Heresy and Heretics

hunter_by_luna133-d4weynlWhile 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.

One_dollar_koi_new_ver__side_by_orudorumagi11In 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:

4th day of creation (by Betsy Porter)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:

Judaizers

torah book 2There 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.

Arianism

Annunciation Full Size flyerThis 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)

2 thoughts on “Heresy and Heretics

  1. What of the saints who were “heretics” such as Gregory of Nyssa who believed in Universalism? We can’t believe as they did? Nobody in the first 300 years believed in the terminology of “three divine persons of the same substance” which is a novelty of Greek philosophy. Be careful about condemning heretics, as you end up condemning many saints in the mix. It was Orthodox and Catholics who forced novelties onto everyone else, the majority of the church in the 4th century was not part of the Orthodox or Catholic church, but was Marcion, Gnostic, Arian, or something else. “Might makes right” was the motto of the time after Nicaea when the Roman Emperor worked alongside the Catholic/Orthodox groups in order to destroy all “heretics.” This heresy hunting has lasted up to the present day, with the Roman Catholics far more willing to torture and kill in the name of Orthodoxy.

    1. Hi James, to your first questions: many saints held erroneous ideas. That’s common knowledge in the Orthodox Church. In fact, there are very few (I can only think of one) that Orthodox Christians generally agree got every theological matter correct in his writings (St. Gregory the Theologian). Instead of holding to every word of their writings with a literal fundamentalism, we look for the consensus of the Church Fathers, which only can be discovered with years of reading.

      The Orthodox Church has without a doubt existed since the time of the Apostles. Our theological terminology was experimented with and refined for the first few centuries, but the beliefs were always there – awaiting intellectual development to explain them.

      Some saints doubtlessly used language to describe the Trinity that has not been used since the Council of Nicaea, but that doesn’t make them heretics. They were merely trying to make sense of things in the best way they knew how. Also, I agree there were many heretics (even during the time of St. Paul’s writings in the New Testament), but that doesn’t mean they were the majority of Christians. I have seen no historical evidence for a majority of Christians being heretics in my years of study.

      It is no mistake that Jesus came when He did, to a culture that was Greco-Roman, and that Christianity spread like wildfire in the Greek language (even the NT was written in Greek). It is also no mistake that God granted the Church freedom during a time in which the worldview and philosophical language were heavily influenced by Platonism. Because that was the language of the day, that is how they were able to elaborately explain the Christian faith. These theological explanations were not novelties forced onto everyone. God purposefully set the historical stage for all these social and theological ideas to come together at the right time.

      Heresy distorts the faith, makes a mockery of Christ, and does not lead to salvation. In ancient times, people would form mobs and drag heretical bishops into the street. In a Church history class I attended, one student noted how passionate people were about truth back then, how they would riot in the name of orthodoxy. This had nothing to do with the emperor trying to control the Christian faith. It had more to do with him trying to figure out how to keep the peace to ensure people don’t riot over heresy. That said, there were some dark moments in the history of the Church where heretics were tortured and killed. While the Spanish Inquisition is not part of the Orthodox Church’s past, nobody is proud of those times.

      I would encourage you to read some good books on church history when you have some time. Much of what your wrote about the early Church is laced with assumptions and has nothing to do with historical facts. Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s Historical Road is a good one that is pretty critical of the Orthodox Church at times. David Ford and Thomas Hopko’s Church History is also a good starting point.

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