Is Universalism a Heresy? – Part I: What is a Heresy?

What is a heresy and why are heresies such a big deal?

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Since the fourth century CE, Orthodox Christians have debated many divisive questions relevant to the Christian life, on topics ranging from the person of Jesus of Nazareth to baptism and re-baptism. Along the way some of the claims or beliefs have been denounced as “heresy.”

In an Orthodox Christian context, the term heresy signifies a claim or belief that contradicts the orthodox, or right beliefs of the Church and poses a threat meriting a formal repudiation. Such a formal denunciation is not leveled lightly. To outsiders, especially today, these ancient debates may seem like a lot of wasted ink and effort, reminiscent of feuds between Star Trek and Star Wars fanatics. However, for those participating in these debates nothing was more important because the issues at hand had ramifications for how one ought to live and die. For this reason many Christians risked and even gave their lives for their convictions.

How are heresies determined?

It isn’t enough that a bishop, even the Pope in Rome or the Ecumenical Patriarch, deem a certain conviction to be heretical. Likewise, conventional or popular opinion on a matter does not determine heresy. Several requirements have traditionally been necessary in order to reach a formal declaration of heresy. A gathering of official representatives (bishops) from all patriarchates or jurisdictions within the Orthodox Communion must meet to initiate a dialogue on matters of contention. Whatever conclusions are reached by these bishops – or at least their majority – are then put to the entire body of believers. Only after widespread acceptance has been achieved can such conclusions be deemed binding on the Church at large. Some have argued that conciliar determinations must also be ratified by a subsequent council to deem affirmations dogmatic and rejections heretical.

As one might imagine, this was not an easy task in eras preceding rapid communication and transit. Some bishops had to endure hazardous journeys lasting weeks and even months just to arrive at the appointed meeting place. Furthermore, political considerations often made agreement difficult to achieve. For example, discussion of Arianism – declared heretical at the First Council of Nicea – was complicated by the movement’s growing popularity within and beyond the Roman Empire. In fact, it was Emperor Constantine’s wish for the council to ratify the Arian perspective, which he thought was the likely outcome in any case. It was likely due only to the uniting figure and authority of Emperor that such gatherings were even feasible to begin with, even if the conclusions reached didn’t always reflect his desires.

Due in part to such difficulties such gatherings were a rarity and only seven councils achieved ecumenical, or universally authoritative status during the first one-thousand years of Orthodox-Catholic Christianity:

First Council of Nicaea (325 CE)

First Council of Constantinople (381 CE)

First Council of Ephesus (431 CE)

Council of Chalcedon (451 CE)

Second Council of Constantinople (553 CE)

Third Council of Constantinople (680-681 CE)

Second Council of Nicaea (787 CE)

What did these councils deem heretical, and did any of these universally binding councils repudiate the belief that all will be saved? This will be the focus of the next installment. Stay tuned!

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