The accidental cheapening of heresy

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There once was a man named Seth. Seth was a popular author, especially among creative and “non-traditional” leadership types. He wrote with an unusual buzzwordiness while sharing many truths and many half-truths about tribes, lynchpins and meatballs on top of sundaes.

He wrote of our desperate need for people unafraid to challenge the establishment and chart their own course for the good of the many.

He called them “heretics.” But we should not.

This week I was reading a very good book on social media that embraced Seth’s “heretic” ideal. Not theological heresy, the author stressed, but ideological—being willing to push the boundaries of comfort in order to reach as many as possible.

But I’ve got to be honest, whenever I see Christian authors use the term “heretic” in this way, I get a little nervous. It’s not because I disagree with the sentiment (I generally don’t)—it’s the danger of cheapening the word “heretic.”

Imagine you’re in a room with no windows and only one door, which is at the farthest point from you. The door opens a little bit and someone throws a grenade in, which promptly explodes (as it is intended to do). This is what calling someone a heretic is like. Or at least, it should be. Churches have split over heresy. Ministries have been destroyed because of it. It’s a big word, and just like a grenade, once you pull the pin, there’s no going back.

So why do we treat it so flippantly?

Why, following along with a popular book, are we redefining a word that carries such weight and power—transforming a profanity into a virtue? Truthfully, I don’t believe it’s of malicious intent. I think it’s simply that we’re careless with words. We don’t give them enough weight; we don’t consider carefully what they mean.

Seth used the word “heretic” intentionally. He knew the power it holds, otherwise he wouldn’t have used it. We, on the other hand, have simply poured ourselves a nice, tall glass of his Kool-Aid.

When we assign foreign meanings to familiar words, we wind up cheapening the concepts they represent as a result. When it comes to a word like “heretic,” we must avoid this at all costs. And this is but one example. We’ve transformed tolerance into something wholly intolerant. We’ve desecrated love, turning it into a mere feeling flitting about with no depth or power. So love becomes preference, disagreement becomes prejudice, truth becomes error… Careless words cheapen powerful truths.

Three reasons to study church history

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I never loved history in school. In fact, I downright hated it. It wasn’t because I didn’t care about history itself—it’s that it was pretty clear my teachers didn’t give a rip about it. This might be because, as Canadians, our history textbooks are notoriously dull (although our history itself isn’t).

Over the last few years, though, I’ve found myself drawn more and more to studying history—specifically church history. The history of Christianity is so rich and so fascinating—whether we’re looking at the shining moments of spectacular faith, or the worst gaffes of the Reformers and their persecutors, there is much to be gained by studying it.

So, with that in mind, here are three reasons why we should all be studying church history:

1. The Bible commands us to.

Over and over again, the Bible commands God’s people to “remember,” to look back on what God has done, to remember His wondrous works (Ex. 13:3; Deut. 5:15; 7:18; 8:1; 8:18; 1 Chron. 16:12; Psalm 105:5). By looking back at what God has done, we can look forward in confidence that He is faithful to keep His promises and fulfill His purposes in this world.

2. The stories of the past help us persevere in the present.

You can’t help but be inspired at the kind of faith that God’s people have shown throughout the years. When you read of the trials of so many men and women in a book like Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, you can’t help but be amazed at how God’s people faithfully endured immense suffering and trial over the centuries—and be inspired to persevere in your own difficulties.

3. The past helps us defend the faith in the present.

Studying church history helps us better understand key events and crucial doctrines—how the New Testament canon came to be, or how the doctrine of the Trinity developed, for example. It also helps us to see patterns of thought, particularly when it comes to heresy.

“Heretics, in fact, served the church in an unintended way,” writes Bruce Shelley in  Church History in Plain Language. “Their pioneering attempts to state the truth forced the church to shape ‘good theology’—a rounded, systematic statement of biblical revelation.”

When you have a sense of the issues the Church has faced over the centuries, it helps you better understand the debates of our own day. Right now, there are a number of ancient heresies being promoted by popular authors, including Pelagianism (a rejection of the sinfulness of man), Marcionism (the rejection of God as depicted in the Old Testament—and of Christianity’s necessary connection to Judaism)… even Montanism has made its way back into the spotlight, if Phyllis Tickle is in fact promoting what she appears to be in her recent interview with Jonathan Merritt and in her book, The Age of the Spirit.

But by studying church history, we can see what’s come before and recognize the modern variants today, which better enables us to defend the truth.

Where to start?

The best thing to do is start simple. Read Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language, which is both brilliant and comprehensible. Start listening to Stephen Nichol’s Five Minutes in Church History podcast. Read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Take Robert Godfrey’s courses available through Ligonier Connect.

And from there, keep going. Start digging into books like Church History, Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context by Everett Ferguson or 2000 Years of Christ’s Power by Nick Needham. There is no limit to how deep you can go, and there is no limit to the rewards you’ll find in your study.

(Photo credit: Vincent_AF via photopin cc)

Book Review: The Heresy of Orthodoxy by Kostenberger and Kruger

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As postmodern ideas have taken root in our culture, exclusive truth claims have increasingly come under attack. Jesus is the only way. The Bible is the inerrant, infallible, inspired Word of God. Orthodoxy and heresy exist.

These are not popular ideas. And in academic circles, the desire to debunk these beliefs has been making the rounds for some time—most notably with the publication of German academic Walter Bauer’s work Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (1934). In this volume, Bauer puts forth the idea that, rather than Christianity being characterized from its earliest days as unified in the preaching of Jesus’ apostles, the earliest Christians were marked by radical diversity. Today, Bauer has found an impassioned advocate in scholar Bart Ehrman, whose books such as Misquoting Truth and Jesus Interrupted, have brought Bauer’s thesis to the popular level—to the point that today, the only heresy is orthodoxy.

That’s why Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger wrote The Heresy of Orthodoxy. In this book, the authors carefully examine the Bauer-Ehrman thesis and seek to show readers why we can trust the Bible and rest in the knowledge that the faith we have is what was taught by Jesus and His Apostles.

Unity or Pluralism: Which Came First?

Divided into three parts, The Heresy of Orthodoxy first deals with pluralism and the origins of the New Testament. How did the Bauer-Ehrman thesis come about? How diverse was early Christianity? And when did heresy first arise?

While the Bauer thesis asserts that different “Christianities” developed in geographical regions and that “the Church Fathers overstated their case that Christianity emerged from a single, doctrinally unified movement” (p. 40), the authors’ brief survey of the available data suggests otherwise. Starting as Bauer did with late first/early second century sources, they reveal a Christianity that is marked by remarkable consistency, particularly when dealing with the person of Jesus Christ. The authors write:

Although the late first and early second century gave birth to a variety of heretical movements, the set of (Christological) core beliefs known as orthodoxy was considerably earlier, more widespread, and more prevalent than Ehrman and other proponents of the Bauer-Ehrman thesis suggest. . . . [W]hen orthodoxy and heresy are compared in terms of genesis and chronology, it is evident that orthodoxy did not emerge from a heretical morass . . . heresy grew parasitically out of an already established orthodoxy. (pp 66-67)

But rather than relying on comparatively late extrabiblical sources as did Bauer, Kostenberger and Kruger investigate the earliest sources we have: The New Testament itself. Their study reveals that, contrary to Bauer and Ehrman, orthodoxy even at that stage was far more widespread and the prevalence of heresy was far too narrow to suggest that there was an even playing field. [Read more...]