Thursday, May 29, 2014

Stump the Priest: Heresy and Heretics

Question: "What is heresy, and who is a heretic?"

St. Philaret of Moscow, in his Catechism, defined heresy simply as "...when people mix with the doctrine of the Faith, opinions contrary to divine truth."

The term "heresy" comes from the Greek word αἵρεσις (Hairesis), which originally meant "choice," but came to mean "faction," or "sect," and then, by extension came to refer to the doctrinal error of factions in the Church and outside of the Church that centered on such false teachings.

In Scripture, we find references to "heresies" -- both in the sense of "factions," and in the sense of doctrinal error:

In 1 Corinthians 11:18-19, we see it used in the sense of "faction", but not with specific reference to doctrinal error according to both St. John Chrysostom and Blessed Theodoret: "For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it. For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you." St. John Chrysostom notes, however, that what this passage says of factions would also apply to those factions characterized by doctrinal error (Homily 27 on First Corinthians).

However, in 2 Peter 2:1, we find a clear reference to "heresies" in the sense of doctrinal error: "But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction."

St. Ireneaus, one of the earliest Fathers of the Church, in the preface to his "Against Heresies," began with the following description of heresies and heretics:

"Inasmuch as certain men have set the truth aside, and bring in lying words and vain genealogies, which, as the apostle says, “minister questions rather than godly edifying which is in faith,” and by means of their craftily-constructed plausibilities draw away the minds of the inexperienced and take them captive, [I have felt constrained, my dear friend, to compose the following treatise in order to expose and counteract their machinations.] These men falsify the oracles of God, and prove themselves evil interpreters of the good word of revelation. They also overthrow the faith of many, by drawing them away, under a pretense of [superior] knowledge, from Him who founded and adorned the universe; as if, forsooth, they had something more excellent and sublime to reveal, than that God who created the heaven and the earth, and all things that are therein. By means of specious and plausible words, they cunningly allure the simple-minded to inquire into their system; but they nevertheless clumsily destroy them, while they initiate them into their blasphemous and impious opinions.... Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than the truth itself" (A Cleveland Coxe, trans., Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. i, The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), p 315).

The problem with heresy is not simply that someone comes to an erroneous conclusion about the Faith. The problem is that they refuse the correction of the Church, which results in those who refuse the correction of the Church ultimately being separated from the Church, along with those that they may have deluded into sharing their opinions -- a result they accept, because they choose to follow the vanity of their own minds, in their pride, rather than humbly accept the teachings of the Church.

Christ Himself laid out how disputes in the Church were to be handled:

"Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 18:15-19).

One might object at this point that Christ is simply speaking of personal sins, and not of doctrinal matters. However, St. Paul numbers heresies among the most serious works of the flesh:

"Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God" (Galatians 5:19-21).

And aside from that, if a mere interpersonal dispute originating from some personal sin could lead to the severe remedy of someone being cut off from the Church, obviously such a remedy would apply to those who, by the error that they stubbornly spread, harm countless souls by leading them astray.

Of course those who were once in the Church, and originate a heresy bear a tremendous guilt for allowing their stubborn pride to separate themselves and others from the Church, but what about those who grow up in a heretical group, having never known the Orthodox Faith? Clearly, that is a very different matter. Such a person would only be responsible to the extent that they had opportunity to be corrected, and we as Orthodox Christians do not judge those outside the Church, because St. Paul tells us that God will judge such people (1 Corinthians 5:11-13), and so we leave that in God's hands, knowing that God will judge each man according to the light that he has been given, and that He is merciful.

So is someone who has grown up a Roman Catholic or a Protestant a heretic? Yes, and no. A person who has been raised in a heretical group is a heretic in the sense that they hold views which are manifestly heretical; however, such a person does not bear any sin for holding such views until and unless they resist being corrected with better information. A heretic in the fullest sense of the term is one who obstinately refuses to be corrected by the Church. And so when speaking of the average Roman Catholic or Protestant, while it is is true that in one sense they are heretics, it is also true that the term is taken by many to be an accusation that the person is a heretic in the fullest sense of the term, and that they are thus going to hell... and so it is usually not helpful to call people who are not Orthodox "heretics." We should generally consider them as people who simply have not had the opportunity to come to know the Orthodox Faith, and assume that they are sincere seekers of the truth.

See Also:

What should Orthodox Christians do, when there is no parish nearby?