Photo credit: "Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas Over the Heretics" by Filippino Lippi via Wikimedia Commons (

Who's afraid of a big, bad heretic? An interview with Justin Holcomb

Photo credit: "Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas Over the Heretics" by Filippino Lippi via Wikimedia Commons (

Photo credit: "Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas Over the Heretics" by Filippino Lippi via Wikimedia Commons (

"Beware of writing books. Almost anything can get you called a 'heretic' these days."

I often give aspiring Christian writers this piece of advice. Though its a bit tongue-in-cheek, there is more than a nugget of truth buried inside. Many Christians--disproportionately hailing from certain subsets of the faith--use the label to dismiss, bludgeon, and marginalize those who espouse notions with which they disagree.

But what is a heretic? How do you know if someone deserves the label? And why does it matter either way? I discussed these questions and more with Justin Holcomb, episcopal priest, author of "Know the Heretics" who teaches at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary. He provides interesting food for thought on what he calls "a fighting word."

Book cover courtesy of Zondervan

Book cover courtesy of Zondervan

RNS: Some Christians seem to throw around the word "heretic." How do you define it?

JH: A heretic is someone who has compromised an essential doctrine and lost sight of who God really is, usually by oversimplification. Literally, heresy means “choice”—that is, a choice to deviate from traditional teaching in favor of one’s own insights.

For Christianity, the Nicene Creed is a historic, globally accepted creed that encapsulates the Christian faith in a short and rich summary. [tweetable]If someone holds to the Nicene Creed, we should not call them a heretic.[/tweetable] Not even if we believe they are in error on the details or on other doctrines. I think a good shorthand for heresy, is to ask, “Can they say the Nicene Creed and mean it without their fingers crossed?”

RNS: You argue that "not all theological errors are equally serious." Who gets to decide what is serious enough to be heresy? The majority?

JH: The groups that ended up being considered orthodox were not always those who had the support of the institutional church or the greatest influence. During the Arian controversy, for instance, not only did most of the clergy take the heretical side but the state persecuted the group that we now refer to as orthodox. A similar thing happened during the Monothelite controversy, when the heresy was contained to a small group but happened to include the emperor and the highest church officials. So orthodoxy and heresy can’t be measured by the numbers of those who embraced a given theory.

Sometimes, a leader in the church would counter the heretical teachers through books and pamphlets. Frequently, popes or bishops held a council to discuss controversial teachings. Creeds were developed from these councils to codify orthodoxy into a widely accepted form. With each new heresy, the church was forced to study the Scriptures, wrestle with intellectual problems, and articulate more clearly the “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints."

RNS: Who is a heretic that we may not have heard of but is important to know about?

JH: Faustus Socinus (1539–1604) is probably the least known heretic. My summary of Socinus’ heresy is: “The Trinity is irrelevant and Jesus’ death is only an example.”

Socinus held a unitarian view of God: only God the Father is truly and fully divine. He believed Jesus, “the Son of God,” received a unique divinely appointed office that deserves respect and even worship. However, for Jesus, that respect and worship were limited to his office and did not extend to his person, which Socinus argued was not divine. Socinus argued that the doctrine of the Trinity could not be defended.

Socinus also argued that because Jesus was not divine, his death could not have been intended to make satisfaction or to pay a penalty on behalf of other humans. Instead, Socinus understood Christ’s death to serve as a way for God to model true love and devotion and to demonstrate the way of salvation.

RNS: What are some modern thoughts that you consider to be heresy?

JH: I think many of the old heresies are repackaged today. For example, there is plenty Sabellian Modalism—the belief that God is one actor wearing three hats—floating around today. Also, I think a repackaged version of Pelagianism is most “live” today. (My summary of Pelagius’ heresy is “God has already given us the tools we need.”)

Pelagius correctly saw human nature as something good created by God, and there is no such thing as original sin. Adam’s sin in no way makes humans guilty or corrupt. Humans by nature have a clean slate — a state of neutrality — according to Pelagius. Potentially, then, one could live a sinless life and merit heaven, for there is nothing intrinsically sinful about humans. To me, this sounds like lots of the gobbledygook that is passed around today in popular Christian TV, radio, and publishing.

RNS: Why should we learn about the heretics? Is there a practical reason?

JH: I'll give three. First, while there is certainly ambiguity in the Bible, the Creator has decided to reveal himself to us and even to live with us. It is important to honor that revelation. Ambiguity or not, uncomfortable or not, it is vital that we are obedient to what we can know about God.

Second, when we have a flawed image of God, we no longer relate to him in the same way. What you believe about God affects how you love, work, live, parent, evangelize, purchase, and worship. It is surprising how much our beliefs about God impact our daily lives, which is partly what makes theology so rewarding.

Third, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Learning about the heresies of the past help us avoid them today.


  1. Thanks and gratitude for featuring my staff member and friend Justin Holcomb. He’s the real deal. Obviously, writing a book on heresy in Protestant American (including the Episopal Church) is tricky business, and Justin handled this extremely well- stating the truth without pointing fingers.

  2. “Heresy” is simply the name for “type of Christianity that didn’t win”.

    Early Christian communities varied all over the map in doctrine, accepted scripture (chosen of course to support doctrine), followed “apostle” and so on.

    These groups competed for members & dominance – sometimes by discussion, sometimes by violence. One group won. That group then made up the Nicene creed as a weapon to exclude and destroy the remaining rival Christianities. That’s why the Nicene creed is a line by line refutation of the rival Christianities that existed in the 4th century. Each line lists things that other Christians believed, or it would be pointless to list it. Of course the current canon supports it, because that canon was chosen to exclude those scriptures that taught these other Christianities. Here it is, showing which Christians each line is aimed at:

    The Nicene Creed (annotated)

    We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

    ((Exclusion of the Marcionite & Gnostic Christians, who believed there where other Gods, and that Yahweh of the Hebrew Scriptures had only made this world, not all of the invisible divine realm.))

    And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made;

    ((Exclusion of the Arian Christians and others groups of Christians who saw Jesus as a being who was created by God. This included Origen, a prominent Roman Catholic writing around 250 CE. This also refutes Christians who separated Jesus from God.))

    who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary,

    ((Exclusion of Ebionite Christians and other Jewish type Christians, who believed Jesus was a non-divine human prophet, with a normal human birth, like, say, Jeremiah.)))

    and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried,

    ((Exclusion of the Docetist Christians, who believed that Jesus was a divine being who only seemed to suffer, but who felt no pain, didn’t really die, and instead ascended to heaven from the cross. This is in both the Gospel of Peter as well as other writings. It’s clearly hinted at in the G.of John, where Jesus is sometimes like a non-material ghost who can walk through walls or maybe poof into existence))

    and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures,

    ((Exclusion of the Marcionite Christians, who denied that the Jewish Scriptures were talking about Jesus, so his resurrection was not predicted by the Jewish Scriptures.))

    and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father. And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead,

    ((Exclusion of many Gnostic Christian groups, who believed that Jesus wasn’t coming back, but that instead it was up to us to find the divine within each of us, and to get to heaven by doing so.))

    whose kingdom shall have no end.

    ((Exclusion of the Marcellian Christians, who believed that Jesus would finally be “re-absorbed” back into the father, making a single, Unitarian God.))

    And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified

    ((Exclusion of various Monarchist Christians, who believed that God was supreme, and that Jesus was therefore subordinate to God.))

    who spoke by the prophets

    ((Exclusion of the Marcionite Christians again, see above.)).

    And we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.

    (((Exclusion of any other rival Christian churches we forgot to mention, such as the Novatists, in case you haven’t gotten the picture yet that the Roman Church is to be in charge))

    And we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

    ((Exclusion of “spiritual resurrection” Christians, such as those that Paul opposes in 2 Corinthians.))

  3. Re: “…heresy means ‘choice’—that is, a choice to deviate from traditional teaching in favor of one’s own insights.”

    Q: Hasn’t “heresy,” thoughts that deviated “from traditional teaching in favor of one’s own insight,” what has shaped our faith story into what we know it today?

    As mentioned in the conversation, people who were considered heretics later helped shape our orthodoxy. Our faith story includes a rich history of heretics–Jesus himself was considered a heretic.

    All heretical thought isn’t worthy of becoming part of our creedal statements of faith. There are essential doctrinal beliefs that we should agree on that define us as Christians. Unfortunately, the church is too often seen making people who question any interpretation or share doubts as deceptive heretics even when they are simply sharing authentically from their journey.

    I enjoy having a dialogue with people who are being called “heretics.” They make me think, question, pray, discuss, study, meditate, and move further along in my own faith journey.

  4. Jonathan Merritt,
    Thanks for this article.

    “Heresy” is religion’s divider and it serves no other purpose
    than to separate the ignorant people from the thinking people.
    Heresy elevates the ignorant and disparages the thinkers.

    Heresy was invented to discourage ALL INQUIRY.
    Heresy is the act of discovering an assertion to be false.

    For example:
    “God never allows it to rain in Arizona”
    The ignorant will accept this claim and are rewarded with non existent ‘blessings’.
    But the assertion can be easily disproved by
    visiting a washed out valley in Sedona. To reveal this truth is ‘Heresy’.

    “Whatever you ask of me, I will do it.” – Jesus
    Nonsense! A more ridiculous assertion
    was never made.

    The world desperately needs Heretics. It is a moral imperative to be a heretic.
    May Heresy spread and dispel all the ignorance Religion so cherishes.

  5. In addition, the excellent and well-written Nicene Creed clearly excludes and eliminates one more skunk-brain religion: The religion of Evolution.

    “We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”

    Well stated. The Nicene Creed. Don’t leave home without it.

  6. For the most part, if one is determined to declare some Christian a “heretic,” it’s possible to find something about him/her to use as “proof” of the heresy. The problem is that most “heretics” never set out to to be “heretics” and weren’t aware their ideas were unacceptable until the you-know-what had hit the fan. Most of them considered themselves to be very “orthodox” instead.

    For instance, one of the most famous heretics in history, Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople, had intended only to clarify the nomenclature by which Mary the mother of Jesus was known, so as to avoid diluting the divinity of Jesus. Calling her “Theotokos,” or “mother of God,” he thought, implied “God” was the equivalent of a human being and reduced His majesty. He preferred, instead, “Christokos,” or “mother of Christ/Messiah.”

    The contemporary Catholic and Orthodox churches both now support the term “Theotokos” over “Christokos,” but this is not because either term is inherently better than the other … it’s because of what ultimately happened to Nestorius: His opponents went out of their minds in rage over what he did. For some reason. Their leader was Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria, who spite of an agreement with him that ended the Council of Ephesus, which featured episcopal riots and skirmishes in the streets).

    In later years, one of the allies Cyril had relied on in his struggle against Nestorius, another cleric named Eutyches of Constantinople, had a falling-out with him. You guessed it … Eutyches ended up being declared a heretic, for no other reason than that he’d opposed Cyril’s own enemy too.

    Now, the ironic part of this is that, by decrying “Theotokos” and promoting “Christokos,” Nestorius had himself been fending off an earlier “heresy,” that of Arius of Alexandria (who’d been condemned decades before at the Council of Nicaea, but whose “heresy” had persisted anyway). And Arius himself had been struggling against views he, himself, had considered “heretical” (which had, before him, been condemned as “heretical” by Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch, in the late 2nd century.

    Whew. Pardon the long history lesson there.

    Hopefully you get the point: Ideas are usually not really all that “heretical.” What creates or demarcates a “heresy” is how people line up over them, or more bluntly, who hates whom. The doctrinal differences between men like Cyril and Eutyches, for example, were not all that severe. What drove them apart, was their hatred for one another, not what either actually thought about the Godhead.

    Having said all this, I have to agree with Atheist Max (6/16/14 1:47 pm): Heresy is nothing more than a divider. It serves no other purpose.

  7. Ed. to add: The comment editor here is just too primitive. The sentence above that began: “Their leader was Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria …” should have read:

    Their leader was Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria, who in spite of an agreement with him that ended the Council of Ephesus (which featured episcopal riots and skirmishes in the streets), ended up betraying Nestorius and arranging his demise in exile.

    Sorry about that folks.

  8. Thanks for the history lesson on “Theotokos” and “Christokos”.
    Interesting. Much appreciated.

  9. This article comes across as overly biased and ignores all the church politics that went into the making of the Nicene Creed. For a better more objective look at Christian “heretics,” I’d recommend Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities and Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospels.

  10. Yeah, that’s right. Truth wins out, crummy ideas go by the wayside.

  11. No, heresy never stops anyone from thinking. You might as well say that when the Supreme court decides what the Constitution means, it has stopped everyone from thinking.

    No, it has merely decided that the text being considered means this or that. Some will disagree, and they are free to do so. They are the “heretics”.

    Heretics are those that disagree with the genuinely accpeted view of things. This does not in all cases mean they are wrong, but they are wrong probably in 99% of the cases. This is because the mainstream view has usually been adopted after much study by experts.

    What you are arguing for is the rejection of generally accepted science, Max. For example, you would believe that those who disagree with global warming are heroes, right?

  12. Pure nonsense, and a bastardization of history. Anytime you have a text, you must interpret that text. In the United States, we have the Constitution. The Supreme Court officially interprets what that document means for us. Those who disagree with supreme court rulings, are, in effect, in the same boat as “heretics”

    By the same token, the bible is a text and needs to be interpreted. So some body does this for us. We trust them to do so because they are extremely learned and have spent their lives learning the text. In the Catholic church, they have the Magisterium that performs this Supreme Court role. In Protestant religions, every man is his own pope, so every man can decide for himself. So there are thousand and thousands of Protestant churches, because none of them can agree on all points.

    History is complex, and attempting to reduce complex situations to a single thing, such as “personal hatred for each other” is a joke.

  13. I am sorry that you take Elaine Pagels seriously. She seems to be one of the many politically inspired “historians” who prize politically correct conclusions above truth.

    Or she would be, were she judged by the conventional canons of scholarship. At the post-graduate institute where I teach, and at any university with which I am familiar, for a professor or a grad student intentionally to falsify a source is a career-ending offense. Among professional scholars, witness tampering is no joke: once the charge is proven, the miscreant is dismissed from the guild and not re-admitted.

    The Gnostic Gospels, like those portions of Pagels’s later work with which I am familiar, is chock-full of tendentious readings and instances where counter-evidence is suppressed. The example of “creativity” here discussed may fairly be called a representative specimen of her methodology, and was singled out not because it’s the worst example of its kind but because it’s among the most unambiguous. No one who consults the source texts could give Pagels a pass, and that means she forfeits the claim to reliability as a scholar. Attractive as her ideological sympathies may be to many persons — including many academics — she does not deserve to be ranked with serious textual scholars like Claremont’s James Robinson, and her testimony on the accuracy of inventions such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code cannot be solicited without irony.”

    “To recapitulate: Pagels has carpentered a non-existent quotation, putatively from an ancient source, by silent suppression of relevant context, silent omission of troublesome words, and a mid-sentence shift of 34 chapters backwards through the cited text, so as deliberately to pervert the meaning of the original. While her endnote calls the quote “conflated,” the word doesn’t fit even as a euphemism: what we have is not conflation but creation.

    Re-reading Pagels’s putative quotation, you may have noticed that the word “unspiritual” corresponds to nothing in the Latin. It too was supplied by Pagels’s imagination. The reason for the interpolation will be plain from the comment that immediately follows (page 44 in The Gnostic Gospels). Remember that she wants to argue that Irenaeus was interested in authority and the Valentinians in the life of the spirit:

    Irenaeus was outraged at their claim that they, being spiritual, were released from the ethical restraints that he, as a mere servant of the demiurge, ignorantly sought to foist upon them.
    Put simply, Irenaeus did not write what Prof. Pagels wished he would have written, so she made good the defect by silently changing the text. Creativity, when applied to one’s sources, is not a compliment. She is a very naughty historian.”

  14. The word Or in the second paragraph above should be preceded by a quotation mark. All that follows that word is a quote from the article cited

  15. @Ghster,

    Under what circumstance is the REJECTION of evidence superior
    to the acceptance of evidence? I don’t understand your argument.

    Heresy is not possible in science.
    Science is the method of understanding through OBSERVATION and EVIDENCE.

    If new evidence should arise
    which refutes previously established fact
    it is not called ‘heresy’ it is called FACT.

    In ancient times 3000 years ago the best evidence available seemed to confirm the earth was flat (as the Bible says). It was considered to be a fact.

    But new evidence available for more than 500 years has shown the earth to be a sphere.
    The old ‘fact’ has been discarded and replaced with a more accurate ‘fact.’

    That is science.
    “Heresy” is impossible in science.

  16. @ghster,

    You don’t seem to understand the difference between a fact and an assertion. This is common with religious people.

    Religion is a sand castle of assertions, not facts. A pile of nonsensical claims built to evade critical analysis. The Catholic “Magisterium” sounds like a big deal but it is no different from “Hogwarts School of Magic” or the “Palace of Athena”. All myths and silliness.

    Science and Law however are built on facts and principles which can be demonstrated with evidence.

  17. @ghster,

    You said, “the bible is a text and needs to be interpreted.”

    This is why the Bible must be rejected completely.
    It does not come with a user’s manual because it claims TO BE THE USER’S MANUAL.

    As such, all Abrahamic religions are based on a massive blunder
    which has resulted in a cultural disaster for the world. The Bible needs to be abandoned as a working guide and treated as a cultural artifact from antiquity – it is completely useless to modern people.

  18. @ghster,

    There is no safe way to respect this sort of nonsense:

    “bring to me those enemies of mine who would not have me as their King and execute them in front of me.” – Jesus (Luke 19:27)

    Don’t give me your nonsense about how it is ‘out of context’
    or ‘has a different meaning’
    or ‘this is about love, metaphorically’.

    Millions of people have been killed because of this immoral nonsense
    And it needs to be abandoned.

  19. Re: “Pure nonsense, and a bastardization of history.”

    In your dreams.

    Re: “Anytime you have a text, you must interpret that text. In the United States, we have the Constitution.”

    Who decided that ALL texts MUST be “interpreted”? Did someone pass a law I never knew about? If so, when did that happen? Who enacted this law, and who signed it?

    Sorry, but this law you think exists, doesn’t. People are free to do whatever they want with a text … ranging from ignoring it, to reading it and saying, “Gee that’s nice” and doing nothing else about it. Laws are texts, to be sure, but they also must be obeyed. Your Bible is not a law and it compels no one to “obey” it, much less “interpret” it.

    Re: “We trust them to do so because they are extremely learned and have spent their lives learning the text.”

    Why put yourself in the position of having to “trust” someone to “interpret” a text for you? Are you not capable of getting an education and doing it for yourself? (For the record that’s what I did: in my believing days I taught myself Greek so I could read the New Testament and most of the Church Fathers in their original language, and I studied ancient history so I could understand their world. Any particular reason you can’t or won’t do the same? Why just take other people’s word for stuff when you don’t have to?)

    Re: “In Protestant religions, every man is his own pope, so every man can decide for himself. So there are thousand and thousands of Protestant churches, because none of them can agree on all points.”

    That’s because all those Protestants have fallen for the same baseless assumption you’ve made: That ALL texts, including the Bible, “must” be interpreted. As it turns out, that’s not mandatory at all. No wonder they’ve twisted themselves in knots and spun off endless denominations. They’re absurdly following an absurd assumption, so the only results can be absurd ones.

    Re: “History is complex, and attempting to reduce complex situations to a single thing, such as ‘personal hatred for each other’ is a joke.”

    As much as you’d rather it not be so, a lot of conflicts over “heresy” were precisely how I characterized them: Personal grudges acted out by overgrown children who hated others and cooked up a metaphysical rationale for their hatred and for why their friends and followers should destroy the ones they hated.

    In a lot of cases, it really was just that simple.

    It’s not my problem if you can’t recognize immaturity when you see it … even if it’s historical, and even if it was at the hands of people who now are known as “saints.” Most saints, I hope you realize, were anything but “saintly” in their real lives.

  20. I don’t see how you can dismiss Pagels’ work as being “policitcal” just because you disagree with her views when the whole notion of heresy is policital by nature and is simply a way of persecuting those you disagree with.

  21. Not sure what you’re referring to. since I never mentioned Ms Pagels at all. Commenter ghster condemned her, but I didn’t.

  22. POWER wins out. There, fixed that for ya.

  23. Law is not necessarily built off of facts, otherwise Nurmeberg would never have had happened. Nor would there be two sides to the arguments. Laws once established are ‘facts’ but they are not necessarily the emanation of fact.

  24. Holcomb speaks of “Adam’s sin”. What sin was that? If we are to take the tale at face value, then it was Eve who first ate the Apple of Knowledge of Good and Evil; Adam just went along with her. (At the tale’s start, she was the sidekick; by tale’s end, he was!) So doesn’t she deserve the blame – and the credit?

    For how could it be a sin to know good from evil? Isn’t such knowledge a virtue? Without it, there’s no moral choice; and with it, there is. What the Apple offered was not just knowledge, but freedom of the will.

    Free will is not inherently all good, for bad may come of it; but nor is it inherently all bad, for good comes of it too. To call humankind entirely corrupt is to libel not just humankind, but also humankind’s creator.

    By my reading of the tale, Eve dared, and she suffered, to free us all. Therefore Eve was heroic. Of course this is an heretical reading, for heresy means choice, and choice is the American Way.

  25. Quality posts is the secret to be a focus for the viewers to
    go to see the web site, that’s what this web page is providing.

  26. The Bible never claimed the earth to be flat, in fact it uses the word “sphere” just as you do.

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