Stonnington Baptist Website 
 Recent Forum Posts 

View All Forums ...


Different sorts of Heresy

In this fourth post about 'Heresy, a history of defending the truth' by Alister McGrath we continue to explore heresy. 
  • In the first post we saw that heresy is a form of belief that is ultimately found to be inadequate. 
  • In the second post we looked heresy's relationship to faith and belief. 
  • In the third post we saw that the term 'heresy' developed from the idea of a school of thought to later include the idea of a negative judgement about that thought.  We also saw that these schools of thought arose from within the church in response to their cultural settings and that it was often only over time that the weaknesses to those positions became evident.

From Chapter Six onwards, McGrath begins to look at some of the heresies of Christian History.

He divides them into two broad categories: 

The 'Classic' Heresies of the Christian faith which emerged during the first five centuries of the faith, often called the patristic period.

McGrath also makes a further distinction between early and late classic heresies. 

Early heresies emerged in the first three centuries when Christian churches existed on the margins of Roman society/imperial culture and before trans-local leadership structures and mechanisms developed.

  • The heresies considered are Ebionitism, Docetism, Valentinism

Later Heresies developed in the fourth and fifth centuries when Christianity moved from the fringes to become the official faith of the empire.  'Orthodoxy and heresy were now more than matters of theological debate; they had significant consequences for social cohesion and unity.' (page 135)

  • The heresies considered are Arianism, Donatism, Pelagianism


Medieval Heresies which arose in the medieval period.  At this time the term 'heresy' was applied to many movements in a legal sense to stigmatize them.  In these cases, the movements 'were seen as threats to the church not so much on account of their ideas as on account of their popular appeal.  They had the potential to become alternative centers of power and influence, bypassing or challenging the centralized structures of the church ..... challenging papal power rather than .. deviating from Christian orthodoxy. (page 103)

A common idea is that heresy is the orthodoxy of history's losers.  For some .. 'heresy is just an orthodoxy that had the bad luck to get mixed up with the wrong people.  The other side won and enforced their ideas as regnant orthodoxy.  Theological victory rested with those who had the power to enforce their viewpoints' (page 197).  This sociological view then leads to the ideas that heresies from the past should be rehabilitated. 

However that argument can't be easily sustained on an examination of Christian history.  For example at different times, either side of the Arianism debate had the support of the emperor, yet it was Arianism that was decided against not by imperial power but by an assessment of the intellectual merits of each theological position.

David Wanstall, 04/10/2011