HarperOne, 2009. (Available in Australia at Koorong Books)
The subject of this book seems rather strange today. That is because the concept of heresy only makes sense if we accept the concept of orthodoxy, or more broadly, the concept of truth. But truth and related concerns have fallen on hard times in the contemporary West, and so discussions of heresy seem almost anachronistic.
Indeed, we certainly do not hear a lot of talk about it in secular circles. But Christians have been rather quiet on the topic as well. There have been a few exceptions. Some time ago Harold O. J. Brown provided a detailed historical study of the issue in Heresies (Doubleday, 1984). A much shorter, but helpful, volume was G. R. Evans’ A Brief History of Heresy (Blackwell, 2003).
And more recently a brief theological treatment edited by Quash and Ward appeared: Heresies and How to Avoid Them (Hendrickson, 2008). Thus McGrath deserves credit for broaching this important subject, given that so few others have dared to tread here.
His volume differs from the other three in that his interest is not just historical, nor is it just theological, although both facets of this topic are capably treated here. His interests are as much apologetic as anything. 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. So this is both a timely and an urgently needed volume.
McGrath defines the concept of heresy; offers some noted examples of it; and demonstrates the very real impact of heretical thinking. In terms of definition, he notes that heresy 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 about both 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 today – or it should matter – just as much as it did when the church was first birthed.
This volume clears up a lot of fuzzy and bankrupt thinking on the nature of heresy and orthodoxy. It 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.