Dogma and Heresy
The Seventh Sunday of Pascha, the Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost, commemorates the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council which was held in Nicaea in the year 325. If we attend to the hymns of this feast we will notice that the hymns state very clearly that we honor these Fathers because they fought heresy by teaching and upholding the dogmas of the Church.
These two terms – heresy and dogma – have fallen on hard times. In the religious and cultural climate of our day they are not only unfashionable, they are considered downright offensive. They are perceived as hard and inflexible terms, whereas our culture prefers its religion soft and pliable. (One indication of this is the fact that so many now insist that they are “spiritual, NOT religious.”) Many people would rather have a god of their own devising that makes them feel good about themselves than a God who reveals Himself in order to make us good. In such a climate the terms “heresy” and “dogma” can only be perceived negatively.
Orthodox Christians, however, desire to know the living God, not an idol of our own making. It is our firm belief that real life – eternal and abundant life – comes from knowing the living God and not from a self-deluding fantasy. And this is why “heresy” and “dogma” are terms that have not gone out of style in the Orthodox Church.
A dogma of the Church is a witness to the Church’s experience of God in Christ. It is a way of stating in words what the saints know to be true about God from their experience of God. For example, one who has truly known God in Christ knows that Christ is not only a prophet, or one witness to God among many, but rather the very Son of God who alone makes God – His Father – fully and truly known and unites us to Him. He cannot, then, be a created being, because if He was created He could not really unite us to God, but only tell us about Him. If Christ unites us to God and makes us communicants in divine life then Christ must be divine.
Now, if we were all saints we would know this in our own experience. But because we are not all saints, but rather on the way to becoming saints, the Church articulates the experience of God in dogmatic terms – or dogmas – as sign-posts to guide us on the path. The dogmas are not yet the experience of God, but they are the pointers to the experience.
And heresy, then? A heresy is, simply stated, a wrong turn; a dead end. It is a way that leads not to life but to spiritual death.
Let us not be ashamed, then, brothers and sisters, to use the terms “dogma” and “heresy”. They are an essential part of our heritage, our Tradition, as Orthodox Christians. But let us also recognize that our aim must not simply be to know the dogmas of the Church and to recognize heresy, but to become those for whom the dogmas of the Church have become our own experience in Christ.
With love in Christ, Fr John