broad tradition will be identified by the term church. This use of the word church is somewhat problematic, for both the heretic and the orthodox claim the title as rightfully theirs. But scholarship has been unable to come up with acceptable neutral replacement terms. Since the Catholic and Orthodox churches have represented the majority of Christians throughout most of Christian history, and since they are heirs of the early tradition that began to distinguish between orthodoxy and heresy, the application of the label church to these churches is appropriate.

The word heresy (Greek, hairesis ) occurs nine times in the New Testament; the word heretic occurs once. The term heresy occurs elsewhere throughout early Christian literature, in Jewish writings of the period (LXX, Philo, Josephus), and in wider Greek literature. Its earliest meaning was choice; it came to mean party or school and sometimes, more pejoratively, a faction or sect. Ecclesiastical use took the term even further in that negative direction, where it came to be used almost exclusively for heresy or heretical group. But whatever the nuance, from neutral to hostile, hairesis primarily distinguished groups from others of similar kind; in each of its uses, the idea of boundaries is clear, if not central.

Modern discussions of heresy routinely point out that the Greek term for heresy originally simply meant choice. Some have implied, based on a common fallacy that a word's etymology is the best clue to its meaning, that the negative connotation the term heresy came to carry in Christian use is a betrayal of the original neutral sense of the word. But the meaning of a word is more accurately determined by its use in context, not in some etymological quest. Thus, a word means whatever it is made to mean by a particular community. The concern to downplay the negative meaning that Christian use has given the term heresy reflects the modern agenda, which generally finds the term distasteful; it does not uncover a supposedly right or better meaning of the term.

Heresy is one of several conditions labeled by the church as hazardous. Schism, apostasy, and belief in another religion or in no religion are others. Heretics, apostates, and schismatics are more closely related to the church than others, for they had at one time been insiders. Heretics still consider themselves insiders, although the church rejects them for having willfully rejected some essential element of faith. Apostates, like heretics, were once insiders, but they have rejected the faith, willfully and in toto. They chose to be outsiders, and they are so counted by the church. Schismatics had also once been insiders. Unlike heretics and apostates, however, schismatics have not rejected essential elements of the faith either in part or in full; rather, they have rejected the recognized authoritative apparatus and discipline of the church in some way. Pagans (or heathens or infidels) and atheists, unlike the other three groups, are not defined in terms of a past association with the church. The church's most difficult labeling has been whether to judge a group as schismatic or heretical; all the other categories are clear.

The Early Assessment of Heresy

From the early church's viewpoint, heresy and heretics were as dangerous a foe as the church would encounter, for heresy targeted the essentials by which the group's self-understanding had significance and substance. From the earliest Christian writers who addressed perceived dangerous deviations in beliefs, unmistakably sharp language was used routinely. Those who distorted the truth were "ravening wolves," according to the author of Acts (20:2831). Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35c. 107) called teachers of error "tombstones and sepulchers" (Letter to the Philadelphians 6.1). Their beliefs were "not the planting of the Father" (Letter to the Philadelphians 3.1); rather, they were "wicked offshoots, which bear deadly fruit" (Letter to the Trallians 9.1). The fate of heretical teachers and their followers is "unquenchable fire" (Letter to the Ephesians 16.2).

By the latter part of the second century, numerous books attacking Christian heretics circulated. The best known of these was written by Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons. His massive treatise against Gnosticism, Detection and Overthrow of the Pretended but False Gnosis (more often referred to simply as Against Heresies ), became a template for other refutations of heresy.

The church claimed to possess "the faith that was once delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3)the true apostolic faith. Early Christian leaders recognized the need to trace heresy to another source, one more hostile and foreign to the circle of Jesus and the apostles, for if the heretics could successfully press their claim that their traditions stemmed from Jesus or the apostles, the heretics might be the faithful bearers of truth and the church itself the heretic. Christian heretical groups understood this principle as keenly as the orthodox did, and they made every effort to locate their traditions in Letter to the Ephesians teaching or that of Jesus' close associates. The Gnostics, for example, spoke of secret knowledge that had been handed down privately by Jesus to a few select disciples, and finally to the Gnostics. But the church countered, tracing Gnostic heresies back to the arch-heretic Simon Magus, who according to early Christian tradition was condemned by Peter himself (Acts 8:925).

The church, largely through its antiheresy writers, presented a strict schema of the relationship between orthodoxy and heresy. Orthodoxy came first; heresy, a deviation from the truth, came later. As Origen, the leading theologian of the third century, declared: "All heretics at first are believers; then later they swerve from the rule of faith." That view was taken up in Bishop Eusebius's Church History. His work, which covered Christianity's first three hundred years, informed Christian understanding for centuries after that.

Tools against Heresy

Given that heresy was perceived to endanger the essence of Christian faith, the church quickly developed tools by which to identify and curb heresy. During the second century, four tools began to be refined: canon, creed, clergy, and councils. By the fourth century, these had reached a fairly stable structure.


The canon (scripture) was the collection of approved writings judged to have authoritative status. By the end of the first century, many of Paul's letters had been collected and were in distribution. By the end of the second century, a collection not unlike the present New Testament was in wide use. Two concerns prompted the establishment of a canon. Some groups, such as the Marcionites, rejected documents that were treated by the church as authoritative. Other groups, such as the Gnostics, promoted new documents to support their novel theological positions, and they presented these documents as authoritative. Against such interests, the church approved a formal canon, which specified the books that had authoritative status and from which the church could distinguish orthodox from heretical beliefs. The claim was that the church's canon had apostolic authorship or authority.


The creed (from the Latin credo, "I believe") was a condensed statement of essential beliefs, and in substance and structure reflected the Rule of Faith referred to in second- and third-century writings. The interrogatory form of the creed ("Do you believe") appears to have been the earlier, being used as a test of the orthodoxy of a candidate prior to baptism; from the mid-fourth century, the declaratory form ("I believe") became more familiar. The primary creed (NicenoConstantinopolitan, or more simply Nicene) was established by the councils at Nicaea (325 ce) and Constantinople (381 ce), and confirmed at Chalcedon (451 ce). The creed helped to consolidate the core beliefs of widely dispersed churches, and it provided a condensed test by which to distinguish the heretic from the orthodox.


By the early second century, principal authority was being consolidated in the hands of the local bishops, under whom were presbyters (priests) and deacons. Toward the end of the century the concept of apostolic succession was developed. This linked the bishops in a line back to the apostles; through this line of bishops the truth was passed on and guaranteed. The church argued that those outside the bishop's church could make no comparable claim or offer such certain guarantee.


Bishops frequently met in councils to regulate the faith. Creeds were approved there, and individuals were frequently tried and condemned as heretics at the sessions. Bishops were expected to enforce the council's judgment against people in their own territories who confessed the condemned belief. The effectiveness of this repression often depended on which side a bishop or the emperor supported. The Arian-Nicene conflicts of the fourth century illustrate that a decision by a council did not always bring about immediate conformity.

These early tools were so effective that they continued to be used as the principle machinery for identifying and confronting heresy well into the modern period.

Treatment of Heretics

In the early centuries, the charge of heresy would have brought social stigma within the Christian circle, but little else. The earliest punishment for heresy was excommunication, which meant that heretics were excluded from the fundamental rite of the church, the Eucharist. Such exclusion was often, in itself, the most effective tool by which to recover erring members.

In the early 300s, Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. The state and church became allied in common cause, and the power of the church increased considerably. Under a Christian empire, the charge of heresy brought serious legal jeopardy, as well as social stigma. In the interests of consensus, Constantine called the first Ecumenical (universal) Council at Nicaea in 325 ce to deal with what came to be known as Arianism, part of the broader trinitarian controversy. This debate focused on the relationship of the Son (Logos) to the Father. Arianism, the loser in the debate, came to be viewed as the archetypical heresy. Many of the beliefs that were condemned as heresy following the Arian controversy were responses to questions that arose from the Arian debate; most therefore dealt with some question about the nature of Jesus (Monophysitism, Nestorianism, Monothelitism, together referred to as the Christological controversies).

The Christian state treated heretics much the same as the pagan state had treated all Christians prior to Constantine's conversion. In each case, the condemned faced serious legal jeopardy, with potential loss of property, and exile or execution. Heresy was pronounced a capital crime in 380, and by the 1200s burning at the stake had become the common fate of heretics.

At times, the interests of the church and state clashed, and sometimes the political leaders were more sympathetic with the theologically losing side (the heretics), which then placed the orthodox in jeopardy. But, in theory, church and state saw themselves with common interests and allied in a common cause. In the modern period, few church-state alliances exist, and individuals now judged as heretics are at risk of excommunication by the church, but little more.

It may seem that the church was often involved in the suppression of heretics. In theory, however, it was difficult for someone to earn the label "heretic." One must not only have held a heretical belief; one must have held it willfully and obstinately. To distinguish between degrees of heresy, the church spoke of objective (material) heresy and the more serious kind, formal heresy.

Medieval Heresies

After the great trinitarian and Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries, the fight with heresy subsided, as such beliefs were largely vanquished (as with Arianism) or were located in lands no longer under the church's control (as with Monophysitism and Nestorianism, which largely had come under the new Muslim empire in the 600s). Muslims became the more serious threat to both eastern and western Christians.

By the 1100s the western church and papacy were at the height of their power. At the same time, scholastic speculation flourished as Europe became reacquainted with lost elements of classical learning, new reformist monastic orders and lay movements challenged the norm, and a sense of truth and error was sharpened from European Christendom's conflict with Islam. Crusades against the Muslim infidels in the Holy Land were easily turned to crusades against Christian heretics within Europe as a developing medieval consensus brought a reinvigorated scrutiny of ideas.

The medieval approach to heresy differed from ancient practice. Suspect beliefs were simply associated with some ancient error, which had already been stamped as heretical by the ancient church. Such was the case with the dualism of the Cathars in southern France, condemned as a revival of Gnostic and Manichaean ideas rejected by the church a thousand years earlier. Once a contemporary belief had been linked to an ancient heresy, the church could act to suppress the group that espoused such views without engaging in the kinds of debates by which the ancient church had worked out boundaries between orthodoxy and heresy.

The zeal against heresy and the techniques employed by orthodox authorities varied from place to place. The Spanish Inquisition and the crusades against the Cathars mark what are viewed as the most notorious aspects of the medieval church's suppression of heresy (with witnesses coerced and confessions gained under torture). Other efforts included the establishment of the Dominican order in the early 1200s; its mission was to correct heretical beliefs by focused and informed preaching. Shortly after the rise of Protestantism, the Catholic Church formed the Congregation of the Holy Office (now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) to deal with heresy. To help check the spread of heretical ideas, it developed an Index of Forbidden Books (which had force from 1559 to 1966).

Heretics Reconsidered

The charge of heresy was frequently brought against reforming critics of the church, as well as against those whose theological stances departed from the core of Christian faith. Such treatment often emboldened the critics, who charged that the ecclesiastical elite were the real heretics and enemies of Christ. Indeed, the fourteenth-century English reformer John Wyclif spoke of the pope as antichrist, as did various monastic reformers. Many were burned at the stake for such opinions.

In the early 1500s the situation changed with the rise of Protestantism. Although the church quickly labeled Protestants heretics, the political environment worked in their favor. Local princes, often in sympathy with the Protestant cause, protected the reformers from the usual fate of heretics, and Emperor Charles V, a zealous Catholic, had too many political worries to focus his attention on an insignificant monk such as Martin Luther. Within two decades of Luther's initial protest in the early 1500s, many of the nations and principalities of Europe had Protestant governments. These lands became zones of safety for the new Protestant heretics. This marks the beginning of a pluralism that broke apart the Western medieval consensus. Only in the older, ecclesiastically uniform society had there been sufficient power in the mere labeling of heresy to guarantee effective action against such beliefs.

Interestingly, Protestantism retained, largely intact, the concept of heresy held by the Catholics, for Protestants were as keenly aware of the importance of boundaries. Although at points they disagreed with Catholics as to what constituted heresy, Protestants generally used the same tools by which Catholics had marked off boundaries. Protestants accepted the canon (though they excluded the Apocrypha), and they retained the Creed. The developed hierarchical structure of the church posed more difficulty, particularly regarding the authority of the bishop of Rome, though with some modification Protestants retained clergy and councils, for they feared heresy as much as Catholics did, and they needed appropriate tools to suppress it. John Calvin's approval of the burning of Michael Servetus for Arian-like beliefs and the general Protestant suppression of Anabaptists suggest that the Catholic and Protestant understandings of heresy differed very little. Further, both Catholics and Protestants agreed with the early church's labeling of the ancient Christian heretics. They differed only in regard to which early heresy they accused the other side of espousing.

Some within the Protestant movement developed a more sympathetic reconsideration of groups that had fallen under the judgment of the church. In 1699, Gottfried Arnold, a German Pietist, put forward a daring reassessment of the past in his Impartial History of the Church and Heresy from the Beginning of the New Testament to 1688. Emphasizing practical piety over dogma, Arnold reversed the labels: those previously branded as heretics were approved; their orthodox oppressors stood condemned. Some later histories reflect his influence.

Early Christianity reconsidered

More significant challenges to the church's use of the term heresy came in the 1800s and 1900s. Although the challenges were quite diverse, all provided grounds for challenging the church's claim that its faith had remained unchanged from the beginning. This muted the church's dismissal of supposedly heretical beliefs on the grounds that heretical beliefs were not identical with the faith of the apostles, for the church's own beliefs were found to reflect development and change.

Four modern reconstructions of Christianity's early period were influential. First, Ferdinand Christian Baur and the Tübingen School argued that second-century Christianity reflected a synthesis of opposing first-century Petrine and Pauline interpretations of the Christian message. Second, theories of Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch allowed orthodoxy to be treated by many as an unfortunate institutionalization of Christianity, contrary to the spirit of Christianity's original charismatic structures. Third, Walter Bauer argued that in many areas of the Roman Empire the so-called heretical forms of Christianity came first. For Bauer, the concept of an original apostolic orthodoxy was a fiction of the church at Rome, which that church developed in the second century to extend its influence throughout the empire. Fourth, under Bauer's influence, scholars began to speak of the multiple forms of Christianity in the first century, tracing trajectories from each of these into later centuries. That gave heresy roots as ancient as orthodoxy could claim.

These reconstructions challenged the traditional definition of orthodoxywhat was believed everywhere by everyone at all timesexpressed by Vincent of Lerins in the 400s. If Christianity never had an original uniform message that preceded all other interpretations of the Christian message, then the terms orthodoxy and heresy appear to lose their power as markers of the inside and the outside. Orthodoxy would become, as Bauer contended, merely the heresy that won out. All beliefs would seem to have an equal claim to authenticity within the Christian circle.

The label heresy reconsidered

Many modern scholars object to the use of the term heresy, finding it problematic for numerous reasons. First, high stakes are connected to the labeling, for those outside the church are considered to be in deadly error and damned. That judgment seems too uncompromising in the modern world, where societal consensus is rarely achieved and where diversity is the norm and toleration is applauded. Second, the use of the label has shifted over time and place, raising questions about the validity of the application of such a term as a reliable boundary marker for what the church claims to identify: truth from error. Third, the labeling is one-sided, and those marked as heretics have routinely protested, for their perceptions of the boundaries are different, and they claim to be as much a part of the Christian inside as anyone else. Fourth, even though the church framed its debate against heresy in terms of truth and error, it is clear that the labeling of heresy was frequently usurped in the interests of political or social agendas, for common cause against movements of protest or rebellion was often more easily marshaled if the action was seen primarily as a suppression of heresy.

Modern scholars, both ecclesiastical and secular, are rarely interested in the accuracy of the various claims to truth and accusations of error that have marked the Christian discussion of orthodoxy and heresy. Rather, they are curious about the process and players in labeling and drawing of boundaries, and they usually emphasize the political and social aspects in the suppression of heresy, which undeniably were there. In this context, sociological theories of deviance may be particularly illuminating. Matters of social control, power relationships, consensus, and the labeling of normality and deviance are intelligible to both the church and its scholarly critics, for the church's drawing of boundaries to mark off heresy parallels in many ways the drawing of boundaries that most societies engage in to mark off deviance.

In illuminating Christian treatment of heresy, the paradigm of deviance works best, however, for the period of the imperial church and later. For the initial stages of Christian self-definition, the church's fixation on truth and error remains something of an enigma. The modern discussion has shown little capacity to appreciate this interest, which the church has always claimed marked one of its primary concerns.


The term heresy carries the weight of two millennia of Christian use. It is used less often now, as the Christian church has come to recognize the shifting boundaries of orthodoxy over the ages and the excesses that the regulation of belief has fostered. Increasingly, the tendency has been to expand the inside, to admit a wider pluralism within the boundaries of authentic Christianity. The devastating religious wars of the 1600s, the relativizing influences of the Enlightenment of the 1700s, the ecumenical efforts of the 1800s and 1900s, and modern scholarly reconstructions of earliest Christianity have led many Christian groups to emphasize the commonalities rather than the differences among Christian communities. The positions espoused by the World Council of Churches (founded in 1948) and by Vatican II (19621965) reflect the new attitudes.

In the modern period, heresy is out of vogue. Without broad social consensus, the charge of heresy is neither effective nor feared; it brings no legal jeopardy and little, if any, social stigma. In this context, Christianity struggles to maintain a balance between absolute relativity, where concepts of truth and error have little substance, and dogmatic certitude, which has a tainted past.

See Also

Arianism; Cathari; Docetism; Donatism; Ebionites; Gnosticism, article on Gnosticism as a Christian Heresy; Manichaeism, article on Manichaeism and Christianity; Marcionism; Monophysitism; Montanism; Nestorianism; Pelagianism; Waldensians.


For a general introduction to heresy in the Christian tradition, see G. R. Evans, A Brief History of Heresy (Oxford, 2003). For a more full treatment of specific heresies from an orthodox viewpoint, see Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies: The Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy from the Apostles to the Present (Garden City, N.Y., 1984); reprinted as Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church (Peabody, Mass., 1998). Maurice Wiles examines the history of Arianism, the quintessential heresy that resurfaced from time to time in Christian thought, in his Archetypal Heresy: Arianism through the Centuries (Oxford, 1996). For medieval heresies, see Jeffery Burton Russell's Dissent and Order in the Middle Ages: The Search for Legitimate Authority (New York, 1992). Most books on the Protestant Reformation will address the problem of heresy in some way. A solid analysis of the issues is provided in Euan Cameron's The European Reformation (Oxford, 1991). The adaptation of Christianity to the modern world is carefully discussed in Jaroslav Pelikan's Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700), vol. 5 of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago and London, 1989). The other volumes in this series are also useful in a study of the Christian concepts of orthodoxy and heresy. The most influential work challenging the traditional view of the character of earliest Christianity is Walter Bauer's Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei im ältesten Christentum (Tübingen, Germany, 1934), particularly its English translation, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, edited by Robert A. Kraft and Gerhard Krodel (Philadelphia, 1971). H. E. W. Turner's The Pattern of Christian Truth: A Study in the Relations between Orthodoxy and Heresy in the Early Church (London, 1954) is the most substantial reply to Bauer. For works on the early church reflecting the influence of Bauer, see Robert Wilken, The Myth of Christian Beginnings (Garden City, N.Y., 1971, reprint 1980); and Gerd Lüdemann, Heretics: The Other Side of Early Christianity, translated by John Bowden (Louisville, Ky., 1996). James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester extended Bauer's theories by tracing trajectories from the first century into later centuries in Trajectories through Early Christianity (Philadelphia, 1971). For the application of sociological theories of deviance to the problem of heresy, see John Barclay, "Deviance and Apostasy: Some Applications of Deviance Theory to First-Century Judaism and Christianity" in Modelling Early Christianity: Social-Scientific Studies of the New Testament in its Context, edited by Philip F. Esler (London and New York, 1995), pp. 114127; and Sheila McGinn, "Internal Renewal and Dissent in the Early Christian World" in The Early Christian World, edited by Philip F. Esler (London and New York, 2000), vol. 2, pp. 893906.

Thomas A. Robinson (2005)

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