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Heresy and Heretics
Deviation from, or denial of, orthodox Christian doctrines
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Heresy and Heretics - deviation from orthodox Christian doctrines

Heresy and Heretics

Deviation from, or denial of, orthodox Christian doctrines


One of the tasks of apologetics - the branch of theology concerned with the intelligent presentation and defense of the historical Christian faith - is to counter heresy (the opposite of orthodoxy) with sound doctrine.

Heresy is:

[d]octrine which is erroneous in such a way that Christians must divide themselves as a church from all who teach or accept it; those adhering to heresy are assumed to be lost, although Christians are unable to make definitive judgments on this matter. The opposite of orthodoxy. Adj.: "heretical."
Source: A Biblical Guide To Orthodoxy And Heresy Part One: The Case For Doctrinal Discernment" (an article from the Christian Research Journal, Summer 1990, page 28) by Robert M. Bowman.

[F]rom a Greek word signifying (1) a choice, (2) the opinion chosen, and (3) the sect holding the opinion. In the Acts of the Apostles (5:17; 15:5; 24:5, 14; 26:5) it denotes a sect, without reference to its character. Elsewhere, however, in the New Testament it has a different meaning attached to it. Paul ranks "heresies" with crimes and seditions (Gal. 5:20). This word also denotes divisions or schisms in the church (1 Cor. 11:19). In Titus 3:10 a "heretical person" is one who follows his own self-willed "questions," and who is to be avoided. Heresies thus came to signify self-chosen doctrines not emanating from God (2 Pet. 2:1).

(Note: the term is used in other religions as well.)

A person who teaches heresy is called a heretic. A church, movement or organization that claims to be Christian, but which nevertheless teaches heresy, is a cult of Christianity. Christians who have not learned discernment easily fall prey to such groups.

Charges of heresy are most serious where they involve deviation from the central doctrines of Christianity:

  1. "Central doctrines" of the Christian faith are those doctrines that make the Christian faith Christian and not something else.

    1. The meaning of the expression "Christian faith" is not like a wax nose, which can be twisted to mean whatever the speaker wants it to mean.

    2. The Christian faith is a definite system of beliefs with definite content (Jude 3)

    3. Certain Christian doctrines constitute the core of the faith. Central doctrines include the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection, the atoning work of Christ on the cross, and salvation by grace through faith. These doctrines so comprise the essence of the Christian faith that to remove any of them is to make the belief system non-Christian.

    4. Scripture teaches that the beliefs mentioned above are of central importance (e.g., Matt. 28:19; John 8:24; 1 Cor. 15; Eph. 2:8-10).

    5. Because these central doctrines define the character of Christianity, one cannot be saved and deny these.

    6. Central doctrines should not be confused with peripheral issues, about which Christians may legitimately disagree.

      Peripheral (i.e. non-essential) doctrines include such issues as the timing of the tribulation, the method of baptism, or the structure of church government. For example, one can be wrong about the identity of "the spirits in prison" 1 Peter 3:19) or about the timing of the rapture and still go to heaven, but one cannot deny salvation by grace or the deity of Christ (John 8:24) and be saved.

    7. All Christian denominations -- whether Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant -- agree on the essential core. The relatively minor disagreements between genuinely Christian denominations, then, cannot be used to argue that there is no objectively recognized core of fundamental doctrine which constitutes the Christian faith.
Source: Alam Gomes, Cult: A Theological Definition, excerpt from "Unmasking The Cults"

Within late twentieth-century North American Christianity, heresy  has become an unpopular word. Can't we all just get along and live together in peace? Unfortunately the answer is no. Peace cannot be purchased at the expense of truth. In 1 Timothy, Paul writes that we are to pay close attention to ourselves and the doctrine and to continue in it, for in doing so we shall save both ourselves and those who hear us (1 Tim. 4:16 javascript popup window ). There is an inviolable core to the Christian faith. Harsh as it sounds, to violate that core is to place ourselves outside the Christian tradition. This is the essence of heresy, and heresy remains a valid category for today. This is not to endorse a McCarthyism that finds heretics under every rock. Nor is it to end the action of God's grace in anyone's life. But it is to own up to the fact that truth is never supplemental but always fundamental to Christian community.
Source: Dembski, William A, The Task of Apologetics, in Unapologetic Apologetics, edited by William A. Dembski and Jay Wesley Richards, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2001. Page 43.


Christian A Biblical Guide to Orthodoxy and Heresy By Robert Bowman. Highly Recommended!
Christian Finding the Truth How the earliest church decided Marcion and the Gnostics, among others, were wrong. By Justo González, Jr. Christian History, Summer 1996
Christian A Hammer Struck at Heresy What exactly happened at the famous Council of Nicea, when the Roman emperor convened some 250 quarreling Christian bishops? By Robert Payne, Christian History, Summer 1996.
Christian Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church
Christian Heresy in the Early Church A timeline by Bradley Nassif, in Christian History, Summer 1996
Christian Heresy in the Early Church Remarkable or little-known facts. By Tony Lane, Christian History, Summer 1996
Christian Malcontents for Christ The mixed motives and odd teachings of four notorious heretics. By Stephen M. Miller, Christian History, Summer 1996
Christian Sifting Through the Christ Controversies A quick summary of the competing schools of thought. Christian History, Summer 1996
Christian What is heresy, and what is a heresy hunter? by Mike Oppenheimer
Christian Who Are You To Say? by Greg Koukl
The "Who are you to say?" challenge is used by non-Christians and Christians, especially by those who deplore the "heresy hunters" in the church. This rejoinder, though, deftly sidesteps the real issue.


Christian Heresies A survey of church history focusing on orthodox responses to heresy. By Harold O. J. Brown
Christian Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity by Walter Bauer, Robert A. Kraft (Editor), Gerhard Krodel (Editor)

See Also

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Heresy and Heretics - deviation from orthodox Christian doctrines
First posted: Oct. 5, 1996
Last Updated: Dec. 2, 2002
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