Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Transcending the Anathemas

My dear brother-in-Christ, Daniel, recently asked a very interesting question in his blog. In essence, he was inquiring whether it was appropriate to pronounce "anathemas" upon heretics, especially in view of the early church councils that had previously declared the same upon the likes of Arius. He queried, "Since these early church leaders [unanimously] passed judgment on all who follow these heresies, are we to follow their lead and [anathematize] all who follow those same heresies, i.e. Arianism, Sabellianism, Gnosticism, Pelagianism, monothelitism, monophysitism etc.?"

In response to Daniel’s question, we may be quick to give a reply according to the Fourth Teaching of father Kosmas, but again, would we want to do that? The father had taught,

"Be careful, my fellow Christians, never pronounce anathemas, because anathema is separation from God, from the angels, from paradise, and leads to the devil and to hell.

It was for that brother's sake that Christ was crucified, to get him out of hell; and you, for an insignificant thing, pronounce an anathema against him? You put him into hell to burn forever? Are you so hard-hearted? But just think how many sins you have committed from the day of your birth; how many sins have you committed with your eyes, your mouth, or in your mind? Do you think you are sinless?

The holy Gospel tells us only Christ is without sin. We human beings are all sinners, so don't pronounce anathemas. This is why, my fellow Christians, if you wish God to forgive you of all your sins and to put you into paradise, let your nobility say three times for your enemies: "May God forgive and have mercy upon them.’"
Although we do not have the time to argue against the theological errors found within the writings of father Kosmas, we must nevertheless take a little time to study what it means to anathematize someone, especially in the context of the Second Council of Constantinople. In the context of the New Testament (Rom 9:3, 1 Cor 12:3, Gal 1:8-9, 1 Cor 16:22), the Thayer’s Greek Definition defines "anathema" as "a thing devoted to God without hope of being redeemed, and if an animal, to be slain; therefore a person or thing doomed to destruction; 2a) a curse; 2b) a man accursed, devoted to the direst of woes." Furthermore, we also know that "the non-Attic form [of the word "anathema"] was adopted in the Septuagint as a rendering of the Hebrew herem, and gradually came to have the significance of the Hebrew word-"anything devoted to destruction" (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)."

But to the early church fathers, the meaning of "anathema" had adopted the nuance of a "major excommunication," even to the extent of condemning the subject to eternal damnation unless the subject repents. As stated in the ISBE, "Whereas in the Greek Fathers [the word "anathema"] -as herem in rabbinic Hebrew-came to denote excommunication from society."

We realize that there were no official pronouncements of "anathema" within the first three centuries of the early church. Also, anathemas were not mentioned in the well-known creeds, for example, 1) The Nicene Creed (Council of Constantinople (381AD), 2) The Definition of Chalcedon (451AD), and 3) The Canons of the Council of Orange (529AD).

However, after the first three hundred years of the Christian Church, anathemas such as those of the Second Council of Constantinople (553AD) started to appear. Timothy George in his paper, "Dogma Beyond Anathema: Historical Theology in the Service of the Church," notes that "the first official mention of "anathema" is from the Council of Elvira, held about 306." After this, the pronunciation of anathemas was a mean of excommunicating heretics. In "The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Vol. III," we find the anathemas of Cyril of Alexandria issued against Nestorius in 431AD. By the period of the Second Council of Constantinople, the excommunication of a church member meant cutting off a person from the Lord’s Supper and attendance at worship, while "anathema" meant a complete separation of the person from the Church.
So, in answer to Daniel’s question, can we as Christians pronounce anathema upon a heretic in view of previous church council decisions?

This question must be answered in two aspects. Firstly, we must discuss the spirit and intention of such a pronouncement. There is a Particular Baptist hymn that reads as follow:

We are the Lord’s elected few,
Let all the rest be damned;
There’s room enough in hell for you,
We won’t have heaven crammed.

When we consider the hymn, we realize that Christians are indeed the Lord’s elected, that those who are not elected are damned, that there is truly enough room in hell for all the reprobates, and that heaven will not be crammed. But any God-loving, soul-winning Christian will not find this hymn edifying to the sanctification of the redeemed man. My question is: In what spirit do you think this hymn was written? In a spirit of Christian love for the lost?

In like manner, we should consider these questions: Why do we want to pronounce an anathema upon a heretic when it is enough that we can identify, mark, and separate from him? Why must we pronounce a curse and damnation upon such a man when we can warn the flock, protect the Church, and publicly denounce such a false teacher? I believe we ought to be careful with any spirit that seeks to pronounce such a judgment upon any man. As Francis Schaeffer had elucidated in his book, The Great Evangelical Disaster, we must seek to balance our pursuit of holiness and doctrinal purity with love. Even a heretic deserves at least our correction and kindness. We do not know if such a man will ever repent. We do not know if he is simply misled or misunderstood. Most of all, we can never know whether such a man is elect or not. Can we say with absolute certainty that a heretical scholar will never be illuminated by the Holy Ghost and the light of the Truth?

The second problem we must address is the issue of ecclesiastical authority. In church history, anathemas were pronounced upon heretics and heretical groups by Church Councils. Within the New Testament, where the word anathema occurs in four places, it was the Apostle Paul who pronounced the anathema, and that was with the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. When we consider the contemporary context, even the excommunication of an individual, let alone the official pronunciation of "anathema," is decided upon by the church’s session consisting of a plurality of elders. If a lone pastor or bishop cannot make an arbitrary decision to excommunicate anyone, how much more a church member?

But here we are discussing the appropriateness of anathematizing a heretic in a private capacity, albeit based upon prior decisions made by historic church councils. My humble opinion would be this: historic orthodoxy as defined by the early church is definitive and authoritative for us today as far as it is according to the Holy Scriptures. Evangelicals should be guided by the historic, Christian faith in their judgment of what is, and is not heresy. Nevertheless, when making decisions concerning the excommunication of heretics, the church’s session should be made the final arbiter, especially in cases when there is no classis or synod to appeal to. Therefore, in the pronunciation of anathemas - which is a more severe form of judgment compared to mere ecclesiastical excommunication - individuals cannot and must not possess the authority to make any such decisions.

Furthermore, we must realize that there is indeed a difference between saying, "The Council of X has pronounced an anathema against the heresy you hold," and, "I hereby pronounce anathema upon you, the heretic. Anathema sit!" The former sentence recognizes the authority of the early church councils, while the latter seems to emphasize the personal authority of the one who made the pronouncement. Unless one is backed by the decision of a church council, it is understood that one may not make such a pronouncement.

Within an ecclesiastical milieu, we must agree with Timothy George that, "There are times in the life of the church when it is necessary to say "Be accursed, be delivered up to the wrath of God and destroyed," for that is what anathema means in the original Pauline sense: "If anyone preaches another gospel, let him anathema!" The condemnatory clauses of the Nicene Creed are an expression of the church’s response to identify forms of teaching which if carried out consistently would have threatened the truth of divine revelation itself." (Timothy George, "Dogma Beyond Anathema: Historical Theology in the Service of the Church," Review and Expositor 84: 704, emphasis mine).

Made by the collective representatives of the Christian Church, such an official pronouncement serves to warn the flock against the soul damning heresies of the false teacher. On a private basis, the church member may write, teach, or verbally warn fellow Christians with regard to public false teachings and teachers, particularly heresies. This, however, does not relief him from honest, in-depth research and study prior to making any judgment against the alleged false teacher. The church member should also discuss his concerns with the church leaders. This is to avoid unnecessary paranoia and erroneous judgments.

Finally, "the church should avoid the use of anathema as an instrument of eternal coercion and use it only as a decision of faith in its proclamation of the whole counsel of God, the word of judgment and damnation as well as the word of grace and deliverance."(Ibid.)

(Note: One is advised to be cautious when attempting to utilize 2 Peter and Jude to make the case that all heretics are indeed damned. But this is rightly the content of other posts.)


Jenson said...

It is easy, isn't it, to sit behind our computers, and anathematize others?

I wonder how many of those who do so are also drunkards, Sabbath-breakers, porn-surfers...

"...all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful..."
Romans 1:29-31

Spiritual Israel said...

Dear Vincent,
I agree with what you said.

Mike Messerli said...

good post, Vincent, I had not really seen anything written to discuss this before, so it was very interesting. Thank you. Personally, I have been so evangelistic focused in my life that I would very hesitant to anathematize hopes that they may one day repent before their last breath...

thanks for making me think.

ddd said...


just a question: How much time do you spend on the ground getting your hands dirty ministering to Christians from other churches and denominations, especially compromising ones?

Jenson said...

Hi Vincent,

As a (hopefully helpful) digression, I just sent you an email about an unrelated issue. Please check your email, many thanks!