on January 8, 2010
With the popularity of Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code, has come an explosion of interest around "alternative Christianities" and "lost Christianities." The cultural mood in our postmodern world provides just the right conditions for these "Christianities" to flourish. Many of the postmodern way view orthodox Christianity as a function of political power, history's "winner" as it were. In reality, there is nothing intrinsically superior to orthodox Christian belief, they say, that would commend it above what has been deemed heretical belief.
By contrast, many postmoderns have nothing but the deepest sympathy for those falling under the rubric of heresy, much akin to what one would have for the poor and down-trodden. It is the heretics who are the true revolutionaries, the ones resisting the power structures of their day and seeing from outside the cultural worldview to call for freedom and equality.
Ah, how we've had it all wrong.
While the thinking person realizes that the cherished values of the 21st century (e.g., tolerance, egalitarianism) are not as closely associated with heretical beliefs in the early centuries of the Church's history as some would have us believe - and in many cases just the opposite - this love affair with heresy provides an opportunity for Christians to re-examine what heresy is.
In his book, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth, Christian scholar Alister McGrath attempts to do just that. He takes the insights of contemporary heresiology and argues for a middle-of-the-road approach to heresy. McGrath argues that heresy is neither a "fundamentally malignant attack on orthodoxy" nor a "principled alternative to orthodoxy that was suppressed by the institutional church" (p. 11).
McGrath's book comes in four parts and the first part, naturally, addresses the question of what heresy is. McGrath takes a "3 D" approach (my description, not his) to heresy. He defines it as "a doctrine that ultimately destroys, destabilizes, or distorts a mystery rather than preserving it." (p. 31) Further, the fundamental character of heresy is "the maintenance of the outward appearance of faith coupled with the subversion of its inward identity." (p. 147)
To help understand this fundamental character of heresy, take the case of Arianism. Arius affirmed Jesus as the saviour of the world and one to be worshipped, thus maintaining the outward appearance of faith. Yet his interpretation of Jesus as a created being made it incoherent to view Jesus as the saviour of the world or as one who should be worshiped.
McGrath describes heresy as an outcome of the "journeys of exploration that were originally intended to enable Christianity to relate better to contemporary culture. Heresy arose through a desire to preserve, not to destroy, the gospel." (p. 176) Heresies are "byways opened up for exploration through the process of doctrinal development." (p. 66) Heresy is, in other words, a theological cul-de-sac on the Church's journeys of doctrinal exploration. The fault of heresy, according to McGrath, is not that it has failed to preserve the gospel. It is "its unwillingness to accept that it has in fact failed." (p. 31)
In the second part of the book, McGrath looks at the roots of heresy and contrasts his understanding of heresy with the so-called "received view," an established theory of the genesis of heresy by the middle of the third century through to the early 19th century.
The received view of heresy can be summarized as follows (pp. 64-65):
1. The early church was unsullied and undefiled.
2. Orthodoxy was temporally prior to heresy.
3. Heresy is an intentional deviation from existing orthodoxy.
4. Heresy is the fulfillment of New Testament prophecies of apostasy.
5. Heresy is a function of love of novelty, jealousy, or envy on the part of heretics.
6. Heresy lacks the coherency of orthodoxy.
7. Orthodoxy is global whereas heresies are chronologically and geographically provincial.
8. Heresy results from the syncretism of orthodoxy and worldly philosophy
The reason for the received view's decline was the recognition that the way the gospel has been preserved down through the centuries is not by proof-texting and hollow repetition of creeds, but by doctrinal development. Heresy, more or less, is one of the outcomes of these developments. Heresy is not a contaminant from outside a pure and pristine church, but a virus from within.
The third part of the book contains a brief but helpful summary of heresies in the early church including Ebionitism, Docetism, Valentinism, Marcionism, Arianism, Donatism, and Pelagianism. This historical excursus bolsters many of the claims McGrath has made about heresy. For example, though there is little question that Pelagianism subverts the gospel, Pelagius was within the church and interested in moral renewal. He was not motivated by a lust of novelty, jealousy, or envy so far as is known.
Finally, in the last section of the book, McGrath's offers a helpful list of "pressures that appear to be implicated in the genesis of heresy:" cultural norms, rational norms, social identity, religious accommodation, and ethical concerns (p. 180).
McGrath also deals with the popular view today that heresy is merely history's "loser," the ideology of the oppressed. He shows that this was certainly not the case in the "proto-orthodoxy" period prior to Constantine since the church had no power whereby to enforce orthodoxy. Even at the time of Constantine, McGrath makes the case that orthodoxy was more than a function of power politics. Arianism, for example, was found to be intellectually wanting apart from whatever politics were at play. McGrath does concede, however, that orthodoxy and heresy became political instruments in the Middle Ages.
McGrath's book is a nuanced read that gives the reader an appreciation for the complexity of the ideas of heresy and orthodoxy. For those of us who hold too closely to the views of church history propagated by Dan Brown et al., McGrath's book is a necessary corrective. Heresy is not a victim of theological oppression (p. 79). But the corrective force of McGrath's book applies also to those of us who reflexively assume the worst morally of men who have come to be associated with heresy.
Despite the wonderful things about the book, I do have a few complaints. For starters, I observed a fairly frequent repetition of content in the book as did other reviewers. I'm not sure why this was thought to be necessary, but it's distracting and annoying to the reader when coming across the same thing over and over again.
Secondly, for someone of McGrath's calibre, he makes a rather bold statement about the New Testament usage of hairesis that is, unfortunately, also a bald statement. On page 37, McGrath claims that the Greek word translated "heresy" is a neutral, non-pejorative term referring only to a school of thought in the New Testament era. Any negative associations with the word, McGrath assures us, are "linked to the social divisiveness and intellectual rivalry that these schools of thought sometimes created." Ignoring the fact that "intellectual rivalry" implies some sort of doctrinal difference, McGrath doesn't interact at all with the lexical authority on New Testament words, BDAG (3rd edition), which defines the use of hairesis in 2 Peter 2.1 as a reference to opinions or dogmas (p. 28). Instead, he asserts that influential translations like the Authorized Version obscured the true meaning of hairesis, which is "sect." He praises William Tyndale for translating hairesis in 2 Peter 2.1 as "damnable sects." No mention of the internal evidence for the Authorized Version's translation, "damnable heresies." No mention of BDAG. This is a glaring problem since the statement is no small point.
Other criticisms could be made, but the review is already too long.
Overall, much is to be gained from reading McGrath's book, these shortfalls aside.
on December 23, 2009
The central piece of his work is on 6 early heresies: ebionitism, marcionitism, gnosticism, arianism, donatism & pelagianism. He does a nice job describing them in an even-handed, level-headed way.
One of McGrath's overarching themes is that 'Christian' heresies evolved from within the Church. They were normally sincere & honest attempts at trying to explain Jesus that went astray. This constant thought keeps him from being a frothing-at-the-mouth fault-finder & heresy-hunter. In these core chapters he also shows how the first 3 heresies were not expunged by force or power-because the Church had no force or power. They simply either purged themselves (Marcion) or the Church simply grew to see their weaknesses & sort of turned its back on them (Ebionitism & Gnosticism). The later 3 heresies, the Constantianian Power was normally on the Heresies' side & not necessarily the Church's (esp. Arianism) & the sword was often wielded on behalf of the heresies & not on the side of orthodoxy. But the Church came to see that these heresies had taken a wrong turn & were headed for a wreck & resisted the pressure of the State etc. A.M. takes on Bauer & Pagels & those who romanticize the heresies. He makes some surprisingly helpful observations in this regard.
Surrounding the core chapters are chapters where he appears to be developing another thought: orthodox doctrine developed, or chrystallized or grew from a seed to a fuller flowering plant. Sometimes his approach would put him at odds with Eastern Orthodoxy, but I think he finally pounds out a sober case for what he means & what he is explaining, in a way that might be agreed on by both East & West.
One of his unspoken agendas appears to be with regard to the crisis in worldwide Anglicanism right now. It almost seemed to me that he was making a quiet & subtle case against the forceful manhandling that the African & [some] American Anglicans are promoting today.
Well, I'm sure I have sold A.M. short in my little synopsis, but maybe this will give everyone an idea & whet their desire to purchase & read the book.
Alister McGrath sets out to do two things in his Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth. The first is to explain the origins and significance of heresy. The second is to defend the notion of orthodoxy from the postmodern infatuation with heretical ideas. Along the way, he corrects many popular misunderstandings and busts a fair number of myths.
The prevalent notion of early Christianity--thanks only in part to Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, and the Gospel of Judas--is of a plurality if competing "Christianities" which were eventually subsumed and stamped out by the Catholic Christianity, as practiced in Rome and championed by the emperor Constantine and set in stone at the Council of Nicaea. Heretical groups and leaders were ostracized and condemned and their ideas and writings suppressed by straight-laced, rigid groups that, by chance, had "access to power" and could therefore impose their version of Christianity upon the others.
The truth, McGrath points out, is far different. First of all, no Christian group of the first several centuries of the Church could be said to have any form of power, coercive or otherwise. It was simply beyond possibility for one Christian church to force its views upon another. And while McGrath concedes that, yes, the early Church was a much looser, less theologically policed entity than it was to become, orthodox ideas were already present and generally agreed upon. It was as the church solidified that heresy originated.
Heresy, McGrath says, is a set of ideas--or even a single idea--that maintains the form of orthodox Christianity while inadvertently undermining it. The church fathers who spent enormous energy in combating heresy characterized heresy as the intrusion of damaging outside ideas into orthodoxy, McGrath demonstrates that most heresy originated within the church as Christianity gradually found its footing and attempted to articulate precisely what it believed, especially on important or unclear issues. Of all the early heresies that confronted the Church, McGrath says, "Not one of them can conceivably be considered as the outcome of malice, egotism, or some kind of personal theological depravity. . . . all rest on serious attempts to engage major points of religious and spiritual importance" (p.171).
A case in point is Arianism, a heresy involving the identity and deity of Jesus Christ that began as an earnest effort by the Alexandrian Bishop Arius to make Christianity and Greek ideas--especially Neoplatonism--mutually intelligible. Greco-Roman thought held matter to be the creation of a lesser deity and therefore irredeemably bad. Christian orthodoxy held that God, in the form of Jesus Christ, became flesh and suffered as a physically real human being. In reconciling these ideas, Arius held Jesus to be physically human by not divine, since true divinity, that of the superior god rather than the lesser creator, could not be corrupted by flesh. Arius did not, however, decry the worship or adoration of Jesus or the belief that Jesus could grant salvation. Arius's detractors quickly pointed out that, if Jesus is not God, to worship him and believe that he could grant salvation were irreconcilable inconsistencies with the idea that only God can receive worship or grant salvation.
Heresy, then, is a sincere but misguided attempt to articulate something about Christianity that ends up being anything but Christian. The motives behind heresy, as listed by McGrath, include the desire to make Christianity relevant to prevailing social norms, to make Christianity more amendable to secular "rationality," and to shape a Christianity that is either more or less "morally restrictive." The motivations behind ideas that eventually become heretical are typically sincere, but say more about the time in which they develop than about Christianity itself. The implication is that even the most sincere Christian can do damage of their motivations, methods, or both are incorrect.
McGrath's book is very good, but not perfect. A section on postmodern ideas of heresy and its relation to "power," that omnipresent postmodern bogeyman, is muddled. I reread some passages but still didn't fully comprehend his argument. And while he deftly handles early Church history with beautiful concision, he trips lightly over the Middle Ages, stopping only to note that the definition of "heresy" seemed to shift to anything the Pope found threatening. Such a shortcut is disappointing, especially considering the very good chapters on the early Church which precede it.
One of the best things about McGrath's book is the "mythbusting" that I mentioned above. In addition to correcting the fuzzy history of the Church as peddled by Gnostic scholars and Dan Brown, McGrath also points out that Constantine had significant Arian leanings, early heretics were not condemned or executed, and the supposedly stifling orthodoxy decried by modern advocates of heresy was, in fact, more radical, more imaginative, and more liberating than the heresies it had to confront.
on December 4, 2012
The headline is a little misleading: I should say outright, with apologies to Mr McGrath, that this is anything but "popular theology" in the vein of a C.S. Lewis, though it's written for the layman as for the expert. McGrath's credibility as a scholar is impeccable, and he's very thorough in this analysis. The worst part of his writing is that he does admittedly have a very formal style, often blockish and constantly repeating himself to make a point, as any teacher will do. If you can get past this, you will be rewarded with a highly erudite and well-researched argument about the nature of heresy and how power has historically played into the formation of Church and Canon. At the bottom is a refutation of the "new atheism," Da Vinci Code, etc, but it's been an essential part of my library for understanding how decisions of doctrine are made and what's at stake with each decision. A quick and fascinating read.
on December 18, 2012
Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth, by Alister McGrath is a detailed overview of the progression of heresy in the church. Part one defines heresy and provides a helpful summary of the origins of the idea of heresy. "The essential feature of heresy is that it is not unbelief (rejection of the core beliefs of a worldview such as Christianity) in the strict sense of the term, but a form of that faith that is held ultimately to be subversive or destructive, and thus indirectly leads to such unbelief."
Part two examines the roots of heresy. McGrath provides a fascinating historical survey of the development of heresy and its early development in church history.
Part three summarizes the classical heresies of Christianity including Ebionitism, Docetism, Valentinism, Arianism, Donatism, and Pelagianism. McGrath does an especially noteworthy job on his treatment of the arch-heretic, Pelagius. However, I would commend R.C. Sproul's, Willing to Believe to any readers interested in a deeper look at the Pelagian heresy.
McGrath rightly points out the pervasiveness of Pelagianism "on Western culture, even if its name means little to most. It articulates one of the most natural of human thoughts - that we are capable of taking control of ourselves and transforming ourselves into what we would have ourselves be." Indeed, the tentacles of Pelagianism are not only choking the world, this diabolical worldview has found entry into the American church.
Finally, part four focuses on the impact of heresy. The author urges the reader to recognize that "the pursuit of orthodoxy is essentially the quest for Christian authenticity" and to recognize the tendency that heresies have in "repeating themselves."
McGrath's book is a noteworthy summary of the history of heresy. However, if one is a newcomer to this subject, I recommend starting with John Hannah's, Our Legacy: A History of Christian Doctrine. Additionally, Harold O.J. Brown's work, Heresies will provide readers with a detailed look at the heresies that have consistently plagued the church. Each work is a clear reminder of the danger of heretical ideas creeping into the fabric of the church.
on May 18, 2010
"Heresy" is actually a Greek word, originally meaning a "school of thought," and then meaning a "division" caused by a different school of thought. In church history a heretic was one who taught a variation of Christianity that the church condemned.
"Heresy" is an unpopular category today, in the sense that it considered intolerant and narrow minded to accuse someone of heresy. On the other hand, it can be popular to be the heretic. This same attitude has made its way into historical studies of the Christian church. Movements within the church that were called heretical and were denounced and suppressed in the church are now considered to be equally valid streams of mainstream Christianity. The modern idea is that the "winners" determine what orthodoxy is; the "losers" are then labeled as heretics. Alister McGrath has done a great service in this book. He shows that this modern perspective is false--that the heretics were designated as heretics for a very good reason: their versions of Christianity contradicted its essential core, and, if adopted, would have been destructive to Christianity.
Alister McGrath is professor in theology, ministry, and education at the University of London, and has written extensively on theology and related fields. McGrath defines and traces several early heresies in Christian history, three early ones (Ebionitism, Docetism, and Valentinism) and three later ones (Arianism, Donatism, and Pelagianism). He notes that these all sprang up from within the church; they were not rival movements from outside the church. They all were responding to cultural and intellectual pressures and threats to the church. Their proponents were not willfully trying to harm the faith, but rather to strengthen it in its struggle against other beliefs.
A key principle the book develops is the nature of heresy. A heresy, as historically understood and has McGrath defines it, is a belief that varies from the mainstream Christian faith in such a way that, if consistently believed and followed, it would destroy the Christian faith itself. It attacks a necessary and foundational truth. There were many various beliefs held by Christians, but most of them did not affect these foundational truths, and therefore were not labeled as heresies.
McGrath has done a masterful job outlining many of the early Christian heresies, and, more importantly, showing what the concept of heresy means and its importance for the continuation of the Christian church. His book is well documented, with 35 pages of notes and an index. I recommend this book to all students of Christian history and theology.
The important subject of heresy has not been given much attention of late. Harold O. J. Brown provided a detailed historical study of it in his 1984 volume, Heresies. A shorter volume by G. R. Evans, A Brief History of Heresy, came out in 2003.
More recently a brief theological treatment edited by Quash and Ward appeared: Heresies and How to Avoid Them (2008). Thus McGrath deserves credit for broaching this important subject, given that so few others have been inclined to tread here.
In this volume McGrath takes an historical, theological, and apologetic approach. He is seeking to convince us of why the very concept of heresy must be regained and appreciated.
For example, there has been a major attempt of late to push alternative Christianities, Gnostic gospels, and revisionist Christologies. Even popular works of fiction such as The Da Vinci Code have fuelled the fires by making all sorts of wild claims concerning what Christian orthodoxy is and is not.
And with the postmodern rejection of the concept of truth and its embrace of epistemological relativism, the whole task of reframing and reaffirming historic Christian truth claims has become even more urgent.
McGrath defines the concept of heresy by suggesting it is not unbelief (the rejection of core biblical beliefs), but a type of faith which is destructive and subversive, which often leads to unbelief.
Of course McGrath acknowledges that Christianity is not merely propositional and rational in nature. But it is also not less than that. Biblical Christianity is both about theological truth and personal involvement. He distinguishes between faith (a personal and relational commitment) and belief (a cognitive or conceptual commitment). Both aspects make up the Christian walk.
But when wrong beliefs and theological concepts are entertained and promoted, that has a very real and detrimental impact on faith. Thus "Christians do more than simply trust in God or in Christ. They also believe certain quite definite things about them." It is when these core beliefs are skewed or undermined that heresy arises.
As an historical theologian, McGrath explains the story of how the early church grappled with its new-found faith, and how it sought to both understand it and to protect it from error. He rightly notes that there was from the earliest times a recognisable and agreed to core of basic Christian beliefs.
Contrary to the claims of many contemporary critics (and their popularisers such as Dan Brown), there was always a shared common faith: "Right from the beginning, Christians knew what really mattered about God and about Jesus of Nazareth."
But that had to be articulated, codified and theologically defined. Sure, there was diversity in the early Church, but it was a diversity based on a shared consensus about the basics of what the Gospel was all about. While there certainly existed differences in social, linguistic and cultural contexts, "there was a fundamental unifying strand in early Christianity".
McGrath examines the diversity found in the early Christian communities, and looks at how this was dealt with as the young church discovered its theological footing. During the opening centuries of the new faith, there was a process of "crystallization of orthodoxy" in which theological expressions of the faith were honed, refined and sifted. Those formulations which were affirmed offered the basis of orthodoxy, while those which were rejected became the heresies which later had to be fought against and rejected.
McGrath reminds us that heresy arises more from within the church than without. It "shares a lot of the theological DNA of orthodoxy". And the battle against heresy was not merely some attempt to retain religious power, but to safeguard the faith itself, and ensure its more or less untarnished transmission.
After examining a number of classic heretical movements and beliefs in church history, McGrath looks at the question of why heresy emerges. He argues that more often than not, the original intentions and motivations were good: to more effectively and soundly explain and preserve the gospel.
For example, often the attempt is made to make the faith amenable and relevant to the surrounding cultural environment. The motivation may be right, but the outcome often is not. Too often such attempts at enculturation and accommodation lead to the rise of heresy.
By seeking to assimilate into current intellectual, ideological and cultural norms, the gospel often has to be watered down or radically redefined in order to fit. That is always a danger. The gospel in one sense must always stand above any culture, and pass judgment on it, not the other way around.
As an example, consider how the early church encountered and engaged with Gnosticism. Could it incorporate Gnostic ideas, or must it resist them? It seems that for the most part the early church resisted Gnosticism, recognising the dangers it posed to the Christian worldview. But where it was embraced, heresy soon followed.
Of course Christians must interact with their surrounding culture, but they must always remain vigilant while doing so. While too little engagement with culture can render the faith irrelevant and ineffective, too much accommodation and compromise can often lead to the destruction of Christian orthodoxy.
Various other concepts are treated in this important volume. For example, McGrath looks at Islam and its reliance on heretical forms of Christianity. He looks at recent sociological and ideological considerations of heresy. And he examines the relationships between orthodoxy, heresy, and power.
In an age in which 99 shades of grey are preferred to black and white, discussions about truth and error, orthodoxy and heresy, may seem quaint and passé. But truth matters. This volume challenges the assumptions behind many current attempts to discredit historic Christianity and to promote all sorts of other spurious alternatives. It deserves a wide reading, if for no other reason than to prevent the outbreak of even more heresy.
on January 2, 2010
"Heresy" by Alister McGrath was very good until McGrath got to the subject of heresy in the Middle Ages. It seems that we are permitted to talk about "heresy" only up until around 500 AD. After that, the subject of what is or s not a hersy becomes too political, unless, of course, what was heretical prior to 500 AD crops up again, and then we can talk about heresy.
This seems like a very convenient approach for someone who describes himself as adhering to "classical Protestantism" and may not want to ignite any internecine Protestant turf war over who has the "true gospel."
McGrath can certainly make the claim that he makes, but, for me, he wasn't very persuasive; particularly, since I just finished reading 48. St. Augustine on Faith and Works (Ancient Christian Writers)), where Augustine writes:
"Let us now consider the question of faith. In the first place, we feel that we should advise the faithful that they would endanger the salvation of their souls if they acted on the false assurance that faith alone is sufficient for the salvation of souls or that they need not perform good works in order to be saved."
Augustine wrote De Fide et Operibus in order to rebut the notion that a person who was living a life of unrepentant sin - such as being remarried after a divorce - should be baptized.
McGrath is Anglican and a self-described "classical Protestant." It would have been interesting to hear him explain why Episcopalian ordination of practicing homosexuals, or the classic Protestant concept of sola fide are not "heresies" even under his fiat that only doctrines condemned in classical times can rightly be called "heretical."
I'm sure that he has an answer or ideas about the issues that I've raised, but he gave the the subject only one chapter. Further, his adumbrating an answer that puts his own tradition - with its many bitter splits, such as that between Arminianism and Calvinism - beyond any reasoned discussion about which is the most "authentically" Christian explanation seemed like a "dodge" rather than a good faith effort to apply the principles he had previously worked out to a difficult question. It also seemed to be an appeal to current social norms that he warned against in his previous chapters that had analyzed the early heresies.
The earlier chapters where McGrath discusses Ebionitism, Gnosticism and Donatism, and his critique that the modern attitude that such disputes were about power, is well done and worth reading. I wish, though, that he had followed through with that approach in dealing with the "elephant in the room" - the Protestant Reformation, albeit that might have made the book itself elephantine in size.
McGrath also offers a chapter on the Islamic approach to Christianity, which he argues is based on the Islamic assumption that various Christian heresies reflected the "authentic" Christianity. This was an interesting chapter, but on reflection, it did not seem to advance the thesis of the book.
McGrath's final chapter on the future of heresy - that Christianity needs to find a way to deal with the allure that heresy continues to have - seems inarguable, but, then, I wonder about what his response to the questions I raised about the ordination of practicing homosexuals recur. Would McGrath consider the doctrine behind that practice to be a form of "authentic Christianity" or are we permitted to describe such concepts as "heretical"? Again, I'm sure that dealing with this topic would involve a longer and more in-depth analysis than McGrath wanted to provide in this fairly slim and easily read volume, but it would seem that such issues are very germane to the question of "heresy and the future."
A final point, running through McGrath's "Heresy" is a Chestertonian subtext about orthodoxy. McGrath cites G.K. Chesterton in the footnotes. What is strange was that at one point McGrath offered a classic Chestertonian image of orthodoxy as providing a field around which orthodoxy - Chalcedon, specifically - "simply placed a hedge around the good pasture." This seems to be an obvious allusion to Chesterton's observation in Orthodoxy that:
"Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff's edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased."
It seems odd that McGrath doesn't give Chesterton a footnote or that he didn't quote this much-quoted observation.
I would recommend this as a useful addition to any library on the issue of Christian theology, Christian history or Christian heresy, but I'd add the caveat that book seems deficient in its overall argument.
Heresy is big business these days especially in our postmodern culture. When it is cool to go against the grain by going against the grain, heresy is natural. To question orthodoxy is itself orthodox in a postmodern culture. In 2009,historical theologian and one of the smartest men in the world Alister McGrath published a book on the subject of heresy called Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth.
What McGrath offers is not a theological treatment of various heretical beliefs throughout the Church's history. Instead what he offers is an academic critique, historical and psychological purposes and drives behind heresy in the Christian tradition. This is important to note. McGrath is not trying to show how Arianism or Valintenianism is heretical, he assumes them to be heretical. He seeks to critique the movements and find out why heresy is so common and what drives them.
One of the most helpful discussions in the book is McGrath's discussion of Walter Bauer's thesis that heresy is simply orthodoxy that lost its vote. The argument is that in the early years of Christianity, there was no unified doctrine and theology. Instead Christianity was made up of diverse beliefs. Though not making this the purpose of his book, McGrath shows that this theory is false. Bauer argues that orthodoxy is inherently authoritatively that snuffed out diverting opinions.
The problem with this thesis is that it is inconsistent. To make such an argument suggests that many of the early heresies (like Pelagianism) were themselves very restrictive, authoritarian, and oppressive (if we can use the word in a postmodern sense). What Bauer accuses of orthodoxy could equally be applied to heresy not to mention the fact that neither the canon of Scripture or orthodoxy was ever voted on by an oppressive council. That is simply not true.
Another important aspect of the book is the discussion of how culture and society influences theology. McGrath looks at the several heresies highlighted in the book reflect the theology and philosophy prevalent at that time. I find this to be one of the greatest motivations of heresy and liberalism. A desire to be more like the culture or the ignorance that one is being shaped by culture and not the gospel is powerful and explains much of what leads to heresy and liberalism.
Overall, this is, like most of his other books, a good book. Though for the new reader there are some dangers in reading the book as it would be easy to think McGrath is saying something he isn't. For example, it sounds like McGrath argues early on that there was a diversity in Christian beliefs in the Early Church. This is only true to a certain extent. The Church established orthodoxy at the cross of Christ. That was not up for discussion (just read the New Testament), but what was being debated were other areas of life.
So anyone interested in the discussion, you may like this one. If nothing else, it is an interesting read and the discussion the author gives regarding some of the more popular heresies of the Early Church are worth your read.
This book was provided free of charge by HarperOne for the purpose of this review.
As always McGrath makes for interesting reading since he so immerses himself in research on a given topic, here the vital one of heresy. What this reviewer found fascinating was his peering into the ancient heresies of the first five or six centuries of Christianity and the main conclusion that these heresies emanated from within the church, not from the outside. At the same time, McGrath acknowledges that with most heresies they were motivated by incorporation or accommodation of concepts outside of the church which were brought in. This distinction to me is not that important to make, with the far greater critique being that it was the accommodation of outside beliefs into the Christian belief that brought about heresy.
He omits or skates over very lightly what this reviewer takes as of prime import when talking about heresy, the apostles witness to Jesus, the prophets and the OT. This is the authority to this day that the church should be making any judgments about what is orthodox or heretical. The power structure that makes such decisions is not that important, unless they go against the Biblical evidence, e.g. Hus and Luther to point out just two.
Nevertheless, this whole well researched discussion provides a more than adequate foil to discuss, investigate and utilize the history of heresy and its possible contemporary usage among us. This well done volume contributes greatly then to the raising again of this vital issue among us, and his pointing out the wrong mainstream reaction to historical heresy conclusions.
Further, his closing presentation on the accommodation of heresy concerning Jesus from Sethian Gnosticism rather than Chalcedonian orthodoxy was absolutely a bright contribution, which this reviewer will certainly check out.