Early Christian Heresies
Dr. C. George Boeree
A heresy is a belief that deviates from some
official belief. When religious authorities decide that a belief
heretical, they usually take active efforts to eradicate the belief,
including the removal of the offending believers (by excommunication or
Of course, one man's orthodoxy is another man's heresy!
Most Christian heresies centered around the twin issues of the nature
the trinity and, more specifically, the nature of Jesus Christ.
official stand on these issues (according to all the Catholic,
Orthodox, and Protestant churches) is
as follows: God is a trinity, three persons but one
Jesus Christ was one person, simultaneously human and divine.
these two statements are not particularly rational was considered
The trinity was seen as mysterious and a matter of faith, not reason.
What follows are eight heresies, ranging from sects that see Jesus
as purely divine, to others which see him as purely human.
Sabellianism: Sabellianism is named for its founder
(fl. 2nd century). It is sometimes referred to as modalistic
The father, son, and holy ghost are three modes, roles, or faces of a
person, God. This, of course, implies that Jesus Christ was
divine, without humanness, and therefore could not truly have suffered
Docetism: The name comes from the Greek word dokesis, meaning "to seem."
the same lines as Sabellianism, Docetism says that Christ was not a
human being and did not have a real human body. He only seemed to
human to us. In a nutshell...
Monophysitism: Monophysite comes from the Greek words for
body." This heresy says that Jesus Christ was a joining of the
Logos with the human person Jesus, which occured at incarnation.
therefore is two separate natures joined in one body.
is very much alive in several present-day Egyptian and Middle Eastern
Christ only (no Jesus)
Adoptionism: Adoptionism says that Jesus was a human being
was "adopted" by God at his conception, at which point he developed a
divine nature. Later versions sometimes suggest that he was
such as when he was baptized by John the Baptist.
Jesus > Christ
Nestorianism: Supposedly, Nestorius, Patriarch of Antioch
410), believed that Jesus Christ had two natures -- man and God --
remained separate throughout his period on earth. This is not
what Nestor said (although he did deny virgin birth) but the name
You can still find a few Nestorian churches in Iran.
Apollinarianism: Named for Apollinaris of Laodicea (fl.
this heresy says that Jesus Christ was not a real man, but not totally
either. Apollinarians suggested that he had a human body and a
soul, but his mind was taken over by the eternal Logos.
Arianism: Arianism is named after Arius (c. 250 - c. 336),
priest in Alexandria. This is considered the most serious
Jesus Christ was thought of as a special creation by God for man's
Arianism was the form of Christianity that the Goths adhered to, and it
popular in all the areas they conquered, including Italy, Spain, and
of Arianism called Socianism (from the Latin socius, meaning
simply says that Jesus was an extraordinary man. This heresy
lives on in two very different forms, the Unitarians and the Jehova's
Jesus only (no Christ)
Not all heresies focussed on the issues of the trinity and Christ's
Here are the leading examples.
Donatism: Named for its leader, the theologian Donatus the
(d. 355), Donatism included a group of extremist sects, mostly in North
that emphasized asceticism. They valued martyrdom, found lapses
(even under torture or threat of death) inexcusable, and believed that
the sacraments required a pure priest to be effective.
Pelagianism: Another group of sects, centered in Gaul,
Britain, and Ireland, is associated with the Irish monk Pelagius (fl.
He believed that original sin was not transmitted from Adam and Eve to
children (and thereby to us). Baptism was not considered
and people could be "saved" by their own efforts, that is, they did not
require the grace of God. Many modern liberal Christians agee
Gnosticism: Discussed in my article on Roman philosophy
religion, the Christian versions were, obviously, considered
Gnosticism has never entirely disappeared, and can be seen in the
of Alchemy and Astrology, and even in modern times in the works of Carl
Manicheanism: Also discussed in that article, Manicheanism
actually a separate religion which blends Christianity with Gnosticism,
neo-Platonism, and even Buddhism. Again, it was considered a very
serious heresy. It survived well into the Middle Ages, where it
strongly influenced the Bogomils in the Balkans and the Cathars in
The Bulgarian Heresy:
This heresy is worth a few extra paragraphs!
In the 10th century, there arose in Bulgaria a gnostic heresy credited
to a priest by the name of Bogomil. The beliefs of the Bogomils, as they were called, were
adoptionist, meaning that they considered Jesus to have been "adopted"
by God at the time of his baptism, but did not consider him to be a
part of a trinity. Neither did they consider Mary in any way the
mother of God.
Simplicity and strict adherence characterized their practices, with
priests elected from their own groups and congregations meeting at
homes rather than churches. Infant baptism was not practiced,
marriage was not considered a sacrament, and saints were considered
The heresy had a strong Manichean flavor to it. They believed
that God had two sons, Michael and Satan. Satan created the
material world and attempted to create Adam, but was unable to create a
soul. God added the soul to Adam, but mankind was bound in
service to Satan. Michael came to earth in the form of the holy
spirit, which entered into Jesus. As Christ, he broke the
original agreement which bound mankind to Satan. But it was Satan
who orchestrated the crucifixion, and he is still working to recapture
mankind by means of the mainstream churches.
The basic ideas of this Bulgarian heresy spread rapidly west, through
northern Italy to Southern France. There, the believers called
themselves Cathars, from the
Greek word meaning pure. Others called them Albigensians, after
the town of Albi, or Bougres, for Bulgarians. This last name is
the source of the word bugger, due to (false) accusations of sodomy.
Even stricter than the Bogomils, the Cathars attempted to live simple,
exemplary lives, with the most serious believers refraining from sex
and other physical pleasures. Many adopted strict veganism.
They had only one sacrament, the consolamentum,
which was something of a last rites in which sin was removed.
The Cathars believed that the God of the old testament was actually
Satan, and that he was responsible for the creation of the material
world. Jesus was therefore purely spirit (Docetism), since he
would have been tainted if he had had a real body. By purity of
living, anyone could cast off the physical body and awaken in
heaven. The impure were doomed to rebirth into this physical
world. One interesting side effect of this belief was that women
were treated as equal to men, since we have all been men or women at
some time in our past lives.
The Bogomils and the Cathars were harshly persecuted by the Orthodox
church in the east and the Catholic church in the west. By the
14th century, the Bulgarians were absorbed by the Islamic Ottoman
Empire, and the Cathars were virtually eliminated by Crusades and the
Inquisition. They had laid the foundations, however, for the
For considerably more detail on these and other heresies (from an
Catholic perspective) see the online Catholic
Encyclopedia at http://www.newadvent.org.
© Copyright 2004 C. George Boeree