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The development of Heresy

In this third post about 'Heresy, a history of defending the truth' by Alister McGrath we continue to explore heresy.  In the first post we saw that heresy is a form of belief that is ultimately found to be inadequate.  In the second post we looked heresy's relationship to faith and belief?

Starting in Chapter 2 McGrath begins to examine the development of the concept of heresy.  The greek word 'hairesis' is the source of the english word heresy.  It is used in 2 Peter 2:1 and translated 'heresies' in the NIV but as 'opinions' in the NRSV.  This is probably a better choice, because at that time, the word hairesis meant a 'school of thought' without the pejorative implication of criticism that that we understand today.  The implication of criticism became attached to the word 'heresy' in the second century, after the apostolic era.

A common idea has been that heresy's are depicted as an invader or external contaminant of Christianity - where alien ideas become influential in the church.  However in reality it is more subtle than that .... 

'While certain forms of heresy may represent responses to wider intellectual or cultural movements in society, heresy nevertheless appears to originate from inside the church..developed by christians, particularly those who felt the need to ensure that the church remained culturally engaged. ...  The common pattern is the development, within the churches, of movement that were later regarded as heretical but that were considered by their originators as authentic forms of christianity, superior to their alternatives in that they were better adapted to the cultural environment or more effective in avoiding certain weaknesses of their rivals.  The subsequent fate of these approaches depended heavily upon the long-term reliability of that judgement. (pages 71-72)

This last sentence means the implications of certain ideas aren't necessarily obvious when those ideas are initially proposed.  Sometimes it takes a long time for them to become clear.  That means as contemporary Christians we need to have two things:

  • A humility about our thinking about God and Christianity
  • A willingness to learn from others and particularly from the past.  It is important to learn about various ideas that Christians have considered in the past but ultimately found to be deficient.  It will help us avoid the same mistakes and vulnerabilities and help us better identify weaknesses in contemporary theological trends.
So in the next posts in this series we will look at some Classic heresy's of Christian theology.

David Wanstall, 23/09/2011