Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth by Alister McGrath, challenges the ascendent notion that heresy is the orthodoxy of history’s losers. That thesis, put forward by Walter Bauer and popularized by Bart Ehrman, reflects the postmodern preferences for a destabilized view of truth and opposition to authoritarian structures.
“It seems to have become axiomatic in recent years that heresy is morally and intellectually liberating, to the extent that orthodoxy is stifling. This tells us a lot about the cultural mood of postmodernity, and the agendas of some of those who find heresy to be attractive” (191).
At an even more popular level than Bart Ehrman, this appreciation for heresy as the underdog was seen by the massive appeal of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2009),
What is Heresy?
McGrath defines heresy as “a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing, or even destroying the core of the Christian faith.”
How Does God Use Heresy?
Belief in the essential core of the Christian faith must constantly be reaffirmed in new settings. This often means that in order to be understood correctly, the Christian faith must be expressed in new ways.
“Orthodoxy is thus, in a certain sense, unfinished, in that it represents the mind of the church as to the best manner of formulation of its living faith at any given time.” (221) Orthodoxy is constantly developing, not away from Scripture, but toward it in sharper and clearer articulation. Old truths, retaining original integrity, receiving fresh clarity.
N. T. Wright points out an example of the unintentional benefit of heresy in Jesus and the Victory of God. He explains the history of the quest for the historical Jesus. Those familiar with this “quest” will remember that it began in 1878 with Hermann S. Reimarus (2 years after 1776, at the height of deism, a child of the Enlightenment). Reimarus intended to discount the claims of Christianity on the basis of history. “His aim seems to have been to destroy Christianity (as he knew it) at its root, by showing that it rested on historical distortion or fantasy….The thesis is devastatingly simple. History leads away from theology” (16-17).
But Wright goes on to point out the irony, “Reimarus, or somebody like him, must be seen, not just as a protester against Christianity, but, despite his intentions, as a true reformer of it. This is not to side with Reimarus and other Enlightenment thinkers against Christian orthodoxy; it is to acknowledge that the challenge of the Enlightenment might, despite itself, benefit Christianity as well as threatening it” (17).
“Reimarus pulled back the curtain, thinking to expose the poverty of Christian origins. But the invitation to look more closely, once issued, could not be withdrawn; and within the unpromising historical specificity of the story of Jesus we can now, I believe, discern after all the buried treasure of the gospel” (18).
The benefit of the quest for the historical Jesus? Reimarus dug a deep ditch between the faith of Christianity on the one side and the historical evidence on the other. But the digging of this ditch only forced thoughtful Christians to examine the evidence further and develop clearer articulations about the truth of Jesus and the gospel, thus filling the ditch back in, closing the gap between history and theology.
Many other historical examples could be given like this of heresies that have sharpened the thinking of the church. Heresy forces orthodoxy to develop greater clarity in its articulation of Scripture. In this way God has employed orthodoxy toward his own larger ends. Perhaps what Joseph said of his brothers’ scheme could also be said of heretics through the centuries: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).
Back to McGrath and Heresy. He concludes with this challenge to the faithful (a challenge being fulfilled perhaps by N. T. Wright in his trilogy, Christian Origins and the Question of God):
If Christianity is to regain the imaginative ascendency, it must rediscover what G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) termed “the romance of orthodoxy.” It is not sufficient to show that orthodoxy represents the most intellectually and spiritually authentic from of the Christian faith or that it has been tried and tested against its intellectual alternatives. The problem lies deeper, at the level of the imagination and feelings. If Christ is indeed the “Lord of the Imagination,” the distinction between orthodoxy and heresy ought to have significant imaginative implications. The real challenge is for the churches to demonstrate that orthodoxy is imaginatively compelling, emotionally engaging, aesthetically enhancing, and personally liberating. We await this development with eager anticipation. (234)