People tell me that heresy is a belief that goes against orthodoy, the core Christian doctrine believed by "most Christians, in most times, in most places." Many Protestant commentators make a big deal about films, e.g. the Shack, that contain what they consider heretical beliefs. However, aren't at least some of the main Protestant beliefs heretical? They were declared heretical by the Council of Trent, but what I am asking is whether they are heretical in the sense of not being believed by "most Christians, in most times, in most places."

For example, from the Wikipedia list of heresies, two beliefs of the heretical group Henricians are "recognition of the Gospel freely interpreted as the sole rule of faith," and "condemnation of the Eucharist." Both are believed by at least most Protestants I know, and the first seems close to Sola Scriptura. Sola Fides, "faith alone," also does not seem to fit the above definition of orthodoxy.

Is this perception correct, that fundamental Protestant doctrine are not believed by "most Christians, in most times, in most places," making Protestantism heretical in this broader sense?

The top answer on this related question states Protestants reject almost all the heresies identified by pre-Reformation creeds and councils. If true, then this would answer my question with a no. However, while protestants use the same words, they can mean something different than the traditional understanding, such as what "apostolic" means. And as noted above, many Protestants don't believe in the real presence in the Eucharist.

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    Sure, based on your definition, but keep in mind Jesus was a heretic according to the Pharisees.
    – Beestocks
    Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 2:22
  • @Beestocks The Pharisees didn't represent "most Jews, in most times, in most places"... Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 21:54

2 Answers 2


Your point that “Protestants reject almost all the heresies identified by pre-Reformation creeds and councils” is highly significant. There is no difficulty with them using the same words but attaching different meanings because they do not. This is particularly true of the Creed of Nicaea, formulated in 325 A.D. It states,

“We believe in one God, the Father, Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance (ousia) of the Father; God from God, Light from Light, Very God from Very God, begotten not made, of one substance (homoousios, consubstantial) with the Father, through whom all things were made, both in heaven and on earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was incarnate, was made man, suffered, and rose again on the third day, ascended into heaven, and is coming to judge the living and the dead;

And in the Holy Spirit.

And those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not’, and: ‘Before he was begotten he was not’, and: ‘He came into being from nothing’, or those who pretend that the Son of God is ‘Of another substance (hypostasis), or essence (ousia) [than the Father] or ‘created’ or ‘alterable’ or ‘mutable’, the catholic and apostolic church places under a curse.”

According to that pre-Reformation Creed, Protestants cannot be called heretical. However, that ‘only’ deals with a particular heresy doing the rounds back then. It is one of the most significant, fundamental heresies, it needs to be said, but my point is that Protestants had no quarrel with the meaning of the words of that ancient Creed. They did not attribute different meanings to it, but wholly agreed with the orthodoxly Christian stance stated in that Creed.

We see what the Catholic church would call ‘heresy’ in other areas of belief. And Protestants make no bones about this either – they openly state why they disagree with Catholicism, not attempting subterfuge with cunningly different meanings attached to words. They called a spade a spade back in the day. Perhaps the best example of this lies in the realms of Church authority.

In 1302 Boniface VIII declared in the bull 'Unam Sanctam' that this church has

"one head, Christ and his vicar Peter and the successor of Peter... For all men, it is absolutely necessary for salvation to submit to the Roman Pontiff. This we declare, affirm and proclaim." (DS 872; D 469)

Notice how the one head of the church, Christ, has to share this role with "the successor of Peter" - the Pope? And that there can be no salvation for anyone who does not submit to the Roman Pontiff? That was followed by Pope Clement VI (pope from May 7, 1342, to December 6, 1352):

"No man outside obedience to the Pope of Rome can ultimately be saved. All who have raised themselves against the faith of the Roman Church, and died in final impenitence have been damned, and gone down to Hell." (Source: Pope Clement VI, "Super Quibusdam," as cited in "Apostolic Digest, Book V: The Book of Obedience")

Notice the progression from not obeying the pope to being against the Roman church, to impenitence and damnation?

Protestants protested that their salvation is not connected with bowing down to any man on earth – that you cannot hedge your bets and claim to have faith in Christ alone for salvation, PLUS faith in a Pope! Catholicism claims that whoever does not accept the doctrine of the Roman Church and of the pontiff as the infallible rule of faith from which sacred Scripture derives strength and authority, is a heretic. Protestants put it the other way around. They claim that the infallible rule of faith from which all and any Christian derives strength and authority is sacred Scripture. This means that Protestants cannot bow before any Pope as the 'vicar of Christ' who is supposedly infallible in that role. But Catholics do. This is the main reason why Catholics called Protestants ‘heretics’ back then, and even now: their recognition of Scripture as the supreme source of authority, and not the statements/authority of any pope, also that salvation comes with faith that only what Christ did can save anyone, not with combining such faith with belonging to any organisation or obeying what the head of that organisation requires.

  • (+1) Such an important point @Anne salvation comes with faith that only what Christ did can save anyone, not with combining such faith with belonging to any organisation or obeying what the head of that organisation requires . . . Christ alone is the Head of the Church and he asserts that Headship in every generation.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jun 7, 2018 at 19:41
  • What does the "catholic and apostolic church" refer to in the first creed, and is it substantially different than the sort of submission to a pope that Protestants reject?
    – yters
    Commented Jun 17, 2018 at 23:27
  • @yters I'm not here to answer supplementary questions. If you care to make that a distinct question, freshly posted, then that can be looked at by the community. It's a good question, but it has wandered away from your initial question here, in my opinion.
    – Anne
    Commented Jun 18, 2018 at 18:05

One way to look at this question in an objective manner, is to use the standard of the early creeds (Apostle's and Nicene) and the rulings of the first seven ecumenical councils. Using these criteria, which would be the closest approximation to what is believed by "most Christians, in most times, in most places", then the fundamental Protestant doctrines would not be considered heretical, as they do not conflict with the tenets of the creeds, nor the rulings of the councils.

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    Protestants mean something different when they read the creed. For example, "apostolic" means unbroken apostolic succession by laying on of hands for Catholics and Orthodox, whereas Protestants mean something else. So by this criterion, Protestants are heretical. The words may be the same, but the belief is different.
    – yters
    Commented Mar 19, 2017 at 19:49
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    @yters I have no doubt that I (along with most Protestants) am heretical according to the standards of the Catholic churches and probably the Orthodox churches as well. It may be true that most Christians from the first thru fourth centuries believed in the real presence and in the necessity of laying on of hands for ministry. However, the rulings of the early councils do not mandate these beliefs, therefore they do not consider me a heretic. No doubt if we knew accurately all that the original apostles taught, we might find all of us have deviated from the truth.
    – Bit Chaser
    Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 2:36
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    @yters Which particular tenet of creed or ruling of a council are you referring to? Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 7:08
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    @yters Creeds speak for themselves - that is there purpose. There is no definition of 'apostolic' supplied in the creed, which, if denied, would be heretical. The way you are using this to make your point diverges from the very purpose of creeds. Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 15:58
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    @bruisedreed if definitions differ between groups then the creeds are not an objective standard, contrary to what you state.
    – yters
    Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 18:16

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