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HERESY (hâr'ĕ-sē, Gr. hairēsis, sect, heretical group or opinion, from haireō, to choose). A doctrine or group considered contrary to correct doctrine—from the Jewish (Acts.24.14; cf. Acts.28.22) or Christian (2Pet.2.1) perspective.

In Hellenistic Greek the term hairesis meant a philosophical school or teaching (e.g., Stoicism). Its use in Judaism was similar (e.g., the “party” of the Pharisees or the Essenes). The term appears in the NT colored by this background, and is at first used neutrally (Acts 24:5; 26:5; cf. Acts 5:17; 15:5; 28:22). But the term is also used in the NT in a specifically Christian context with a pejorative sense, to mean divisions within the church which threaten its unity (1 Cor. 11:19; Gal. 5:20; cf. Titus 3:10). The problem of heresy as it was to be later defined, over against orthodoxy, shows itself in the NT at 2 Peter 2:1, referring to false teachers who will “introduce destructive heresies” in their denial of Christ. Although the term hairesis, however, is not used in this connection, the letters of Paul and John reveal early pressure on the Christian Church to resist doctrinal error within its ranks (pre-Gnosticism), as well as persecution from outside (cf. Col. 2:8-23; 1 John 2:22; 4:2f.; 2 John 7ff.).

In the early church the concept of hairesis as theological error predominated, although at first (as with Cyprian on the Novatians), “heresy” and “schism” were not always distinguished (cf. 1 Cor. 11:18f.). From the late second century, however, “heresy” usually meant doctrinal error, departure from accepted rules of faith; while “schism” implied dissent from the church for any reason whatever. The existence of heterodoxy in the early church encouraged the definition of the faith by the councils, in the creeds, and in the canon of the NT. Walter Bauer holds neverthless that diversity of belief at the local levels of the early church (in the second century, at least) was such that “orthodoxy” and “heresy” (as these came to be described eventually) originally coexisted.

The early Fathers regarded heterodoxy as sinful, because of the inflexibility of will from which (they claimed) it derived. This view of the moral aspect of heresy strongly influenced medieval Scholastic thought on the subject; although the terms “faith” and “heresy” acquired at the same time a wider meaning, related generally to Christian life and conduct, and not only to the denial of revealed truth as taught by the church (so Aquinas). In more recent times heresy has come again to denote a strictly doctrinal heterodoxy which deserves censure.

See also Canon; Marcion; Excommunication.

H.E.W. Turner, The Pattern of Christian Truth (1954); A. Ehrhardt, “Christianity Before the Apostles' Creed,” Harvard Theological Review, LV (1962), pp. 73-119; W. Bauer, Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei im ältesten Christentum (2nd ed., 1964); S.S. Smalley, “Diversity and Development in John,” NTS XVII (1970-71), pp. 276-92.

HERESY (αἵρεσις, G146, a choice, taken from αἱρέομαι, G145, choose). Originally, a thing chosen. Applied to a course of action or thought it means a system, school or sect (Heb. equivalent הַעדָפָה). In later theological usage it comes to mean a position opposite of orthodoxy, a denial of orthodox doctrine.

NT usage.

The NT does not always use the word αίρεσις in the same sense. The word applied to a sect or philosophical school appears a number of times to designate a sect as, “the party of the Sadducees” (αἵρεσις τω̂ν Σαδδουκαίων Acts 5:17 KJV) or the Pharisees (αἵρεσις τω̂ν Φαρισαίων, Acts 15:5). Paul was accused of being “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (τω̂ν Ναζωραίωη αἱρέσεις, Acts 24:5, RSV; cf. 24:14).

In 1 Corinthians 11:19 αἱρέσις is used in the same sense as σχίσμα, G5388, to denote a schism, split or party within the Corinthian church. This usage suggests the negative element of the word which is found also in Galatians 5:20 where αἱρέσις is listed among the works of the flesh (tr. “party spirit” by RSV).

NT usage closest to the technical theological meaning is found in 2 Peter 2:1, where false teachers can be expected to “bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master....” This implies willful departure from accepted teaching.

Heresy in the Early Church.

It is the sense of 2 Peter 2:1 that the Early Church employs to denote a theological position which has departed from established teaching. Ignatius used the word in this technical sense in the Epistle to the Trallians 6:1 in identifying Docetic teachings (cf. Ignatius, Epistle to Eph. 6:2). Other Apostolic Fathers employed the term in the same sense in Ep. of Barnabas 9:4 and Didache (mid-second cent.). The Apologist Justin Martyr (c. 160) used the term in Dialogue with Trypho (51:2). (See also polemicist Iren. Adv. Haer. I.1.1.) Kittel observes, “within Christianity αἵρεσις, G146, always denotes hostile societies” (p. 183). Certainly this idea is present by a.d. 112 and is firmly established in usage by the 3rd cent.

The Church had to deal with heresy from the earliest times. Error crept into the Church as it grew and larger numbers of believers attempted to understand and express their faith. Error which developed into a conscious resolute position necessitated that the Church address it. Heresy thus contributed to the formation of orthodox doctrine as the defenders of the faith denounced the error and attempted to define truth, or at least the limits of doctrinal truth if not the precise meaning of the truth.

As the church addressed heresies like Gnosticism, Montanism, Monarchianism, Arianism, etc., it was forced to define the doctrine of the Trinity. Thus doctrinal formulation came as a corrective to error.

The Roman Catholic Church traditionally has differentiated between “formal heresy” (willful and persistent adherence to theological error) and “material heresy” which denotes holding heretical beliefs through no fault of one’s own. The latter person is considered of good faith even though in error. Recently (1971), the Roman Church dropped the term “heresy,” thus making it impossible to try “formal heretics.” See also Schism and Apostasy.


J. H. Blunt (ed.), Dictionary of Sects, Heresies, Ecclesiastical Parties and Schools of Religious Thought (1874); G. L. Prestige, Fathers and Heretics (1940); J. W. C. Wand The Four Great Heresies (1950); Kittel, TDNT Vol I, 180-185; K. Rahner (ed.) Sacramentum Mundi, Vol. 3 (1969), 16ff.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

In the fixed ecclesiastical sense that it ultimately attained, it indicated not merely any doctrinal error, but "the open espousal of fundamental error" (Ellicott on Tit 3:10), or, more fully, the persistent, obstinate maintenance of an error with respect to the central doctrines of Christianity in the face of all better instruction, combined with aggressive attack upon the common faith of the church, and its defenders. Roman Catholics, regarding all professed Christians who are not in their communion as heretics, modify their doctrine on this point by distinguishing between Formal and terial Heresy, the former being unconscious and unintentional, and between different degrees of each of these classes (Cath. Encyclopedia, VII, 256 ff). For the development of the ecclesiastical meaning, see Suicer’s Thesaurus Ecclesiasticus, I, 119-23.