heresy, in religion, especially in Christianity, beliefs or views held by a member of a church that contradict its orthodoxy, or core doctrines. It is distinguished from apostasy, which is a complete abandonment of faith that makes the apostate a deserter, or former member. Heresy is also distinguished from schism, which is a splitting of or from the church brought about by disputes over hierarchy or discipline, rather than over matters of doctrine. The heretic considers himself or herself not only a church member but, in a doctrinal controversy, the true believer; indeed, some persons originally labeled heretical were rehabilitated after once abhorred views become accepted.

The battle for doctrinal control of Christianity began with the declarations of St. Paul in the New Testament. In the religion's first three centuries, numerous sects, many arising from Gnosticism, were in conflict. The first Council of Nicaea (AD 325), which addressed the challenge of Arianism, was among convocations at which a Christian orthodoxy was established.

Excommunication was the usual method of dealing with heretical individuals or small groups. The medieval church undertook military action (as against the Albigenses, in 1208) and extensive legal and punitive campaigns (such as the Inquisition) in striving to suppress large-scale heresy. The Protestant Reformation created new churches that at first campaigned against heresy from their own doctrinal bases; over time, however, the Roman Catholic church has remained the only Christian body that has continued with any frequency, on the basis of canon law, to prosecute heretics.

See also blasphemy.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Heresy: Selected full-text books and articles

Heresies of the High Middle Ages By Walter L. Wakefield; Austin P. Evans Columbia University Press, 1991
Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe: Documents in Translation By Edward Peters University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980
Gender and Heresy: Women and Men in Lollard Communities, 1420-1530 By Shannon McSheffrey University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995
Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew By Bart D. Ehrman Oxford University Press, 2003
Librarian's tip: Part II "Heresies and Orthodoniex"
The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy By Terryl L. Givens Oxford University Press, 1997
Librarian's tip: Chap. 5 "'This Great Modern Abomination': Orthodoxy and Heresy in American Religion"
The Magician, the Witch, and the Law By Edward Peters University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978
Power & Purity: Cathar Heresy in Medieval Italy By Carol Lansing Oxford University Press, 1998
An Understanding of Orthodoxy and Heresy in Korean Church History By Suh, Jeong-Min The Ecumenical Review, Vol. 57, No. 4, October 2005
Heretical Sects in Pre-Reformation England By Walker, Greg History Today, Vol. 43, May 1993
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