Share   Print
Related Content

The True Nature of Heresy

by Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna

The term "heresy" is probably misused by Orthodox Christians—both zealots and so-called modernists alike—more than any other word in their religious vocabulary. Among the modernists, it has taken on the rôle of exposing the "ecumenical love" of which they so often talk for what it actually is. It is a term which these ecumenists disallow in their encounters with those of other confessions, since they reckon it outdated, old-fashioned, inappropriate, and improper. Yet they do not for a moment hesitate to apply it to us traditionalist Orthodox—who rightly point out the heresy (a very denial of the primacy of Orthodoxy) implicit in the religious syncretism that lies at the core of ecumenism—, attacking us with an acrimony that belies the real nature of ecumenism’s much-touted love and religious tolerance. Among certain Orthodox traditionalists—our particular concern here—the term is equally abused. It is frequently used as a kind of epithet that presumably rises above the law of love, above reason, and above theological precision itself. For theological amateurs sporting that moot but nasty "expertise" that all too often joins little thought to too much zeal, "heresy" is a handy tool with which to dispense with anything that seems amiss, according to their own peculiar scheme of things. It also becomes, not infrequently, a call to arms, inspiring virtual "witch hunts" in the name of cleansing or protecting the Church from error.

A true understanding of the nature of heresy tells us how foreign all that we have described is to a genuine Orthodox mentality. St. Paul contrasts the heretic with those who are "careful to keep good works" in the Church, noting that the former is inevitably one who is preoccupied with "foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law." He also advises us that "a man that is an heretick" we should "reject, after the first and second admonition" (Titus 3:8-10). In his Epistle to the Galatians, the Apostle of the Nations again associates heresy with "wrath, strife," and "seditions," contrasting these things with the man of God, who is characterized by "love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness," and "faith" (5:20-22). All that St. Paul writes is contained within the consensus of the Orthodox Fathers concerning heresy. They teach that it has its roots, not in incorrect belief and teaching alone, but in a mean spirit and in persistence in one’s error, even after repeated entreaties that he repent. A devout believer can innocently misunderstand the teachings of the Church; this does not* make him a heretic. Indeed, one can be a schismatic and still not be a heretic. (See St. Nikodemos’ commentary on Canon I of St. Basil, Pedalion [The Rudder] [Thessaloniki, 1982], p. 589.) These individuals become heretics when they succumb to stubborn self-opinion, contentiousness, and absolute tenacity, and only then, separated from the Church, are they "completely alienated from the Faith," in the words of St. Basil the Great (Canon I). Thus, St. Symeon of Thessaloniki, in his essay on heresy, tells us that "pride and haughtiness" are the "cause" of all heresies (Ta Apanta [Extant Works] [Thessaloniki, 1882], p. 27).

Those who "hunt down" heretics, who create strife and discord in the Church by unfounded and supercilious accusations of heresy, and who act out of pride and wrath in condemning those who may innocently hold wrong beliefs—these very same individuals are acting within the spirit of heresy itself. A true Christian seeks to correct those in error, to lead them with love, and to avoid strife and discord. A true Christian does not seek out errors in others, but examines first his own shortcomings. And a true Christian, when he confronts a miscreant—one who willingly embraces heresy, defies the correction of the Church, and persists in his misbelief—, separates from that individual only in the spirit of self-preservation, so as to avoid the deadly bacterium of heresy. He shows rage, not towards the hapless heretics, but towards the heresy that has possessed them. He disassociates from the heretic and avoids his table, not because he ceases to pray for him and to grieve for his soul, but, once again, to avoid exposure to spiritual disease and, by his example and out of concern for them, to prompt others to do likewise. Any other spirit, even in the face of real heresy, leads the would-be zealot to something as bad as heresy itself, as St. Maximos the Confessor tells us, that is, the betrayal of the prime Christian commandment of love (Patrologia Graeca, Vol. XCI, col. 465C).

It should also be noted that, while we have a canonical right, if not responsibility, as Orthodox Christians to separate from Hierarchs who teach heresy openly (with "bare heads," as the canons put it [see, for example, Canon XV of the First-and-Second Synod]) and refuse to recant for their misbelief, we have no personal right to dismiss those whom we sincerely and honestly believe to be at fault with sweeping condemnations and denunciations. We can clearly define their heresies, separate from them, advise others to do likewise, and maintain a resistant stance against their misbelief. But we cannot, in so doing, make ourselves the Church, deposing and anathematizing, simple individuals that we are, this-or-that person at will. Even if a local Church or a group of Bishops should do so, we must leave it to the Church to guide us, not our personal opinions. Otherwise, once again we fall to exalting our own opinions, which itself is one great step towards heresy. Moreover, when the Church issues statements against a heresy, it is readily cognizant of its responsibility to exercise "economy" in the case of those who unknowingly fall to misbelief, and it never issues its condemnations with the intention of destroying souls, but of awakening those in the dark sleep of error and bringing them to repentance. How distant this is from individuals who coldly take it upon themselves personally to seek out heretics, condemn them, and then delight in the wholly demonic "victory" of being "right" while others are "wrong."

We hear much today about who has and who does not have Grace. This is not the question which we must ask. It is simply ours to determine what is Orthodox, follow it, and be obedient to our right-believing Bishops, allowing them errors and human weaknesses. For, in fact, just as heresy has its roots in strife, right belief ultimately has its roots in obedience. This is simple to demonstrate. If those who today fall to the pan-heresy of ecumenism were simply obedient to the consensus of the Fathers—that is, that as Orthodox we must pray for but not with the heterodox—, then we would not be divided between ecumenists and traditionalists, New Calendarists and Old Calendarists, betrayers and the Faithful. Likewise, except when they preach or embrace heresy and refuse to correct themselves, as the so-called "official" Orthodox Hierarchy has for the most part done, we have no right to be disobedient to our Bishops and act as we think we should, fancying ourselves champions and confessors of the Faith. Nor should we take it on ourselves to decide with finality, as individuals, on the delicate question of where Grace exists and where it does not. We cannot personally and unilaterally declare this-or-that person or this-or-that Church heretical. We must follow our Synods and the Holy Spirit, Who acts through them, and let the Church speak for us. Otherwise, we will make of our resistance a mockery, dividing among ourselves and scandalizing the Faithful—a sad phenomenon that the Evil One has already widely used to compromise the contemporary resistance movement against ecumenism and modernism.

If it is not for amateurs and self-made experts to make pronouncements about complex matters of the Faith, it is also not for them to misuse and misapply such terms as "heresy" and "heretic." Since the Church acts with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Who is God, and since God is Love, it alone can properly anathematize and denounce what is wrong, since even in such rejection it acts out of love, both protecting its faithful members and calling those whom it repudiates to repentance. The Church alone, once more, can exercise such love. As humans, even our best intentions and actions are fallen, bereft of true love, and often vindictive. Let us, then, separate from what we perceive to be wrong, turning not to personal opinion and haughty dependence on the self, but to the guidance of pious Bishops and to those Churches which have, in the words of one Father (St. Basil the Great, Patrologia Graeca, Vol. XXXI, col. 1540), entered into a "lawful struggle" against the ills of our age, which ills will undoubtedly lead to Antichrist.

The word "not" was missing from the originally published article in Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XIII, Nos. 3&4.