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Heresy, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is a "theological or religious opinion or doctrine maintained in opposition, or held to be contrary, to the catholic or orthodox doctrine of the Christian Church, or, by extension, to that of any church, creed, or religious system, considered as orthodox. By extension, [heresy is an] opinion or doctrine in philosophy, politics, science, art, etc., at variance with those generally accepted as authoritative."


The word "heresy" comes from the Greek αιρεσις, hairesis (from αιρεομαι, haireomai, "choose"), which means either a choice of beliefs or a faction of dissident believers. It was given wide currency by Irenaeus in his tract Contra Haereses (Against Heresies) to describe and discredit his opponents in the early Christian Church. He described his own position as orthodox (from ortho- "straight" + doxa "thinking") and his position eventually evolved into the position of the early Christian Church.

Thus it will be perceived that "heresy" has no purely objective meaning: the category exists only from the point-of-view of a position within a sect that has been previously defined as "orthodox". Thus, too, any nonconformist view within any field may be perceived as "heretical" by others within that field who are convinced that their view is "orthodox"; in the sciences this extension is made tongue-in-cheek.

Heretics usually do not define their own beliefs as heretical. Heresy is a value-judgment and the expression of a view from within an established belief system. For instance, Roman Catholics held Protestantism as a heresy while some non-Catholics considered Catholicism the "Great Apostasy."

For a heresy to exist there must be an authoritative system of dogma designated as orthodox, such as those proposed by Catholicism. The term orthodox is used in Eastern Orthodoxy, some Protestant churches, in Islam, some Jewish denominations, and to a lesser extent in other religions. Variance from orthodox Marxism-Leninism is described as "right" or "left deviationism." The Church of Scientology uses the term "squirreling" to refer to unauthorized alterations of its teachings or methods.

Religious heresy


Popular imagination relegates "heresy" to the Middle Ages, when the Church's power in Europe was at its height, but the case of the scholar and humanist Giordano Bruno was not the last execution for heresy. Heresy remained an officially punishable offense in Roman Catholic nations until the late 18th century. In Spain, heretics were prosecuted and punished during the Counter-Enlightenment there after the Napoleonic Era.

Roman background

A concern for uniform practice of ritual, which Romans conceived as a duty entirely of a civic and public nature, distinguished the Roman approach to religion from the Greeks', where each locality preserved its archaic characteristics. Plutarch, in his Life of Numa Pompilius, ascribes to the legendary King of Rome the institution of pontifex maximus which, from Plutarch's 2nd century AD point of view "was to declare and interpret the divine law, or, rather, to preside over sacred rites; he not only prescribed rules for public ceremony, but regulated the sacrifices of private persons, not suffering them to vary from established custom, and giving information to every one of what was requisite for purposes of worship or supplication." The Romans welcomed new gods in to the pantheon; it did not matter if one believed in some or none of the gods, so long as one took part in Roman rituals. For example, Christians were persecuted not for believing in one God, nor for disbelieving in the Roman pantheon of gods, but because they refused to participate in civic and public rituals and duty, such as their refusal to burn incense to the Roman emperor. Deviation from the official norm amounted to impiety, but heresy was foreign to the pagan worldview.

Early Christian heresies

Urgent concerns with the uniformity of belief and practice have characterized Christianity from the outset. The process of establishing orthodox Christianity was set in full swing when Paul wrote the epistles that comprise a large part of the New Testament. On many occasions in Paul's epistles, he defends his own apostleship and urges Christians in various places to beware of false teachers, or of anything contrary to what was handed to them by him. The epistles of John and Jude also warn of false teachers, as does the writer of the Book of Revelation.

In the middle of the 2nd century, three unorthodox groups of Christians adhered to a range of doctrines that divided the Christian communities of Rome: the teacher Marcion; the pentecostal outpourings of ecstatic Christian prophets of a continuing revelation, in a movement that was called "Montanism" because it had been initiated by Montanus and his female disciples; and the gnostic teachings of Valentinus. Early attacks upon alleged heresies formed the matter of Tertullian's Prescription Against Heretics (in 44 chapters, written from Rome), and of Irenaeus' Against Heresies (ca 180, in five volumes), written in Lyon after his return from a visit to Rome. The letters of Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna to various churches warned against false teachers, and the Epistle of Barnabas, accepted by many Christians as part of Scripture in the 2nd century, warned about mixing Judaism with Christianity. Other writers made similar warnings, leading to decisions reached in the first ecumenical council, which was convoked by the Emperor Constantine at Nicaea in 325.

During those first three centuries, Christianity was effectively outlawed by requirements to venerate the Roman emperor and Roman gods. Consequently, when the Church labeled its enemies as heretics and cast them out of its congregations or severed ties with dissident churches, it remained without the power to persecute them. However, those called "heretics" were also called a number of other things (e.g. "fools," "wild dogs," "servants of Satan"), so the word "heretic" had negative associations from the beginning, and intentionally so.

Before 325 AD, the "heretical" nature of some beliefs was a matter of much debate within the churches. After 325 AD, some opinion was formulated as dogma through the canons promulgated by the councils. Each phrase in the Nicene Creed, which was hammered out at the Council of Nicaea, addresses some aspect that had been under passionate discussion and closes the books on the argument, with the weight of the agreement of over 300 carefully selected bishops from around the empire. However, that did not prevent the Arians who were defeated at the council of 325 from dominating most of the church for the greater part of the fourth century, often with the aid of Roman emperors who favored them. In the East, the successful party of Cyril cast out Nestorius and his followers as heretics and collected and burned his writings.

Irenaeus was the first to argue that his "proto-orthodox" position was the same faith that Jesus gave to the apostles, and that the identity of the apostles, their successors, and the teachings of the same were all well-known public knowledge. This was therefore an early argument supported by apostolic succession. Irenaeus first established the doctrine of four gospels and no more, with the synoptic gospels interpreted in the light of John. Irenaeus' opponents, however, claimed to have received secret teachings from Jesus via other apostles which were not publicly known. (Gnosticism is predicated on the existence of such hidden knowledge, but brief references to private teachings of Jesus have also survived in the canonic Scripture.) Irenaeus' opponents also claimed that the wellsprings of divine inspiration were not dried up, the doctrines of continuing revelation.

The Hispanic ascetic Priscillian of Avila was the first person to be executed for heresy, only sixty years after the First Council of Nicaea, in 385. He was executed at the orders of Emperor Magnus Maximus, over the procedural objections of bishops Ambrose of Milan and Martin of Tours, who claimed the Churches' right to punish its own.

A number of the beliefs the Catholic Church has come to regard as heretical have to do with Christology, that is, with the nature of Jesus Christ and the relationship between Christ and God the Father. The orthodox teaching, as it developed, is that Christ was fully divine and at the same time fully human, and that the three persons of the Trinity are equal and eternal. This position, it should be noted, was not formally established as the orthodox position until it was challenged in the fourth century by Arius (Nicene creed in 325); nor was the New Testament put into its present form until the end of the 4th century.

Over the years, numerous Christian scholars and preachers have disagreed with the Church on various issues or doctrines. When the Church has become aware of these beliefs, they have been condemned as heretical, and with the East-West Schism finalized in the 11th century, and the split in the Western Church in the 16th, each section has identified the others as "heretical". Historically, this often happened when the belief challenged, or was seen to challenge, Church authority, or drew a movement of followers who challenged the established order socially. For entirely secular reasons, some influential people have had an interest in maintaining the status quo or condemning a group they wished to be removed. The Church's internal explanations for its actions were based purely on objection to beliefs and philosophies that ran contrary to its interpretation of the holy scriptures and its official interpretation of holy tradition.

    * Adoptionism
    * Antinomianism
    * Apollinarism
    * Arianism
    * Audianism
    * Bogomils
    * Bosnian Church
    * Caesaro-papism
    * Catharism
    * Chiliasm
    * Docetism
    * Donatism
    * Euchites
    * Gallicanism
    * Gnosticism
    * Henry the monk
    * Jansenism
    * Luciferians
    * Lollardry / Lollardy / Lollardism
    * Marcionism
    * Monarchianism
    * Monophysitism
    * Monothelitism
    * Montanism
    * Nestorianism
    * Patripassianism
    * Pelagianism/Semipelagianism
    * Peter of Bruis
    * Priscillianism
    * Psilanthropism
    * Sabellianism
    * Socianism
    * Waldensians

See also Manichaeism, a pre-Christian religion that influenced early Christians, notably Augustine, often in ways held to be heretical.


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