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What is Heresy? Is Arminianism Heresy, Part I

News Division

  1. Random Internet Denizen: John MacArthur is a heretic!
    Us: Why?
    Random Internet Denizen: Because he said you could accept the Mark of the Beast and still be saved!
    Us: What heresy is that?
    Random Internet Denizen: What do you mean?
    Us: Heresies have names. What is the name of that heresy?
    Random Internet Denizen: I don’t know.
    Us: So John MacArthur is a heretic, but you don’t know what kind of heretic?
    Random Internet Denizen: [silence]

That’s pretty much how the majority of heresy discussions go. The term is often – but not always – misapplied in various ways. Unfortunately, the term has been misapplied so frequently that some have thrown out the term altogether, and choose not to use it at all. But, heresy is a fine word. There’s no reason to throw it out. Heretic is a fine title to give someone, and there’s no reason we should stop. We just need to make sure that we’re using it correctly.


Firstly, how should we not use the term heresy or heretic?  A heretic is not defined as “someone with whom you disagree.” Sure, a heretic may – in fact – be someone with whom you disagree. But that’s not what makes the person a heretic. That’s not the distinctive characteristic of heresy.

Secondly, a heretic is not someone who behaves poorly, merely because they behave poorly. Although heretics often do behave poorly, and their behavior may be due to a heresy they hold, the poor behavior in and of itself isn’t heresy. Heresy relates to beliefs or doctrines, and not behavior. There is an exception to this rule, and it is found in Titus 3:10, in which the schismatic man (αἱρετικὸν or “heretic”) is to be warned once and then avoided. This is a behavioral heresy that causes schism in a local church, and the heresy could be called schismaticism, the intentional disruption and warrantless division in a local church body.

Thirdly, a heretic is not someone who is merely wrong about a point of doctrine. Yes, a heretic is wrong about a point of doctrine, but heresy pertains to particular points of doctrine of which they are wrong which rise to the level of “heresy.” For example, holding an eschatological view (like how the Mark of the Beast works) that maintains essential doctrines like the return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and coming judgment, it’s not heresy.


Heresy – properly understood – is a false teaching with eternal consequences for those who hold to it, and typically deal with either the ontology (nature) of God or soteriology (salvation). Chiefly explained, heresy is a false doctrinal teaching that so changes the nature of God that the object of one’s worship is no longer the God of Scripture or changes the understanding of salvation to the extent that it cannot save.

Historically, heresy has been understood as dealing with these two primary issues. Arianism, Modalism, and Marcionism all change the ontology of God so severely, that it cannot be said that those holding to these doctrines are worshiping the God of Scripture. Denying the deity of Christ, the Holy Trinity, or the sameness of the God of the Old and New Testament (respectively) all make that god not the God of Holy Writ. Therefore, those holding to it are practicing idolatry and are damned in their doctrine. Likewise, those holding to Pelagianism, the Galatian Heresy, or Antinomianism all change the doctrine of salvation (respectively) that they are damning for those who hold to them.


Damnable heresy is a redundant term. All heresy is damnable – by its very definition. The term is used (unwisely, often times) by those trying to distinguish heresy from heterodoxy.


Heterodoxy is a teaching that is not orthodox. It can be any teaching that is wrong, and doesn’t accord to standard or historic Christian teaching. There are many, many heterodox teachings that – although wrong – do not rise to the level of heresy. These are what we might call “secondary issues” or “tertiary issues.” Depending upon your theological outlook, one might view mode of baptism, eschatological views, worship convictions, or evangelism methodologies as issues of heterodoxy rather than heresy because misunderstanding some of these doctrines are tragic, yet do not damn the soul (it is granted that more extreme viewpoints on anything could be heretical, but I am writing in the most general way possible while recognizing the infinite number of ways people have thought up to be stupid, doctrinally).

So then, if Doctrine A is wrong Biblically, but it does not affect one’s worship of the True God and it does not affect the true understanding of salvation, it is not yet heretical but is heterodoxical. If Doctrine B is wrong Biblically, and it so mangles their understanding of God that it makes him into a false god, or if it botches salvation entirely, it’s not merely heterodox, it is heretical.


Orthodoxy has a two-fold definition. In its plainest of terms, to be orthodox means to simply be “right thinking.” All correct doctrine is, by definition, orthodox. However, academically, orthodoxy also has a historic component to it. As Protestants (myself holding to the Second London Baptist Confession), we recognize that the only infallible rule of faith or practice is the Holy Scripture, and not church history. However, there is such a thing as “historic theology,” and it is a helpful tool to use in determining how far something has strayed from orthodoxy. The second component of orthodoxy is historicity. The question should be, “Has the historic church condemned this [aberrant teaching] as heresy?” In certain (but extremely rare) cases, heresies are new, and there is no historic record of its denunciation by the church. However, most heresies – or variant strains of them – go back millennia, and if the “Church Historic” has widely (that’s an important adjective) denounced those things as heresy, then they do not qualify as orthodoxy. Other practices or doctrines, which we find objectionable but which the church has historically found great peace with in certain centuries or regions and which do not affect God’s ontology or soteriology, we should be slow to say aren’t orthodox.

Understanding both the Biblical and historical caveats of orthodoxy should make us understand that saying something is or isn’t orthodox doesn’t mean that we are saying it is necessarily right or necessarily wrong, but speaks to how far outside the spectrum of acceptable historic Christian thought that practice or doctrine may be.


As stated above, there are occasionally (yet rarely) new heresies that develop over time, but the vast majority of heresies developed in the first three or so centuries of the church. Thankfully, this provides a historical example of the church’s anathematizing these doctrines as heretical, to leave us little doubt that our interpretation of the Sacred Writ is on par with that of the early church fathers.

Historic heresies that the church named, marked, and rejected include, but are not limited to Antinomianism, Arianism, Modalism, Montanism, Pelagianism, Sabellianism, and the Galatian Heresy (works righteousness). Of these more prominent heresies, early church councils explicitly rejected them and called them such.

For a fuller list of specified, defined heresies, here you go (note, some are newer, but are typically spawns of older, historic heresies):

  • Abortionism The belief that Abortion is not a sin
  • Adoptionism The belief Jesus is not eternally God but became God sometime after His birth
  • Antinomianism The belief that Christians are not bound by God’s law and are free to sin as they please
  • Anti-Paulism The belief that the Apostle Paul was a heretic and that the books he wrote are not a part of Biblical Canon
  • Arianism The belief that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are not persons of the Godhead but instead later creations of God the Father
  • Behavioral Heresy Unrepentant sin that proves one is not a member of the Body of Christ
  • Christian Deism The belief that God does not intervene in or interact with the world
  • Dual Covenant Theology The belief that Jews can still be saved without believing in Jesus
  • Inclusivism The belief that faith is not necessary for salvation
  • Kenosis The belief that Jesus ceased to be divine while on Earth
  • Liberalism The belief that Scripture is not inerrant or infallible (Not to be confused with the political system of the same name)
  • Limited Theism The belief that God’s powers are or can be limited and He is not All-Powerful
  • Macedonianism The belief that God the Holy Spirit is not a member of the Godhead but merely a creation of God
  • Manichaeism The belief that good and evil are both equally powerful in ability and/or authority
  • Matriatheism* The belief that there is a member of the Godhead who is a mother goddess
  • Modalism The belief that the members of the Trinity are not three distinct persons but three different aspects of the same person
  • Montanism The belief that the Bible is either insufficient or incomplete, and that new revelation from God is being regularly given
  • Neinauferstehungism The denial of the resurrection
  • Neo-Orthodoxy The belief that the Bible is not the Inspired Word of God unless it is being read by a believer
  • Nonnatarianism* The belief that there are 9 members of the Godhead
  • Open Theism The belief that God is not omniscient and doesn’t know the future
  • Papal Primacy The belief that the Pope is the head of the Church while it is on Earth as well as the vicar of Christ
  • Partialism The belief that each member of the Trinity is 1/3 of God rather than being fully God
  • Pelagianism The belief that human nature is untainted by the Fall of Man and is not corrupted with Original Sin
  • Pluralism The belief that two or more religions can be true at one time
  • Positive Thinking The belief that your thoughts have the God-like ability to create your reality
  • Prosperity Gospel The belief that the promises of the Gospel include good physical health and Earthly wealth
  • Pullumism* The belief that God is a literal chicken
  • Rauschenbuschism* The belief that the point of the Gospel is to be the cure for social issues rather than the forgiveness of sins
  • Renatism* The belief that Jesus was born again
  • Second Chance Theology The belief that the unsaved will be permitted to repent and trust in Christ after they die
  • Tritheism The belief that the Godhead is actually three separate gods
  • Universalism The belief that everyone will go to Heaven
  • Vinism The belief that homosexuality is not a sin
  • Word of Faith The belief that human words have the God-like power to create or destroy
  • Works Righteousness The belief that we are saved by works or a combination of faith and works rather than by faith alone

Heresies We’ve Yet to Write About

  • Alogi (The belief that the Johannine books, or books written by the Apostle John, are not a part of the canon of Scripture)
  • Apollinarianism (The belief that Jesus never assumed a human nature)
  • Audianism (The belief that God the Father has a human body)
  • Calcagnoism (The belief that Jesus was in a homosexual and pedophilic relationship with the Apostle John)*
  • Campbellism (The belief that water baptism justifies those who are baptized)
  • Chrislam (A blending of Christianity and Islam that claims both are compatible and both worship the same god)
  • Christ Claiming (To claim to be the Messiah or a reincarnation of Jesus)
  • Christo-Claytonism (The belief that Jesus was Michael the Archangel )*
  • Christoneuterism (Belief that Jesus lacks gender)*
  • Christosodomism (Belief that Jesus was Homosexual)*
  • Christus Exemplar (The belief that Jesus lived and died to be an example rather than for the forgiveness of sins)
  • Collyridianism (The worship of Mary, the mother of Jesus)
  • Deuterocanonism (The acceptance of extra-biblical books as canonical)
  • Docetism (The belief that Jesus did not have a human body but instead was fully spirit)
  • Dualism (The Belief that all Spiritual things are good and all physical things are evil)
  • Eternal Progression (The Mormon belief that God was once a human being on another planet under a different god, and that we can possibly become gods ruling our own planets after we die)
  • Ethnodominism (Belief that one Ethnic group will enslave every other ethnic group after Jesus retur)*
  • Eutychianism (The belief that Jesus’s human nature and Jesus’s divine nature mixed together to create a mostly divine nature)
  • Expiogensism (Belief that Jesus only died to save a specific ethnic group)*
  • Feeneyism (The belief that one must be a member of the Catholic Church in order to be saved)
  • Full Preterism (The belief that all of the End Times prophecies made in the Bible have already happened)
  • Herodianism (The acceptance of a false Christ’s claim to be Jesus/the Messiah)
  • Hesychasm (The mystic practice of the Eastern Orthodox Church which seeks to shut off the senses in order to obtain experiential knowledge of God)
  • Hyper-Nestorianism (The belief that Jesus consisted of two different persons, a human person and a divine person)
  • Immaculate Conception (The belief that the Virgin Mary was born sinless and lived a sinless life)
  • Infused Righteousness (The belief that believers only receive a small bit of righteousness through Jesus’s death and that believers need to do works with that righteousness in order to obtain full salvation)
  • Investigative Judgement (The belief that Jesus will judge someone based on the law to see if they measure up to the standard of perfection)
  • Johannitism (The belief that John the Baptist was the Messiah rather than Jesus)
  • Lewisism (The denial of Substitutionary Atonement)**
  • Little Gods Heresy (The belief that humans or believers are little gods)
  • Marcionism (The belief that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are separate gods and that the Old Testament God is evil)
  • Monophysitism (The belief that Jesus only has one nature)
  • Monothelitism (The belief that Jesus has two natures but only has one will)
  • Moral Relativism (The belief that morality is subjective)
  • Mysticism (The practice of trying to become one with God through mystic practices such as meditation or altered consciousness)
  • Nestorianism (The belief that Jesus did have two wills and natures but that they did not unite into one Hypostasis)
  • Nonadorantism (A denial or rejection of the worship of Jesus)
  • Ophitism (The belief that Satan and the Edenic Serpent were the heroes and God is the villain)
  • Pantheism (The belief that God is everything and everything is God)
  • Patripassionism (The belief that God the Father suffered and died on the cross)
  • Peccatheism (The belief that God sinned)*
  • Pneumo-Claytonism (The belief that the Holy Spirit is the Angel Gabriel)*
  • Psilanthropism (The denial of the Virgin Birth)
  • Positive Christianity (A mixing between Christianity and Nazi Dogma)
  • Post-Modernism (The belief that all truth is subjective)
  • Polytheism (The belief that there are many gods)
  • Purgatory (A Roman Catholic heresy that states that Christians that have not done enough good in this life will be permitted to work off the rest of their sins after they die in a place called Purgatory)
  • Rape Doctrine (A heresy unique to the GMS sub-sect of Black Hebrew Israelites that teaches that “Israelites” either are or will be permitted to rape “non-Israelite” women either in this life or the one to come)
  • Red Letter Christianity (The belief that the words Jesus said within Scripture are more inspired than other parts of Scripture)
  • Sadotheism (The belief that God is evil)
  • Sethianism (The belief that Satan and the Edenic Serpent were agents of God who brought about the Fall of Man by God’s command)
  • Sinless Perfectionism (The belief that one can stop sinning or being a sinner)
  • Spanish Adoptionism (The belief that Jesus was the adoptive son of God rather than the begotten son of God)
  • Subordinationism (The belief that the Son and the Holy Spirit are lesser in being and nature than the Father)
  • Theoerosism (Ascribing eros/sexual love to the relationship between one person and God)*


That seems to be the question of the hour. Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof. We will cover that in Part II.


[Contributed by JD Hall]