Heresy is the act of speaking against the doctrine of an established religious organization, or simply having private beliefs that are not in accordance with the officially-endorsed position. Heresy differs entirely from apostasy.
In early Christianity, heresy was a recurring problem as people pretending to be Christians would advocate doctrines contrary to the Bible. As heresy was seen as a great threat to the church, spurious allegations of heresy were also used by rival ecclesiarchs to attack their enemies. A series of Councils were held to establish official doctrine, in some cases leading to schisms, such as the split between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches in the eleventh century (1054).
Today, accusations of heresy are not as widespread as they once were, but some Christians may privately consider those of other denominations to be heretics.
Historically, theological points that have proved fertile sources of heretical beliefs include:
- The nature of Christ, i.e. whether he was both God and Man, or one or the other, or something else entirely (e.g. Arianism).
- The soul, whether it exists and what happens to it after death (e.g. Epicurianism).
- What humans have to do to enter Heaven, e.g. whether faith alone is sufficient (e.g. Pelagianism).
- Arguing that religions other than Christianity are pathways to salvation.
Today these questions may seem unimportant and difficult to answer one way or the other, but during the early centuries of the church, countless hours were devoted to Biblical study in search of the truth, and disagreements often led to ostracism, violence and persecution. In Dante's Inferno, heresy is one of only four sins that are punished with fire (the other three being simony, wicked counsel, and violence against God).Conservative Christian historians and apologists are mindful of this statement from the year 1521:
"...there is no one of the heresies which have torn the bosom of the church, which has not derived its origin from the various interpretation of the Scripture. The Bible itself is the arsenal whence each innovator has drawn his deceptive arguments. It was with biblical texts that Pelagius and Arius maintained their doctrines. Arius, for instance, found the negation of the eternity of the Word—an eternity which you admit, in this verse of the New Testament—Joseph knew not his wife till she had brought forth her first-born son; and he said, in the same way that you say, that this passage enchained him. When the fathers of the Council of Constance condemned this proposition of John Huss—The church of Jesus Christ is only the community of the elect, they condemned an error; for the church, like a good mother, embraces within her arms all who bear the name of Christian, all who are called to enjoy the celestial beatitude."
- Martin Luther. Life of Luther (Luther by Martin Luther).
The Great Heresies list of heresies committed by Catholics