In recent years there has been a renewed focus on Christian heresies. In a world where tolerance is redefined and the only true heresy is exclusivism, people are now returning to the heresies refuted in the early centuries of the church. Works of fiction—like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code confuse fact and fiction as to how Christian doctrine developed, portraying it as a battle between different strands of beliefs. And popular writers like Bart Ehrman have written extensively on these heresies, portraying them as victims of oppression by the powerful establishment, who wanted their view of orthodoxy to win out.
Alister McGrath seeks to dispel the notion that orthodoxy and heresy was determined by power struggles, oppression, or political wars. In his book Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth, he recounts the development of several key Christian heresies, in order to explain the nature of heresy and the reason why Christians can hold to orthodoxy. He engages with various sources—from modern to post-modern writers, from Ehrman to sociologists to theologians—showing where they disagree with the historical record.
McGrath looks at several of the classic and most important heresies in early Christianity, including Ebionitism, Docetism, Gnosticism, Arianism, Donatism, and Pelagianism. By looking at the historical contexts of each, the primary sources, and the resulting councils/debates, McGrath is able to set the record straight on many of our wrongly held assumptions. For me the most interesting correction he provided was the source of heresy. The common view, argued by Walter Bauer in the 1900s, is that heresy comes from external sources, whether it be cultural adaptation or another religion. By looking at the heresies mentioned earlier, McGrath refutes this view, instead suggesting that many heresies come from within the church. Often, these heresies began by devout believers seeking to explain or interpret a doctrine; however, these doctrines were found wanting. They were unable to fully explain a doctrine without undermining the entire faith structure, so they were declared heresies, or “theological dead ends” (McGrath’s term, 217).
Heresy is a timely book that is well-written and a perfect guide to the importance of orthodoxy. Though there is plenty of discussion on the church fathers, McGrath explains the issues in a easy to follow manner. His later chapters—especially the one on Heresy and Islam—are real gems as well. I would recommend this book to a church member or college student that has questions about orthodoxy or heresy.
- Title: Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth
- Author: Alister McGrath
- Publisher: HarperOne (2010)
- Format: Paperback
- My Rating: 4/5