Monday, 30 January 2012


Being something of a heretic myself, in a modest sort of way, I was interested to read Alister McGrath's Heresy.  McGrath is currently a theology professor at Kings College, London and has a glittering academic carreer, representing the educated face of moderate orthodox Christianity in the UK and beyond.  I've enjoyed a couple of his previous books - The Twilight of Atheism provides a handy, accessible summary of the trajectory of atheist ideas in modern Western thought, while The Dawkins Delusion provides a pithy response to Richard Dawkins The God Delusion.

Here he's moved on from atheism, which challenges the church from without, to heresy, which provides a challenge from within.  He is at pains to stress that heretics ancient and modern are not outsiders attacking the church, they are insiders trying to reform it, generally with the best of intentions. 

So what is it that distinguishes heresy from orthodoxy?  There is a thread of thinking in 20th and 21st century theology that identifies heresies as "suppressed orthodoxies" and sees the church enforcing orthodoxy as a way of asserting its power.  In this analysis, what defines heresy is that it challenges authority, not that it is intrinsically less true or less helpful than orthdoxy.  For a-post-modern theologian it is a short step from here to embracing heresy as a form of liberation.

McGrath challenges this viewpoint for two reasons.  First of all, he says that the "classic" heresies date from a time when the church authorites had no secular power and no way to enforce conformity on erring churches or church leaders.  Secondly, many of the classic heresies were far from liberating, often much less so than orthodoxy.

Instead, McGrath views heresies as failed attempts to express the ultimately inexpressible truth of Christianity.  He sees orthodoxy as the best approximation of this truth although always open to restatement and refinement. 

Heresy is best seen as a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilising, or even destroying the core of Christian faith.  Both this destablisation and the identification of this threat may be spread out over an extended period of time.  A way of making sense of one aspect of the Christian faith, such as the identity of Jesus of Nazareth - an aspect that may initially be welcomed and find general acceptance - may later have to be discontinued on account of the potential damage it is subsequently capable of causing.

Behind this view is a view of gradually developing orthodoxy.  The first Christians, he says, were not that concerned with articulating an orthodox theology, since their focus was on survival in a hostile social environment.  Later, church leaders realised that to engage with the culture in which they found themselves it was not enough to simply restate the views of the apostles - these needed to be explained and systematised in a way which made sense in the social and philosophical environment of the late Roman Empire.

Using this framework, the middle section of the book examines a number of classic heresies from the first five centuries of the Church.  Nascent orthodoxy is shown charting a difficult middle course between absorption back into Judaism (the Ebionites) and severance of all connection with its Jewish roots (Marcion); between seeing Jesus as a god who pretended to be human (Valentinism) and as a man specially chosen by God (Arianism); between libertarian laxity (the church in Rome post-Constantine) and focus on moral perfection to the exclusion of forgiveness and grace (Pelagianism and Donatism).  In each case, he shows orthodoxy as an emerging consensus rather than the imposition of some sort of church authority - Constantine personally favoured Arius, but supported the clear majority at the Council of Nicea, Augustine was seen as a rural outsider by the Pelagians in Rome yet his views ultimately triumphed. 

All of which begs the question.  As a protestant, how does McGrath account for his own status as a heretic in the eyes of the Roman church?  He deals with this, to some extent, in the final part of the book.  Later in the church's history, he says, it became a secular power, and the declaration of heresy became a weapon in the fight to retain social control.  Wycliffe was condemned for challenging papal authority, not for holding any hereticial views.  Luther and Calvin were branded heretics when actually they were entirely orthodox but critical of certain peripheral church practices and teachings. 

Perhaps it's just me, but this seems like a rather uneasy compromise.  One the one hand the classic heresies - the ones McGrath rejects - are eliminated by an emerging consensus as subverting or damaging the "core of the Christian faith".  On the other, the ones he accepts (the key issues on which Protestantism differs from Catholicism) are peripheral issues mislabelled as heresies and are victims of the abuse of political power.  He argues his case well, but it seems just a little too convenient.

Anyway, we'll soon get to see if his theory works.  The church in the 21st century is in a very similar situation to that in the first, second and third.  It is fragmented, it has no political power and weak central control (none in the case of Protestants), and it is under threat in many places.  Christians are struggling to rearticulate their faith in the light of new scientific knowledge, new global challenges and new philosophical understandings of truth.  Is it possible for a new consensus to emerge organically, as McGrath thinks orthodoxy did in those formative centuries?  How would such an agreement be reached, and what would be the fate of the currently competing viewpoints?  More importantly what would such a consensus, if it could be achieved, actually look like?

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