by Graham Hellier
from Signs of the Times No. 42 - Jul 2011

"The heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate,  the wild truth reeling but erect." G K Chesterton

Chesterton is a romantic; McGrath is more grounded. He has sympathy with the heretics, he doesn't find them dull, and he confronts them at their best. But McGrath's intention is still  to leave them sprawling.

Regrettably, the book's cover image shows Ambrose scourging heretics. Ambrose was a provincial governor who had to be hurriedly baptised to enable him to be installed as bishop of Milan in the year 374  - much to the disgust of Jerome. He persuaded the Emperor Gratian to abandon religious toleration in favour of Nicaean uniformity and assured him that the Lord Jesus would help to lead his legions in battle against the Arian heretics. Ambrose had no compunction about manipulating church councils and demonising heretics of all kinds. Was he orthodox? He had already travelled far from the Gospel.

Heresy originally meant 'choice' but by the end of the first century was used pejoratively by both Jews and Christians. Two thousand years later, the word is still a favourite device for closing off debate. But what is orthodoxy and what is heresy? McGrath describes heresy as that which is 'flawed, deficient, anaemic and inauthentic'; it is a 'virus', corrupting the body; it is 'intellectually defective'; it is 'destabilising and destructive'. By what standard  are such things to be judged? He dissects the classic heresies with care and insight but lets orthodoxy look after itself. Orthodoxy is the default position, marked by paradox and wrapped in mystery. Who will tell us what is perfect, sufficient, full-blooded and authentic?

'Orthodoxy' - 'the true splendour' - embraced the veneration of images and relics - turning its back on the Jewish tradition and the teaching of Paul. It created a new priesthood - neglecting the New Testament teaching that all had been fulfilled and surpassed in Christ. It developed a new hierarchy of power, ultimately modelled on the imperial state and contrary to Jesus' teaching  that 'it shall not be so among you'. Was orthodoxy orthodox?

Tertullian regarded it as 'inconceivable that the church could have made any mistake  in transmitting the pure apostolic doctrine', yet he calls Paul 'the apostle of the heretics' (see Karlfried Froelich, Which Paul?). Clement of Rome argues that orthodoxy preceded heresy - "'he infallible charism of truth' passing to the bishops of the church. Yet we have only to look at the ways in which Luke and Matthew used the Marcan material, or the differences  between Paul and Peter, or the contrast between Paul and the authors of the Didache (contemporary according to Aaron Milavec) to see that diversity was a mark of the early Christian movement.  It could hardly be otherwise, especially as the emphasis was on a way of life rather than on belief. The church was flourishing, fertile and argumentative, then became increasingly prone to the politics of power and privilege as the centuries unfolded.

The Eastern Orthodox churches define orthodoxy in terms of those churches that are in communion with Constantinople. Bauer defines it in terms of the ideas that won - in keeping  with the adage that, till lions tell their story, history belongs to the hunter. Today's Roman Catholic catechism gives us little help, though it defines heresy in characteristic lecturing style as 'the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed". Presumably orthodoxy is what Rome says it is. McGrath treats it  as an emerging phenomenon, though, at one point, he appears to take the worship of Christ as the fundamental. This is problematic. A recent book by James Dunn, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? inclines to the answer 'No'.

The great councils are said to be the touchstone of orthodoxy. McGrath is attracted by the agricultural image of 'placing a hedge around the good pastures'. It is claimed that the councils allowed freedom within justifiable constraints. This is comforting, until we discover that at the council of Chalcedon in 451, it was the emperor Marcion's chariot that stood at the door. The imperial officials vetted all documents, widespread persecution followed, and the decisions were violently disputed for years afterwards. For the eastern churches,  it was a monumental disaster (Patrick Gray, The Legacy of Chalcedon). "How many thousands", wrote a bishop afterwards,

'have been killed for Christ in Alexandra, Egypt, Jerusalem ... What country, what city, does not recall the deaths inflicted  since then to the present day among the lambs of Christ, and the sentences of exile  and confiscation of property.'

The West Syrian church went underground for a time and many of its members fled Byzantine territory. Hundreds of bishops were deposed; many were exiled; a few had their tongues cut out or were sent to the mines. It would not be long before Christians opposed to the oppressive hand of Constantinople would welcome the coming of Islam. In the creeds meanwhile, the Word made flesh became word. It is part of our reluctance to live by faith that drives us to package Christianity into creeds and formulae, guarded by covenants.

McGrath discusses Pelagianism and it serves as a good illustration of our confusion over heresy. Pelagius,or Morien - to give him his British name, said to be the son of Argad the Bard, may well have been educated in the Celtic church tradition, possibly at Caerleon, before going to Rome  and becoming a close friend of Augustine. Like Augustine, he sought social reform. His massive Biblical commentary and his Confession were in use for centuries after. The two friends fell out  when Augustine began to develop his dark theology of original sin. A misunderstood Pauline text and Augustine's psychological problems left a legacy that condemned humanity to helplessness before God. Augustine devalued sexuality and womanhood, brought misery to parents whose infants died before baptism, and justified forcible conversion. He had strayed far from the Gospels and in these respects, is one of the great unacknowledged heretics of Christian history.

Morien is known chiefly through his detractors and should not be saddled with the teachings of some of his followers. He was not 'opposed to the Augustinian primacy of grace"' as some writers wearily allege. He was opposed to those who spoke of grace as though it were a matter of arbitrary condescension, like the favour of a Roman Emperor. Morien believed that we are created  and sustained by the grace of God that inspires all that is good in humanity. McGrath gives Morien the benefit of many a doubt, yet still misrepresents him. It is wrong to allege that for him, 'grace was something external and passive' and not the real presence of God  within us. It is wrong to suggest that humanity 'merely needed to be shown what to do' and could be 'left to achieve it unaided'. All our ability, our willing and our doing, said Morien, are 'totally from God alone'. Our calling, he declared, is to develop a four-way love - for God, for self, for our neighbour, and for our enemy. Is it not time that we did justice to this first great British theologian? In 415, two church councils decided he was orthodox.  In 416 two councils pronounced him heretic. In 417 the pope decided he was orthodox and in 418  he was again pronounced heretic. Nineteen bishops resigned because of that decision. Everything is subject to the latest vote, the latest intervention. How foolish that we preserve these outdated categories of condemnation.

In 1535, William Tyndale, to whom we owe 80% of the King James Bible, was strangled and burned. Among the writings that condemned him as a heretic were these words:

'It is the grace of God  that does everything; without Him we can do nothing; it is God that works; we are but the instruments,  we deserve no reward for what God does by us, and can claim no merit for it'.

Is this Augustinian or Pelagian? Let he who will decide where the line between orthodoxy and heresy should be drawn.

Orthodoxy is an illusion. It forgets the rich diversity of the early church united by the figure of Jesus alone. It imagines a transmission infallible as well as faithful.  It adds what it will and takes away what it will. It thrives where institutions of church and state build up their power by control and exclusion. It freezes debate and demands obedience.  It is destabilising, divisive and destructive. It is a chimera - for the true splendour  always eludes its grasp.


Graham Hellier has recently published God Was Not A Baby: Exploring Incarnation obtainable for £2 (p&p  free) from him at Monmarsh End, Marden, Hereford HR1 3EZ.
Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth by Alister McGrath is published by HarperOne, ISBN: 9780060822149.