Are Vegetarians Heretics?
By Sebastian Moll
Theological Faculty of the University of Mainz
Modern vegetarians often refer to theological terminology such as reverence for life or respecting creation when defending their position. Ironically, in the Early Church the situation is exactly the other way around. Abstaining from meat is considered a sign of heresy. In the Canons of the Council of Ancyra (314), it is stated: It is decreed that among the clergy, presbyters and deacons who abstain from meat shall taste of it, and afterwards, if they shall so please, may abstain. But if they disdain it, and will not even eat herbs served with meat, but disobey the canon, let them be removed from their order. While never included into Church Law, this anathema is confirmed by several later councils, such as the Council of Braga (Portugal, 561), at which the anathema is expanded to include clergy and lay people alike.
Many heretical groups in early Christianity indeed practiced vegetarianism, for example the Marcionites and the Manicheans. Traditional scholarship attributes this behavior to just another form of asceticism. But if the councils wanted to condemn radical asceticism, why is there no anathema for people who abstain from alcohol, for example? What is the reason for the special concern with the question of eating meat? Are vegetarians really a threat to Christian orthodoxy?
As a matter of fact, the issue is already raised within the New Testament. In 1. Timotheus 4:1-5, we read:
The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.
The irony is conspicuous: whereas today respecting creation implies above all leaving it untouched, for the early Christians, it was a sign of disrespect towards God not to make use of his creation and thus a definite sign of heresy. Remember the careful distinction: according to the above mentioned council decree, it is perfectly all right to abstain from meat if you simply dont like it. After all, de gustibus non est disputandum. However, if you abstain from it because you consider it somehow impure, you sin against the Creator.
How did this shift of perception happen? Perhaps the answer lies within a little nuance: the Bible speaks of thankfulness towards the Creator; today one tends to speak of respecting creation. Towards an abstract entity the most one can offer is respect; thankfulness, however, is a feeling one can only have towards a person and the presentee will always consider refusing the gift as insulting.
Christianity often has been reproached for the fixation on man and his exalted position within creation. It was above all Charles Darwin who caused this worldview to alter. Christian belief always assumed that animals were created for mans sake and thus allowed for the above mentioned perception of treating them as gifts. By pointing out that many of these animals existed long before man, this form of thankfulness was shattered to the core.
Far be it from me to question the theory of evolution at this point! However, there is something true and beautiful in the Christian concept of thankfulness. For thankfulness has a fascinating double effect: it promotes self-confidence and humility at the same time self-confidence, because I feel valued by the gift; humility, because I feel the dependence on somebody else. Thus, thankfulness is by far not the worst basis for modern food ethics.
It is the tragedy of life that our food consists of annihilated life, no matter if you are a meat eater, vegetarian, or vegan. This very tragedy, this brokenness of human existence, the condition between paradise and damnation this is the great topic of the book of books. Man lives in this tragedy like any other creature on this planet, but he is the only one aware of it. That is the burden which he once took from the tree of knowledge and which he has been carrying until this very day.
Plants do not have central nervous systems and are not conscious. Their death is not equal to the death of an animal.
It is unclear what your point is.
You ignore that many vegetarians do so as much for health benefits as any other reason.
1. The source of this problem historically is not in the objection to gnostic vegetarianism in the pseudo-Pauline letter I Timothy, but in the authentic letters of Paul, specifically Romans 14, Galatians 2, and I Corinthians 8 - 10. "Eat whatever is sold in the meat-market without raising questions of conscience," I Corinthians 10:25.
2. This in turn is due to the split in the early church between the Jerusalem apostles (James, Peter, and John), who abstain from meat and wine (see Romans 14:21, also Hegesippus on James' abstinence from meat and wine) and Paul. This split continued for some centuries down the road, with the Ebionites and related "Jewish Christian" groups taking up the position of the Jerusalem church and (they argued) of Jesus himself, who was killed after he went into the temple to disrupt the animal sacrifice business there.
3. As a practical matter, the identification of vegetarianism as a "heresy" is the surest way to guarantee some good publicity to vegetarianism. Christianity is hemorrhaging because of its failure to address key ethical issues (except on the wrong side).
"Si quis inmundos putant cibos carnium quam deus in usu hominum dedit, et non propter afflictionem corporis sui sed quasi inmunditiam putaverit, ita abstineat ab eis ut nec olera cocta cum carnibus pregustet, et sicut Manicheus et Priscillianus dixerunt. Anathema sit."
What the article seems not to emphasize is that the reasons why the Church considered the Manichean position in this matter as a heresy are very similar to those that today lead many to be vegetarian. The Manicheans hated and despised this world and so they did not eat meat considered impure; today's vegetarians are such for the opposite reason: because they love this world and respect the animals.
2) "But if the councils wanted to condemn radical asceticism, why is there no anathema for people who abstain from alcohol, for example?"...
Apostolic Canon LIII.
"If any bishop, presbyter, or deacon, does not on festival days partake of flesh and wine, from an abhorrence of them, and not out of religious restraint, let him be deposed, as being seared in his own conscience, and being the cause of offence to many."
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