The Word Anathema and Its Meaning
by Saint John Maximovitch
The Greek word "anathema" consists of two words:
"ana", which is a preposition indicating movement upwards and "thema",
which means a separate part of some- thing. In military terminology, "thema" me
ant a detachment; in civil government "thema" meant a province. We currently use
the word "theme", derived from "thema", to mean a specific topic of a
written and intellectual work.
"Anathema" literally means the lifting up of something
separate. In the Old Testament this expression was used both in relation to that which was
alienated due to sinfulness and likewise to that which was dedicated to God.
In the New Testament, in the writing of the Apostle Paul it is used once
in conjunction with "maranatha", meaning the coming of the Lord. The combination
of these words means separation until the coming of the Lord; in other words - being
handed over to Him (1 Cor 16:22).
The Apostle Paul uses "anathema" in another place without the
addition of "maranatha" (Gal 1:8-9). Here "anathema" is proclaimed
against the distortion of the Gospel of Christ as it was preached by the Apostle, no
matter by whom this might be commited, whether by the Apostle himself or an angel from the
heavens. In this same expression there is also implied: "let the Lord Himself pass
judgement," for who else can pass judgement on the angels?
St John the Theologian in Revelation (22:3) says that in the New
Jerusalem there will not be any anathema; this can be understood in two ways, giving the
word anathema both meanings: 1) there will not be any lifting up to the judgement of God,
for this judgement has already been accomplished; 2) there will not be any special
dedication to God, for all things will be the Holy things of God, just as the light of God
enlightens all (Rev 21:23).
In the acts of the Councils and the further course of the New Testament
Church of Christ, the word "anathema" came to mean complete separation from the
Church. "The Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes", "let him be
anathema", "let it be anathema", means a complete tearing away from the
church. While in cases of "separation from the communion of the Church" and
other epitimia or penances laid on a person, the person remained a member of the Church,
even though his participation in her grace filled life was limited, those given over to
anathema were thus completely torn away from her until their repentance. Realizing that
she is unable to do anything for their salvation, in view of their stubbornness and
hardness of heart, the earthly church lifts them up to the judgement of God.
That judgment is merciful unto repentant sinners, but fearsome for the
stubborn enemies of God. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living
God ... for our God is a consuming fire" (Heb 10:31 ; 12:29).
Anathema is not final damnation: until death repentance is possible.
"Anathema" is fearsome not because the Church wishes anyone evil or God seeks
their damnation. They desire that all be saved. But it is fearsome to stand before the
presence of God in the state of hardened evil: nothing is hidden from Him.
from Orthodox Life, vol 27, Mar-April 1977, pp. 18-19
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...Or perhaps the anathema pronounced on any one who should preach
another Gospel than that which had been preached was meant for those times, not for the
present. Then, also, the exhortation, "Walk in the Spirit and ye shall not fulfil the
lust of the flesh," was meant for those times, not for the present. But if it be both
impious and pernicious to believe this, then it follows necessarily, that as these
injunctions are to be observed by all ages, so those warnings also which forbid alteration
of the faith are warnings intended for all ages. To preach any doctrine therefore to
Catholic Christians other than what they have received never was lawful, never is lawful,
never will be lawful: and to anathematize those who preach anything other than what has
once been received, always was a duty, always is a duty, always will be a duty.