Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth,
by Alister McGrath, SPCK, 2009, 282pp
Somehow the notion has gotten around that ideas condemned by the church as heretical are a lot more interesting and attractive than stodgy old orthodoxy. In fact some scholars to try to suggest that what are now regarded as heretical versions of the faith were in fact more authentically Christian than orthodox teaching. To make things worse, it is claimed that orthodox Christians were the big bullies of church history. They were not above using the dark arts of political manipulation to impose their will on the church at the expense of poor, downtrodden heretics. On a popular level Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code perpetuates the idea that the development of orthodox Christian faith was little better than a grand theo-political conspiracy.
Some years ago the fashion world proclaimed, 'brown is the new black'. Now it seems that the history of Christian doctrine is being rewritten to say that, 'heresy is the new orthodoxy'. Indeed, given postmodern suspicion of truth claims, the great heresy is to say that there is such a thing as heresy in the first place.
It is very much with this revisionist context in mind that Alister McGrath gives attention to the subject of heresy, which he defines as "an inadequate, distorting, or damaging conceptualisation of faith" (p. 80). The writer charts the development of Christian orthodoxy and discusses the origins of the idea of heresy. He describes early heresies, Ebonitism (Jesus was simply a great prophet), Doceticism (Jesus only seemed to have a human body) and Valentinism (early Gnosticism), showing why they were dismissed as inadequate and misleading representations of the Christian faith. In the second century AD when the above heresies arose, the church was a persecuted body within the Roman Empire with no support from officialdom when it came to policing false teaching. The aforementioned errors lost the battle of ideas simply because they failed to do justice to the gospel as disclosed in the New Testament.
When it came to combating later classic heresies like Arianism, Donatism and Pelagianism, the political situation had changed somewhat. The Christian church had received official recognition from the Roman Emperor, Constantine. The Emperor had a vested interest in having divisions between Christians healed for the sake of the harmony of his domains. It was Constantine who called the Council of Nicea in 325 AD in an attempt to resolve the dispute over Arianism. However, he left it to the church leaders to determine the outcome of the council, which declared that Jesus as the Son of God is homoousios [of the same essence] with the Father. Arianism was thus declared a heresy. It seems that if anything, Constantine's sympathies were with Arius, giving the lie to the oft- repeated claim that Nicea was a political stitch up.
A later Emperor had the decision of Nicea overturned. The orthodox belief that Jesus is fully God was declared a heresy. Athanasius, champion of the deity of Christ was banished and Arians rose to positions of power in the church. But despite political interference, the orthodox stuck to their guns. At stake was whether Jesus was the final revelation of God and the Saviour of the World. Only if Christ was fully God and fully man could he reveal God and save us from our sins. Arianism was not the victim of dodgy theo-politics, it simply wasn't an adequate conceptualisation of Jesus as he is described in the New Testament.
Again, while the errors of Donatism and Pelagianism awakened the interest of the secular authorities, the primary interest of the church was not power politics, but right belief. Donatism was a separatist movement that took a hard line with regard to Christians who had capitulated during times of persecution. The Donatists held that the right administration of the sacraments was dependent on the holiness of the Minister. Augustine rightly saw that this approach failed to appreciate the frailty of man in sin and the reality of God's restoring grace.
The issue of sin and grace was also to the fore in the Pelagian controversy. Augustine emphasised man's total need of grace in salvation. This was summed up in his payer, "Lord, command what you will and give what you command." Pelagius on the other hand taught that human beings are able to obey the law of God and merit salvation for themselves. Augustine argued that Pelagianism did not take into account that sin had so affected human nature that only the sovereign grace of God can save us. Pelagius' views were rightly condemned as heretical.
McGrath defends the notion that certain beliefs should be regarded as heretical because they undermine the gospel and distort the Christian message beyond recognition. But he also recognises that "heresy" can sometimes be used as a lazy term of abuse to be hurled at one's theological opponents. A case in point is the Roman Catholic denunciation of Protestants as "heretics" at the time of the Reformation. Mainline Protestants held to orthodox beliefs on the Trinity, the person of Christ and salvation by grace. But they questioned certain Roman Catholic teachings in the light of what they found in the Bible. Roman Catholic distinctives such as the Mass, purgatory and papal authority were not the subject of Ecumenical Councils. Disagreement with them hardly constituted heresy. Indeed, it might even be argued that the doctrine of transubstantiation is heretical in its implications. The claim that the body of Christ is present whenever and wherever the Mass is celebrated, is a denial of Chalcedonian orthodoxy, as it involves a property of Christ's divine nature (omnipresence) being attributed to his human nature.
Protestants held that the Bible is the supreme authority in the church. For McGrath this meant that Protestants had some difficulty in coping with newly minted erroneous beliefs that developed within the Reformed fold. They stood with historic orthodoxy when it came to ancient heresies. Protestants responded effectively to old heresies in new guises, such as Socinianism (a kind of 17th century Arianism). But what of novelties that sprang up within Protestantism, such as Arminianism? After all, false teachers quote the Bible as well as the orthodox, and unlike the Ecumenical Councils, no Protestant grouping can claim to speak for the whole church. According to McGrath, all the Reformed could do in response to the challenge of Arminianism was to call the Synod of Dort and attempt resolve the issue by putting it to the vote.
There are a couple of problems with McGrath's account of the Reformed Churches' response to Arminianism. First, while the teaching of Arminius and the Remonstrants who followed in his wake threw up some new challenges, it was in some ways an old error. In effect Arminianism was Semi-Pelagianism in 17th century clothing. Second, in their Canons, the Synod of Dort produced a well thought-out biblical and theological rebuttal of Arminian error (the so-called Five Points of Calvinism). The Synod appealed to Scripture rather than attempting to resolve the controversy simply by counting heads.
The issue of biblical authority in relation to heresy is not unique to Protestants. Athanasius battled with Arius over the meaning of the Bible's witness to Christ. The Council of Nicea aimed at setting forth the church's understanding of Scripture. It did not seek to supplant or augment the authority of the Bible. The Reformed insistence on the supreme authority of Scripture is of a piece with the historic position of the Christian church. A similar approach may be found in church fathers such as Augustine. No one is arguing that the fathers' attitude to biblical authority hampered them in dealing firmly with heresy.
It could even be posited that the principle of sola scriptura is a positive strength when it comes to combating error. It enables Protestants to respond creatively to new forms of false teaching rather than virtually being imprisoned by older creedal formulae. The medieval Roman Catholic Church failed to subject its doctrine to proper biblical authority. As a result sub-biblical dogmas such as the Mass and purgatory were allowed to develop almost unchallenged. It is essential that the church constantly reviews her teaching in the light of the Bible.
New errors demand that the church reflects afresh on the witness of Holy Scripture. Innovative ways of expressing and safeguarding old truths may be called for. In the face of the Arian threat, Nicea used the improvisatory formula that the Son is homoousios with the Father to uphold what the church had always confessed concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. A strong emphasis on biblical authority gives the church the ability to respond innovatively to fresh challenges to the orthodox Christian faith. The Synod of Dort's crystallisation of Reformed teaching in the face of Arminian error is an example of this kind of thing.
McGrath has certainly nailed the myth that heretical teachings were more interesting and authentic versions of the Christian faith than classic orthodoxy. The fact is that heresies were and are failed attempts at exploring and explaining the gospel. They fall short of true wonder of the truth as it is in Jesus. Orthodox belief was not imposed on the church at the whim of civil and ecclesiastical politicians. Rather, orthodoxy prevailed because it offered a faithful definition and defence of the core teachings of the New Testament concerning God as Trinity, the incarnation of Christ and salvation by grace.
The writer also has some fascinating things to say on cultural and intellectual 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.
Today as much as ever the church is called to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints. The New Testament repeatedly emphasises that false teaching must be taken seriously, Matthew 7:15-20, Galatians 1:6-8, 2 Peter 2, 3 John 9-11. If anything McGrath could have been a little more strident in warning of the dangers of gospel-denying error. However, his book is a timely reminder that truth matters and heresy isn’t as attractive at it is sometimes cracked up to be. It is the task of the churches to demonstrate just how wonderfully compelling and life-transforming is the orthodox Christian faith. The truth and nothing but the truth will set you free (John 8:32).