Heresy, A History of Defending the Truth by Alister McGrath. In this 280 page book, McGrath refutes popular ideas about orthodoxy and heresy. Such as that Christian orthodoxy represents the beliefs that “won” by powerfully suppressing other valid beliefs as heresy. Heresy is the poor victim, and was an island of free-thinking in an ocean of unthinking and dogmatic orthodoxy. Really? McGrath’s book delves into these misconceptions in detail. I found it a worthwhile read, and recommend it. My “review” is simply my summarizing some key points I want to remember for the future.
Some of these distorted ideas in the scholarly world came from a Walter Bauer earlier in the 20th century, and Dan Brown’s popular fiction has contributed to these inaccurate ideas among everyday people.
History, of course, involves interpretation of the past. While there was some diversity of belief in the early years of the church (which some conservatives downplay), Bauer and others overemphasize and distort it. Core and critical Christian beliefs were accepted from the beginning. For example, the church clearly recognized that Jesus embodied God. Historical evidence also points to a shared sense of identity among believers despite geographical and cultural differences. The rituals of baptism and the Eucharist provided a focus. McGrath states:
We need to be clear about one central important point. Right from the beginning, Christians knew what really mattered about God and about Jesus of Nazareth. The difficulty was finding a theoretical framework to make sense of this. An intellectual scaffolding needed to be developed to preserve the mystery, to safeguard what the church had discovered to be true.
It is a mystery that God became a man, and that our God is the three-in-one. Unfortunately, as Gore is quoted in the book: “we are compelled to entrust the deep things of religion to the perils of human expression.” In the first 100 or so years of the church, these core beliefs were accepted yet there had not been reason to formally explain them. As time went on and circumstances (both internal and external) changed, there was a need to explore and defend core Christian beliefs. Every major heresy began as an exploration of Christian beliefs from within the church. How could some aspect of the faith be best explained, defended, or simply made more understandable to the surrounding culture?
McGrath describes a heresy as a failed attempt at orthodoxy. The fault was not with the person’s willingness to explore possibilities of expression, but the unwillingness to accept that their attempt had failed.
McGrath carefully looks at certain classic heresies from the patristic period (first 5 centuries of faith) considering the circumstances surrounding their development. He considers the earliest heresies of Ebionitism, Docetism, and Valentinism, and the later classic heresies of Arianism, Donatism, and Pelagianism.
Regarding the 3 earliest heresies referenced above, McGrath makes the observation that they were judged to be heretical before the church had evolved any permanent authority structures, before the emergence of creeds as official statements of faith, and before the NT canon had been formally agreed upon. A valuable insight in light of the criticism that church power structures squashed other beliefs. Even before the church became more formalized, there was a prior understanding of what Christianity ought to be.
Popular accounts of heresy present orthodoxy as ethically restrictive and authoritarian while heresy was liberating. This is a simplistic conclusion, and there was variation among heresies. While certain heresies did regard orthodoxy as repressive, others actually saw orthodoxy as lax and permissive! An obvious example would be Pelagianism. The origin of this movement lay in Palagius’s shock at the moral degeneracy that he found in the Roman church when he arrived from Britain. Which leads to another point – That the originators of these heresies usually had noble motives and intentions, not ones of malice. Some wanted to correct a legitimate weakness they observed. The problem was not with their motives, but the outcome of their journey, which ended in distortion of core Christian doctrines.
There is a great deal more history and analysis in this book, and my review does not do it justice. While the book is academic, it is very readable to the interested layperson. I think McGrath wrote with the layperson in mind, because he frequently reiterated key points (in different ways) as the book progressed. I appreciated that.