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.

Definitive Proof that the Tome of Leo is True!

Around the year 600, a wandering monk named John Moschos composed a curious little collection of vignettes and sayings called The Spiritual Meadow — each of the little snippets is meant to be like a wild flower in bloom, delighting in its beauty. Some of them most assuredly are; others are a little more dubious…

Anyway, Moschos was of the Chalcedonian persuasion, and every once in a while his miracle stories provide corroboration of the truth of the Chalcedonian tradition, such as visions of heretics burning in hell, or miracles involving the Eucharist consecrated by Chalcedonian priests. The usual.

One such story of Chalcedonian apologetic is chapter 147 which runs thus:

Abba Menas … also told us that he had heard this from the same Abba Eulogios, Pope of Alexandria:

When I went to Constantinople, [I was a guest in the house of] master Gregory the Archdeacon of Rome, a man of distinguished virtue. He told me of a written tradition preserved in the Roman church concerning the most blessed Leo, Pope of Rome. It tells how, when he had written to Flavian, the saintly patriarch of Constantinople, condemning those impious men, Eutyches and Nestorios, he laid the letter on the tomb of Peter, the Prince of the Apostles. He gave himself to prayer and fasting, lying on the ground, invoking the chief of the disciples in these words: ‘If I, a mere man, have done anything amiss, do you, to whom the church and the throne are entrusted by our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, set it to rights.’ Forty days later, the apostle appeared to him as he was praying and said: ‘I have read it and I have corrected it.’ The pope took the letter from Saint Peter’s tomb, unrolled* it and found it corrected in the apostle’s hand. (Trans. John Wortley for Cistercian)

I am not sure how old the story is; likely not much older than Moschos. Moschos’ stories that affirm Chalcedon in The Spiritual Meadow are the same sort of thing the Monophysites had in John Rufus’ Plerophoriae. By gaining St. Peter’s apostolic stamp of approval, the Tome is declared to be authoritative. Anyone who doubts can rest at ease knowing that the imperial church is in the good books of the Prince of the Apostles.

This sort of Chalcedonian affirmation in Moschos is very different from that in Cyril of Scythopolis, where the defence of Chalcedon comes in the form of speeches made by his monks. Yet both methods are in keeping with the general tone of each author. While Cyril includes some miracle stories, Moschos includes almost nothing but, save when he drops in the occasional apophthegm. Cyril gives us complete biographies, Moschos flashes of light in time. They both produce for us discours hagiographique, but each is very different from the other, Moschos going for flare, Cyril going for the more “down-to-earth”.

Still, if you were having doubts about Leonine Christology, your fears can now be assuaged by John Moschos! (Think also on those heretics burning in Hell.)

*This translation constantly refers to people unrolling books; I’ll have to check the Greek, for I can think of no reason why people would be using scrolls at so late a date.