What Is Heresy?


It’s a terrible sounding word. A word no one wants to be associated with.

After all, who wants to be called a ‘heretic’? For most of us, those are fighting words. We all like to see ourselves as the good guys. So, no one likes the word ‘heresy’ or ‘heretic.’

And yet, it’s a word that Vincent of Lérins insists on using in his Commonitorium. Vincent seems unable to talk about orthodoxy without also talking about heresy. 

He regularly refers to certain ideas as ‘heresy’ and to their advocates as ‘heretics.’ And he seems to have no shortage of them: Novatian, Sabellius, Donatus, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, Nestorius.

So, what exactly is heresy? What do we mean by it?

The word itself seems to have a short and simple history.

Heresy is from ancient Greek: αἵρεσις. And at its root, its most basic meaning is “choice, choosing for oneself.”

Which would explain why the word often shows up in the New Testament and other writings as a simple word for a political party or religious sect. So, for instance, in Acts 5:17 the high priest and his followers are referred to as “members of the party (αἵρεσις) of the Sadducees.”

The author isn’t making a value judgment on their particular beliefs. He is just noting to which party they belong. Are they Sadducee or Pharisee? In this case, they belong to the Sadducee party (αἵρεσις).

However, even in the New Testament, the word can have less neutral meanings. So, for instance, in Galatians 5:20 Paul is giving one of his famous lists of sins and vices, and at the end of the verse he lists: factions (αἱρέσεις).

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Orthodoxy Is: Universality, Antiquity, Consent – Vincent of Lérins

So, what exactly is orthodoxy?

According to Vincent of Lérins, orthodoxy is the Church’s theology. It is the way the Church interprets Sacred Scripture through Holy Tradition.

It’s not your interpretation. It’s not my interpretation. It’s the Church’s interpretation.

So, how do we determine what the Church’s interpretation is?

Well, Vincent says it is “that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” (2.6)

Only, Vincent doesn’t leave it at that. As mentioned in an earlier post, he expands on that and gives us his three-fold rule:

This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent.

We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses;

antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers;

consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.

So, this is the three-fold test: universality, antiquity, and consent.

First, the whole Church must believe it. Not just a part of the church. Not just our particular denomination, or even a segment of all our churches. For it to be truly orthodox Christian faith, the whole church throughout the world has to believe and hold to this thing.

Of course, Vincent isn’t talking about pure democracy here. He’s not interested in taking votes and counting them up to get a simple majority. Right is right, regardless of the number of people who adhere to it.

Nor is he naive to the fact that sometimes a new idea takes hold of the church for a time that later turns out to be wrong. See Arianism. Or any number of heresies that Vincent will list.

Sometimes the current majority of Christians get led astray or confused about something, and then later have to be corrected.

So, universality isn’t just about sheer numbers. Rather, it’s Vincent’s way of saying that the Church cannot be sectarian. To be an orthodox Christian, everyone everywhere has to hold to this idea. You can’t be Christian without it.

Like the Incarnation. You can’t be the Church, and you can’t be truly Christian if you don’t hold to the Incarnation the way the Church as a whole preaches and teaches it. It’s a universally held belief.

Of course, that raises the question: What do you do when a new idea seems to lead astray the vast majority of Christians? As Vincent puts it in 3.7:

What, if some novel contagion seek to infect not merely an insignificant portion of the Church, but the whole?

Then it will be his care to cleave to antiquity, which at this day cannot possibly be seduced by any fraud of novelty.

And this is the second step: Antiquity. What the Church has always believed.

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Why Is Scripture Alone Not Enough? – Vincent of Lérins

Isn’t Scripture by itself enough? After all, that is the old Protestant dictum, isn’t it? Sola Scriptura. Scripture Alone.

So, why do we need to add anything else to it? If we already have the Bible, why do we need to include Tradition as well? Isn’t that just an extra unnecessary layer?

And yet, Vincent of Lérins is very clear on this: We need Tradition. Scripture alone isn’t enough. Why? 

Vincent explains in ch. 2:5 of his Commonitorium:

But here someone perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation?

For this reason,—because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters.

Now, note two things. First, Vincent has a very high view of Scripture. For Vincent, the Bible is the ultimate authority on all matters of Christian faith. And it is “more than sufficient” for that purpose.

So, if the Bible is more than sufficient, why do we need to appeal to another authority like Tradition?

Because you and I are prone to misread and misinterpret the Bible. We are prone to misunderstand what the Bible was really trying to say.

This is Vincent’s second point here: You and I are the problem. Nothing is wrong with Sacred Scripture. The Bible is fully sufficient and complete. And in a perfect world it would be more than enough for us. Nothing else would have to be added.

However, you and I have a problem. We tend to read the Bible and come up with an endless variety of unique interpretations.

I read the Bible and take it one way. You read it and take it the exact opposite way. Our good friend next to us reads the exact same passage and takes it another way yet. Often, there are as many interpretations as there are people.

Who of us hasn’t been in a Bible study or small group and had this exact same experience? Each person in the group has a different reading of the text.

And how do we reconcile that? Who’s to say who is right?

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What Is Orthodoxy? – Vincent of Lérins

What is orthodoxy? What are those things that we must believe in order to be truly Christian?

Is it just what we find specifically mentioned in the Bible? Is it only those things we find specifically listed in the major creeds? Or is it simply what most of the Christians around us likewise believe?

What is it that makes us orthodox?

It’s a question that seems to be making the rounds in the church these days. And it’s likewise the question that bothered Vincent of Lérins.

Vincent was a monk in Gaul (France) who had attended the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. A few years later, around 434 AD, he wrote a little book called the Commonitorium, in which he tried to outline the process the council had used to verify what was orthodox Christian teaching and what wasn’t.

Vincent asks: How do we know what the truth is? How do we know who is right and who is wrong? How do we know what we can agree to disagree about, and what we simply cannot compromise on? How do we know for sure?

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John Chrysostom on the Jesus Prayer

In a Letter to Monks (PG 60, p. 753), John Chrysostom shares the following thoughts on the Jesus Prayer:

The remembrance of the name of Jesus rouses the enemy to battle. For a soul that forces itself to pray the Prayer of Jesus can find anything by this prayer, both good and evil.

First it can see evil in the recesses of its own heart, and afterwards good. This prayer can stir the snake to action, and this prayer can lay it low.

This prayer can expose the sin that is living in us, and this prayer can eradicate it. This prayer can stir up in the heart all the power of the enemy, and this prayer can conquer it and gradually root it out.

The name of the Lord Jesus Christ, as it descends into the depths of the heart, will subdue the snake which controls its ranges, and will save and quicken the soul.

Continue constantly in the name of the Lord Jesus that the heart may swallow the Lord and the Lord the heart, and that these two may be one.

However, this is not accomplished in a single day, nor in two days, but requires many years and much time. Much time and labor are needed in order to expel the enemy and instate Christ. (1)   

There are a number of things I really like about what Chrysostom shares here. First, he reminds us that meditative prayer is a powerful means of grace. On the one hand, it searches our hearts and reveals to us its contents, both good and bad. And on the other, it gives us the grace to overcome the bad and grow in the good.

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Prayer & Reading: Isidore of Seville

Isidore of Seville (ca. 560-636 AD), who was Archbishop of Seville, Spain starting around 600 AD, wrote a collection of maxims called the Sententiae. In Book 3, chapter 8, he said this about prayer and reading:

Prayer purifies us, reading instructs us. Both are good when both are possible. Otherwise, prayer is better than reading.

If a man wants to be always in God’s company, he must pray regularly and read regularly. When we pray, we talk to God; when we read, God talks to us.

All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection. By reading we learn what we did not know; by reflection we retain what we have learned.

Reading the Holy Scriptures confers two benefits. It trains the mind to understand them; it turns man’s attention from the follies of the world and leads him to the love of God.

The conscientious reader will be more concerned to carry out what he has read than merely to acquire knowledge of it. In reading we aim at knowing, but we must put into practice what we have learned in our course of study.

The more you devote yourself to study of the sacred utterances, the richer will be your understanding of them, just as the more the soil is tilled, the richer the harvest.

The man who is slow to grasp things but who really tries hard is rewarded, equally he who does not cultivate his God-given intellectual ability is condemned for despising his gifts and sinning by sloth.

Learning unsupported by grace may get into our ears; it never reaches the heart. But when God’s grace touches our innermost minds to bring understanding, his word which has been received by the ear sinks deep into the heart.

I find especially helpful his insight into the interplay between prayer and Scripture reading in the early part of the quote.

Prayer cleanses our heart and mind. It’s like a filter for the soul. Reading Scripture, especially if done in a prayerful manner, is the way we hear God speak through what God has already said. But, the key to that is faithful obedience. We read not to understand, but to obey, to fully integrate God’s Word in our lives.

Both are necessary, but if we have to choose one or the other, choose prayer.

I like that. It makes a lot of sense out of the tension between the two. What do you think?

Leviticus: The Wages of Sin Is Death

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)

It’s one of those lines from Paul that nearly all of us know. Even if we can’t always cite the chapter and verse, we know it’s Paul and we’re pretty sure it’s Romans. After all, this is part of what some call the Romans Road.

Only, it’s not really Paul. It’s actually Leviticus.

Now, mind you, that’s not always obvious right away. And it takes a bit of work to see it. But, if you follow the logic of Leviticus, you end up where Paul is in Romans 6: “The wages of sin is death.”

That is, sin always ends in death. Sin always costs a life. Not figuratively. Not metaphorically. Not even just spiritually, though there is a spiritual death. No, for Leviticus (and even Paul), it’s literal, physical. Sin literally, physically ends in death.

It’s the first lesson Leviticus teaches. Right out of the gate in chapter 1, Leviticus starts talking about how to sacrifice bulls, goats, sheep, and even doves and pigeons so that we can find favor in God’s eyes.

And it gives us a dizzying array of sacrifices to offer. Burnt offerings. Thank offerings. Sin offerings. Guilt offerings. Even grain offerings.

But, the bottom line is this: If you want God to forgive you your sin (particularly with a sin offering or guilt offering), it’s going to cost something its life.

Something has to die. You. Me. A bull. A goat. Whatever it is, something has to go up on that altar to die for that sin. That’s the inescapable logic of Leviticus.

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