Today we begin a series of posts on heresy, drawing from Alister McGrath's wonderful book, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth.
A heresy is a doctrine that ultimately destroys, destabilizes, or distorts a mystery rather than preserving it. Sometimes a doctrine that was once thought to defend a mystery actually turns out to subvert 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.-- Alister McGrath
This quote captures well the reasons why the categories of orthodoxy and heresy are necessary. It is important to note of first importance is that all religions have orthodoxy and heresy as operating categories. Indeed, McGrath notes that every worldview, religious and secular, holds to both concepts. In biology, for example, Darwinianism is orthodox. A rejection of such Darwinian evolution is heretical; for it tears at the very fabric of the modern scientific endeavor and how we have come to understand the world rendering its inter-related investigations unintelligible. In the same way, political parties too have their "orthodoxies" and "heresies," which may indeed shift from time to time, but they are there nonetheless. Current Republican orthodoxy centers around low taxes, while increased government spending is an orthodox doctrine among Democrats. In others words, orthodoxy and heresy are about drawing boundaries; for without them groups have no identity nor do they have guidance on how to proceed in their endeavors, whether they are religious, political, or scientific.
McGrath notes that in theology, doctrine "preserves the central mysteries at the heart of the Christian faith and life" (p. 30). That these central affirmations are mysteries is important. Doctrine is not, nor has it ever been, an attempt to explain and understand God exhaustively, as if that were possible. When St. Augustine says that if we can explain it, it isn't God, he is not suggesting that theological investigation and doctrinal explications are insignificant and unimportant. He is reminding us "that the human mind struggles and ultimately fails, to cope with the grandeur of God" (p. 29). But while our doctrine cannot disclose God exhaustively in his grandeur, it can and must disclose God decisively in his character.
Thus the first part of McGrath's quote above suggests that heresy is any particular doctrine or understanding of a doctrine that does not protect the mystery of God, but in fact undermines it. The First Council of Nicaea rightly rejected Arius' christological claims because they undermined the mystery of salvation and the necessity of affirming God's exclusive right and ability to make possible that salvation and offer it to the world. Arianism destabilized the central mysteries at the heart of the Christian faith and life and thereby threatened to make Christianity in its entirety unintelligible.
Second, heresy becomes such, not in exploring and pushing at theological possibilities and doctrinal boundaries, but in the refusal of its theologians to accept that such exploration has indeed failed. Thus the church does not and should not discourage theological probing and the imaginative working through the implications of doctrine, particularly throughout the movement of the church in history. But once such work has proven itself wanting, those who refuse to acknowledge it to be so, then become heretics. This point is extremely important. All theological and doctrinal heresies are originally attempts to preserve the integrity and identity of Christianity. In other words, there are attempts to further affirm and defend orthodoxy. Once such doctrines are understood to have the opposite effect, they become unintelligible in the theological enterprise. Thus, to persist in promoting such doctrines is to move from defending the faith to undermining it. Heresy is then upon us.
Of course, the question is rightly raised as to how orthodoxy and heresy are determined. That is a question that must be addressed in a future post, but first we must concern ourselves with the origins of the idea of heresy. Where did it come from and what did it mean?