Diseased Doctors

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Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check. (James 3:1-2 NIV)

For there must be also heresies: that they also, who are approved, may be made manifest among you. (1 Corinthians 11:19 DRA)

From the earliest days of Christianity, heresy has been one of its thorns in the flesh. Stretching back to those who would require circumcision to the present-day manifestations of Gnosticism, heterodoxy is simply a fact of life. In fact, since many of the earliest writings- both canonical and not- were written to correct errors in teaching and belief, there is no golden age of pristine unity to which one might return.

One of the paradoxes (or perhaps ironies) of this state of affairs is that more often than not it is those who have the greatest gifts and the most influence who end of having the greatest falls. On some level this is understandable, given the axiom that “the bigger they are the harder they fall.” But one might reasonably wonder why God would allow such terrible trials to befall his church; is the resulting black eye really worth it?

Nor is this question a modern one; Christian writers have been asking it for centuries. One of the more famous treatments comes from St. Vincent of Lerins in his Commonitorium. While this work is more well-known for its treatment of the marks of orthodoxy, he necessarily deals with the diabolical irony of how it seems that most eminent of teachers tend to be the ones who turn into heresiarchs:

But some one will ask, How is it then, that certain excellent persons, and of position in the Church, are often permitted by God to preach novel doctrines to Catholics? A proper question, certainly, and one which ought to be very carefully and fully dealt with, but answered at the same time, not in reliance upon one’s own ability, but by the authority of the divine Law, and by appeal to the Church’s determination. (St. Vincent of Lerins, Commonitorium, 10.27)

He begins by looking at his go-to text from Deuteronomy 13:

If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 13:1-3 NIV)

As aforementioned, St. Paul makes a remarkably similar argument in 1 Corinthians, to the effect that error and heresies arise as a means of testing the faithful, to discover if they will hold fast to the truth and continue to love God even when faced with a doctrine that seemingly has more appeal by virtue of the person promulgating it. Importantly, the nature of heresy in this conception is not weighted towards the doctrine it espouses so much as towards the one who initiates it. The reason for this is rooted in the psychology of the relationship between teacher and student, follower and leader. Those who have authority and esteem and prestige have an enormous amount of influence on others, and our nature as human beings is to assign to those we respect the benefit of the doubt; as such, errors and the like can creep in unnoticed because of our love and respect. St. Vincent explains why such a state of affairs constitutes a great trial for the church:

And assuredly it is a great trial when one whom you believe to be a prophet, a disciple of prophets, a doctor and defender of the truth, whom you have folded to your breast with the utmost veneration and love, when such a one of a sudden secretly and furtively brings in noxious errors, which you can neither quickly detect, being held by the prestige of former authority, nor lightly think it right to condemn, being prevented by affection for your old master. (St. Vincent of Lerins, Commonitorium, 10.28)

Christian history is replete with eminent teachers, thinkers and theologians who have gone astray and become like the very heresiarchs they opposed elsewhere. Nor were these unintelligent men or obscure backwoodsmen; on the contrary, they are often the most learned and influential and revered personages in their contemporary context. St. Vincent mentions names like Nestorius, Apollinarius and Photinus as men who were eminent, well-learned, holy, respected and who had themselves opposed errors in others. But when it came down to it they ultimately succumbed to their own devises, and St. Vincent’s eulogy for Apollinarius is filled with profound regret:

It would take a long time to enumerate all his works, which assuredly would have placed him on a level with the very chief of the Church’s builders, if that profane lust of heretical curiosity had not led him to devise I know not what novelty which as though through the contagion of a sort of leprosy both defiled all his labours, and caused his teachings to be pronounced the Church’s trial instead of the Church’s edification. (St. Vincent of Lerins, Commonitorium, 10.31)

The great irony of heresy, especially when from the lips of the heresiarchs who are otherwise holy and wise men, is that what should have been a great blessing to Church ends up becoming an even greater trial. The danger comes in that the error is often only in one thing, but as is the nature of heresy that one thing gets magnified out of proportion to the rest and either becomes warped in its emphasis or simply by means of emphasis becomes detached from the rest of the deposit of faith. This type of heresy becomes the most pernicious because the rest of what is proposed may very well be in keeping with the truth, and since the heresiarch may very well be holy and learned and respected it becomes even more difficult to detect the error and even harder to keep from succumbing to it oneself. St. Vincent recapitulates his former argument:

We said above that in the Church of God the teacher’s error is the people’s trial, a trial by so much the greater in proportion to the greater learning of the erring teacher. This we showed first by the authority of Scripture, and then by instances from Church History, of persons who having at one time had the reputation of being sound in the faith, eventually either fell away to some sect already in existence, or else founded a heresy of their own. An important fact truly, useful to be learned, and necessary to be remembered, and to be illustrated and enforced again and again, by example upon example, in order that all true Catholics may understand that it behooves them with the Church to receive Teachers, not with Teachers to desert the faith of the Church. (St. Vincent of Lerins, Commonitorium, 10.42)

The difficulty, of course, is that those who become the Church’s greatest trial are often first received in good faith, but then wander away dragging many along with them. The psychological struggle to choose between the teacher under whose guidance one has grown in faith and the faith itself to which the that same teacher in some points or another opposes himself has already been noted, and St. Vincent provides perhaps history’s greatest example: Origen.

Origen was a scholar and theologian who even in his own day was renowned for his brilliance, holiness and erudition. His father ended his life as a martyr, and Origen himself attained to being a Confessor. He was also one of the most prolific writers in all of human history; St. Jerome lists an incomplete catalogue of his works at over 2000 volumes. Even Porphyry, Christianity’s most formidable ancient critic, recognized Origen’s intellectual mastery, and many of Christianity’s most notable theologians received their instruction from his hand.

Although St. Vincent will ultimately use Origen as his most unfortunate example, he nevertheless has unabashed praise for the man and his legacy:

Time would fail me to recount, even in a very small measure, the excellencies of this man, all of which, nevertheless, not only contributed to the glory of religion, but also increased the magnitude of the trial. For who in the world would lightly desert a man of so great genius, so great learning, so great influence, and would not rather adopt that saying, That he would rather be wrong with Origen, than be right with others. (St. Vincent of Lerins, Commonitorium, 17.44)

Ultimately, St. Vincent locates Origen’s error (and really that of all heresiarchs) is that most ancient of sins: pride. Origen, St. Vincent believes, was led astray by his own brilliance, for he ended up

placing overmuch confidence in himself, making light account of the ancient simplicity of the Christian religion, presuming that he knew more than all the world besides, despising the traditions of the Church and the determinations of the ancients, and interpreting certain passages of Scripture in a novel way… (St. Vincent of Lerins, Commonitorium, 17.44)

For St. Vincent, the teaching and beliefs of antiquity are not some golden age to be held on to, but serve as a sure guide for both detecting heresy and guiding the legitimate development and growth of doctrine. Remaining in conformity with antiquity (by which he means the Scriptures and the Councils and, when neither speaks to a particular question, esteemed theologians and doctors) is not a means of burying one’s head in the sand or dispensing with the need to think but is actually the way in which one avoids falling into the path of Origen and Nestorius and any other heresiarch.

Submitting oneself to antiquity and the teaching of the church universal is an antidote to pride, for it reminds the teacher that the Spirit dispenses his gifts to to the whole church, not just to one man. Heresy arises when one comes to believe that everyone else has been wrong and he alone has found the solution, he alone of everyone who has come before can see things clearly and teaches correctly. Such hubris is simply begging for a fall, even if, as with Origen, it only occurs in a few things and is accompanied by brilliance and holiness and the like. Such attributes (which are goods in and of themselves) can become a danger if one allows oneself to become overconfident, for they can insulate one to one’s own error, since it can be assumed that error could not possibly occur.

But, as St. James reminds us, we all stumble in many ways, and because of this not all should presume to be teachers. St. Vincent is seeking to provide a means of avoiding this stumbling, and it begins and ends with submission, firstly to Christ and secondly to his Church. Those who do so can withstand the temptation to error (both from without and from within) and the trials of diseased doctors brought upon the church can ultimately turn out for its good. And as no medicine is pleasant tasting yet nevertheless restores one to health, so heresies will arise so that truth can shine out more clearly and God’s people made more secure in their faith:

This affliction, indeed, of a hesitating and miserably vacillating mind is, if they are wise, a medicine intended for them by God’s compassion. For therefore it is that outside the most secure harbour of the Catholic Faith, they are tossed about, beaten, and almost killed, by various tempestuous cogitations, in order that they may take in the sails of self-conceit, which, they had with ill advice unfurled to the blasts of novelty, and may betake themselves again to, and remain stationary within, the most secure harbour of their placid and good mother, and may begin by vomiting up those bitter and turbid floods of error which they had swallowed, that thenceforward they may be able to drink the streams of fresh and living water. Let them unlearn well what they had learned not well, and let them receive so much of the entire doctrine of the Church as they can understand: what they cannot understand let them believe. (St. Vincent of Lerins, Commonitorium, 20.50)

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Jason Watson

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