Heresy for dummies.


Well, in case any of you might possibly be wondering, here is the latest book I found on the "new books" shelf at my downtown public library. Alister McGrath's recent book Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth is a readable, accessible history of the early Church's encounters and reactions to heretical movements. McGrath, a former Oxford professor and now chair of theology, ministry and education at the University of London, is also co-author along with his wife Dianna of The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine.
    Writing from the standpoint of a Christian apologist representing what I call "enlightened orthodoxy", McGrath sets out to dispel what he sees is a myth perpetuated by Dan Brown and to a lesser degree Gnostic Christianity scholar and writer Elaine Pagels- that the early heresies such as Gnosticism were really dominant beliefs in the first few centuries of the early Church but were squashed by the religious leaders in Rome. McGrath shows the reader that the early heresies were not just fringe movements, but "dead end" developments which, due to various shortcomings of their respective core beliefs, probably in all likelihood would never have been adopted by Church. Marcian's Christianity, by removing Christianity from its Jewish roots, not only cast aside the Hebrew Bible but also denied Christianity its needed historical context. It was also dualistic and antisemitic. Gnosticism, besides also being dualistic, possessed an underlying current of misogyny, (as exemplified in the Gospel of Thomas which states that a "woman cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven"). And lastly, heresies like Donatism, were mainly the product of regional concerns and would probably lose their significance outside of their particular setting.
    McGrath also reasons that based on the historical evidence, prior to about the 4th Century, the Church in Rome was not powerful enough to stamp out heretical views, even if it wanted to.
Many of the Church Fathers who wrote against the heresies of the day did so as individual Christians and not as appointed representatives of a dictatorial Catholic Church. According to McGrath, orthodoxy was a slow, decentralized, collaborative process. It was not a product of imperial decree.
    I enjoyed his book. While I do like the works of writers like Pagels, McGrath does a superb job taking arcane theological arguments and making them readable and understandable for lay people like myself. If you end up reading his book, feel free to check out two other books by traditionalists. Misquoting Truth by Timothy Paul Jones takes a critical look at the "historical Jesus" movement in modern Biblical scholarship. Another one to check out is Darrel L. Bock's 2006 The Missing Gospels:Unearthing the Truth Behind the Alternative Christianities.

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