What is heresy? The conciliar answer

“What is heresy?” you say. Well, that’s simple. Heresy is anything declared heretical by one of the first seven ecumenical councils. So, if hold to those councils, you’re fine. If you reject any of them, you’re a heretic.

That was easy.

What is heresy? Of the five answers we’ll be considering, this is one is the most popular and also the least satisfying. It’s the most popular because it’s the easiest and clearest. Many of the councils even provided lists. Arians, semi-Arians, Pneumatomachoi, Marcellians, Photinians, and Apollinarians all live on the wrong side of the tracks. How do I know? The First Council of Constantinople said so. (Now I just need to dig through some history text to figure out what in the world “Photinians” are. Sounds like something from Star Trek.)

But, I really don’t find this approach terrible helpful.

1. It really doesn’t tell us what heresy is. For our purposes, this is really the core problem. Suppose that I asked you to tell me what a “disease” is, and you said “cancer.” That’s kind of helpful. At least know I know that cancer is a disease. But what does disease mean? You can list specific diseases all day long, but you haven’t really answered the question. The same problem is at work here. Arianism is a heresy. Great, but what is heresy? How did the Nicene fathers determine that Arianism was heresy? How did they decide that Arius was a heretic and not Athanasius? Why did they even think that labeling something as heresy was necessary? Questions like these press beyond particular examples of heresy and probe into the nature of heresy itself.

2. It focuses on the seven ecumenical councils. I love this part of the argument, particularly when it gets used by Protestants. Here’s a quick test for all the Protestants out there: name the first seven ecumenical councils and what issues they each addressed…without using Wikipedia. When most Protestants (at least the ones I know) talk about the 7 ecumenical councils, they’re really talking about two: Nicea/Constantinople (most of the time we just mash those two together) and Chalcedon (we tend to skip Ephesus). We know hardly anything about the others. Yet we throw the number 7 around like a holy talisman that wards off heresy. The argument also fails for Catholics who have quite a few other authoritative councils. So, there’s no reason for them to identify these as the sole arbiters of what qualifies as heresy.

3. It takes away our ability to identify heresy today. Do we really believe that anything worthy of the name “heresy” arose in the first few centuries of the church? Humans are amazingly creative beings. We’re constantly coming up with new ways to do stupid things. So, why would we think that the church addressed every possible heresy at these 7 councils? Yet, I often hear people wield this argument almost as a club to prevent people from using the term “heresy” today. “That can’t be a heresy, it wasn’t addressed at one of the 7 ecumenical councils.” Whatever heresy is, it sounds bad. So, we should probably be able to recognize it today.

4. It assumes a problematic level of conciliar authority. Problematic, that is, for Protestants. Even Protestants with a great appreciation for church history have a problem with simply affirming the absolute authority of a church council to define heresy. That’s just not how Protestantism works. We can have high regard for the decisions of an ecumenical council, even choosing to assume that these councils did in fact teach biblical truth faithfully, and thus exercising extreme caution whenever someone suggests that one may have erred in some way. But, we can’t simply say: “The Council taught it. I believe it. That settles it.”

5. We apply the councils selectively. If I said that the Son was a created being who was not eternal with the Father, people would get pretty upset. And, if I said that Jesus was just a normal human person who was chosen and empowered by the eternal Son, a completely separate person, I would have serious job-security issues. But, what if I made an argument like this. (1) Jesus is a single, unified person. (2) Persons have a “will” by which they choose to do (or not do) certain things. (3) So, where there are two wills, there are two persons. (4) Therefore, in the incarnation, Jesus had one will. Otherwise, you’d end up with two persons in incarnation (Nestorianism) or a Jesus who has a split-personality disorder. I know many theologians who hold to this argument or something very like it. And, I can guarantee that I could develop this argument in a book, with very little response from the Christian community. But, there’s one problem. It’s heresy. At least, according to the Conciliar Answer it is. This view is known as Monothelitism and was rejected as heretical at the Sixth Ecumenical Council. (Explaining why it was rejected would take too long. For our purpose, it’s enough to know that it was.) Why do we get all upset at someone who affirms one heresy (Arianism) but not another (Monothelitism)?

So, I don’t think the Conciliar Answer gets us very far in understanding heresy. But, it does point in helpful directions. As we’ll see throughout this series, it’s almost impossible to define “heresy” without taking a close look at the historical situations that caused particular communities to identify some belief/group as heretical. So, studying the first seven ecumenical councils (among others) is a great way to understand what heresy is and how the label has been used by the church. But, that’s a more complex task than simply saying that heresy simply is whatever these seven councils declared to be heretical.

[This post is part of our series on “What is ‘Heresy’ and Who Is a ‘Heretic’?”]

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About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on September 29, 2011, in Early Church, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Terrific post, approachable, and (as far as I can see) complete. Thanks, Marc! Looking forward to the rest of this series.

  2. Nice Marc! This sets the stage, would that Christian people would get a grip here, as to this grand subject! But again, where is the Judeo-Christian “authority”? My point is authority is somewhat a lost art/subject today, in both Church and Culture!

  3. Photinians are probably the “followers” (I put quotes because charges of heresy are often thrown around though not always true) of Photinus. Supposedly he held that “Jesus Christ (took) his beginnings from Mary, and he was adopted a Son by the Father on account of the pre-eminence of his holy behaviour and the incomparable merit of his blessedness” (R. P. C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, 238 quoting Vigilius of Thapse’s Dialogue against Arians, Sabellians and Photinians).

  4. Marc: I wonder if the fact that Protestants don’t understand the first 7 Councils very well is pointing us to the fact that we should learn them better, rather to the fact that they don’t help us define heresy very well. For instance, Athanasius (who is, admittedly, 60-80 years before my area of research) seems to show us that something is defined as heresy if it threatens the salvation being offered in the gospel. If Jesus is a created being, then we have salvation in a created being, and that cannot be the salvation that he offers.

    Another reason that we may not see the councils as helpful is that we are looking to parse heresy in a less ecumenical way than the early church. Many of our Protestant brothers and sisters seem to gain a certain amount of pleasure in pushing as many people across the line of heresy as possible – perhaps it serves as a validation of their own fidelity?

    Conversely, when it came to the councils, it seems that the early church took their time and tried to keep the umbrella as broad as possible – the downplay of the Theopaschite controversy that followed Chalcedon seems to be an example of this (some monks came out of Lower Moecia wanting everyone to adopt “One of the Trinity was crucified” as an addendum to Chalcedon to show who was and who was not interpreting the council correctly. They were loud, but seem to have been ignored and moved around because leaders in Constantinople and Rome did not want to create another dividing line at a time when church unity was so fragile). As always, I could be wrong on this. These are just some impressions I’ve gained so far.

  5. I also wonder if a distinction between “heresy” and, let’s say, “falsehood” or “error” isn’t necessary to this discussion. As it has been used historically, heresies are specific doctrinal positions that are ruled out of court by ecumenical councils. That list is finite, includes anathemas against things most Protestants wouldn’t necessary bat at eye at (e.g. iconoclasm), and certainly doesn’t include a whole lot of things we think are theologically vital (such as how the work of atonement is described).

    My point is that “heresy” simply isn’t a valid word to use when speaking against a theological position with which one merely disagrees — and, unfortunately, this sort of usage is all too common today. Those who reject the penal substitution model in favor of something like Abelard’s moral exemplarism may have a lot of ‘splainin to do, but they are not “heretics” in any meaningful sense.

    • That’s absolutely correct. Any adequate definition of heresy needs to explain at least how heresy is different from (1) orthodoxy, (2) error, and (3) legitimate diversity. Otherwise, we’ll end up with a definition that’s not terribly helpful

      You’re last statement, though, goes to the very nature of the problem. Is Abelard’s theory of the atonement heresy? That’s hard to say until we’ve come up with an adequate definition of heresy. It certainly isn’t heresy in the sense of having been rejected by one of the seven ecumenical councils. But, we’ll see that there are a couple of other definitions that might well include something like this in its understanding of heresy. Whether those definitions are any good, of course, will be something we’ll have to discuss when we get to them.

      • I’m intrigued, for sure. So for now I’ll just reserve the right to resurrect Abelard (figuratively!) in a future thread. 😉

        My skepticism, with regard to a definition of heresy that moves out of the sphere of ecclesiology (whether totally or partially), is that it might inevitably break down to the mere plurality of (theoretically) legitimate hermeneutical options — Joe’s reading of Scripture against Jane’s. But I’m ready to be convinced that this isn’t necessarily the case.

      • That will definitely be a challenge for several of the definitions on the table. And, it’s the challenge that I think any Protestant attempt to define heresy has to address.

        Definitely feel free to re-introduce Abelard later. That might be a good test case to apply along the way.

      • Marc: As to Abelard and the Atonement, we simply must look at the Roman Catholic Church here, and in this sense, and too the East, there is no dogma of the Atonement. The Church, at its Councils, has never made a definite pronouncement with regard to this doctrine. Here there are no sterotyped words, or sacrosanct terms, save perhaps those of simply Scripture. And here the Atonement is more dependent on the experience of Christian men or people than almost any other basal truth of the Christian faith. Indeed most of the great theories of the Atonement follow from the experience of God’s saving grace in the soul, although they are molded by the modes of thought of the time in which they are stated. And really few, if any, are purely philosophical or theological. A case may be made out of Anselm, that he based his theory on philosophical principles and that he he followed a particular method. A somewhat similar claim may be made for the Grotian theory. But from Augustine to Luther, from Calvin to Dale, and on to the present day, men’s theories here (the Atonement) spring from their experiences. And we can say it also stresses the importance of the fact, and the experience of it as a fact, rather than the full understanding of it. Though we can and make note, the spiritual interpretaion to the great fact that lies at the heart of our Redemption, includes something of its judicial aspect, as God is just, but also loving, the Father, rather than only Judge or Moral Governor.

      • I’m not necessarily disagreeing with this, but the point of this whole series is that this presumes a particular definition of heresy (i.e. heresy is whatever the church – however you define “church” – has defined it to be). That’s an option worth considering, though it’s problematic for many Protestants, but it is an assumption that needs to be tested before we can adopt it as an adequate definition.

      • Yeah Marc, the real issue here for me anyway is twofold, what is ‘the Church’, and what is ‘Authority’? This will really define so-called heresy! But indeed two weak areas certainly in the history of so-called Protestant and Evangelicalism!

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