I said in yesterday’s post that heresy is cruel because it promises that which it cannot give. It promises life, depth of vision, wisdom and insight. But because it ultimately preaches another gospel it only brings foolishnes and inconsistency, blindness, and, ultimately, if unrepented, death.
We need not go into New Testament word studies and the origin and development of the word “heresy,” important though this may be. It is true that the New Testament does not use “schism” and “heresy” in quite the same technical sense that quite quickly became the norm (second century). But the New Testament teaching, whatever the technical vocabulary, remains unchanged: heresy is “strange opinion which does not know the passion of Christ” (Ignatios) and is “another gospel than the one you received” (Paul). In short, heresy is that teaching which does not conform to the Gospel of Christ, the Gospel which has been handed down from the Apostles to the Church, preserved in the Scriptures, the Liturgies, and the Canons, and embodied in the lives and teachings of the Saints.
It matters not that proponents of heresy are well-meaning. Arius purportedly taught against Christ’s divinity so as to preserve and protect God’s Majesty and direct worship to Him alone. The intent might well have been sincere, but its effect was deadly: apart from the union of God and man in the person Jesus Christ, which is to say, apart from Christ’s divinity, there is no salvation, no union with God.
This is precisely why the Church has been both careful to preserve the teaching of the Apostles, the Gospel once for all delivered to the Saints, and resistant to any new formulations of Christian dogma. Without the preservation of the only Gospel, there would be no Gospel to preach, and no deliverance from sin and death. But to allow new formulations of Christian dogma, without the whole Church testing them against the Gospel that has been received, is tantamount to accepting a new Gospel, and once again being kept bound to sin and death.
Furthermore, as is consitently taught by the Fathers, all heresy arises from private interpretation. An individual promotes a teaching that is (ultimately) found to be in contradiction to the Gospel, and gathers around him followers who are persuaded by his private interpretation. This is why, whether historically accurate or not, all the Church Fathers agree that Simon Magus (the Simon of the Book of Acts who saw the miraculous works of the Apostles and tried to purchase the power) is the father of all heretics. He, as an individual, interpreted the Gospel, as displayed in the mighty acts around him, in ways contrary to the Gospel itself. He tried to buy the Holy Spirit. Arius, centuries later, enshrined his private interpretation, with an even more powerful argument, and drew away from the Church and its Gospel many members and hierarchs.
Precisely because of the nature and effects of heresy, the Church has always been careful to maintain the Gospel as taught by the apostles. There has never been any development of doctrine, in terms of new insights and new understandings, since this would introduce into the Gospel something that had not been handed down from the Apostles. Rather, in response to heretics, the Church has been careful to correct these misinterpretations by “fencing in” as it were the vocabulary and terms used to speak about the Gospel. It’s not, for example, that a new understanding of the Trinity was given to the Church in the fourth century, but rather that, through the Christological and Pneumatological heresies that had arisen, a more careful way of articulating the faith once for all delivered arose so as to preserve and protect that which had always been held.
In our day, primarily given our left-over modernist anti-traditionalism, we give too-immediate authority to anything “new,” “insightful,” and “interesting.” If it’s never been done or said before, it has our immediate rapt attention. This is a response completely at odds with how the Church has always handled innovations in doctrine. If a Church Father taught something “new, insightful, and bold” such teaching was resisted, even if originally misunderstood, until the Church could come to consensus about what had been taught. Furthermore, not everything taught by a Church Father was received as in conformity to the Gospel. St. Augustine’s teaching on original sin was rejected by the Church, though it came to hold sway in the West. St. Gregory of Nyssa’s teaching on universal salvation was rejected by Church council, though he remains a saint and his writings are studied and taught. But perhaps preeminently St. Gregory Palamas’ teaching on hesychia was only received and accepted after his lifetime, when it was found to be in conformity with the Church’s Gospel.
In our day, we are not so circumspect. We do not test first our “new insights” against the standard of the Gospel. We test them against the values of the world, against sectarian dogmas that were never received by the whole Church, and against our own private interpretations. This is an amazing hubris: that we, or our immediate forebears, are so much wiser than the Apostles and the Church Fathers, or of so much more sanctity of life that we deserve a new outpouring of revelation. But this is a hubris that is not the mind of Christ, who sought only to do and say what the Father willed. And it is, sincere and well-meaning thought it may be, a mindset that is damning.
And so the Church is assailed by many heresies. The result, because so many private interpretations are held up over the authority of Scripture and the received teaching of the Church, is confusion. But not merely confusion. Since heresy can only promote ignorance, foolishness, blindness and death, it is a thing to be avoided at all costs. We here who blog about religious matters everyday should take note: we play with divine fire. The matters with which we engage demand reverence and circumspection. To rush boldly in without careful discernment, to embrace new ideas without slow deliberation, is to potentially damn both ourselves and our hearers.
I am, after all, a very slow-witted and hard-hearted Christian. I need to take my admonition seriously to heart. If I have made any errors with regard to the Church’s teaching and the clear witness of Scripture, I ask to be corrected, and I here state my willingness to immediately be conformed to the only Gospel. And I ask the forgiveness of my brothers and sisters for not more carefully handling that which we all take to be important.
Pray for me a sinner.