4 Stars Out Of 5
Historical lessons to avoid modern errors
May 6, 2012
Alister McGrath has produced an engaging and accessible survey of heresiology in order to counter (as he sees it) the unjustified postmodern affinity for heresies (both ancient and modern) currently being offered as an alternative to Christian orthodoxy. Along the way, McGrath offers some thought provoking interpretations about doctrinal history that question some commonly held views.
In particular, McGrath challenges Walter Bauer's thesis that early Christianity was a loose coalition of groups that differed widely over the significance of Jesus of Nazareth and that modern orthodoxy was the unlikely winner in a game of power politics as Rome gradually extended its influence eastward, from the end of the first century onward, until it achieved dominance at the end of the third century.
McGrath asserts that early Christianity should be viewed as having an orthodox core surrounded by a penumbra where the boundary between heresy and orthodoxy was somewhat blurry. The NT evidence suggests that the early church was beset by numerous false teachers that did not legitimately represent the apostolic faith but were, nevertheless, very popular and wide spread; the truth would seem to fall somewhere between Bauer and McGrath.
Again, McGrath rightly notes that Rome lacked any real power to control doctrinal development until after 313, yet Bauer's thesis cannot be dismissed so lightly; Rome's involvement in the Quartodeciman controversy, which undermined an older, apostolic tradition, fits Bauer's position better than McGrath's.
McGrath limits his review to the classic heresies of Ebionitism, Docetism, Valentinism, Arianism, Donatism, and Pelagianism. Accordingly, he sees heresy as an intellectually defective version of the Christian faith, a vulnerable and fragile form of Christianity that is incapable of sustaining itself over the long term. But, what of the many (and sometimes ancient) deviations that continue to flourish today? Indeed, the NT says that false teachers would be a persistent, wide-spread problem throughout the Christian era.
McGrath also asserts that medieval movements such as the Hussites, Waldensians, and Lollards were seen as threats to the power and influence of the church rather than for their ideas. One wonders if Huss, Waldo, and Wycliffe, early champions of vernacular translations & biblical preaching, would agree.
McGrath's survey is a valuable reminder that, even with the best of intentions, heresy is easy to fall into and sometimes hard to recognize until years later. His examples provide valuable illustrations of potential problems with modern evangelism and apologetics. This is a thoughtful reminder to be ever vigilant in our thinking and communication regarding the gospel.