Ecclesiastical labels are helpful, but they have their limits. In particular such labels as “Arian”, “Monophysite”, “Nestorian” should be used with care. They accurately describe outward membership in certain communities, and can help describe certain erroneous doctrines, but may not necessarily tell the whole story of the human heart or of the ultimate fate of the person.
Take for example Nicetas the Goth. The Goths were Arians. According to the Synaxarion, “Nicetas was instructed in the holy Scriptures by [bishop] Theophilus’ successor Ulfilas, who devised an alphabet in order to translate the Scriptures into the Gothic tongue and who laid upon Nicetas the task of continuing his work and spreading the faith among the people”. A footnote explains that “Ulfilas was a native of Cappadocia who had been captured by the Goths…Besides translating the Scriptures, he worked hard for the conversion of the Germanic peoples, but, since he belonged to the ‘homoiousian’ party of moderate Arians, he bore some responsibility for the converted Goths siding with the heretics.”
A moderate Arian? What does that mean? It means that labels sometimes cannot tell the whole story.
We see this kind of complication in other parts of the Church’s history as well. Take for example St. Meletius. He was appointed bishop of Antioch in 360 by the then dominant Arian faction. Within a month of his consecration as bishop, it became apparent that he was more Nicene in his sympathies than Arian, and he was repeatedly exiled from the city. He unexpectedly died in Constantinople in 381 after presiding over the Second Ecumenical Council. Chrysostom, who had been baptized by him when he was a teenager, a generation or so later when he was a priest in Antioch, preached a sermon on his feast day praising his former bishop.
Significantly Chrysostom did not mention in his sermon the fact that during Meletius’ day he was not regarded as the lawful bishop of Antioch by the churches of Egypt and the West (Rome being particularly hostile to his claim), who regarded the more staunchly Nicene Paulinus as the true bishop of Antioch. This messy time in Antioch is known to history as “the Meletian schism”. Labels during this time can sometimes prove unhelpful and disguise the complexity of the issue, since St. Athanasius of Alexandria did not support Meletius’ claim to the Antiochene throne, while St. Basil did.
Then there is the case of the holy martyr St. Lucian, who died in 312, almost a hundred years before Chrysostom. Chrysostom preached a sermon lauding him as well, though (as with his sermon on St. Meletius), he did leave out a detail or two. In particular, “John ignores the fact that Lucian taught at Antioch a radical subordinationism that anticipated Arius” (from Wendy Mayer’s notes on Chrysostom’s sermons on The Cult of the Saints, SVS Press, p. 64). Doubtless Chrysostom thought that what mattered more was Lucian’s love for Christ and his willingness to die for Him. And Chrysostom was not wrong. Let us think that Lucian’s heart was in a better space than his head.
Finally we might consider Isaac of Nineveh. Isaac was born on the Persian Gulf, and became a monk and a teacher of the Scriptures near his native home. As one biographer (Mary Hansbury in the SVS Popular Patristics Series) says, “The Nestorian Patriarch George noticed Isaac during a pastoral visit and took him back to Mesopotamia with him. George eventually consecrated Isaac bishop of Nineveh (ca. 660-680) at the monastery of Beth Abhe”. Wait: the Nestorian patriarch? Yep. But Isaac was so good and so full of spiritual insight that everyone now acknowledges his sanctity and wisdom, including us non-Nestorian Chalcedonian Orthodox, for Isaac was not spouting erroneous Christology, but offering godly ascetical counsel. His supposed Nestorianism, like the supposed Arianism of Ulfilas, may have been nothing more than a geographical label, indicating where he had lived.
I mention these examples not to suggest that labels have no value, and certainly not to suggest that heresy is no big deal. Heresy is a big deal, and we could hardly do without any labels if we wanted to. But labels, for all their usefulness, have their limitations, and often God’s grace overflows such things as geographical labels. After all, the wind blows where it wills (John 3:8), and the Spirit of God cannot easily be captured and pinned down by human labels. God’s grace tends to overflow boundaries, and we do our best to keep up. That is why Nicetas, Meletius, Lucian have a place in the Church calendar, and why we are happy to learn wisdom from such men as Isaac of Nineveh. The Church looks at the men themselves, not merely at the labels placed on them by historians.