Rev. Dr. Gordon S. Mikoski, Princeton Theological Seminary
In the sixth circle of hell, Dante inquires about the flaming sepulchers he encounters. His guide informs him that those making “sounds of woe so great” as a result of “horrible pain” are the heretics and their followers. They are not named by Dante, but we know their names: Simon Magus, Marcion, Valentinus, Arius, Donatus, Montanus, Eunomius, Mani, Nestorius, Pelagius, Sabellus, Eutyches, Photinius, Novatus, Apollinaris, Macedonius, the Bogomils, and the Cathars. And these are only some of the most famous of the heresiarchs from the periods of the early church and the middle ages. These heretical teachers undermined orthodox biblical teaching about the doctrine of God, christology, salvation, the authority of Scripture, and the character of the Christian life.
I find it interesting that Dante places these figures much lower in the order of hell than great Greco-Roman pagan philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca. The pagan philosophers get off relatively easily in Dante’s vision: they only lack (evangelical) hope. By contrast, the heretics are found much deeper in the bowls of hell. Perhaps the reason for the differences in location have to do with Dante’s Christian humanism. While we find a basically positive view of the great pagan philosophers of antiquity, those who distorted or corrupted the core teachings of the Church are treated with severity and disdain. Perhaps this difference in Dante’s appraisal arose from the dual conviction that the best of the ancient pagans obliquely pointed toward and, in some cases, actually paved the way for belief in the holy Trinity, while the heretics ultimately turned people away from or even contributed to the destruction of authentic Christian faith. Presumably, the heretics had known the truth of the Gospel and yet willfully distorted it to serve their own selfish interests – and brought untold thousands with them on the way to fiery destruction.
Heresy still matters today – despite the liberal mainline emphasis on toleration and inclusivism. Corrupt teaching in the name of Christ can still lead people to disaster. Think of the wingnuts in the media who preach the “prosperity Gospel,” solicit funds for faith healings, or who explain unbelievable human suffering through natural disasters as the wrath of God. I also think of those who make arguments for the use of torture in the name of God and country. Or how about the creeping Islamicization of Christianity among the liberal Protestants (i.e. Jesus was merely a prophet who pointed us to the transcendent One)? Of course, this is not to mention the countless unconscious adherents in every pew of every church that I have known or served: Macionites (those who hold the view that the God of the Old Testament is angry and evil and that the Father of Jesus Christ in parts of the New Testament is loving and forgiving), Adoptionists (those who hold the view that Jesus the human being was so good that he received a metaphysical promotion), Arians (those who hold the view of “trickle down divinity” in which the Father is really God, the Son is the first thing that “God” created, and the Holy Spirit who comes in a distant third place), and Pelagians (those who hold the view that we can choose God by “making a decision for Christ” or that we can somehow earn God’s favor). Make no mistake, the heresies from the early church and medieval periods of church history are much more than historical oddities; they are alive and well today.
Why do heresies matter today, though? Aren’t these just so many theological head games akin to arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? I would argue that corrupt or erroneous beliefs about God, Jesus Christ, the way to salvation, the status of the Bible, or the character of the Christian life matter existentially and spiritually. Wrong or distorted beliefs can and do still lead to various kinds of human wreckage. Puts most starkly: bad theology can kill. It can also lead to the killing of others.
Conversely, I believe that right beliefs (rooted in Scripture and defined by the church through the ages) contributes significantly to Christian health and growth. It matters, for instance, whether we believe that the one who died on the cross for us was both fully God as well as fully human. It matters whether we believe that we are saved from our sins by God’s gracious choice and not by our own tragi-comic efforts or actions. Like an expert doctor’s diagnosis and prescription, right belief and the actions that follow from it can mean the difference for us between (spiritual) life and death.