More Thoughts on Heresy

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.

4 thoughts on “More Thoughts on Heresy

  1. Very good reflection, Clifton. This is why the recent statements by the Episcopalian Bishop (what’s his name, Griswold?) are so insane. We should tolerate heresy so that we don’t enter into schism? Heresy is better than schism? The heretic is *already* schismatic, has already excluded himself from the Body of Christ. You *cannot* have a “heretic Church” – it is an oxymoron. The Church is the “pillar of truth” and if some visible part appears to have fallen into heresy, then it is simply a branch that has cast itself into the fire.

    Of course, how can you be schismatic to a schismatic group, anyway, that let’s practically anyone take “communion”? C’mon, given the whole context of the ECUSA, the very notion of “schism” is purely abstract and/or financial but certainly not spiritual.

  2. I’m in agreement with the bulk of what you say (here and
    throughout the blog). I’m not convinced though of one
    particular statement above, namely

    “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”

    One hears this a lot from Orthodox, but I wonder if it isn’t a bit
    of an over-reaction to the development of doctrine
    as embraced by the Roman Catholics. What I know of history,
    it is silent on Marian devotion, icons, and the
    Chalcedonian details until well after the Apostles were gone.
    Furthermore, if one considers how iconoclastic Judiasm is,
    it would be surprising really if the Jewish church was source
    of icon veneration.

    There being the promise that the Spirit would lead
    the Church into all Truth, I don’t see that it is
    necessary, per se, to assert that these distinguishing
    doctrines of Orthodoxy were “handed down”.
    Being new insights that develop from Apostolic understanding
    works for me.

  3. David:

    Actually, according to the archaeological evidence, Jews were the original source for Christian icons. Apparently, there are many instances of unearthed ancient synagogues that were near-contemporaneous (I think earliest is second century A. D.) to the time of the Apostles. Furthermore just because the dogma surrounding icons wasn’t articulated until the seventh ecumenical council does not mean the iconography wasn’t a well-established practice. In fact, historically, it’s fairly certain that iconoclasm arose in large part to due interaction with Muslims as well as perhaps Jewish reaction to the dogma of the Incarnation.

    I’m not sure what you mean by Marian devotion, but is you read the Church Fathers, as well as the Councils, and the Liturgies it’s pretty clear that Mary was held in high regard from the very beginning.

    I know I’m making assertions without citing evidence, but I suppose I can take some time to “scare up” some evidence, if you prefer.

  4. Hi Clifton-
    if we look at the earliest post-Apostolic record
    (e.g. Didache, St. Ignatius) the case for Orthodox
    understanding of baptism, church structure and
    Eucharist is strong. And to my knowledge there wasn’t
    ever any dissent among those recognized as Orthodox
    about these. But the reference to Mary as God-bearing
    seems to date at least 100 years later, and seems to have
    come to the fore in combating Arianism. Holding Mary
    in high regard, and praying to her are two different things.
    What’s the earliest evidence one has for the latter?

    St. Epiphanius of Salamis (4th century bishop of Cyprus)
    is noted as being iconoclastic—yet Orthodox. There
    is record of a letter he supposedly wrote to St. Jerome
    about his tearing down a curtain in a church that
    had an image of Christ or a saint on it. How could
    this be if centrality of icons in worship were and always had
    been seen as Apostolic, in the same way that baptism and
    Eucharist are?

    I guess my larger concern with respect to apologetics for
    Orthodoxy is that we need to call a spade a spade. I know
    formerly Evangelical christians whose faith crumbled as
    they came to doubt the Creation story as insisted upon by
    Creation scientists, 7 days, 5,000 years ago. Their world-view
    depended on a hyper-literal reading of Scripture for which
    there is credible counter-evidence. I don’t think
    that the truth of Orthodoxy rests on the oft-heard assertion
    that Orthodoxy is everything that was handed down
    from the Apostles, no less, no more. Seems to me the
    historical record of the first 150 or so post-Apostolic
    years is too sketchy to “prove” that
    (not an original thought of mine, you can find it in
    Pelikan’s vol 1 of his 5 volume series on the history of Christian

    I am interested studying the earliest evidence for any
    Orthodox practice that you or anyone else cares to
    provide. It isn’t necessary though, I recognize it is
    a lot of work.

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