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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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Remembering Cyril of Alexandria and the Twelve Anathemas

Cyril of Alexandria died on June 27, 444. Although his reputation has not survived entirely unscathed over the years, he is still widely regarded as one of the most important and influential theologians of the early church, and a staunch opponent of Nestorian christologies in any form. Here are the Twelve Anathemas that Cyril leveled against Nestorius and his supporters, arguing that the personal unity of Christ in the incarnation is of vital importance for Christian theology.

  1. If anyone does not confess the Emmanuel to be truly God, and hence the holy virgin to be Mother of God (for she gave birth in the flesh to the Word of God made flesh), let him be anathema.
  2. If anyone does not confess that the Word of God the Father was hypostatically united to the flesh so as to be One Christ with his own flesh, that is the same one at once God and man, let him be anathema.
  3. If anyone divides the hypostases of the One Christ after the union, connecting them only by a conjunction in terms of honour or dignity or sovereignty, and not rather by a combination in terms of natural union, let him be anathema.
  4. If anyone interprets the sayings in the Gospels and apostolic writings, or the things said about Christ by the saints, or the things he says about himself, as referring to two prosopa or hypostases, attributing some of them to a man conceived of as separate from the Word of God, and attributing others (as divine) exclusively to the Word of God the Father, let him be anathema.
  5. If anyone should dare to say that Christ was a God-bearing man and not rather that he is truly God as the one natural Son, since the Word became flesh and ‘shared in flesh and blood just like us’ (Heb.2.14), let him be anathema.
  6. If anyone says that the Word of God the Father is the God or Lord of Christ, and does not rather confess the same one is at once God and man, since according to the scriptures the Word has become flesh, let him be anathema.
  7. If anyone says that Jesus as a man was activated by the Word of God and invested with the glory of the Only Begotten, as being someone different to him, let him be anathema.
  8. If anyone should dare to say that the assumed man ought to be worshipped along with God the Word and co-glorified and called ‘God’ as if he were one alongside another (for the continual addition of the phrase ‘along with’ demands this interpretation) and does not rather worship the Emmanuel with a single veneration and render him a single doxology since the Word became flesh, let him be anathema.
  9. If anyone says that the One Lord Jesus Christ was glorified by the Spirit, using the power that came through him as if it were foreign to himself, and receiving from him the power to work against unclean spirits and to accomplish divine signs for men, and does not rather say that the Spirit is his very own, through whom he also worked the divine signs, let him be anathema.
  10. The divine scripture says that Christ became ‘the high priest and apostle of our confession’ (Heb.3.1) and ‘offered himself for our sake as a fragrant sacrifice to God the Father’ (Eph.5.2). So if anyone says that it was not the very Word of God who became our high priest and apostle when he became flesh and man as we are, but it was someone different to him, a separate man born of a woman; or if anyone says that he made the offering also for himself and not rather for us alone (for he who knew no sin had no need of offerings), let him be anathema.
  11. If anyone does not confess that the Lord’s flesh is life-giving and the very-own flesh of the Word of God the Father, but says that it is the flesh of someone else, different to him, and joined to him in terms of dignity, or indeed only having a divine indwelling, rather than being life-giving, as we have said, because it has become the personal flesh of the Word who has the power to bring all things to life, let him be anathema.
  12. If anyone does not confess that the Word of God suffered in the flesh, was crucified in the flesh, and tasted death in the flesh, becoming the first-born from the dead, although as God he is life and life-giving, let him be anathema.