For The Someday Book

Book Review: Heresy

Posted on: September 14, 2015

Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth by Alister McGrath, HarperOne, 2009, 282 pp.

This follows a series of five book reviews on the Christian creeds, which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.

HeresyAlongside reading five books and preparing six sermons on the Christian creeds, I had to read up on the controversies that sparked many of the creedal formulations—the debates among early followers of Jesus trying to sort out the basic beliefs required to remain within the Christian fold, tracking the groups labeled “orthodox” against the groups labeled “heretics.” It was one of the most interesting and helpful things I read.

McGrath begins with a sense of eye-rolling impatience with the current fascination with heresy. He blames scholar Walter Bauer for the idea that heresy is nothing more than “suppressed orthodoxy,” the evidence of historical losers who may offer more radical or inclusive ideas. He eschews the contemporary claim that “heresy is radical and innovative, whereas orthodoxy is pedestrian and reactionary.” (2) Instead, he offers his own definition:

Heresy is best seen as a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing or even destroying the core of Christian faith. … Heresy represents certain ways of formulating the core themes of the Christian faith—ways that are sooner or later recognized by the church to be dangerously inadequate or even destructive. (10-11)

Having been influenced by Bauer’s ideas about heresy and subject to the intrigue McGrath criticizes, I found his position compelling. Orthodoxy, he argues, is not about exercising power over one’s detractors—it is about protecting Christianity from easy answers and demystification. He uses the metaphor of dead ends. Heresies are theologies that do not lead anywhere, that result in pat conclusions and a God that can too easily be known and understood. This angle made a progressive, mystic Christian like me sit up and take notice.

[One point, out of order: McGrath makes it clear, especially toward the end of the book, that his definition applies only to theological sects during the patristic period. Once Christianity reached the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church turned to heresy as a tool to punish any individual or group that sought to subvert its power. These groups were not necessarily heretics by McGrath’s definition, and should not be seen as problematic because of their views of the Christian faith. McGrath’s understanding of heresy requires that it is a threat to the whole of the Christian faith–not to individuals or institutions. (208)]

McGrath’s opening chapter on “Faith, Creeds and the Christian Gospel” was one of the most helpful things I read in preaching about the historic creeds of the church. He frames the creeds after William James, as the church’s “working hypotheses” about how to see and comprehend the world. (17) They represent the “consensus of the faithful, rather than the private beliefs of individuals.” (28)

An intellectual scaffolding needed to be developed to preserve the mystery, to safeguard what the church had discovered to be true–a process that entails both discernment and construction. (28)

Doctrine, then, preserves the central mysteries at the heart of the Christian faith and life. … But what happens if a particular doctrine turns out not to protect such mystery but in fact undermines it? What if the theoretical framework intended to shield and shelter a central insight of faith is found to erode or distort it? These questions point us to the essence of heresy. A heresy is a doctrine that ultimately destroys, destabilizes or distorts a mystery rather than preserving it. (30-31, italics original)

I found this insight into heresy made orthodoxy far more compelling that it had been since I stepped away from conservative, evangelical faith. When the creeds are guardians of mystery, their goal is not to explain and codify, but make sure that each new generation is provoked into questions and engagement. Heresy is not unbelief, but unbelief can be the outcome of heresy because it undoes the need to believe in the mystery. (33) Heresy is also not an attack from outside. It emerges from within the church itself. (83)

McGrath continues this line of thinking in his chapter on “The Early Development of Heresy,” where he argues that innovation is required for orthodoxy. It is heresy that wishes to limit or calcify Christian doctrine. He traces this theological claim back to Athanasius in the third century, and follows its progress through a series of orthodox theologians who all emphasize the need for Christianity to evolve.

Yesterday’s attempts to conceptualize the essence of faith need improvement, the need perhaps arising through their being too closely tied to the prevailing assumptions of the day, or perhaps through their focusing excessively on one aspect of a complex question. Doctrinal development is the inevitable and proper outcome of the theological watchfulness demanded by the church. There is thus a sense in which Christian orthodoxy is something that is made as succeeding generations inherit ways of speaking about God and Christ that they rightly respect yet equally rightly wish to subject to examination. … This is most emphatically not being disrespectful toward the past; rather, it is about maintaining the dialogue that began in the past, continues today, and will not end until the close of history. (70)

This accords easily with our United Church of Christ Constitution, which “claims as its own the faith of the historic Church expressed in the ancient creeds and …affirms the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own.” However, I did not expect this to be defined as the practice of orthodoxy for all Christians. It raises serious questions for contemporary fundamentalist traditions that demand an unchanging, unquestioning faith.

The remainder of the book offers a deeper look into several prominent heresies, including Ebionitism, Docetism, Valentinism, Arianism, Donatism, and Pelagianism. Other heresies, such as Montanism and Marcionism, make brief appearances from time to time. McGrath does not offer an exhaustive catalog of heretical thought, but takes representative examples.

One chapter explores what motivates heresy, then and now, which McGrath places into a typology of “pressures” that pull against orthodoxy:

Cultural norms: A perception that Christianity is significantly out of touch with contemporary cultural values…

Rational norms: The belief that certain Christian ideas are contrary to “right reason”…

Social identity: A means of religious self-identification of marginalized social groupings

Religious accommodation: Pressure to modify certain aspects of the Christian faith in order to facilitate coexistence

Ethical concerns: The perception that religious orthodoxy is excessively morally permissive or anarchic on the one hand, or restrictive or oppressive on the other. (180)

One of the most interesting things I had not previously recognized was the extent to which heresies are more, rather than less, morally demanding and restrictive than orthodoxy. The Donatists are a chief example, but I am also reminded of movements such as the Shakers.

The concluding chapters address the rise of Protestantism and Islam, and how both movements relate to both orthodoxy and heresy. McGrath then ends with a final plea for the beauty of orthodoxy:

The pursuit of orthodoxy is essentially the quest for Christian authenticity. The relentless attempt to find the best formulations of Christian truth claims reflects the insight that Christianity is capable of stating and understanding its ideas inadequately and inauthentically. … Defective and damaging forms of the Christian faith–in other words, heresies–will limit its survival prospects. The quest for orthodoxy is above all a search for authenticity. (232)

I found McGrath’s defense of orthodoxy very compelling, because it offers a breathable, evolving faith that preserves mysteries rather than forcing them closed. It offered me a much different approach to the historic creeds of the church that unlocked them in new and compelling ways, and engaged my often-skeptical faith in a richer conversation with orthodox ideas.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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