Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Book Review: Heresy!

Alister McGrath: Heresy (SPCK, 2009) Paperback, Pp. 288 £12.99

There has always been an interest in heresy, from John Henry Newman's Arians of the Fourth Century to Harold O.J. Brown's Heresies, there has always been a market for books dealing with these false teachings and erroneous beliefs. But in the wider culture, even in some contemporary 'Evangelical' circles, there are people who are interested in heresy as an exciting alternative to traditional Protestant Christianity. In Academia we have Elaine Pagels promoting Gnosticism, in popular culture Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, containing not a scintilla of truth, sold millions, and left many thinking that Christianity as it exists today was the result of a close vote at the Council of Nicea, where Jesus was proclaimed as Divine for the first time (every part of this statement is actually false). The heretics are the rebels, the heroes, the folk who had a greater insight than other people. In part this attitude has always existed, as witness the Baptist Successionism that claimed the Paulicians, Bogomils and Cathars as true Christians because of their rebellion against the authoritarian approach of the Greek and Latin Churches, though of course in this case the successionists ignored the stubborn fact that these groups held to a heretical theology.

McGrath is a careful historian, and of course he gently but firmly steps on this idea. Heresy, he tells us in this book, in not exciting, radical and libertarian. It is a dead-end in theology that has not been recognised as such. Since the 19th century it has been recognised by theologians and historians of theology that there is a process of development in doctrinal understanding. The Church is 'growing into' the Bible, exploring the fullness of the Biblical message. The heretics are people who have taken a wrong turn in that exploration, and instead of giving us a correct understanding, they have erred from the faith. This is not, McGrath warns us, to say that they were all wicked and designing men. Many of them were simply theologically naive, and ended up tenaciously clinging to a theory that was inadequate to account for the fullness of the Biblical revelation. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, has been based on a full-orbed study of the whole of Scripture.

This is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book that will be welcomed by thoughtful Christians. As McGrath explores heresy and the causes of heresy, he brings us to a deeper appreciation of orthodoxy, and explodes many of the myths of the modern advocates of the old heretics. It simply is not true, he points out, to say that heresy is more liberating than orthodoxy. True, there were some heresies that were libertarian, but others, such an Donatism and Montanism, were extremely authoritarian, and condemned the orthodox as libertarian! Nor was Gnosticism a sort of proto-feminist movement, as is demonstrated by the notorious ending of the so-called Gospel of Thomas, which states "...every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven" (Thomas verse 114).

McGrath is a little too ecumenical in places for my tastes, but this is a small matter. The reader who wants an exhaustive account of the history of heresies should read Harold O.J. Brown. This is more an exploration of the nature of heresy, and as such it is very welcome. It certainly sets the record straight for those who get their ideas about heresy from The Da Vinci Code.

If there is one thing this book could have done without, it is the foreword by Rick Warren. On the other hand, I'd rather Warren was reading this book than many others!

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