Appreciating Anathemas

The decrees and canons of the Provincial and Ecumenical Councils today often sound odd in our modern ears—the Council Fathers were so zealous, serious, intent, and well, intolerant. The Council of Gangra, for example, dealing with a movement in the Church which took a dim view of sex, decreed, “If anyone shall condemn marriage or abominate and condemn a woman who is a believer and devout and sleeps with her own husband as though she could not enter the Kingdom, let him be anathema.” Or consider also the first canon of the first council of Constantinople: “The Faith of the three hundred and eighteen Fathers assembled at Nicea in Bithynia shall not be set aside, but shall remain firm. And every heresy shall be anathematized, particularly that of the Eunomians and that of the Semi-Arians and that of the Sabellians and that of the Marcellians and that of the Photinians and that of the Apollinarians.” When Cyril of Alexandria wanted to draw his line in the sand against Nestorius of Constantinople, he did it in the form of twelve anathemas. One could say more, but you get the idea. All of the Council Fathers were very, very clear about which views were allowed in the Church and which views weren’t. Certain views were declared forbidden to the faithful on pain of anathema—that is, if one held and taught them, one would be kicked out of the Eucharistic communion of the Church. In their view one did not dialogue with heretics, but refuted their arguments and expelled them from the Church if they refused correction.

This contrasts notably with our modern era. We are often relativistic, but we don’t notice it for the same reason that fish (presumably) do not notice they are wet—namely, the wetness (or relativism) is all around them and they have never known anything else. This theological relativism is one fruit of our political pluralism. That is, in our western culture, pretty much all varieties of thought, opinion, and religion are allowed to co-exist, and so we often draw the unwarranted conclusion that all are equally theologically legitimate. In this pluralistic world, anathematizing anyone’s view is considered not only embarrassingly rude, but also unenlightened, immoral, and perhaps a little dangerous. “Live and let live” becomes the foundation for everything, and those wanting to upset the pluralistic apple-cart are emphatically unwelcome.

I have no interest in arguing against political pluralism, Justinian’s example notwithstanding. I am happy that our society allows all kinds of debate, free speech, and the consideration of everyone’s opinion. But I do take issue with the theological relativism that often seems allied to it, so that one concludes that such untrammelled freedom of thought and acceptance of all views are allowed in the Church as well. I am reminded of Chesterton’s aphorism about the value of an open mind—that we open our mind for the same reason that we open our mouth: to close it on something solid. Our own theological relativism presents the spectacle of a multitude of people walking through the world with their theological mouths open.

We see this relativism in action whenever we use the words “heretic” or “heresy” in polite conversation. The words not only sound culturally anachronistic, but for many people bring up unwelcome and unsavoury associations. If I say that an opinion is heretical, I am often looked at as if I had just emerged out from under some medieval rock, and I am asked if I therefore favour the Inquisition, the rack, the auto-da-fe, and (of course) the Crusades. The category of “heresy” has, in effect, been banned in polite modern discourse, sometimes even among Christians. Yet the category remains as a kind standing protest against our beloved relativism, and our conviction that all beliefs are equally valid so long as they are sincerely held by nice people. Especially in the world of ivory-tower academia where all things are up for debate, acceptance of the category of heresy is not allowed. (I acknowledge, by the way, that not all academics live in ivory towers or regard everything as up for debate. There are wonderful exceptions.)

The use of the phrase “let him be anathema” which found its way into so much of the conciliar legislation and canons comes ultimately from St. Paul. At the conclusion of his first Epistle to the Corinthians, thinking of those who had loved the Lord and then fell away to join His enemies, he wrote, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be anathema!” (1 Corinthians 16:22) Paul was not legislating, or issuing a canon. He was crying from the heart (as he did in Galatians 1:8-9) and trying to persuade the faithful to hold fast their love for Christ in the midst of a hostile and cold world.

He was also drawing a line in the sand. The Christians were God’s holy nation, the true chosen people—and the rest of the world was not. God’s grace may not have strictly defined borders, but the Church did. Some were in, and some were out, and living a certain way or believing certain things would get you placed among the latter (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, 1 Timothy 1:20, 2 Timothy 2:18). In society one could believe, teach, and promote anything one liked. But once one joined the Church, one found oneself committed to a particular standard of teaching (Romans 6:17), and from that time on were no longer free to believe whatever took one’s fancy. If one decided nonetheless to believe and teach things contrary to the Church’s teaching, one would be asked (or compelled) to leave. Of course one could always start one’s own church. And many did.

That was the point of all those anathemas. They were not intended by the Council Fathers as swear words, as if the heretics were mean, evil, or ill-intentioned people. All the heretics were well-intentioned, and possibly very nice when met at cocktail parties as well. The anathemas were intended to serve as boundaries, borders, and warning signs. They were not intended just or even mainly for those holding the condemned teachings, but for the mass of the faithful. The anathemas were like road signs, saying, “Warning: Road Washed Out Ahead”, or “Beware of Falling Rocks”. The condemned teachings were not banned because the Council Fathers could not bear to engage in dialogue or hated to be contradicted. They were banned out of pastoral concern for the souls of those not yet infected. Holding the banned teaching would lead to spiritual ruin on the part of the one holding it. Heresy was not simply incorrect opinion, like thinking the world was flat, or that it was St. Peter who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews. Heresy was poison, and as such would eventually kill you if you consumed it. If one considers all doctrine simply as academic exercise or as cerebral opinion, then of course one also considers the Fathers over the top in their denunciation of heresy. But if heresy is not just an opinion you hold, but also a life you live, then one begins to see what got the Fathers so worked up about it.

In the world of Science (the word usually spoken in reverent if not hushed tones, and always spelled with a capital), of course all questions are perennially open and all debate welcomed. Science advances by discovery and experiment, and further discoveries could make current convictions out-dated. Accordingly then even the most firmly-held conclusions are in principle open to revision. But Christian theology is not Science; its conclusions are not based upon experiment and discovery, but upon revelation. Christ taught certain things, and for those of us who worship Him as God, His own personal authority suffices. That is why considering all questions as open questions and all debate as legitimate, though legitimate in scientific questions, is out of court in theological ones. Of course we keep an open mind when we are looking for the truth. But as soon as we have found the truth, our mind is no longer open. Like a hungry open mouth, it has closed on something solid.



  1. Father Bless!
    Thank you for reminding us of the works the Fathers have done in establishing the faith. I am very grateful they set the standard for us.
    You make a good point that in this age of relativism the mere mention of the word ‘heretic’/ ‘heresy’ is an anathema in itself. It surely is akin to a curse word. And naturally so, as the spirit of this age is ‘anything goes’. I’ve noticed the labels too…and I believe I’d be put in the “conservative” camp. No matter though…I simply want to follow our tradition…in thanks and honor to our Fathers.
    Appreciate this post Father.

  2. Very enlightening article Father. Thank you for helping me to understand the reall meanings of anathema and heresy

  3. Two things;
    First, though I am no language scholar, my husband told me that the root of the word “heresy” comes from a word meaning to choose. If that is correct, then it takes away the sting of the word as a swear word, but loads it up with personal implications. How often am I choosing what I want to believe about God and the church rather than submitting to the tradition of the church?

    Second, funny you should mention Science as something where everything is open to evaluation and revision. In my experience, it’s much more socially acceptable for Science to issue anathemas than anybody else these days 😉

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