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 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.
It is so interesting how interpretation can twist the truth. 'Treat others as you will have them treat you', is a classic quote from Jesus Christ that shows us the principle to live life by. If we are happy about ourselves being slaughtered, then fine, slaughter God's creatures mindlessly. God gave creatures to serve man, but not to be cruelly mistreated and pained. Humans are much healthier by restricting or eradicating meat from their diets, as our intestinal tract is similar to herbavores' anatomy, as are our teeth, nails on both hands and feet and hydrocloric acid in our stomaches. So honouring all these factors, why is it that we must kill animals and eat them? Especially when the old testament requests us NOT to kill, and to use the plants and herbs as our meat? Nice writing Sebastian Moll, but totally not convincing, a bit of fiction really.
#1 - taraka - 01/20/2012 - 01:37
"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.
#2 - Christopher O'Brien - 01/20/2012 - 13:37
Please note: the intention of this short article is not a pro & con list of vegetarianism, it's merely intended to provide some food for thought...
#3 - Sebastian Moll - 01/20/2012 - 17:06
Sebastian - I am a Christian and a vegetarian. I would tend to take the opposite stance: I don't believe any Christian can defend the ethics of consuming factory farmed meat. The early Christians would be utterly appalled at the way animals are treated in today's meat production industry, and certainly would not partake of an animal forced to live the way the vast majority are today.
#4 - Brandon - 01/20/2012 - 19:52
You're right, vegetarianism is a heresy. However:
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).
#5 - Keith Akers - 01/20/2012 - 22:19
1) I will not address the issue of the alleged vegetarianism of some of the Apostles (there is nothing in Romans 14:21 showing that Paul was referring to some Apostles rather than to all the faithful), but remaining on the documents cited in the article it is the Council of Braga which expressly says that the canon is referring to the Manichean heresy.
"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."
#6 - domenico - 01/21/2012 - 11:32
Thanks, domenico, I had actually overlooked that one!
#7 - Sebastian Moll - 01/22/2012 - 22:25
What about the abstinence from meat on special days of the Christian year? According to you, it is heretical. Or is there a double standard in this respect within the Magisterium?
#8 - Hieronymus - 03/22/2012 - 05:24
This article serves as good tack in theological pursuits, thank you thank you for writing it. We are entering a time of vegan and vegetarian fanaticism surrounded by undoubtable heracy. Attacks by apologist on both sides of the debate are missing the mark by avoiding the command to love. Let’s keep our priorities as we proceed. Let’s tred carfully as we bring to light the context of the Gospel to the gentiles that I am confident unfolds a clearer understanding of the meaning behind our Christian food ethics.
#9 - Chris Fry - 01/29/2018 - 02:53
It might be relevant to contemplate Tolstoy's assertion, that all faith is based on one of two mutually exclusive suppositions: The world is made for us OR. we are made for the world
Tolstoy says that Christ rejected the first option and endorsed the second one. All else followed logically from this choice, even Vegetarianism/ Veganism in our days.
#10 - Wilhelm Reindl - 10/15/2019 - 14:48