Heresy, what does the Bible say? By Jack Kettler
“Shew me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths.” (Psalm 25:4)
In this study, we will look at the biblical teaching about heresy. What is it? How to avoid it?
As in previous studies, we will look at definitions, scriptures, lexical evidence, commentary evidence and confessional support for the purpose to glorify God in how we live. May God be glorified always!
Definitions from two sources:
Heresy: An erroneous teaching, especially on issues of significance to salvation, requiring true Christians to divide from those who hold or teach it. *
Heresy: A doctrinal view that deviates from the truth, a false teaching. We are warned against it in Acts 20:29-32 and Philippians 3:2. Heresies include teachings that Jesus is not God and that the Holy Spirit is not a person (Jehovah's Witnesses, Christadelphians, The Way International), that men may become gods (Mormonism), that there is more than one God (Mormonism), that Jesus lost His divinity in hell and finished the atonement there, and that good works are necessary for salvation (all cults say this), to name a few. **
“But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.” (2 Peter 2:1)
“I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:6-9)
“For there must be also heresies among you that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.” (1 Corinthians 11:19)
“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world. Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world. They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them. We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.” (1 John 4:1–6)
“As I besought thee to abide still at Ephesus, when I went into Macedonia, that thou mightest charge some that they teach no other doctrine, Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith: so do. Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned: From which some having swerved have turned aside unto vain jangling.” (1 Timothy 1:3–6)
What to do about heresy?
“A man that is a heretick after the first and second admonition reject.” (Titus 3:10)
From the Pulpit Commentary on Titus 3:10:
Verse 10. - Heretical for an heretick, A.V.; a for the, A.V.; refuse for reject, A.V. Heretical (αἱρετικόν); only here in the New Testament, not found in the LXX., but used in classical Greek for “intelligent,” i.e. able to choose. The use of it here by St. Paul is drawn from the use of αἵρεσις for “a sect” (Acts 5:17; Acts 15:5; Acts 24:5, 14; Acts 26:5; Acts 28:22; 1 Corinthians 11:19; Galatians 5:20; 2 Peter 2:1), or the doctrines taught by a sect. The heretic is one who forsakes the truth held by the Church, and chooses some doctrine of his own devising (αἵρεσις). The tendency of such departures from the doctrine of the Church to assume more and more of a deadly character, and to depart wider and wider from the truth, gave to the name of heretic a darker shade of condemnation in the mouth of Church writers as time advanced. But even in apostolic times some denied the resurrection (2 Timothy 2:11, 12); others denied the Lord that bought them (2 Peter 2:1); and there were some who were of the synagogue of Satan (Revelation 2:9); so that already an heretical man, drawing away disciples after him, was a great blot in the Church. Admonition (νουθεσία); as 1 Corinthians 10:11; Ephesians 6:4. After a first and second admonition refuse (παραιτοῦ); see 1 Timothy 4:7; 1 Timothy 5:11. It does not clearly appear what is intended by this term In 1 Timothy 5:11 it meant refusing admission into the college of Church widows. If these had been persons seeking admission into the Church, or ordination, it would mean “refuse them.” Vitringa (Huther) thinks it means “excommunication.” Beza, Ellicott, Huther, Alford, etc., render it “shun,” “let alone,” “cease to admonish,” and the like. (1)
From the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia:
her'-e-si, her'-e-si (hairesis, from verb haireo, “to choose”): The word has acquired an ecclesiastical meaning that has passed into common usage, containing elements not found in the term in the New Testament, except as implied in one passage. In classical Greek, it may be used either in a good or a bad sense, first, simply for “choice,” then, “a chosen course of procedure,” and afterward of various schools and tendencies. Polybius refers to those devoting themselves to the study of Greek literature as given to the Hellenike hairesis. It was used not simply for a teaching or a course followed, but also for those devoting themselves to such pursuit, namely, a sect, or assembly of those advocating a particular doctrine or mode of life. Thus, in Acts, the word is used in the Greek, where the King James Version and the Revised Version (British and American) have “sect,” “sect of the Sadducees” (Acts 5:17), “sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). In Acts 26:5 the Pharisees are called “the straitest hairesis (sect).” The name was applied contemptuously to Christianity (Acts 24:14; 28:22). Its application, with censure, is found in 1 Cor. 11:19 m; Gal 5:20 margin, where it is shown to interfere with that unity of faith and community of interests that belong to Christians. There being but one standard of truth, and one goal for all Christian life, any arbitrary choice varying from what was common to all believers, becomes an inconsistency and a sin to be warned against. Ellicott, on Gal 5:20, correctly defines “heresies” (King James Version, the English Revised Version) as “a more aggravated form of dichostasia” (the American Standard Revised Version “parties”) “when the divisions have developed into distinct and organized parties”; so also 1 Cor. 11:19, translated by the Revised Version (British and American) “factions.” In 2 Pet 2:1, the transition toward the subsequent ecclesiastical sense can be traced. The “destructive heresies” (Revised Version margin, the English Revised Version margin “sects of perdition”) are those guilty of errors both of doctrine and of life very fully described throughout the entire chapter, and who, in such course, separated themselves from the fellowship of the church.
In the fixed ecclesiastical sense that it ultimately attained, it indicated not merely any doctrinal error, but “the open espousal of fundamental error” (Ellicott on Tit 3:10), or, more fully, the persistent, obstinate maintenance of an error with respect to the central doctrines of Christianity in the face of all better instruction, combined with aggressive attack upon the common faith of the church, and its defenders. Roman Catholics, regarding all professed Christians who are not in their communion as heretics, modify their doctrine on this point by distinguishing between Formal and terial Heresy, the former being unconscious and unintentional, and between different degrees of each of these classes (Cath. Encyclopedia, VII, 256 ff). For the development of the ecclesiastical meaning, see Suicer's Thesaurus Ecclesiasticus, I, 119-23. H. E. Jacobs Bibliography Information (2)
From the book Heresies: The Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy from the Apostles to the Present:
The word “heresy” . . . is the English version of the Greek noun hairesis, originally meaning nothing more insidious than “party.” It is used in this neutral sense in Acts 5:17, 15:5, and 26:5. Early in the history of the first Christians, however, “heresy” came to be used to mean a separation or split resulting from a false faith (1 Cor. 11:19; Gal. 5:20). It designated either a doctrine or the party holding the doctrine, a doctrine that was sufficiently intolerable to destroy the unity of the Christian church. In the early church, heresy did not refer to simply any doctrinal disagreement, but to something that seemed to undercut the very basis for Christian existence. Practically speaking, heresy involved the doctrine of God and the doctrine of Christ—later called “special theology” and “Christology.” Harold O. J. Brown (3)
From the modern work, A Biblical Guide to Orthodoxy and Heresy by Robert Bowman:
Looking over these warnings from Scripture, we may classify heresies into six major categories:
1. Heresies about revelation - teachings that distort, deny, or add to Scripture in a way that leads people to destruction; false claims to apostolic or prophetic authority.
2. Heresies about God - teachings that promote false gods or idolatrous distortions of the true God.
3. Heresies about Christ - denials of His unique Lordship, His genuine humanity, His true identity.
4. Heresies about salvation - teaching legalism or licentiousness; denying the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection; and so forth.
5. Heresies about the church - deliberate attempts to lead people away from the fellowship of true Christians; utter rejection of the church.
6. Heresies about the future - false predictions for which divine authority is claimed; claims that Christ’s return has taken place; and the like.
Note that errors in any one of these six categories tend to introduce errors into the other five. Take, for instance, the heretical view held by many groups that the church became totally apostate in the early centuries and thus had to be “restored” in the last days. This doctrine implies (1) that Scripture is not a sufficient revelation, but needs supplementing or "explaining" by some authoritative teacher or publication. It also almost always serves as a basis for rejecting the early church's views of (2) God and (3) Christ. Since the Reformation is rejected as falling short of the needed restoration, (4) the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith is likewise rejected. And the doctrine of a restoration comes to dominate the group's views of (5) the future, as it requires them to view many or most biblical prophecies about the future as finding fulfillment in their own group.
We find then that an error in any area of doctrine can affect every other area. Therefore, although heresies tend to fall directly into one or more of these six major categories, heresies can in fact occur on virtually any doctrinal subject. For example, someone who teaches that angels should be worshipped is teaching a heretical view (Col. 2:18), even though the subject matter is angels. This is because worship of any creature completely cuts the heart out of any confession of God as the one God.
Nor should it be thought that the New Testament gives us a complete catalogue of all possible heresies. In our day there are literally thousands of clever distortions of Christian theology that deserve the label heresy, and they can be seen as such apart from being explicitly anticipated and identified as heretical in the Bible. The Bible teaches us what is absolutely essential, enunciates principles as to what is basic to sound Christian faith and what is nonessential, gives us a wide variety of examples of heresies, and expects us to exercise discernment in evaluating new and controversial teachings when they surface.
Furthermore, it must be realized that as the church progresses through history and deepens its understanding of Scripture, heresies in general are becoming more subtle, more deceiving, more easily mistaken for authentic Christianity. (4)
Names of ancient heresies, most of which are in existence today sometimes known under different names:
Sabellianism; Docetism; Monophysitism; Adoptionism; Nestorianism; Arianism; Socianism; Donatism; Pelagianism; Gnosticism and Manicheanism.
For example, Arianism is promoted today by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some elements of Gnosticism is seen in Mormon theology.
Modalism (i.e. Sabellianism, Noetianism and Patripassianism)
Taught that the three persons of the Trinity as different “modes” of the Godhead. Adherants believed that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not distinct personalities, but different modes of God's self-revelation. A typical modalist approach is to regard God as the Father in creation, the Son in redemption, and the Spirit in sanctification. In other words, God exists as Father, Son and Spirit in different eras, but never as triune. Stemming from Modalism, Patripassianism believed that the Father suffered as the Son.
Tritheism confessses the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three independent divine beings; three separate gods who share the 'same substance'. This is a common mistake because of misunderstanding of the use of the term 'persons' in defining the Trinity.
Taught that the preexistent Christ was the first and greatest of God’s creatures but denied his fully divine status. The Arian controversy was of major importance in the development of Christology during the fourth century and was addressed definitely in the Nicene Creed.
Taught that Jesus Christ as a purely divine being who only had the “appearance” of being human. Regarding his suffering, some versions taught that Jesus’ divinity abandoned or left him upon the cross while other claimed that he only appeared to suffer (much like he only appeared to be human).
Taught that while Jesus was endowed with particular charismatic gifts which distinguished him from other humans but nonetheless regarded Him as a purely human figure.
Taught that that the Holy Spirit is a created being.
Taught that Jesus was born totally human and only later was “adopted” – either at his baptism or at his resurrection – by God in a special (i.e. divine) way.
Taught that Father, Son and Holy Spirit together are components of the one God. This led them to believe that each of the persons of the Trinity is only part God, only becoming fully God when they come together.
George Gillespie, a Scottish commissioner to the Westminster Assembly explains what heresy is:
“I conceive that these six things do concur to make a heresy:
1. It is an error held by some minister or member of a church; I mean either a true church, or an assembly pretending and professing to be a true church; for both Peter and Paul, where they foretell that heresies were to come, 2 Pet. 2.1; 1 Cor. 11.19, they add ἐν ὑμῖν, among you, i.e., among you Christians; so, Acts 20.30, Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things. Therefore, the Scriptures gives not the name of heretics to those who are altogether without the visible church, but it calleth such by the names of heathens or unbelievers, or they that are without, or the like.
2. It is an error voluntarily and freely chosen, both in the first invention or broaching of it (which is proper to the heresiarchs), and in the maintaining of it or adhering to it (which is common to all heretics). This I collect from the very name which the Scripture gives to it; for αἵρεσις comes from αἱρέομαι, I choose. Therefore, we give not the name of heretics to such Christians as are compelled, in time of persecution, to profess such or such an error, which, peradventure, were a formal heresy, if voluntarily and without compulsion professed. They ought, indeed, to die, and to endure the greatest torments, before they profess what they know to be an error; but this their sin is not properly called heresy, for an heretic doth freely and voluntarily hold that which is his error. And, in this respect and consideration, Tertullian thinks that an heretic is said to be αὐτοκατάκριτος, condemned of himself, Tit. 3.11, because he hath of himself chosen that which doth condemn him. The Apostle there hath commanded to reject an heretic. If I reject him (might one say) then I lose him, I destroy his soul. Nay (saith the Apostle), his perdition is of himself, for he hath chosen his own ways, and his soul delighteth in his abominations. This interpretation is much surer and safer than to say that a heretic is called αὐτοκατάκριτος, or self-condemned, because he goes against his own light, and against the principles received and acknowledged by himself; which sense is accompanied with many dangerous consequences.
3. It is such a choosing of error as is accompanied with a rejecting of truth. A heretic puts light for darkness, and darkness for light; good for evil, and evil for good; he chooseth error as truth, and refuseth truth as error. They that give heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils, do also depart from the faith, 1 Tim. 4.1; resist the truth, 2 Tim. 3.8; and turn away their ears from the truth, 2 Tim. 4.4; their course hath a terminus a quo as well as ad quem.
4. It is an error professed and maintained, and which, by that means, becomes a scandal and snare to others. For although there may be heresy (as well as other kinds of sin) lurking and hid in the thoughts, yet that belongs to God’s judgment only, not to man’s. The heresies which are spoken of, 1 Cor. 11.9, are certainly known, and apparently discriminative, even among men. And heretics are scandalous persons, to be avoided and rejected, Rom. 16.17; Tit. 3.10; which could not be except their errors were known.
5. It is an error contradictory of some chief and substantial truth, grounded upon, or, by necessary consequence, drawn from, the Holy Scripture. There was never yet any heretic in the Christian world who contradicted that which is literally and syllabically in Scripture. The most damnable heretic will offer to subscribe to the Scripture instead of a confession of faith, who yet will not subscribe to all truths which necessarily follow from the words of Scripture. But I call not every error heresy, which is contrary to any consequential truth grounded upon Scripture. As the Scripture reckons not all who sin to be workers of iniquity, so it reckons not all who err to be heretics. Although there is not any sin or error in the true nature of it venial, yet every sin is not a gross and heinous sin, and every error is not heresy. Heresies are mentioned as greater evils than schisms, 1 Cor. 11.18, 19, which could not be so if every error were a heresy.
6. It is an error factiously maintained, with a renting of the church, and drawing away of disciples after it, in which respect Augustine said, Errare potero, hæreticus non ero,—I may err, but I shall not be a heretic. Heretics are deceivers and seducers, who endeavour to pervert others and to overthrow their faith, 2 Tim. 3.13; Acts 20.30; 2 Tim. 2.17, 18; Rom. 16.17-19; 2 Pet. 2.2. All known and noted heretics are also schismatics, who make a rupture, and strengthen their own party by drawing after them, or confirming unto them disciples and followers (in so much that αἵρεσις often used for a sect, as Acts 5.17; 15.5; 24.5; 26. 5). For this cause the Donatists were condemned as heretics, without imputation of heresy to Cyprian. And, O strange turning about of things (saith Vincentius Lirinensis, Advers. Hæret. Cap. 11), the authors of the same opinion are judged catholic, but the followers heretics; the masters are absolved, the disciples are condemned; the writers of these books are the children of the kingdom, but hell shall receive the assertors or maintainers. This last ingredient which is found in heresy is hinted by the Arabic interpreter, 1 Cor. 11.19, where he joineth schisms and heresies, as was noted before; and, indeed, in the original, the particle καὶ, and the rising of the speech, sets forth heresy as carrying schism with it in its bosom. I believe, saith the Apostle, in part what I hear of your schisms, for there must be also heresies, i.e., both schisms and somewhat more. Calvin, Institutes. Lib. 4, cap. 2, sect. 5, makes the breaking of church communion, and the making of a rent, a thing common both to heretics and schismatics: for heretics break one band of church communion, which is consent in doctrine; schismatics break another, which is love, though sometimes they agree in the like faith.
From all which scriptural observations, we may make up a description of heresy to this sense: Heresy is a gross and dangerous error, voluntarily held and factiously maintained by some person or persons within the visible church, in opposition to some chief or substantial truth or truths grounded upon and drawn from the holy Scripture by necessary consequence.
Heresy is a gross and dangerous error, voluntarily held and factiously maintained by some person or persons within the visible church, in opposition to some chief or substantial truth or truths grounded upon and drawn from the Holy Scripture by necessary consequence.”
 Tertull. de Præscrip. Advers. Hæret. Hæreses dictæ græca voce ex interpretatione electionis, quia quis sive ad instituendas sive ad suscipiendas eas utitur. Ideo et sibi damnatum dixit hæreticum: quia et in quo damnatur sibi elegit. (5)
In conclusion, we can say, heresy is the departure from the Scriptures on a points of salvific importance. Doctrinal confessions are important helpful constraints for assistance in maintaining an orthodox understanding of Scripture.
One of the best ways to detect theological errors, is to be completely conversant with theological truth. In banking, tellers can detect counterfeit bills by being at home and familiar with the real currency. This is the challenge for believers, if you are knowledgeable in Christian orthodoxy, the error of heresy can be detected without difficulty.
“Blessed art thou, O LORD: teach me thy statutes.” (Psalm 119:12)
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
1. H. D. M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell, The Pulpit Commentary, Titus, Vol. 21, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans Publishing Company reprint 1978), pp. 45-46.
2. Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor, “Entry for 'HERESY'" “International Standard Bible Encyclopedia,” (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, reprinted 1986), p. 1377.
3. Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies: The Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy from the Apostles to the Present, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984), p. 2. Bowman,
4. Robert M., Jr., Orthodoxy & Heresy: A Biblical Guide to Doctrinal Discernment, Part two, (Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Publishing, 1992), p. 3.
5. George Gillespie, A Treatise of Miscellany of Questions, (Published by Mr. PATRIK GILLESPIE, Minister at GLASGOVV.EDINBURGH, Printed by GEDEON LITHGOVV, Printer to the University of EDINBURGH), Chapter IX.-What is meant in Scripture by the word Heresies, and how we are to understand, that there must be Heresies for making manifest the Godly partie, or those that are approved, I Cor. 11.19.
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. He served as an ordained ruling elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He worked in and retired from a fortune five hundred company in corporate America after forty years. He runs two blogs sites and is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com
For more study:
* For a great source of theological definitions go to Rebecca writes at Rebecca Writes: http://www.rebecca-writes.com/theological-terms-in-ao/
** CARM theological dictionary https://carm.org/dictionary-hermeneutics
**** Reformed answers http://reformedanswers.org/
A Biblical Guide To Orthodoxy And Heresy by Robert M. Bowman http://www.apologeticsindex.org/d01.html
A Survey of Heresies https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/heresies.pdf
Survey Finds Most American Christians Are Actually Heretics http://thefederalist.com/2016/10/10/survey-finds-american-christians-actually-heretics/
See Confessional Documents as a Reformed Hermeneutic
Edward A. Dowey Jr., The Journal of Presbyterian History (1997) Vol. 79, No. 1, Presbyterians, Polity, and Confessional Identity (SPRING 2001), pp. 53-58 Published by: Presbyterian Historical Society Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23335387