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Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth Hardcover – Bargain Price, November 3, 2009
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Historian and theologian McGrath believes that heresy has become fashionable. More than that, contemporary Western society considers it radical and innovative, perhaps even cool. This attitudinal change he sees reflected by the renewed surge of interest in atheism and especially by the popularity of the so-called new atheists Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens and their best-selling antireligious books. McGrath studies the complicated relations between heresy, orthodoxy, and power, and discusses the unprecedented popularity of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003), placing the novel in the context of a postmodern suspicion of power and the Catholic Church, in particular. He explains the nature of faith, the origins of the idea of heresy, and the diverse roots of Christian heresy from its earliest forms (Ebionitism, Docetism, Valentinianism) to its later, classic formulations (Arianism, Donatism, Pelagianism). Also, he inspects the cultural and intellectual motivations for the existence of heresy. A penetrating examination by an intellectual powerhouse. --June Sawyers
“Not only a riveting story of ancient controversies, but also a much needed and timely correction to the commonly held notion that heretics were mostly free thinkers who challenged a narrow and closed orthodoxy.” (Justo L. González, author of The Story of Christianity )
“Alister McGrath helps us understand what heresy is and why it exercises a powerful attraction upon the human mind. It is full of illuminating historical discussions and insights into the motivations that lead people to adopt heresy as a style of life and a personal demeanor.” (Dallas Willard, author of Knowing Christ Today )
“A penetrating examination by an intellectual powerhouse.” (Booklist )
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What motivated heresy? McGrath argues that heresy arose through a desire to preserve the gospel rather than destroy it (p.176). The original intentions and motivations were sparsely meant to harm the original truth. A major goal was to more effectively present the gospel to contemporary culture, by making Christianity more suited to social norms and more amendable to secular rationality; however, strong motivation does not guarantee strong results. The gospel should stand above any rationale made by culture; however, attempts at accommodation lead to the rise of heresy. By seeking to comprehend current ideological and cultural norms, the gospel often undergoes a radical redefining in order to fit. Such accommodation and compromise can destroy the very gospel that we wished to accommodate. The purpose McGrath desires his readers to grasp is that society will remain concreted in scripture verses redefining the gospel in an ignorant way.
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 about both theological truth and personal involvement. He distinguishes between faith and belief, both aspects make up the Christian walk. However, when wrong beliefs and theological concepts are entertained and promoted, that has a very real and detrimental impact on faith. It is when these core beliefs are 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 recognizable and agreed to core of basic Christian beliefs.
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 refined and sifted. Those formulations 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 preserve the faith itself, and ensure its more or less untainted 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. Various other concepts are treated in this book. For example, McGrath looks at Islam and its reliance on heretical forms of Christianity. He looks at recent sociological and ideological considerations of heresy. McGrath also examines the relationships between orthodoxy, heresy, and power.
What grasped my interested immensely was that McGrath pinpointed the myth that heretical teachings were more interesting versions of the Christian faith than classic orthodoxy. In concise definition, heresies were and are failed attempts at exploring and explaining the gospel. Creating heresies mortifies the wonder of the truth as it is in Jesus. Orthodox belief was not imposed on the church on a whim of ecclesiastical politicians; instead, orthodoxy prevailed because it offered a concrete defense of the foundational teachings of the New Testament concerning the Trinity, the incarnation of Christ, and salvation by grace. McGrath also has some fascinating things to say on cultural motivations for heresy. In a chapter on Heresy and the Islamic View of Christianity, he shows that criticism of Christian teaching in the Koran is often based on heretical versions of the faith rather than orthodox belief.
I am in no position to recommend theological reads to stronger men of faith; however, the certainty of speaking to a pastor about the subject of McGraths view on Heresy is highly probable. If any authority is held on my encounter of this excellent read, I would most likely suggest this book to upcoming pastors in the church. Young pastors are constantly searching for flexible views concerning the gospel. I believe that paying one’s attentiveness to this work may open one’s eyes to a specific caution that should take place when interpreting scripture. McGrath strives to help the reader understand that heresy began with the mindset of helping unbelievers interpret the Word in a matter that would be more comprehendible for the culture at hand. Being aware of the danger behind inserting our own opinion in God’s Word is a topic that should be held at the highest of importance. This is why I hold to the belief that anyone going into ministry should be aware of the burden that must be carried and the consequences that are at hand if we choose to pay no attention to the responsibility that has been given to us as Christians.
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.