Is There An "Essence" of Heresy?
We return to our series on heresy drawing from Alister McGrath's book, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth. In chapter 5, McGrath deals with the question, Is there an "essence" of heresy?
Having already argued that heresy is something that arises from within the church, rather than as something that comes from the outside, McGrath takes issue with those scholars, such as Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels, who suggest that heresies were the first orthodoxies that were supplanted by ecclesiastical authorities because "orthodoxies" challenged the power of those authorities. McGrath rightly points out that such a perspective is difficult to maintain historically. McGrath argues that heresies are marginalized not because they threaten the powers that be, but rather that such marginalization is the result of an "emerging consensus within the church that they are inadequate" (p. 82). Heresy is heretical because its ideas, its doctrines, threaten to destroy the essential character of Christianity.
It should be stated, at this point, that the Christians who promoted their doctrines that would ultimately be declared as heretical were not attempting to destroy the Christian faith. Indeed, they often believed they were offering an orthodox vision that was superior to the current orthodox position. So, this was not a matter of good vs. evil or orthodox saints in conflict with heretical sinners. The orthodox/heresy question centers around what is true and what promotes the faith as once for all delivered to the saints, as opposed to what ideas will ultimately destroy that faith. It must be said again that we would not know orthodoxy had some not promoted what would become heresy.
McGrath argues that the Christians in the early centuries faced three threats: 1) persecution, 2) intellectual or religious assimilation, and 3) fragmentation through intellectual incoherence. The last two dangers are critical for understanding the idea of heresy. The danger of assimilation concerned the necessity of the church remaining "salty," according to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:13). The decisive character of Christianity and its mission in the world depended upon its distinctiveness. "Cultural assimilation is all too often the prelude to ecclesial extinction" (p. 85). The danger of fragmentation threatened Christianity as something that would become intellectually shallow. The leading critics of Christianity in the earliest centuries (e.g. Celsus in late second century and Galen of Pergamum in the mid to late second century) claimed that its central doctrines could not be taken serious by intellectual and cultured people. The fragmentation caused by heretical conceptions exacerbated the problem as "[h]eretical conceptions of faith, it was argued, lacked the rigor of their orthodox equivalents (p. 86).
It was not the case that all heretical conceptions lacked intellectual sophistication, but what they did lack was coherence with the essential doctrines and affirmations of the faith. Such incoherence left Christianity "seriously vulnerable to intellectual criticism on the one hand and cultural erosion on the other (p. 86).
But how does this look in reference to specific doctrines that were labeled as heretical? In the next post we will begin looking at specific heresies in the early church and why they were deemed as such by ecclesiastical authorities.
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