I recently (today!) finished a very good book by Alister McGrath named Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth. Being a great admirer of this writer’s ample knowledge and writing ability, I was eager to read this book, as it deals with heresy on not only a historical, but a theological and philosophical level.
I should also mention that some good friends of mine sent me this book a while back, and it took me awhile to pick it up and read it. In the end it was well worth it, as it changed several incorrect stereotypes in my thinking about Theology and heresy. I’ll outline a few key points.
Now, it is quite fitting that I should finish the book this weekend, seeing that next week I will be teaching 40 hours on Doctrine (“Survey of Doctrine”), an overview of foundations of Christian Orthodoxy. I will be teaching in a village where a mobile seminary takes place, as pastors and elders from the Peruvian Jungle get together once every 3 months to have an intensive 40 hour class in 5 days. You can do the math, but that’s 8 hours a day. Wow! I have never taught that many hours in a day, so I ask for your prayer that Truth (I capitalize in reference to Divine, unchangeable Truth) would be clearly presented and orthodoxy displayed in its power and awe.
My greatest desire is to impress on them the joy of rightly understanding the great mysteries and doctrines in Scripture. Unfortunately I have often felt oppressed by boredom and fatigue listening to what seems to be “dry, outdated religiosity”, be it in some messages or in some classes. This is wrong. It was C. Spurgeon that said, I believe, that if a preacher causes his listeners to sleep or become disinterested, it is the preacher’s fault, not the sleepers.
Orthodoxy is wildly interesting, mysterious, and immensely applicable. Truth is freedom, life, and true joy. Heresy is fabricated, boring, and outdated. A lie is a handcuff, it is darkness, it is monotony, and death.
Enter Alister McGrath, because I’m stealing his fire. Let me share a little with you from this fascinating read.
When speaking of the Primary Biblical Doctrines, he turns to the great mysteries of the Trinity, Incarnation, and Inspiration of Scripture:
“In a classic discussion of this point, Augustine asked why people were surprised that they could not fully understand God. ‘If you understand it,’ he remarked, ‘it isn’t God.’ Augustine is not suggesting that belief in God is irrational; he is rather making the point that the human mind struggles, and ultimately fails, to cope with the grandeur of God” (29).
I noted, referring to God: “If we understood Him, He would be our creation.”
Two pages later, the book’s marrow is uncovered, as McGrath declares what heresy is. The rest of the book is the historical defense to this grand claim, which takes an interesting yet accurate twist:
“A heresy is a doctrine that ultimately destroys, destabilizes, or distorts a mystery rather than preserving it [… A] heresy is a failed attempt at orthodoxy, whose fault lies not in its willingness to explore possibilities or press conceptual boundaries, but in its unwillingness to accept that it has in fact failed” (31).
When he speaks of a ‘willingness to explore possibilities’, he is here encouraging doubt, and disciplined questioning, as the roadway to the clearest and most authentic way to define ultimate Truth. He doesn’t discredit heretics for attempting to do this; he discredits them for failing to reach a more authentic way of defining Truth. Doubting, exploration, and deep study are foundational keys in discovering the Truth that is. The problem is not found in the Truth that the Bible teaches, but with our little brains. When a Biblical mystery loses its power and awe, we have lost the Truth, we have lost doctrine. On doubting, he says:
“I am committed to the notion of the constant interrogation and review of existing formulas of faith, constantly wishing to ensure that the church uses only the best and most authentic means of expressing the fundamental themes of its faith [… 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” (220-1).
I absolutely agree. You might find this a little radical or even frightful. What if a key doctrinal tenet gets changed in the process of ‘exploration’? It won’t, as long as our adventure is limited within the bounds of Primary Doctrines. A Primary Doctrine includes the following four: salvation by faith alone, Christ is entirely man and God, the Trinity is One God who is seen in three distinct Persons, and the Bible is man’s only true and final Authority. To renounce a Primary Doctrine is to renounce one’s faith, thus to become a heretic.
The ‘exploration’ is to better and more clearly define the Truth we already know to be such. Such an attitude was central to the great scholars of history, including the likes of Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, and Darby.
Finally, Alister McGrath ends with two conclusions and a final application for our local churches.
Why do we study orthodoxy? “The pursuit of orthodoxy is essentially the quest for Christian authenticity,” and why do we study heresy? “Heresies, like history, have a habit of repeating themselves” (232).
When speaking about dry, outdated religiosity, he blames the church, not the Bible:
“Was it so surprising that people concluded that God was dead [in the 1960’s] when the supposed communities of [H]is habitation were so dreary and uninteresting?” (232).
Believers must preach the Truth to the world in boldness, authenticity, and though daily living. Do we show the joy of knowing that God loves us (for example)? Does our love for the Bible come out in our daily, ordinary speech?
“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).
I do too! I have an opportunity to do this next week: to proclaim Truth in all its power, beauty, and awe. God help me. I also have the constant opportunity to live out my love for the Truth, every single day.
You do too.