Whenever I’ve had the opportunity to learn about some theological controversy that formed some part of Church history, I can’t help sympathizing with the person or group who was found to be wrong.

This is especially true for the early Christological controversies when they were trying to understand more precisely who Jesus was and what the nature of the relationship was between Christ’s humanity and divinity.

Because whenever I’ve immersed myself in some of those original sources, my first reaction is usually surprise at how sophisticated and complex these early debates were to the point that I find myself admitting that, if I was involved in a controversy like that, I could have easily found myself on the wrong side.

One example that comes to mind for me was the controversy between Nestorius and St. Cyril and the rest of the Church. I won’t bore you with the details, but Nestorius in an effort to appease two theological factions under his care, tried to compromise between them with a proposal that within Jesus were two hypostases, hypostatises, hypostatic? Two substances! – one divine and one human.

In reality, there was one hypostatic union of humanity and divinity, but two natures, one divine and one human.

Now, as an average layman looking at a controversy like that, my initial reaction is often one of almost intellectual despair because if that’s how nuanced and dense our theology can get, and it does, what are the chances that any of us aren’t walking around with all kinds of muddled heretical ideas floating about in our heads? After all, it’s easy to make mistakes right?

In Nestorius’ case, he was removed as Patriarch of Constantiniople and eventually exiled to a dessert monastery. And given how easy it appears to be to make intellectual mistakes like that, it’s hard not to sympathize with people like Nestorius who were on the losing end of these controversies.

So how do we reconcile the sever consequences that heretics like Nestorius faced in the history of the Church – sometimes with penalties as severe as death?

Well, the first thing to understand is that heresy, the kind that goes down in the history books, wasn’t a mere intellectual error. In the case of Nestorius, there were several gatherings and councils in which Patriarchs and bishops gathered to debate and discuss whatever controversy was at large.

And they did so with the intention of coming to an agreement about what the truth of the matter is – which is where we get doctrines and dogmas from.

After it’s all said and done, those who had proposed the wrong solution, the heretical one, are given the opportunity to accept the new dogma and this is what distinguishes them from people who have simply made an error to those who persist in heresy.

And in Nestorius’ case, he chose to persist in it. And it’s this audacious persistence that is the true revelation of how evil heresy is.

Heresy, at this point, becomes a rejection of truth and a rejection of your community. It’s the obstinate insistence that you and you alone are right and that instead of committing yourself to being reformed in the image of God through his Church, you want God and his Church to be conformed to your image and your ideas.

You’ve come to the point at which even the smallest presence of humility should be enough to give you the courage to concede that you had made a mistake, but instead, you continue to announce your error as if it were truth, jeopardizing the unity of the Church and the spiritual health of those who may be confused by the controversy you’ve incited.

That’s what it means to be a heretic of the kind that goes down in the history books, and it’s quite serious. It’s characterized by an inflexible and demonic pride that assumes that everything is subject to your superior judgement.

And that’s something in need of a strong correction before it leads you and potentially many others down the road to ruin.

So maybe, you can admit, that, ya, that’s problematic, but there was a time when heretics faced the death sentence. And there aren’t many modern Christians who can confront that fact without a twinge of regret and embarrassment.

It’s one thing to say, they’ve lost the plot and are consumed by pride and error, but does that justify the death penalty?

I’d want to say a couple things about that. The first is that the Church was rarely if ever involved in sentencing people to death. The Inquisition which judged whether people were guilty of heresy or not was only there to pass a theological judgement and to protect those who were often falsely accused of heresy.

It existed, in part, to prevent episodes like witch hunts which were much more common among Protestant communities who didn’t have this safeguard.

The penalty for heresy was determined and performed by secular authorities. The Church merely determined if a person’s beliefs were heretical or not and then invited them to repent. If they didn’t, then the secular authorities could determine what to do about it. So is death justified? To help answer that question, I think some added context is helpful.

After the fall of the Roman empire, Western Europe, fell into chaos in which various factions took advantage of the lawlessness that ensued.

In a situation like that, “strongmen” rise up to establish whatever authority can be asserted. If you could lead an army or militia, what was to stop you from taking land, power, and wealth for yourself. So warlords became the de facto rulers under those conditions.

And as you might guess, they were not benevolent rulers. Their priority was maintaining their military control over whatever land and wealth they’d been able to acquire and to prevent other warlords from taking it from them. So, as you might guess, they spent a lot of time fighting.

And it took centuries of missionary work and pressure from the Church to reform this new military class into what eventually became the aristocracy. They did so by first converting them to Christianity and then by pressuring them to use their military might to protect the vulnerable instead of using it to acquire more land and wealth.

And we moderns may resent the idea of an aristocracy, but a class of people whose main priority is the exemplification of virtue, even if they didn’t always live up to that ambition, is far better than a class of people whose main priority is bloodshed.

And through this often messy process of realizing it’s new post Roman identity, Europe eventually ascended out from that earlier chaos into a diversity of societies and ethnicites who could all find reason to work together and seek peaceful coexistence by virtue of their common identity as Christians.

This became known as Christendom and Christianity was the unifying factor that gave Europeans a reason to consider one another brothers and sisters rather than rivals. 

That was… until Martin Luther promoted his own novel doctrines that were deemed heretical by the Church and instead of accepting that judgement, he, like all heretics, persisted in those ideas and promoted them to anyone who would listen.

The result of which was the rupture of the only true unity Europe has ever been able to nurture and a new found reason for that ruling military class to consider one another rivals again, instead of brothers and, as you might guess, war became far more frequent and severe.

The French Wars of Religion and the Thirty Years war were direct results of the Protestant Revolution and it led to more bloodshed between Europeans than had ever been seen before.

When you have a civilization and a continent whose instinct for conflict is suppressed by one unifying denominator, in this case Christianity, that one unifying thing is more precious than anything.

If weakening it could mean the violent deaths of 10s of millions or 100s of millions of people, then whoever compromises it or attacks it is committing arguably the most serious crime imaginable.

And that is what Luther’s heresy accomplished. It threw asunder the one thing that was the cause of unity and fraternal Charity among rulers in Europe. And that unifying element was never replaced because nothing can replace truth, or God who is Truth, as a source of unity and peace among people.

Western civilization’s history since then has been marked by only escalating conflicts that got worse and worse. The era of peace we’ve known since WWII isn’t because we finally found the unity we’ve always needed. It’s because we were so shell shocked and traumatized by the first half of the 20th century, that we couldn’t manage to go at it again.

But now those generations have gone to their rest. And we who haven’t directly experienced those traumas have forgotten the reasons why we shouldn’t fight each other. And we seem to be flirting dangerously close to that precipice again.

So, yes, I’d say that heresy, as the thing that competes with the only practical source of unity and peace that has ever been realized among diverse societies, is extremely serious, and given that record, I think I can at least understand why they treated it with the severity that they did.

So you might ask, why don’t we now. Well the thing that they were preserving, Christendom, has already been lost. There’s no need to defend it with extreme measures anymore. Today, most people are material if not formal heretics.

But the Church’s magisterium has always remained a source of truth, even if rulers refused to listen to it. Heresy has already overwhelmed the laity, let’s hope that the clergy do not succumb to the same fate.