St. Irenaeus is awesome. He lived in one of the earliest generations of Christians, his teachers know the Apostles personally, and he has such a way with words. One of his surviving works that we have today is nifty little book called Against Heresies. As you can imagine, the book is about why heresies are so bad.
Heresy is tricky word today. Sometimes it’s thrown around willy-nilly, as if every false teaching is a heresy. Sometimes it’s disregarded as an old-fashioned concept; “as long as you love Jesus,” it doesn’t matter what you believe. But in reality, heresy is a very real and serious concept. Unlike regular “false teachings” which Christians can survive even if they believe those mistakes, heresies are false teachings which prove someone is not a Christian at all. So these aren’t just mistakes, they’re fatal mistakes. An example of a false teaching is that Holy Communion is only a tool for us to remember Jesus’ death & resurrection – Christians can believe that and still be Christians. An example of a heresy is that Jesus wasn’t really a human – if you believe that, you’ve got the Gospel wrong and your faith is not the Christian faith.
In his book, Irenaeus wrote some very handy explanations about what makes heresy so dangerous.
Some people abandon the teachings of the Church and fail to understand how a simple and devout person can have more worth than a philosopher who blasphemes without restraint. Heretics are like that.
Here he’s pointing out that people who chase after heretical teachings are often putting knowledge and intellect above everything else. In their quest for information, they neglect that Christianity calls us a life of religion – we are to be devout, we are to worship God. As we might put it today, loving Jesus is just as important as knowing Jesus.
Heretics are always wanting to find something more true than truth.
This is insightful. Jesus is the Truth; the Gospel is the truth; the Scriptures and the Church and the Holy Spirit bear witness to the truth. But a heretic, again idolizing knowledge, isn’t satisfied with this truth, and looks for something more. Unfortunately for them, that something doesn’t exist; you don’t get more Truth than Jesus!
The Church is like paradise on earth. ‘You may eat freely of the fruit of every tree of the garden,’ says the Spirit of God. In our case he means: Feed on the whole of Scripture, but do not do it with intellectual pride, and do not swallow the opinions of the heretics. They pretend to possess the knowledge of good and evil, but they are impiously elevating their own intelligence above their Creator.
Now the condemnation of the heretics is spelled out. They think they know something the rest of the Church doesn’t know, and have therefore fallen into spiritual pride. We, in turn, are warned not to listen to their opinions, which Irenaeus continues to expound:
Beware! By devouring the ideas of the heretics we banish ourselves from the paradise of life.
Heresy is likened to the “forbidden fruit” in the Garden of Eden. It is food that kills us, like poison. It’s one thing to live alongside heretics and listen to their views, but if we take those heresies to heart and believe them, then we’re separating ourselves from the Church, where the fruit of the Scriptures are available to feed and nourish us. If we choose to eat poison, then of course we will sicken and die.
So, I suppose, we should take care to watch what we eat, spiritually speaking. We should examine our young up-and-coming leaders to make sure they are devout, as well as intellectually capable. Our teachers and preachers should be able to show how their teachings and sermons are founded upon the truth of God in Scripture, as understood by the Church, Christ’s body. Intellectual pride is a dangerous vice, easily leading anyone into heresy, so we must always be humble, whether we’re teachers or learners, and take care to abide in Christ by abiding in His Church, where the garden of the Scriptures are open to us.