Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth (In Review)

Derek Ouellette —  January 24, 2011

Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth
By Alister McGrath
4.5 Stars (out of 5)

Heresy is a word tossed around often by Christians of all stripes and colours, and often against other forms of the Christian faith. But what does “heresy” mean, how was it first employed by the early Church, what makes heresy “heresy” and who has the right to make the decision of what is “heresy” and what is “orthodoxy”?

Today Calvinists often call Arminian theology “heresy” and sometimes Arminians call Calvinism “heresy”. At the Reformation the Roman Catholics called Protestant’s “heretics” and the Reformers believed that the Roman church had lapsed into heresy all over the place. During the Great Schism of the start of the second millennium the Orthodox and the Church of Rome declared the other “heretical” and each proclaimed in themselves, “the Truth Church”. In the fifth century – through much effort and three councils later – Augustine convinced the majority of the church to declare Pelagianism “heresy” as well as the Donatists. And during the fourth century council of Nicaea when Christianity became the religion of the Empire, Arianism was declared “heresy” by all (except the Arians of course, and the Emperors!). In the second and third century influencial church leaders declared Ebionitism, Docetism, Marcionism and Gnosticism to be heretical beliefs. In the first century the Jewish historian Josephus speaks of Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes as different examples of Jewish “haireses” (Gr. different identifiable “groups” or “parties”).

Clearly the word “heresy” has had along and dark history within the (mostly) Christian faith. As McGrath writes:

Any discussion of heresy must acknowledge the darker side of this discussion – the enforcement of ideas by force, the suppression of liberty, and the violation of rights – p.13

Throughout Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth, Alister McGrath tackles this subject and attempts to untangle many of the assumptions about heresy both within and without the church.

Assumptions of Heresy From Without

For example, it is becoming trendy today to suggest the idea that “heresies” in the early church were simply the losers in the struggle for “orthodoxy”. By this view heresy or orthodoxy are simply random developments of history in which the majority or those who held political sway or power simply suppressed alternative ideas. So, for example while today Christians believe that Jesus is a member of the Triune Godhead, had the vote swung in the other direction and had the authorities of the times agreed with that vote, no Christians today would believe that Christ was God and Christianity would be much more like Islam and Judaism in it’s view of God.

McGrath shows – from history – how this view is an over-simplistic and naive approach to the historical data. Among some of the points he highlights to debunk this idea is that fact that while the Church council rejected “Arianism” (the view that Christ was a created being who did not share in God’s “essence”) as heresy, it appears that the Roman Emperor Constantine preferred Arianism over the Churches decision. Significantly, Constantines successor “declared” a reversal of the Churches decision at Nicaea and made Arianism Orthodoxy! But despite the fact that Christianity was at that time the religion of Rome, the Church refused to accept the Emperors decision and at the next Ecumenical council they reaffirmed the deity of Christ.

It was not until around the tenth century that the concept of heresy shifted from “theological” to “authoritative”. At that time heresy began to be referred to as anything which seemed to present a threat to the authority of the “Pope” (or the authority of the Patriarchs). So, for example, there arose the “Wycliffite Heresy” – the heresy of translating the bible into the common language of the people by John Wycliffe and we can also think of the Inquisition. But in the early church it was not so.

This leads McGrath to conclude:

For this reason, among others, I am inclined to limit the use of the term “heresy” to the classic period, ending with the formulations of the Council of Chalcedon in 451. – p.219

Assumptions of Heresy From Within

Aside from attempting to wrestle with other scholars over the issue just outlined above, McGrath has also written to address the latest “fad” by university students, bloggers, facebookers “twenty and thirty somethings” and so on:

Religious orthodoxy was become a victim of a familiarity fatigue, which creates a yearning for novelty. – p.11

People are bored with “orthodoxy” and so “heresy” is becoming popular. But in looking at the early church, McGrath quotes N.T. Wright who observes that “It is the message of the New Testament this is truly radical” (p.11). All of the early heresies – bar none! – were attempts to tone down the New Testaments radical teachings and to bring them more in line with cultural norms in order to make the Christian faith more relevant to their context. For the early church to stand on what would eventually be deemed “orthodoxy” was to take a radical and novel stance against the normal accepted, common and boring beliefs of Gnosticism, Arianism, Ebionism et cetera.

People today want to bring back Gnostic and Arian ideas because orthodoxy – belief in the Trinity and in a bodily resurrection for example – has become boring and is seen by many to be irrelevant. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Heresy: The Natural Outworkings of Theology

McGrath makes an observation throughout this book which is most significant.

We need to be clear about one centrally important point. Right from the beginning, Christians knew what really mattered about God and about Jesus of Nazareth. The difficulty was finding a theological framework to make sense of this. – p.28

If the reader of this blog gets anything at all from this post, it is that quote mixed with this one:

But what if a doctrinal statement that was originally intended to defend and preserve, and was initially believed to do so, is subsequently discovered to weaken and corrupt? This, I argue throughout this work, is the distinctive feature of heresy. – p.31

Heresy, for McGrath, “is a failed attempt at orthodoxy” (p.31). The fault of heresy is not that it was willing to explore possibilities and press conceptual boundaries in theology, it’s fault is in it’s unwillingness to accept that it failed.

Heresy is not an external infiltration of the philosophy of the world. Heresy always comes out from within the Christian church.

In other words, Christians have always wrestled with how to articulate the Christian faith and then how to communicate the articulation of that faith to the current cultural context. Often times this leads to a fuller expression of orthodoxy, sometimes it leads to heresy. But always the goal is the same. Heresies only fault “is it’s unwillingness to accept that it failed”.

Another good book by Alister McGrath.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.