While there are those who pride themselves in “heretic hunting” in both the Orthodox world and outside of Orthodoxy, most of us don’t particularly care for deeming other people heretics. It seems rude, pretentious, and judgmental. After all, “who are you to judge another man’s servant” St Paul asked? (Roman 14:4)
Yet, there is no denying that the Church’s history is full of anathematizing (casting out) heretics. But why? Wasn’t this intolerance? Couldn’t we have agreed to disagree? These sentiments, which I often carry, are part of today’s culture of relevancy.
In order to understand heresy, one must understand truth and its beauty. In Orthodoxy, we believe that Truth is a person: the man-God Jesus Christ. I have heard that FBI agents whose operations focus on finding counterfeit money learn by studying real money. If one knows a real dollar bill, spotting a counterfeit is simply recognizing that which deviates from “truth.”
In Orthodox Christianity, we are taught the following Truth:
God created the earth in all of its beauty and He created mankind in His own image and likeness. At some point, humanity rebelled against God, and in doing so, turned away from Life Itself. Death entered the human race, both spiritually and physically. In order to save humanity and all creation from death and this disease called sin, and to reconcile us back to His love, God wrapped Himself in flesh and walked among us as the God-man Jesus Christ. In taking on human flesh, God united the divine nature with human nature. He redeemed everything that He took upon Himself including our human mind, will, flesh, emotions, and even death itself. As St John of Damascus states, “That which is not assumed is not redeemed.”
After His death, He arose on the third day, thereby trampling down death by death. He is the firstborn of all creation and has reconciled all of creation to Himself through His life, death, and resurrection. It is this beautiful truth that we believe and live out.
A few heresies
So, let’s briefly look at some heresies to understand why the Church so vigorously opposed them:
There arose several heresies early in the Church. We see some of them addressed in the New Testament. Firstly, there were those who taught the only way to salvation was to believe in Christ and keep the Torah (the Old Testament law). The Church rejected this as it downplays Christ’s reconciliation of all things through His incarnation and our salvation by grace.
Gnostics and other early heresies
There was also the Gnostic heresy and other heresies that attempted to deny Christ’s humanity. Interestingly, most early heresies (those in the first few hundred years) did not attempt to deny Christ’s divinity, but his humanity. The Greeks had no problem with God walking among us, but they abhorred the idea of God wrapping himself in human flesh and becoming fully man. God dying on a cross was even worse to them. Some would admit to an incarnation, but then teach that Christ’s divinity left him right before crucifixion. Gnostics believed that the created world was inferior, or even “dirty”, compared to the spirit world. To some, Jesus was an apparition; a divine spirit who merely looked human. Essentially, they went through all sorts of mental acrobatics in order to deny Jesus Christ His humanity.
The Church opposed these early heresies because the heretics attempted to destroy the beautiful Truth that divine nature had united with human nature, reconciling all created things.
This stubborn heresy did the opposite of the early heresies. They taught that Christ was an angel who came to us in the human flesh. So, they granted Christ his humanity, but refused him his divinity. Christ was then nothing more than a sacrificial offering to appease the wrath of God. Again, this destroys the beauty of the Christian message, which teaches that “God became man that man might become god” as St Athanasius wrote.
That quote does not mean that we become equal to God, or share in his divine essence, but rather that we become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), which divinizes our own nature (for we cannot become a partaker of divinity and undergo no change) and unites our being to God completely. It took a few hundred years to completely remove this heresy, but it has now been resurrected by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their Watchtower Organization.
Wrapping it up
I could continue with many other heresies and show how they destroy the beauty of the Christian faith, but the above three will suffice for now. We live in a society in which tolerance and relevance are taught. Ironically, there is a great degree of intolerance for anybody who holds fast to their beliefs.
Even Christians will tolerate weird doctrines saying, “Hey, nobody really knows ultimate truth anyway.” However, that sentiment is a product of our culture and not part of the Christian faith that has been lived for thousands of years.
One has to turn no further than the NT to frequently see very strong words against heresy and heretics. I want to encourage you to stand up for the truth of the faith and not give in to the pressure of our culture to tolerate anything and everything. The faith is beautiful and we must live it out, preserving it from the distortions of today’s heresies.
But these, like natural brute beasts made to be caught and destroyed, speak evil of the things they do not understand, and will utterly perish in their own corruption… They have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; but he was rebuked for his iniquity: a dumb donkey speaking with a man’s voice restrained the madness of the prophet.
These are wells without water, clouds carried by a tempest, for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever. (2nd Peter 2)