A review of Heresy. By Alister McGrath

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.

Image of Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth
Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth by McGrath, Alister (Author) Amazon logo

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.

[1143 words]

13 Replies to “A review of Heresy. By Alister McGrath”

  1. Heresy certainly is one of the most threatening powers to the Church of our day – & our leaders have neglected the persistent warnings, not only of the Lord Jesus, the Apostles & our Christian forefathers (even in this country). We have not many ‘spiritual fathers’ in our day who can take a stand on issues & shake the nation – in fact, the worst of all is that there is very little confrontation of heresy in Australia.

    The fundamentalist Churches tend to keep to themselves, like a social clique, & they never go beyond their walls to reach those denominations they once were a part of! When I left my old denomination – I went with a bang, there’s not many state leaders who didn’t know about my attempts to bring reform. Christians everywhere ought to be laboring – in every pew, in every Church – to hinder every bad and encourage every good.

    I find heresy to be always coming in the back door – through the fundamentalist churches. I mean, everyone knows the liberals are way off – our issue is the spiritual legacy of our own congregations (where will they be in 50 years???) I’m seeing all around me the old-time fundamentalists softening their message, & allowing modern church-growth methods to ooze in to their churches. I’m finding programs have overtaken prostration & prayer, entertainment has overtaken evangelism, & good heaven-born preaching is out the window.

    Our task is not merely to know the pitfalls of our age, but to contend against them with love – but severity. I know so many old men of God who have shelves full of good theological books – but that knowledge goes no where but their own heads. I don’t want to be like that. I want to take the truth I know, & take it to the most deceived of people – oh how we fail, but if we don’t go back to Jude verse three, & contend even in our fundamental churches with good reputations – we are going to find that in 50-100 years the best of churches will be swallowed up in a new type of liberalism.

    Forbes Alan Morrison

  2. I wouldn’t attack just the fundamentalist churches for allowing heresy Forbes, although some are bad enough with the prosperity doctrine, oneness doctrine and purpose-drivenism to name a few. What about the traditional churches that are embracing contemplative mysticism, feminism, dominionism and homosexuality. We are being attacked from within ALL churches at the moment and no-one is safe unless our leaders the watchmen are continually at watch. Sadly this watching is the thing that is now passe.
    Lindsay Smail

  3. A good review Bill. I heard Alister in Brisbane speaking on the Dawkins’ Delusion. He did a great job and he is an accomplished speaker and academic. I would like to ask Alister a few ‘litmus test’ questions about Christian orthodoxy and the Bible. Did God create the world in 6 literal days? Were Adam and Eve two literal people? and Did Noah’s Flood inundate Australia?
    Tasman Walker

  4. Interesting proposition, Bill…

    Heresy offers the opportunity to get a materialist objecting to an actual word itself.

    There’s an interesting conflict/hypocrisy here: “heresy” is in fact heresy to a materialist/atheist. When they object to you using it, a further opportunity arises to point out that their objection is a matter of personal faith.

    Leon Brooks

  5. My denomination, the Presbyterian Church in NSW had the courage, some years ago, to formally declare Rev. Peter Cameron a heretic. It didn’t hit the MSM much, (of course) but it was a very big thing for us. It required a formal church process and a heresy trial. It was a lot of work and it was very difficult to do. It caused a lot of broken relationships. But it was done, and had to be done. Thankfully, he went back to Scotland, and it didn’t result in a civil action. But it was an act of repentance over our failure to do the same to Professor Angus in the 1940’s. His liberalism gutted the Presbyterian Church. Perhaps a denomination has to do what we did, every century or so, to stay on track.
    Andrew Campbell

  6. Like Tas, I’d like to see an answer from Alister. My very late post of 23.4.07 to Bills article of 20/3/07 has never been answered:

    “An open letter to Alister McGrath, Alister, I enjoyed your interview re the Dawkins Delusion on Sydney Australia Christian radio station 103.2 fm last night which I heard via Melbourne’s 89.9 Light FM. The interview is at http://www.fm1032.com.au/MP3.asp?ChannelID=17, Size: 7.7mb Dur: 16:26 Date:22/4/2007 …
    After the interview (unfortunately not on the MP3) one caller asked you how dinosaurs fitted in. You asked her where she was coming from – she said she had trouble explaining dinosaurs as a Christian. You then answered indirectly about how some people believed in a recent creation while you believed in long periods of preparation of this wonderful world and how important humans were.
    As I see it, the direct implication of your answer is that you, as a Christian, don’t actually believe what the Bible unequivocally states as fact in Genesis. It also seemed to me that you would rather not have answered the question, possibly because you realise that admitting you don’t believe clear historical statements in the Bible is damaging to your credibility as a logical thinker, not to mention the credibility of Christianity. So please correct me if I am wrong – I rang the talkback number many times but could not get through.
    I think that many atheists humour Christians who believe in millions of years of evolution; because they know that if the Bible is wrong in Genesis then Christianity is baseless and illogical. Yet atheists, who are happy to humour old-earth creationist ideas such as you seem to hold, can be apoplectic with biblical creationists who logically base Christianity on the historical reliability of Genesis.
    Incidentally, when I became a Christian as a new graduate I believed in billions of years of evolution but am now convinced that Genesis as real history makes far more logical and scientific sense than the mythology of evolution with god mixed in.
    Peter Newland”

    Perhaps Alister will see this post and answer?
    Peter Newland

  7. Tasman – and Peter
    Regarding your questions that you’d like to ask Alister McGrath…
    He was the guest speaker for the annual ISCAST lecture in 2007 and the keynote speaker at the ISCAST conference held in Geelong in September 2007.
    Source or Source

    Given the views of ISCAST in supporting long age creation and/or theistic evolution, you might not like the answers to your questions!

    Jenny Stokes

  8. Thanks Jenny,

    Do long-age creationists etc have a logical answer or do they avoid the topic? If Alister or ISCAST have logical answers, then please let them enlighten us. If they have no logical answer then there is a major hole in their apologetics. For example, how would they LOGICALLY defend Christianity against atheists’ attacks such as:

    ‘The most devastating thing though that biology did to Christianity was the discovery of biological evolution. Now that we know that Adam and Eve never were real people the central myth of Christianity is destroyed. If there never was an Adam and Eve there never was an original sin. If there never was an original sin there is no need of salvation. If there is no need of salvation there is no need of a saviour. And I submit that puts Jesus, historical or otherwise, into the ranks of the unemployed. I think that evolution is absolutely the death knell of Christianity.’ Frank Zindler.

    Or :
    ‘Christianity has fought, still fights, and will continue to fight science to the desperate end over evolution, because evolution destroys utterly and finally the very reason Jesus’ earthly life was supposedly made necessary. Destroy Adam and Eve and the original sin, and in the rubble you will find the sorry remains of the Son of God. If Jesus was not the redeemer who died for our sins, and this is what evolution means, then Christianity is nothing.’ Richard Bozarth.

    The problem is: If Christians don’t believe what the Bible clearly states as historical fact in Genesis then we tacitly admit that the Bible is wrong, at least in significant places. And if the Bible is fallible: then is God fallible, deceptive or, mythical? And if there is no logical defence against the atheists’ claims above, then that opens a door to heresy, apostasy and mythology.

    Peter Newland

  9. Lindsay made a comment that we ought not to worry too much about the errors creeping into fundamentalist churches – but to refute the ones already gone. I think the battle is the other way around – I care more for the fundamentalists who are losing grip on their traditions. For example, I attended a Baptist church some time ago and they have a reputation for being real Bible-believers – but when I went there, the church-week was jammed full of useless programs, entertainments from the stage – music til your ears drop off, the preaching was theological but cold – no passion, and even then – when a little bit of passion came in, it wasn’t enough to wake up the 400 attendants who couldn’t give a minute of their time to reaching the lost. I found it all very heart-smashing. I tried for a few months to reach them – I warned them of Gospel-compromise – but now it’s been a year since I’ve left, and they’ve already welcomed in fashion shows to raise money (In which a candy-coated ‘gospel’ message was given), they’ve welcomed the modern church-growth techniques – they don’t believe in evangelizing and preaching anymore, but just advertising church events to suck in the unsaved. I’ve predicted that the church will be apostate within 20-50 years, It’s not a prophecy – it’s a prediction, and I’ve tried to warn them. We’ll see how it pans out.
    Forbes Alan Morrison

  10. In response to Forbes, Tas, Jenny, and Peter. I do not believe that one’s scientific views of creation, the flood, and Bible inerrancy, are at the heart of Christian orthodoxy.

    Tas, your own website states: “The scientific aspects of creation are important, but are secondary in importance to the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as Sovereign, Creator, Redeemer and Judge.”

    Christian faith, surely has to do with the reception of the Holy Spirit, so as to meet and know the Father, and of Christ Jesus being formed in a person. I would look to 1Cor.15:3-8, 1John 4:2-3 and the principle set forth in Galatians, and in Acts 15:8-20, and the outworking of that faith in Christ, in terms of loving and honouring all people; as well as a new heart for the law of God, and for obedience to the New Testament imperatives, and an enduring, responsive joy, as the sorts of tests that apply.

    Trevor Faggotter

  11. Yes Trevor, you are correct – but in a limited legalistic sense. One’s views on creation, the flood and Bible inerrancy can and do effect whether some will accept or reject Christianity. Isn’t it worth seeking after one lost sheep who rejects the bible and Christianity because of the logical arguments put by Zindler (quoted above)?

    Zindler’s quote implies a mockery of 1Cor15 (of which you quoted a small section) but which later describes Jesus as the second Adam. Surely 1 Cor15 is myth if Adam is a myth?

    While your name is written in the Lamb’s book of life you are OK. Fine. But what about others! What about your responsibility in 1 Peter 3:13-22 which includes instruction to always be ready to make a defence (of the Gospel) and goes on to talk about the days of Noah as history.

    So far, neither Trevor, nor Alister McGrath, nor any other comment on this page give a rational answer to Zindler. May I repeat: “The problem is: If Christians don’t believe what the Bible clearly states as historical fact in Genesis then we tacitly admit that the Bible is wrong, at least in significant places. And if the Bible is fallible: then is God fallible, deceptive or, mythical? And if there is no logical defence against the atheists’ claims above, then that opens a door to heresy, apostasy and mythology.”

    Peter Newland

  12. I know this is an old thread but just a thought to ponder over.

    We simply can not approach all pieces of scripture in the same context as another. Good hermeneutics will teach you that we have to understand the time in which the literature was written, to whom it was written and probably most importantly, what was its purpose to the people it was intended to be read by.

    I’m not going to deal in absolutes in what I say here hopefully 🙂

    Question 1) Is the purpose of the first (let’s say roughly) 10 chapters of Genesis describing a condition or describing historical facts?

    I’m not even sure that this is a question that has question value. As mentioned above, if you view all scripture on face value as historical and have no room in your mind to see certain pieces as a story book or pictorial of a larger truth, then you are bound to come out with some strange concepts.

    Does that mean that none of the text in the bible is to be taken literally or have historical value or is a historical fact?

    No of course not. I think people often have the view that the Bible is easy to read and understand. It is an extremely difficult set of texts to understand, comprehend and come to a partial conclusion on. Having said that, luckily it’s not too easy otherwise people would think they understand everything and then walkaway. I think parts are made to be very challenging and puzzling for the very reason of us to keep searching and always seeking God & Christ in our lives.

    If you read the bible straight through and take literally seven day creation, you won’t go far wrong. But at the same time, let’s give some room to the people with the skills investigating not just theology but the world as it is here.

    I’m not sure what i believe about the worlds origins in terms of the exact biological/chemical/quantum physics make up. I am convinced however that God as revealed through scripture has had a hand in it right from the beginning and not in some far off way but in a personal way and that he wants all to come to him through Christ.

    If people such as Alistair McGrath who have superior brain power to myself can still have a strong faith in the person of Christ and the biblical story and also believe that the origins of the world are very complicated and yet don’t impact on our faith and water it down, then I’m also confident that they are doing a good work on the field of science.

    Scientists need Jesus also…

    Wes Wright

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