Heresy and the Shaping of Early Christian Orthodoxy


The first few centuries after Christ saw a mixture of ideas develop as early Christians navigated the world they lived in, with its competing beliefs, while trying to figure out the nature of whom and how they should worship. The questions they sought to answer are some of the great questions in any context: What does it mean to be human? How do we face the problem of evil? What is God like? What is the nature of spiritual authority? How do we come to agreement on complex issues? Which ideas are so central that agreement proves elusive?

This course will examine the major conflicts over these and other issues and trace the ways in which Christianity developed during that period, partly shaped by the very heresies it sought to counter. As many of these alternative doctrinal views have persisted into the present day, the historical debates can continue to inform the discussion of these core questions.  

Programme details

Course starts: 16 Apr 2024

Week 0: Course Orientation

Week 1: The New Testament and proto-heresies: What is the message?

Week 2: Apostolic Fathers and Apologists: What to do in the face of paganism and persecution?

Week 3: Irenaeus and Gnosticism: Is the body evil? 

Week 4: The Ebionites, Marcion, and Canon: Which scripture is authoritative?

Week 5: Origen: Inspired or heretic?

Week 6: The Montanists and Donatists: What is the church? 

Week 7: Nicaea and Constantinople: What is the Trinity?

Week 8: Augustine and Pelagius: What is the human condition?

Week 9: Christological controversy (I): Who is Jesus Christ?

Week 10: Christological controversy (II): Can Christians disagree over Christ’s nature?

Digital Certification

To complete the course and receive a certificate, you will be required to attend and participate in at least 80% of the live sessions on the course and pass your final assignment. Upon successful completion, you will receive a link to download a University of Oxford digital certificate. Information on how to access this digital certificate will be emailed to you after the end of the course. The certificate will show your name, the course title and the dates of the course you attended. You will be able to download your certificate or share it on social media if you choose to do so.


Description Costs
Course Fee £257.00
Take this course for CATS points £10.00


If you are in receipt of a UK state benefit, you are a full-time student in the UK or a student on a low income, you may be eligible for a reduction of 50% of tuition fees. Please see the below link for full details:

Concessionary fees for short courses


Dr Susan Griffith

Dr Griffith is a member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford, specialising in early Christianity and patristics. She also serves as the Faculty's Course Coordinator for the MTh/PGDip in Applied Theology, overseeing the academic development and teaching of the programme.

Course aims

To the origins and development of Christianity in the first five centuries in the context of the debates and diverse movements of the period. 

Course Objectives:

  • The course will examine ideas of orthodoxy and heterodoxy by reading a range of early Christian literature.
  • Questions that are often still central to Christian theology will be explored in their earliest contexts. 

Teaching methods

Lectures on historical background followed by seminar-style discussions on primary sources.

Learning outcomes

Students will:

  • be able to trace the outlines of the early debates about Christian doctrine and practice;
  • have awareness of ways in which heterodox beliefs contributed to shaping early Christianity and be able to make comparisons with contemporary debates;
  • have the tools to assess divergent scholarly opinions on the formation and nature of Christian beliefs.  

Assessment methods

A) A portfolio of three very short (c. 500 words) essays connecting historical doctrinal disagreements to contemporary debates or beliefs


B) One short (c. 1,500 words) essay. Students will be asked first to provide a short (c. 300 words) plan for the essay. A list of topics will be provided but students may also choose to propose their own research question.

Please note that the reading list contains not just core texts for everyone, but also suggested texts suitable for a range of essay topics. 

Students must submit a completed Declaration of Authorship form at the end of term when submitting your final piece of work. CATS points cannot be awarded without the aforementioned form - Declaration of Authorship form


We will close for enrolments 7 days prior to the start date to allow us to complete the course set up. We will email you at that time (7 days before the course begins) with further information and joining instructions. As always, students will want to check spam and junk folders during this period to ensure that these emails are received.

To earn credit (CATS points) for your course you will need to register and pay an additional £10 fee per course. You can do this by ticking the relevant box at the bottom of the enrolment form or when enrolling online.

Please use the 'Book' or 'Apply' button on this page. Alternatively, please complete an enrolment form (Word) or enrolment form (Pdf).

Level and demands

While it would be helpful to have some background knowledge of Christian beliefs as well as the historical context of the first few centuries of the era,  the reading will be able to provide these.

Students who register for CATS points will receive a Record of CATS points on successful completion of their course assessment.

To earn credit (CATS points) you will need to register and pay an additional £10 fee per course. You can do this by ticking the relevant box at the bottom of the enrolment form or when enrolling online.

Coursework is an integral part of all weekly classes and everyone enrolled will be expected to do coursework in order to benefit fully from the course. Only those who have registered for credit will be awarded CATS points for completing work at the required standard.

Students who do not register for CATS points during the enrolment process can either register for CATS points prior to the start of their course or retrospectively from the January 1st after the current full academic year has been completed. If you are enrolled on the Certificate of Higher Education you need to indicate this on the enrolment form but there is no additional registration fee.

Most of the Department's weekly classes have 10 or 20 CATS points assigned to them. 10 CATS points at FHEQ Level 4 usually consist of ten 2-hour sessions. 20 CATS points at FHEQ Level 4 usually consist of twenty 2-hour sessions. It is expected that, for every 2 hours of tuition you are given, you will engage in eight hours of private study.

Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS)