Why heresy matters

Salvationist.ca is running a series of articles I wrote for them on heresies in the early church.  The print version of the series is already completed (it ran from August to January), but they are rolling out the articles online now.

The point of the series was to describe why these heresies were rejected by the early church, but also to show how the process of struggling with each heresy helped to shape the development of orthodox Christian belief.  So I opened the first article by saying,

Believe it or not, Christians owe a lot to heretics. The word “heresy” comes from a Greek word meaning “choice.” A heretic is someone who chooses to believe something that is in contradiction to official church doctrine. But church doctrine has developed gradually over time, and some of the most important doctrinal developments were made precisely in order to exclude particular heresies.

My other agenda in the series was to show the ongoing relevance of ancient heresies, by suggesting ways in which “shadow versions” of each heresy show up repeatedly in the church’s life.

Knowing the history of heresy is important because heresies have a habit of cropping up again and again, sometimes in less obvious forms. Some psychologists argue that otherwise mentally healthy people struggle with so-called “shadow disorders”—mild forms of serious mental illnesses that show up in subtle ways most of us wouldn’t even recognize. Knowing the history of heresy will help us to identify the “shadow heresies” that may crop up in our own thinking and teaching from time to time.

While I think the study of heresy is very important, addressing heresy in the contemporary church can be a tricky issue, particularly in light of the wide diversity that exists within Christian theology today.  On the one hand, as I’ve suggested before, no one wants unlimited diversity of belief in the church, even though it is trendy in our culture to celebrate “diversity” in all its forms.  On the other hand, some people are too paranoid about heresy, and end up finding heretics lurking behind every corner.

For my part, I tried in this series to point out that early church heresies were excluded because they were perceived to pose a threat to the preaching of the gospel.  These were not merely academic debates, but part of the church’s ongoing struggle to remain faithful to Jesus Christ and to proclaim salvation truthfully.

These are very short articles, and I’ll confess that I often found it difficult to do justice to the issues at stake in such a short space.  If you are looking for theological nuance, you won’t find it in this series.  However, if you’re looking for a brief overview of early church heresies along with some comment on their ongoing relevance, I think you’ll find the series worth your time.

Head over to Salvationist.ca and you can read the introductory article, “Thank God for Heretics,” along with the articles on Pelagianism and Monophysitism.   I’ll add links here to the articles on Gnosticism, Modalism, and Arianism as they are posted.

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