On heretics and holiness

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The genius of Orthodoxy is its ability to grasp such apparently paradoxical teachings as:

  • God is one and three.
  • Christ is fully God and fully man.
  • The faithful are both sinners and saints. 

The following article, by Abbot Tryphon of the All-Merciful Saviour Monastery on Vashon Island, explores the reality of the holiness of the Church in the face of apparent evidence to the contrary.

On the Holiness of the Church

Abbot Tryphon of the All Merciful Saviour Monastery on Vashon Island, Washington State, USA

Abbot Tryphon of the All-Merciful Saviour
Monastery on Vashon Island,
Washington State, USA

During each and every celebration of the Divine Liturgy, we, as the people of God, recite the Nicene Creed. This ancient declaration is the very core of our common faith and connects us to the teachings of the Ancient Church. In this creed, we declare that we believe in “The One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church”. The word “holy” is something we often fail to see as having anything to do with us, personally. The Church is holy, but we are not, we tell ourselves. Yet the first Christians called themselves “the holy”, precisely because they knew the Holy Spirit was in their midst, sanctifying the Church. They knew they were not simply members of a religious body, but that they WERE the Church.

Because the Holy Spirit sanctifies the Church, they, as members of the Body of Christ, were sanctified, even if they often fell short of the Glory of God. But how could the Church be holy when she so often experiences moments of darkness, and when even her priests and bishops fall short the standards set forth in the Gospels? How can we call the Church holy, when we are all such sinners?

The Church is holy because her founder is holy, and because Christ has never abandoned His Church. The Church is holy because she is guided by the Holy Spirit. She is holy because she is always being purified and transformed anew, by the Holy Spirit. The Church is not holy because of anything we have done, but because God has made her holy.

If the holiness of the Church was dependent upon her people, most of us would have to be banned from membership. Yet this very holiness is based upon the fact that the Church does not turn away we sinners, but welcomes us with open arms. Because of the great mercy of God, and His tender love for us, we enter the very threshold of the Church with the expectation we will receive healing and forgiveness. It is within the boundaries of the Church that even the weakest of sinners can become holy, for holiness is the destiny of every Christian. Every Christian is called to holiness because our weakness is overcome by the strength of God’s mercy. It is not about living extraordinary lives, but about being transformed by an extraordinary God.

With love and blessings,
— Abbot Tryphon

On heretics

Through the years the need for “holiness” has been the theme of many heretical groups. In ancient times, the Novationists, Montanists and Donatists all rejected the one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church because they misperceived the source of the Church's holiness. This attitude was repeated in the sixteenth century by the Anabaptists and by countless cults, sects and Protestant denominations today. 

The common theme through each of these movements is that they look around at the people standing with them in the congregation and wonder, “How can this person next to me be holy? He’s an atrocious sinner.” Perceiving themselves to be holier than the person next to them, they see the need to break away from the Church.

Even if a heretic is right about the standard of holiness required by the Gospel, they have misperceived the Power and the Grace of God and have appointed themselves in judgment on their brothers. By appointing themselves in judgment they abandon Christ’s teaching to be ever merciful (Matthew 18:21-35) and demonstrate their lack of humility (Matthew 5:3).

St. Gregory Palamas teaches even when a heretic can demonstrate they are teaching the truth, it is no assurance of their orthodoxy. For their achievement in teaching the truth may be at the cost of another aspect of the truth from which it is inseparable.

The Church is holy because it receives “Holy Things” for “the Holy People” (Liturgy). The orthodox teaching is that the Holy People are made Holy by the descent of the Holy Spirit. They are worthy to receive the “Holy Things” because God has made them holy. 

As we say in the pre-communion prayer,

Behold, I approach Divine Communion.
O Creator, let me not be burned by partaking,
    For You are Fire, consuming the unworthy.
But rather cleanse me of every stain.

And again,

O Master, Lover of mankind, O Lord Jesus Christ my God, let not these Holy Things be unto me for judgment, through my being unworthy, but to the purification and sanctification of soul and body, and as a pledge of the life and kingdom to come. For it is good for me to cleave to God, to put my hope of salvation in the Lord.

The Holy Church is at peace and rests in Christ. May the reality of this blessing be yours today.

And may your Journey to Pentecost be truly blessed.
— Fr. Geoff


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