Early Church Heresies


Some early Jewish Christians believed that, in addition to the teachings of Jesus Christ, circumcision and the observance of the Mosaic Law were necessary for salvation and for Gentile converts. In Acts 15:1: “But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” It was in opposition to this heresy and it’s insistence on “works of the law” that Paul wrote his epistles to the Romans and the Galatians (Galatians 2:12 & 5:2, Romans 2:28-29, Colossians 2:11-12).


Various groups that emphasized spiritual knowledge (gnosis) over orthodox teachings, traditions, and authority of the church. Viewing matter as evil, many Gnostic groups denied the Incarnation, claiming Christ only appeared human and that Yahweh was an evil deity distinct from the New Testament God. Gnosticism was declared heretical by the early Church Fathers.


Montanus emphasized continued prophetic revelation and spontaneity of spiritual gifts. Montanus identified himself as the Paraclete (the Holy Spirit). Parallels have been drawn between Montanism and modern-day Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement.


Marcionists believed that the wrathful Hebrew God was a separate and lower entity than the all-forgiving God of the New Testament. Marcion was the first to propose a New Testament canon, but only included eleven books: an edited version of the Gospel of Luke, called the Gospel of Marcion, and ten Pauline epistles.  He rejected the entire Old Testament.


Δοκηταί Dokētaí (“Illusionists”) refers to early groups who denied Jesus’s humanity and claimed the historical and bodily existence, and above all the human form, of Jesus was mere semblance without any true reality.


Sabellius taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three different modes or aspects of God and not three distinct persons.


Novatian (c. 200–258) refused readmission to communion of Lapsi (baptized Christians who denied their faith under persecution). Condemned by Cyprian of Carthage and Pope Cornelius.


Arius taught that Christ was the Son of God but not co-eternal with the Father and distinct (therefore subordinate) to the Father. Condemned in 325 at the First Council of Nicaea, which defined the divinity of Christ, and in 381 at the First Council of Constantinople, which defined the divinity of the Holy Spirit.


Pelagius taught that original sin did not taint human nature and that humans can achieve human perfection without divine grace, which merely made it easier. Pelagius taught that all Christians should live completely sinless lives. Condemned at the Council of Carthage in 418


Nestorius denied Mary the title of Theotokos (Greek: “God-bearer” or “Mother of God”) and claimed that she only bore Christ’s human nature in her womb, proposing the title Christotokos (“Christ-bearer” or “Mother of Christ”), which fractured Christ into two separate persons (one human and one divine). Condemned in 431 at the Council of Ephesus, defining Mary as the Mother of God in the sense that the person she carried in her womb was, in fact, God incarnate.


Donatus argued that Christian clergy must be faultless for their ministry to be effective and their sacraments to be valid, believing the church must be a church of “saints” (not “sinners”). Condemned by Pope Miltiades.


Monophysitism (Greek: mono = one; physis = nature) originated as a reaction to Nestorianism, claiming that Christ was one person with only one divine nature, His human nature being absorbed. Condemned in 451, at the Council of Chalcedon, defining Christ had two natures united in one person.


Monothelitism was an attempt to reconcile Monophysitism with orthodox beliefs by stating that, while Christ had two natures, He only had one divine will. Maximus the Confessor argued against Monothelitism, which was condemned at the Third Council of Constantinople.


Iconoclasts (literally, “icon smashers”) claimed it was sinful to make pictures and statues of Christ and the saints, despite the fact that in the Bible, God had commanded the making of religious statues (Exod. 25:18–20; 1 Chron. 28:18–19). Condemned at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787.


Catharism was pseudo-Gnostic. The Albigensians believed the spirit was created by God, while the body was created by an evil god, and that the spirit must be freed from the body. Having children was one of the greatest evils, since it imprisoned another “spirit” in flesh. Marriage was forbidden, though fornication was permitted. Practiced extreme fasts and severe mortifications.

Early Church Heresies