The word heresy comes from haeresis, a Latin transliteration of the Greek word meaning choosing, choice, course of action, or in an extended sense school of thought. The word appears in the New Testament and was appropriated by the Catholic Church to mean a sect or belief that threatened the unity of Christian doctrine. Heresy is frequently regarded as a departure from orthodoxy. St. Irenaeus (c. 120 to 140–c. 200 to 203) defined heresy as deviation from the standard of sound doctrine. It is distinct from apostasy, which is the formal denunciation of one's religion, principles or cause, and blasphemy, which is irreverence toward religion. Schleiermacher, writing in 1821/2 defined it as "that which preserved the appearance of Christianity, and yet contradicted its essence".
Heresy has traditionally been taken very serious, although Christians today have a somewhat broad view toward heresy. Many think either that heresy doesn't exist or matter, while others think that anyone that disagrees with them are heretics. Have you heard of the Inquisitions? The Catholics took this to an extreme. From the late 11th century onward, heresy became increasingly common. The reasons for this are still not fully understood, but the causes for this new period of heresy include popular response to the 11th century clerical reform movement, greater lay familiarity with the bible, exclusion of lay people from sacramental activity, and more rigorous definition and supervision of Catholic dogma. The question of how heresy should be suppressed was not resolved, and there was initially substantial clerical resistance to the use of physical force by secular authorities to correct spiritual deviance. As heresy was viewed with increasing concern by the papacy, however, the "secular arm" was used more frequently and freely during the twelfth century and afterward.
In later years, the Church instituted the Inquisition, an official body charged with the suppression of heresy. This began as an extension and more rigorous enforcement of pre-existing episcopal powers (possessed, but little used, by bishops in the early Middle Ages) to inquire about and suppress heresy, but later became the domain of selected Dominican monks under the direct power of the Pope. The Inquisition was active in several nations of Europe, particularly where it had fervent support from the civil authority. The Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) was part of the Catholic Church's efforts to crush the Cathars. It is linked to the movement now known as the Medieval Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition was particularly brutal in its methods, which included the burning at the stake of many heretics. However, it was initiated and substantially controlled by King Ferdinand of Spain rather than the Church; King Ferdinand used political leverage to obtain the Church's tacit approval. Another example of a medieval heretic movement is the Hussite movement in the Czech lands in the early 1400s.
It is widely reported that the last person to be burned alive at the stake on orders from Rome was Giordano Bruno, executed in 1600 for a collection of heretical beliefs including Copernicanism and (probably more important) an unlimited universe with innumerable inhabited worlds. The last case of an execution at an auto de fe by the Spanish Inquisition was the schoolmaster Cayetano Ripoll, accused of deism and executed by garroting July 26, 1826 in Valencia after a two-year trial.
There is also a difference between heresy and false teaching. The term heretic and false teacher are often used synominously, but not all false teaching is heresy, however all heresy is false teaching. The term heresy has historically been reflective of a systematic doctrine, not simply an individual error in belief. We are all growing in our understanding. One may believe that a particular verse is saying something when, in fact, it is not. A teacher who is sincerely mistaken can be distinguished from one who is a heretic or false teacher by whether or not he has an Apollos spirit. Apollos was “an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures...being fervent in spirit,” but his doctrine was incomplete. When Aquila and Priscilla “took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately,” he immediately corrected his message (Acts 18:24-26). This shows that he was repentant and recognized the error of his ways.HERESY VS. ABERRATION
It may be the case, however, that a particular teaching does not overtly deny basic biblical theology, but is nevertheless dangerously inconsistent with an orthodox confession of faith. A good example of this would be the "prosperity" teachers who are growing like wildfire within Christian denominations -- doctrines of this variety are referred to as aberrations (or false teachings). Thus, a group may be orthodox in its central theology while at the same time maintain teachings and practices that are clearly at odds with essential Christian theology. 
Defining a belief as a heresy or a false teaching can sometimes be dificult because sometimes one can make a doctrine out of a single belief. Doctrines form the structure of a belief system and one doctrinal error often leads to the corruption of other doctrines as well. And so the old maxim holds true, "Error begets error and heresy begets heresy." 
1. Oxford English Dictionary
2. Wikipedia, article entitled "Christian Heresy," under "Etymology and definition," accessed June 11, 2010
3. Definition of "apostasy" at Dictionary.com
4. Definition of "blasphemy" at Dictionary.com
5. MacGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology Blackwell: 2001, p.153
6. Christian Research Institute (CRI), http://www.equip.org/perspectives/heresies-and-aberrations, Accessed June 11, 2010
7. Christianity in Crisis, Hank Hanegraaff (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1993), p. 31
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