Know Your Heresies
This page contains an overview of the major heresies that have come about over the centuries, which many of the early Fathers wrote lengthy apologetics against. Those heretical doctrines have been historically condemned, and are referenced in various texts, so this page should provide some additional historical context.
Later on, this page will also contain a collection of surviving texts from heretical sects which the Church Fathers wrote against so that you can see exactly what the Early Church was up against.
What is heresy?
Simply put, heresy is a false teaching. It is a belief, or doctrine that is in contradiction to the accepted orthodoxy1 of the Church.
The word “heresy” comes from the Greek2 'hairesis' (αἵρεσις), pronounced hah'-ee-res-is, which means “choosing”, “sect” or “factions”.
1 Corinthians 11:19
Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine.
Examples of heresy would be a denial of the resurrection of Christ, a teaching that salvation is obtained by works, denial that Jesus came in the flesh etc., much of which we have seen dealt with at length by various Church Fathers. Examples of modern day heresies would be Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses; the former teaching that people can attain godhood, the latter denying the deity of Christ (modern-day Arians).
Below is a list of some of the major heresies which have cropped up throughout the history of the Church, each with a brief summary of what they entailed. Some of these ancient heresies still can be seen today in various forms if you know what to look for, sometimes without people realising they are verging on teaching heresy. This is why it is important to know your history so that you don't fall into error.3
Second century: God granted Jesus supernatural powers and then adopted him as his Son at his baptism. Condemned by Pope Victor (190-198 AD).
Middle Ages: This error taught that there were two gods: the good god of light being Jesus in the New Testament and the god of darkness and evil, or the “God of the Old Testament”, being Satan. They considered the material world as evil, including the body, and thus denied the resurrection. Pope Innocent III persecuted the movement into extinction around 1208 AD.
Fourth Century: Taught by Apollinaris the Younger, bishop of Laodicea in Syria. He said that the two natures of Christ could not exist in the same person, and so taught that the mind of Jesus was the Logos, and the human body was a glorified version of itself, denying the true humanity of in the incarnation. Condemned by the Second General Council at Constantinople in 381 AD.
Fourth Century: A doctrine about Christ which taught that Jesus was created by God and was not eternal like the Father. Condemned by the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.
Second Century: A doctrine which taught that Jesus only seemed to be human, denying the incarnation and leading to a view that matter is evil. Condemned at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD.
Fourth Century: A teaching that the validity of sacraments depends on the moral character of the minister; eg. If the one performing a baptism were in sin, then the baptism would be invalid. This sect persisted for a long time and eventually died out sometime after the fifth century, with the help of Augustine of Hippo.
First Century: This had lots of variations, but generally it taught you needed special knowledge for salvation, that the physical world is evil and was created by a lesser, evil god called the demigurge. Condemned by the Apostles (such as in 1 John) and the earliest Church Fathers.
Third Century: Also called Sabellianism. A denial of the Trinity stating that God is one person in three modes,4 rather than the Orthodox view that God is one in three persons. Condemned by Dionysius, bishop of Rome around 262 AD.
Second Century: Similar to Modalism, it taught that God is one single person, Jesus was just a man and that the Holy Spirit is a “force” or “presence” of the Father. Modern-day sects that hold to this in some form are: Jehovah's Witnesses, Christadelphians, and Unitarians.
Fourth Century: A doctrine teaching that Jesus had only one nature and not two as the Orthodox and Chalcedonian doctrine of the hypostatic union states. The Council of Chalcedon rejected this doctrine in 451 AD. Condemned at the Sixth Ecumenical Council around 680 AD.
Fifth Century: A teaching that Jesus was two distinct persons, both human and divine separately instead of a unified person; and that Mary was only the mother of his human side instead of a unified nature. Condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD.
Third century: Another form of Modalism which mainly affected the Eastern Church. This doctrine taught that the Father was incarnated and suffered on the cross, hence the name: from Latin patri- "father" and passio "suffering".
Fifth Century: This doctrine teaches that human nature is essentially good and can, of its own free will, choose God and follow his commands without any divine aid or intervention. It is an error concerning the nature of man and sin and was opposed by Augustine of Hippo and condemned at the Council of Carthage in 418 AD. It was also condemned at nine other Councils ranging from 431 – 1618!
Sixteenth Century: A denial of the Trinity and a similar heresy to Arianism, viewed through the lens of the rationalism of the Italian Renaissance. This teaching denied the incarnation, deity and pre-existence of Jesus, as well as saying that God was only the Father with the Holy Spirit as the power of God. It also taught that Jesus was a deified man and so should be adored as such, but that due to this, the sacrifice on the cross wasn't efficacious for redemption and only served as an example of self-sacrifice. It still exists today in some form within the Unitarians and the Jehovah's Witnesses.
Fourth Century onward: A doctrine that essentially teaches that Jesus is less than the Father in an inferior way in terms of essence, nature and being. This isn't to be confused with Jesus being subordinate to the Father in a functional sense of submitting to him (cf. 1 Cor 15:28). This teaching is just another form of Arianism, which was condemned at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.
Various times throughout history: The erroneous view that the Trinity is really three separate gods, instead of one God in three persons. Often held by those who misunderstand or can't accept the Orthodox position of the Trinity. A modern-day version of this error is held by Mormons, though in a unique way. Mormons believe in many gods but focus on the three which they believe oversee the Earth. So it's a type of focused polytheism.
As you can probably see from reading through this list, many of the heresies which emerged all have similar or common roots, and any heresies that exist today will stem from one of these major errors in some form. If you're unsure about a certain sect, teaching or denomination, just look out for any of these heretical doctrines to see if they are within the boundaries of historical orthodoxy or not.
1Authorized or generally accepted theory, doctrine, or practice.
2Strong's Concordance, http://biblehub.com/greek/139.htm
3For a more in-depth look at heresy, see: https://carm.org/what-is-heresy
Keywords: heretics heretical unorthodox Adoptionism Albigenses Apollinarianism Arianism Docetism Docetæ Donatism Gnosticism Modalism Monarchism Monarchianism Monophysitism Nestorianism Patripassianism Pelagianism Socinianism Subordinationism Tritheism