The Phenomenon of Heresy as Perceived by its Opponents

The inspiration for this post is Leo the Great (saint of the week here) who makes many colourful references to Nestorians, Eutychians, and Manichaeans in his letters, referring, for example, to heresy as ‘blasphemous and hostile to evangelical truth,’ (Ltr 60) and making mention of ‘heretical depravity’ elsewhere (Ltr 109).

What Leo made me think about was how heresies opponents characterise heresy and its effects. I am not concerned with the particular beliefs of the ‘heresies’ but, rather, with the more general question of heresy and its foes; Leo is not alone in characterising heretics and heresy in such fiery, negative ways.

John Moschos (early 7th c) tells a story in the Spiritual Meadow about a monk who would sometimes go to a Chalcedonian Church for Eucharist, sometimes to an anti-Chalcedonian (=Monophysite) one. A friend warned him that this was a bad idea, so he prayed about it.

This monk had a dream in answer to his prayers, and there he saw Arius, Origen, Nestorius, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Eutyches, and Severus of Antioch burning in Hell. The message was not to communicate with heretics — and anti-Chalcedonians were heretics.

What Moschos’ tale tells us about his view of heresy is that it is damnable.

Cyril of Scythopolis (mid-6th c) typifies his Origenist opponents’ teachings as poison, corruption, and soul-destroying heresy amongst others. His anti-Chalcedonian contemporary John of Ephesus has nothing good to say about the ‘Synodite persecutors.’

No doubt we would have similar findings amongst other defenders of orthodoxy, from Irenaeus to Athanasius to Severus of Antioch to Justinian.

What we learn from the above is that the ancients took their theology seriously. They weren’t simply opposed to the beliefs of their opponents because ‘I’m right, and you’re wrong,’ or because they wanted power for their own episcopal sees, or because they were jerks.

They were opposed to these beliefs, and hotly opposed very often, because they believed that knowing and believing the truth was of vital importance. To live and die apart from the truth was to live a false life and die an eternal death.

I’m not sure if heretics end up in Hell or not. But if ‘salvation’ is more than just ‘Get out of Hell Free’ card, then heresy is dangerous for living a life of freedom here and now. By understanding the truth and living by it, we can know God better, worship more fully, and love our neighbours more perfectly.

Heresy, untruth that strives to be accepted as orthodoxy, is perhaps, then, soul-destroying and poison. It will draw us away from our true love and wither our worship here and now (leaving the hereafter to Almighty God).

Let us seek to know God more fully in as much of his glory and richness as our minds can handle.

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