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Are Vegetarians Heretics?

By Sebastian Moll
Theological Faculty of the University of Mainz
January 2012

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 don’t 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 man’s 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.