Necessary heresies: what the heretics have to teach us
I have rather provocatively entitled this series 'Necessary Heresies: What the Heretics Have to Teach Us'. This seems at first to be rather counter-intuitive: surely the heretics of Christian history are to be avoided at all costs? Surely their teaching was precisely (and by definition) false teaching as opposed to the truth of the gospel? Surely the obvious thing is to steer well clear of them?
I would actually argue something rather different. The heretics of Christian history were not obviously wrong in their time: in almost every case their teaching was persuasive and powerful. All heretics made the claim that their teaching was Biblical and Christian. And, I want to suggest, every heretic gets at least something right - and often, they have an insight that is profoundly true. All the best untruths are of course half-truths.
And, further, it is because heresies have arisen in the history of the church that the church has been prompted again and again to decide what it thinks on certain essential questions: what books are and are not in the Bible? Is Jesus fully God and fully man, and if so, how is this possible? Is there a new revelation of God? Are human beings basically good or basically sinful? The appearance of heretics enabled the answers to these questions to be clarified.
Heresy is by its nature attractive. This may run counter to our modern image of the heretic as the lone voice against the herd mentality of the group, the outsider crushed by the power that can't face the truth. But that is manifestly not the case in Christian history: heretics posed a threat precisely because they did attract followers. What's more, heretics posed a threat because they offer plausible explanations of the Christian faith; they bring clear answers to difficult questions, and they offer to smooth over the bumps in Christian experience. Heresy is not simply a matter of wrong teaching as opposed to right; it is frequently a matter of presenting a short cut, a cheap or easy explanation, or a philosophically or morally more acceptable answer to some of the most vexing issues for Christian believers. And so, for its part, orthodoxy, or 'right-teaching', frequently pursues a more difficult path. Think of the Trinity: well, actually, that itself is the problem. How does one think of the Trinity? Well, an easy way to explain it would be to say 'there is one God who wears three masks'. Or, 'there are three gods who act together by agreement'. Or, 'there are three parts to the one god'. These are all intelligible, but they are all heresies. The great councils of the early church decided instead that God was to be described as having one being in three persons. We search in vain for a nice analogy to make this intelligible, or a formula to explain it. Yet this accords with the Biblical truth most faithfully and with the experience of the churches as they received and lived out the gospel.
This was orthodoxy.