I have seen the word "heresy" used on this site a lot recently (and have used it myself a couple of times in jest) but I was wondering if someone could explain the meaning of this term as it is used within Christianity?

  • Does "heresy" simply mean "I believe that view is false", or is it something stronger?

  • Does "heresy" mean "If you believe in that, then you are not my brother in Christ", or something less severe?

I understand each Church will have a different take on whether or not a particular doctrine is heresy, but I am curious if there is a generally agreed-upon "definition" for the word as it is used within Christianity? If the modern usage is different than the usage in previous church eras, please indicate this in your answer. Thanks!

(I didn't want to merely take a secular Dictionary's definition, since at times they miss the mark of the usage within a subculture like Christianity.)

4 Answers 4


Heresy (αἵρεσις) means "choice," and "a heretic is one who chooses what he wants according to his own ideas and opinions, selecting certain parts of the Christian Tradition while rejecting others" (OCA). Some additional insight from this article:

By his actions, a heretic not only destroys the fullness of the Christian truth but also divides the life of the Church and causes division in the community.... Generally speaking, the Orthodox tradition regards the teachers of heresies as not merely being mistaken or ignorant or misguided; it accuses them of being actively aware of their actions and therefore sinful. A person merely misguided or mistaken or teaching what he believes to be the truth without being challenged or opposed as to his possible errors is not considered to be a heretic in the true sense of the word.

I once posited that we are all heretics because we all choose what to believe over and against other beliefs, however I was (lovingly) corrected by @Bruce Alderman here. I now agree with him that the label "heretic" has been applied throughout church history to silence a false teacher (they used to kill them). If someone is a heretic, no one should listen to him. It is a very strong term that should be used only when someone is teaching serious doctrinal error and refuses to receive correction.

  • Very interesting! By this definition, essentially every Church and most denominations would be "heretical" to each other Church/denom. Is that a fair statement?
    – Jas 3.1
    Commented Jul 9, 2012 at 16:43
  • No, that was my original definition here: meta.hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/a/267/423
    – Dan
    Commented Jul 9, 2012 at 19:34
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    The reality is that heresy implies orthodoxy. The word orthodox comes from two Greek words: ὀρθός meaning 'straight' and δόξα meaning 'glory/praise' or 'belief.' In order to declare someone as a heretic, there must first be an agreed upon standard (although Eastern Christians generally emphasize the 'glory/praise' definition, while Western Christians emphasize doctrinal beliefs). I don't think disagreements on most issues constitute the charge of heresy. I would think anything that challenges the content of the Nicene Creed would qualify, though....
    – Dan
    Commented Jul 9, 2012 at 19:37
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    But different groups draw different lines in the sand. Some place everything in the dogma basket, while others place a lot more in the adiaphora basket.
    – Dan
    Commented Jul 9, 2012 at 19:39

A heresy just means that a view is not the "orthodox" view, orthodox coming from Greek ortho-, "right" + Greek doxa, "opinion" (from dokein, to think; see dek- in Indo-European roots). Orthodoxy is then simply a right opinion. A heresy is a choosing of a faction that is not the majority opinion.

As others have pointed out, what makes for a "right opinion" depends on the opinion that one is already convinced of. Also as such, every heretic, by definition, thinks his own opinion to be "orthodox," and those that disagree to be the heretic.

In looking at the broad history of the church, the vast majority of Christians have subscribed to, among other things:

(As a shorthand, I tend to refer to these things as the basis of 'Chalcedonian Christianity' and gone into great length about that in the link.)

Note that "non-Scriptural" is not necessarily "heretical" nor is "heretical" non-Scriptural. Many heresies are actually from Scripture - although are often "peculiar" in their interpretation. As a classic example - both Nestorianism and Monophysitism are both grounded in a reading who Jesus was - they each simply emphasize different details in the life of Jesus.

This base of commonality is a reed or measuring stick against which new or "novel" innovation is typically measured. The point of theology is often as much about consistency as it is about whether or not something is "right," and as such heresy simply means that a position is at odds with what the vast majority of Christians since Chalcedon have believed.

Protestantism as a whole is thus a heresy when compared against the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, but is rarely viewed as such, because so many subscribe to it. Marcionism, on the other hand, denies the legitimacy of the Old Testament for Christians, and is not something that many Christians since Marcion have pushed.

The point, then, that a theologian makes with "heresy" is not that a heretic is somehow obviously going to hell - only that his views are out of step with the majority of Christian thought.

  • doxa can also mean glory or worship. It is often said that in the western church, Orthodoxy is having the right opinions, while the eastern church cares far more about having the right worship.
    – user3797
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 17:16

I think that one can define heresy as, "voluntarily chosen teaching contrary to orthodoxy". However the question "what is orthodoxy?" and "how to find what is orthodoxy?" will be answered differently by various christians.

Orthodox Christians believe there is an immutable orthodoxy that lives in Church, but there is no sole institution that is a protector of orthodoxy.

Roman Catholics also believe that there is a strict, immutable orthodoxy, but also, that Bishop of Rome is infallible protector of orthodox teaching.

Various Protestant churches generally have less strict view on orthodox teaching (they tend to intercommunion with communities holding different views).

  • I almost up-voted, but I want to suggest an edit. I would argue that Protestants generally let "orthodoxy" lie in the teachings of Scripture, rather than in an understanding shared by those within the church.
    – Jas 3.1
    Commented Jul 9, 2012 at 16:45
  • I would love to see the word "heterodoxy" incorporated into the definition, but I'm still giving it a +1 Commented Jul 9, 2012 at 20:23
  • No institution that protects Orthodoxy in eastern Christianity? The one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church is the institution, and the Holy Spirit is the protector (as promised by God)
    – user3797
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 17:18
  • Of course that One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church is the one protecting the orthodoxy. But it doesn't have an institution similar to Holy See. This is what I meant.
    – zefciu
    Commented Jan 25, 2013 at 9:28

The Catholic Church used to define heresy as a rejection of any point of dogma.

Heretic – a baptized person who rejects a dogma of the Catholic Church. Heretics are automatically excommunicated from the Church (ipso facto) without any declaration for rejecting an authoritative teaching of the Faith.

Pope Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum (# 9), June 29, 1896: “No one who merely disbelieves in all (these heresies) can for that reason regard himself as a Catholic or call himself one. For there may be or arise some other heresies, which are not set out in this work of ours, and, if any one holds to a single one of these he is not a Catholic.”

Pope St. Pius X, Editae Saepe (# 43), May 26, 1910: “It is a certain, well-established fact that no other crime so seriously offends God and provokes His greatest wrath as the vice of heresy.”

  • Wow. Bold statements! Does this describe the modern usage of the word in Catholicism, though?
    – Jas 3.1
    Commented Jul 9, 2012 at 20:47
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    @Jas 3.1 A Catholic would believe that a papal pronouncement on a matter or faith or morals is guided by the Holy Spirit and never changes.
    – user
    Commented Jul 9, 2012 at 21:32

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