Book Review: Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth by Alister McGrath

I read this as a follow-up to Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities, in part of my effort to understand the history of the early church better, and to understand why modern Christianity has taken the shape it has (even if that shape is somewhat fractal-like). Of all of McGrath’s previous writings (I’ve read a fair few, though not all) my favourite to date was his history of Protestantism, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea. With that in mind, I was looking forward to another book that was more historical in nature than apologetic.

In his introduction, McGrath attempts to outline his understanding of why there has been renewed interest not only in the history of heresy, but also the resurrection (or adaption) of earlier heretical ideas. From here, he starts to give an overview of the book: why it is important to have an understanding of the history of belief and how the notions of orthodoxy and heresy arose.

McGrath then goes on to have a look at some specific heresies; who the main characters were behind them, a history of their origins and the reasons why they became viewed as heresies. These specifically include Arianism, Docetism, Ebionitism, Montanism, Pelagianism & Valentinism.

The portrait that is painted by Ehrman of a minority heresy that is marginalised and oppressed by an emerging orthodoxy is called into question by McGrath. Ehrman’s history was derived (and acknowledged) in part from that of Walter Bauer, where there was a metanarrative of a battle between the hegemonic orthodoxy and the oppressed individuals that were thrown out of the church for heresy. Instead, the picture we are presented with is of various groups of people who made an honest attempt to understand the person and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Rather than being driven out of the church, the theologies were considered to be dead-ends that ultimately undermined the person and ministry of Jesus. When such views were then rejected, their protagonists left of their own accord in order to establish their own breakaway churches.

In a discussion on the relation between orthodoxy, heresy and political power, McGrath makes one excellent point. Those who defend the heretics by portraying them as the freethinking liberals who are hushed by a more conservative, oppressive orthodoxy, the question is posed: what if it had been the other way around? Some heretical ideas may have led to Christianity becoming far more like Islam, where there was far more oppression of women, a leader who is revered as good but not divine and where it is likely that any suppression of heretical ideas would have been at least as fierce as it actually was. In other words, the oppression (if any) faced by the heretics would simply have had a different target if what we recognise as orthodoxy had been deemed heretical.

McGrath also points out the difference of what is a genuine heresy (being a theological disagreement) and what is sometimes incorrectly referred to as a heresy (which was more often than not a challenge to the authority of the church). His main point in example is that of Martin Luther and the origins of the Reformation, declared to be a heretic by the Roman Catholic church, but which was ultimately shown to be a restoration of patristic ideas and that it was particular aspects of Catholicism that were in fact heretical, and continue to be so to this day.

There is also included a slightly odd little chapter on how Christian heresy relates to Islam. In it, he points out that the forms of Christianity which Mohammed talks about are highly characteristic of certain heretical ideas that were more common in the area that he moved around in prior to his writing the Qur’an.

The one thing that spoilt the book is some of the small rhetoric touches McGrath uses. He still seems to be in a similar mindset to when he wrote The Dawkins Delusion, with references to a secular/religious divide which he seems to have projected back on to an earlier period where such a divide did not exist. That said, this laxity in language is not wholly pervasive, it merely peppers the text every now and then.

Overall, it is a very good book and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested not only in the history of particular heresies, but also in the very idea of a heresy. It is not an overly academic book, and is written very much as an introduction to the subject. The notes contain many further references for the interested reader. This gives it the strength of being very accessible and, as ever, McGrath’s writing style is very clear and easy to follow.