The notion of Heretics and Heresies congers up images of angry mobs, bond fires and dungeons.  While it is impossible to deny such things at some level, it is also true that more usually Christendom has disagreed more peaceably. Our word Heresy comes from the Greek αιρεσις, hairesis, (from haireomai, "choose"), which means either a choice of beliefs or a faction of believers.  Clearly the Greek word that can actually mean sect and that is the way it is commonly used in the New Testament. In English a heretic is someone whose theology disagrees with the orthodox position.  The notion of dungeons and stake burnings come from the middle ages and the inquisition(s) when the Roman Catholic Church held greater political power than it does now. Then also, many of these were not the sort of theological debates that are covered here.  During the first three centuries of Christianity heresy could only be combated by moral authority, persuasion and discourse.  This was the time of the apologists and their arguments are our legacy.  Then as now many struggle with a definition of Christianity.  Many who claim to be in the church today hold views that are heretical.  Those outside the Church cannot tell the difference. This is not a new problem either:

The Orthodox fourth-century writer Epiphanius, bishop of Salmis, despaired: "Even now everyone calls all the sects—Manichaeans, Marcionites, Gnostics, and all the others—'Christians' indifferently, even though they are not Christians." (in Cliffton 1998: p. xii)

The main dividing point in the past, as it is now, was on the nature of God, Christ and especially the incarnation. As an aside, this is also a dividing line between the other world religions and Christianity. The proper conception of God is crucial to our understanding of the Christian message.  Key to this understanding is the Jewish conception of God. For the Jew, and the Christian, God is the single self-existent creator of all things. Further the Jewish God is a God of redemption, who reaches into the history of his creation to rescue and redeem his chosen.  The Transcendent versus intimate nature of God is a theological debate that is solved in the Judeo-Christian notion of a God who would condesend to speak to us. Christianity came out of Judaism and the orthodox Christian the concept of God, apart from the notions of the trinity and the incarnation, is the same. It is also the dividing point between orthodoxy and heresy. This page presents some of the traps men have fallen into over the space of time.

Most of the heresies described in the following table were proposed or became popular later than New Testament times. The possible exception being the Gnostics. It is common to talk about Paul or one of the other epistle writers as confronting Gnosticism but many authors today contend that what we now call Gnosticism was not fully formed until at least the end of the second century—after the New Testament was written.  Having said that, most heresies can fit broadly into the categories covered in this table, whether they did so historically or not. These heresies are instructive to us as it is easier than you might think to fall for them. 

Heresy The Problem

Arius (256-336 AD) argued that the Father alone was without beginning. The Son, therefore, was created or made.

We see in the creeds the phrase "begotten not made" which is a response to Arianism.  An often used passage on the eternality of the Son is John 1.1-3 "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made."

If the Son were made, or originated at the birth of Christ, Christianity would not be monotheistic. That is there would be more than one god in some sense.

This Arians used John 14.28: “You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I."  to justify the notion that Jesus is somehow lesser than God the father.  There are positions known as semi-arianism that are common to this day.


The Ebonites were from the early centuries of eh Christian Era. Not much is actually known aboute the Ebionites since actual writings from the Ebionites are scarce, fragmentary and disputed.  From the writings of the Church Fathers we understand them to be a Judaizing sect who regarded Jesus as the Messiah while rejecting his divinity.  They insisted on the necessity of following Jewish ceremonial law.  

The Ebionites:

  • used only one of the, so called, "Jewish Gospels" (none of which survive today)
  • revered James the Just (also called James the Less) and rejected the writings of Paul.
Their name, from a Hebrew word meaning poor,  suggests that they placed a special value on voluntary poverty and were perhaps connected to the Essines. The Ebionim was one of the terms used by the sect at Qumran that sought to separate themselves from the corruption of the Temple during the time of Jesus.
Gnosticism The Gnostics believed that the material world was evil—the goal in Gnosticism is to set free the spirit that is entrapped in a physical existence. They believed this was possible through the reception of secret teachings. And indeed that Jesus had brought such a teaching and/or method to men so that they could escape physical existance. This was indeed the primary focus of his mission.
Macedonians/ pneumatomachi

These Macedonians are not an ethnic group but followers of Macedonius I of Constantinople who was a bishop in the late fourth century. Their other name pneumatomachi means spirit fighters. The reason for this name is that they denied the divinity and personhood of the Holy Spirit. Instead they said that the Holy Spirit was the power (dynamic) of God.

The Spirit indeed demonstrates the power of God but is also referred to as a person as in John 14:

"These things I have spoken to you, while abiding with you. 26 "But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you. (John 14. 25b, 26)
 Manicheism Mani, a Babylonian from the 200s, claimed to have secret knowledge that would set the entrapped goodness of Spirit free. YHWH, the God of the Old Testament, Mani argued, was an evil spirit who had entrapped that goodness in creation. 

Here we have what many consider to be fully formed Gnosticism.  It is a departure from the monotheism of the Bible where God is supreme and the creator of all that is.


Monarchians argued that Jesus was an ordinary human, to whom came the power of God—usually understood at his baptism or at the resurrection. He was not God, but God worked in and through him.

This position is also roughly known as adoptionism and survives today in various forms. Those that teach this doctrine say that they are not denying the deity of the son, or even the eternal nature of the son. They do differ when it comes to what is meant by the incarnation.

The orthodox position is that the Son is a person not a power. This also applies to the Holy Spirit. It is not true then to say that the Holy Spirit made Jesus the Christ or that the Christ is a separate person from Jesus.

Another form of Monarchainism is Modalism often called Sabellianism. The argument is that God acts in three different modes, but one at a time—hence, for a time God is Father, then Son, then Holy Spirit.

There is no one who fully understands who God is or how God is. To say that he can only act in one particular way at a given time is to put a limit on Him. The Biblical notion of God does not have such limits.


Monophysitism is another Christological debate that survives to this day. There are three major doctrines that can be called monophysite:

  1. Eutychianism  holds that the human nature of Christ was essentially obliterated by the Divine, "dissolved like a drop of honey in the sea." This was likely an attempt to protect against an over-emphasis on the humanity of Christ.
  2. Apollinarism  holds that Christ had a human body and human "living principle" but that the Divine Logos had taken the place of the nous, or "thinking principle", analogous but not identical to what might be called a mind in the present day.
  3. Finally, there is the "monophysite" Christology of extant "monophysite" Churches. These are collectively known as Oriental Orthodox.

However, members of "monophysite" Churches object to the term and indeed deny that they have ever taught monophysite Christology, preferring the term miaphysite. This term uses a different Greek root, mios meaning 'a complex unity', reflecting their position that in Christ the divine and human nature become one nature, the natures being united without separation, without confusion, and without change.

Monophysitism emerged in Egypt as a response to Nestorianism. It was rejected by the Roman Catholic/Eastern Orthodox church at the Council of Chalcedon.

Later, monothelitism was developed as an attempt to bridge the gap between Monophysitism and the Chalcedonian position, but it too was also rejected by the Chalcedonians, despite at times having the support of the Byzantine Emperors.

Monophysite churches are still found today, and include the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (tewahido being an Ethiopian word meaning "being made one"), the Eritrean Orthodox Church, and the Armenian Apostolic Church. These are considered branches of Oriental Orthodoxy. (


Montanus (ca. AD 156) asserted a direct relationship with the Holy Spirit, which came upon him apart from the structure of the Church and brought on speaking in tongues and other charismatic behaviors. With this came a strong emphasis on the immanence of Christ's second coming. A few points that separated the Montinists from the orthodox Church are:

  • The belief that the prophecies of the Montanists superseded and fulfilled the doctrines proclaimed by the Apostles.
  • The encouragement of ecstatic prophesying, contrasting with the more sober and disciplined approach to theology dominant in orthodox Christianity at the time and since.
  • The view that Christians who fell from grace could not be redeemed, also in contrast to the orthodox Christian view that contrition could lead to a sinner's restoration to the church.

Some claim that what separates Montanism from most of our modern Pentecostal movement is that Montanus claimed to be the Paraclete—the councilor of John 14.16. Tertullian, one of the first Latin Fathers, converted to Montanism later in life. His position on prophacy was not one of new, superceeding revelation, but rather clearification and continuous revelation.   

 Nestorianism Trying to preserve the idea that Jesus Christ existed from the beginning, Nestorius (c 386-451) argued that Mary could not be called theotokos the Greek term for "mother of God", as that implied she could give birth to one older than she. He preferred the term Christotokos "mother of Christ."

Nestorius also had what, for the time, was a problematic notion of how Christ could have two natures; one divine and one human.  He was accused of teaching that the two natures of Christ were separate persons and so to be "dividing Christ." 

There is some controversy as to whether Nestorius actually did teach Nestorianism.  Today the Nestorian Church of the East claims to be fully Catholic and Apostolic in their teaching but they do reject the notion of Mary as theotokos.  Many Protestants have difficulty with the title if not the notion of Mother of God as well.

 Paulianism Not to be confused with the theology of the Apostle Paul. This is a 3rd-century heresy concerning the nature of Christ, denying the divine by asserting that Christ was inspired by God and was not a person in the Trinity.


Pelagius argued that there is no point at which a person loses free will--contrary to the doctrine of original sin, one can always choose for God.  Pelagius taught that the human will, tempered in good deeds and rigorous asceticism, was sufficient to live a sinless life. He told his followers that right action on the part of human beings was all that was necessary for salvation. To him, the grace of God was only an added advantage; helpful, but in no way essential.

While many in the reformed traditions reject the notion of original sin, the Calvinists have total depravity and the Arminians have deprivation, both of which deny the fact that a man could or would always choose for God. The other common teaching in Protestantism is that of the sin nature. For the Christian of most any stripe, it is only the transforming work of the Holy Spirit that sanctifies us and enables us to live in fellowship with God despite our natural tendencies.


Subordinationism is an heretical view that God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are totally subordinate to God the Father.  In other words, within the Trinity, the Son and the Spirit are inferior to the Father.  Orthodox doctrine maintains that although there is no autonomous Person of the Trinity, none who is God apart from any other Person, yet each Person is autotheos ("αυτοθεος" -God in and of himself).

This should not be confused with the eternal functional subordination of the Son, that is that the son was obedient unto death as stated in the creeds. Whereas Arianism held that the Son was a created being, inferior in nature to the Father, the church fathers believed that the Son was subordinate in function within the Godhead, but not in any way inferior in nature, being God of very God. 9/8/11

This table was originally based on this link is to course materal and comes and goes.