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.

Michael Jensen is rector of St Mark's Darling Point and is the author of the book My God, My God: Is it Possible to Believe Anymore? He's on twitter: @mpjensen

Comments (43)

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  • Justin Moffatt
    October 11, 10 - 9:48pm
    Michael -- brilliant. And will be tuning in more regularly to read whatever you write on this. And I am expecting God to teach me as you write. It is true, isn't it, that when someone today labels themselves a 'heretic' (think on a FB or Blog profile!), they are really saying -- I'm a creative hero -- a 'lone voice' as you say. You've put your finger on what has bugged me about this trend. Will be reading and learning.
  • Michael Jensen
    October 11, 10 - 9:52pm
    Thanks Justin.

    I was thinking of starting off with Pelagius next week - the most modern of heretics.

    Then Arius.

    and so on...

    any others?

    Hoping this won't be just an antiquarian exercise of course.
  • Godfrey Saint
    October 11, 10 - 10:03pm
    Michael: I very much look forward to this. Very many thanks tou. With regard to Gnostics, will you also deal with what the Gnostic gospels say about Christ's divinity, especially in light of the modern Dan Brown, Da Vinci Code nonsense? I would like to be able to send this to friends of mine who are believer in the Da Vinci Code and also the related Masonic syncretism (I have friends who are freemasons and this topic regularly arises ... ).
  • Tom Melbourne
    October 11, 10 - 10:32pm
    Sounds awesome! Please add Apollinarianism to the list! A few of us in first year at Moore College are debating the merits of Apollinaris and his denounced views.
  • Joshua Bovis
    October 11, 10 - 11:33pm

    What the heretics teach me is that no-one is immune when it comes to being one. I think heresy is often nuanced, fluid and subtle which is perhaps a factor as to why heretics don't realise they one. An example that came to mind just now was that book The Shack. Christians I know, who are faithful and godly who raving on how great this book was and missed the modalism and patripassianism. Then they came away thinking they had a better understanding of the Trinity.

    I think Paul's words to Timothy are very timely indeed! (1 Tim 4:16)
  • Philip Charles Gerber
    October 12, 10 - 1:36am
    Michael, what, if any, direct relationship do you think there is between heresy and our sinful nature? I was wondering if the effect of sin taking us away from God is at the root of heresy. We had an old saying written in the front of our Bibles in the sixties. "Sin keeps me from this book. This book keeps me from sin". Corny but probably true.
  • Jim Ramsay
    October 12, 10 - 2:08am
    Thanks Michael, good points.

    Perhaps you have come across Christopher Allison's comment in his book 'The Cruelty of Heresy' when he remarked "We are susceptible to heretical teachings because, in one form or another, they nurture and reflect the way we would have it be rather than the way God has provided, which is infinitely better for us." What did Calvin say about "a bad conscience being the mother of all heresies"?

    Looking forward to your exploration of contemporary manifestations of the old heresies. We are not clever enough to invent new ones and, besides, they are all appear to get re-cycled anyhow.
  • Justin Moffatt
    October 12, 10 - 2:15am
    For the record @Jim, are you talking about Fitz Allison's book? As in Bishop FitzSimons Allison?
  • Jim Ramsay
    October 12, 10 - 2:35am
    Yes Justin, the same. Did you meet him in your time in NYC?
  • Justin Moffatt
    October 12, 10 - 2:44am
    I did! He spoke at the church I was serving. But I'll PM you, rather than reply fully on this thread. His book, however, was very important for many in the Episcopal battles re truth etc.
  • Colin Murdoch
    October 12, 10 - 2:55am
    Michael, are you familiar with or will you be touching on the writings of Dr. William Tabbernee regarding Montanism?
  • Eric Henry Wynter Best
    October 12, 10 - 4:26am
    James wrote:" What did Calvin say about "a bad conscience being the mother of all heresies".
    Hmm, I'm not too sure about this. At the time of the classic heresies, the Christian faith, from a conceptual point of view, was still very much a work in progress. There were bound to be some "wrong turns", without impugning the faithfulness of those who took them.
    From what I recall when I studied church history, the issues were never purely abstract conceptualising about God. The logic was inherently soteriological, based around concepts of salvation and how we are saved. Athanasius' work, 'On the Incarnation' jumps to mind as a case in point.
  • Jim Ramsay
    October 12, 10 - 5:04am
    @Eric re the Calvin reference.

    If my memory serves me correctly it is in his commentary on 1 Timothy 1:19. My copy is elsewhere so I cannot check it but I seem to remember Calvin arguing that those who do not protect themselves with the gospel will fall away. Just an interesting addendum.
  • Michael Canaris
    October 12, 10 - 5:26am
    By way of synthesis between Eric and Jim, it might be worth keeping in mind just how rare and expensive publications were prior to printing and dedicated scriptoria. When working off one's memory of a text read decades ago, a lack of 'due diligence' from our perspective can easily lead to all sorts of strange notions getting entrenched without a boilerplate corrective being readily available.
  • Ernest Burgess
    October 12, 10 - 9:00am
    I would be pleased if you could add the Nicolaitans to your list William Barclay in his brief commentary suggests they are the ones who wanted a division between clergy and the lay so your thoughts please?
  • Michael Jensen
    October 12, 10 - 9:05am
    My understanding is that we don't know ANYTHING about the Nicolatians...
  • Michael Wells
    October 12, 10 - 9:31am
    uh, how about those declared heretics we feel a bit closer to. Luther perhaps?

    Was Origin considerd a heretic, I forget
  • Ernest Burgess
    October 12, 10 - 10:15am
    sounds like a good Phd subject, then again I have to remember Ecclesiastes 12 verse 12
  • Eric Henry Wynter Best
    October 13, 10 - 4:07am
    Michael asked: Was Origin considerd a heretic, I forget?
    A number of his thoughts were anathematized after his death, eg his idea of reincarnation. Nevertheless, in his time he was a very important theologian and hugely influential in the development of the ancient church on several fronts. There have, from time to time, been campaigns raised to restore his reputation. The Wikipedia article on him provides an interesting overview.
  • Frederick J Anderson
    October 13, 10 - 11:15am
    Err, speaking as a high church person, at what date do the heretics cease? Because I am not sure I accept Calvin as much of an authority for anything, especially given his views on pre-destination and free will. As I think Wesley said, Calvin's God was a monster.
  • Michael Canaris
    October 13, 10 - 12:08pm
    Now there's a can of worms, Frederick, if ever I've seen one! While I'm also high-church, I don't think Calvin's quite so bad in context as subsequent centuries made him out to be (as Continental Reformers go, though, I view Melanchthon and Bucer as more seminal to the development of our formularies.)
  • Frederick J Anderson
    October 13, 10 - 7:40pm
    I have never understood why Anglicans holding the ancient faith would ever be quoting Calvin as some form of authority. Blood was spilled rather than accept Calvin's doctrines. I am happy to have Calvin presented in a new light if it is based on fact and not some 500 years late spin.
  • Michael Jensen
    October 13, 10 - 8:02pm
    @Frederick: What? No spin, now: Calvin's influence on Anglican thinking in the Elizabethan era (along with that of other Reformed thinkers) is a plain matter of fact. What an odd thing to say.
  • Frederick J Anderson
    October 13, 10 - 8:12pm
    Michael: please call me Fred (the sign-in form asks for a full name, which makes it all very formal).

    I just do not understand how or why Anglicans could in 2010 quote Calvin when his lasting doctrines (election/pre-destination) contradict the most basic tenets of free will and even make pointless Christ's mission, ie if X is pre-destined and Y is not, then there is no point preaching the Gospel as X is already with us and Y is not.

    I do not deny Calvin's Geneva was a place of Protestant zeal etc but, in Christian terms, it was as a fundamentalist and quite inhuman regime, people banned even from visiting graves of loved ones (cf the Taliban). I just think Sydney Anglicans hurt their image by unncessarily popularising a reformation figure who (A) does not represent Anglican doctrine and (B) has such a questionable role in Christian history.

    This said, I am perfectly happy to have Calvin dealt with as a quasi-heretic, which I think he was in denying free will.

    I am happy to be alone on this message board!


  • Michael Jensen
    October 13, 10 - 8:48pm
    @Fred - that's a popularised but very inaccurate view of Calvin and Geneva - which by the standards of the time was quite a liberal and humane place to live. (note I said: by the standards of the time!)

    As for election and predestination: Article 17 of the 39 Articles affirms this doctrine, so it seems pretty Anglican to me. In any case, if you read Calvin on the topic you will see he is far more nuanced than you give him credit for. Is 'free will' such a self-evident category in any case?
  • Godfrey Saint
    October 13, 10 - 9:48pm

    Thank you again so very much for this series! One waits in eager anticipation!

    I must confess to sharing Fred's approach to Calvin (also having a higher church background). I would appreciate your expertise in explaining this as I too think of Calvin as a difficult sort so far as the continental reformers go.

    As for Article 17, that is less pre-destination (as I read it) in the sense of a determined outcome, than a Christian freely responding to God's call. Article 17 talks of those "curious and carnal persons" who equally freely reject God's call. Both expressly require freedom to accept or reject.

    If we do not have free will, then I agree with Fred -- what was the point of Christ's salvific mission? What was the point of Paul's preaching? Why would Christ instruct Peter to strengthen his brothers' faith? Absent free will to accept or reject, it is hard to see how someone can ever properly sin in the sense of consciously choosing wrong.

    I really enjoy your posts and scholarship, so would appreciate any clarification that places Calvin in a better light.

    I send best wishes too!

  • Michael Canaris
    October 14, 10 - 12:05am
    I'd have placed the high-water-mark of Calvin's influence more amongst the early Jacobeans and the Church of Ireland in particular. Still, I grant that he was highly influential on various Marian exiles and Elizabethans.
  • Eric Henry Wynter Best
    October 14, 10 - 12:31am
    On the Calvin issue, I don't think it is usually helpful to judge anyone, but it can be helpful to understand them. Which means understanding the context of their times. Those were times when lots of folks were being burned alive by other folks for their beliefs. Sheesh! At the time, Europeans were the Taliban. Thank God for the Enlightenment! The freedoms of a secular society that we enjoy is, on my understanding, a rather novel and still delicate feature in the the history of the human race.
  • Godfrey Saint
    October 14, 10 - 1:09am
    I am not intending to judge Calvin per se. I just want to understand Calvin better if I have him wrong.

    I, for one, do not thank God for the Enlightenment. For all of its supposed good, it decoupled faith and morals from governance. Even the worst divine right king agreed he was subject to God. With the French Revolution, government emerged that was utopian and which believed itself the “agent of history”. For all our scientific advances, we have also had advances in the capacity of men and women to kill each other. Far more people died at the hands of communism, the most secular of ideologies, than in any religious war.
  • Eric Henry Wynter Best
    October 14, 10 - 2:19am
    Critical periods of qualitative change are always fraught. The problem with the samples you provided - the French Revolution, Communism (and one could add Nazism) - are that they failed to decouple faith from governance. They simply swapped one faith for another. Their ambition for governance lay beyond the secular democratic notion, to be something grander: to be the agent of providence / the Truth. In this they look remarkably similar to pre-modern forms of governance. What they also had was modern means of mass killing. But they they certainly weren't the first to attempt it.
    In pre-modernity,governance, faith, morals, science, reason and art were fused, so that neither could fully find their own voice. Disentangling them has been a good thing. But when they get so decoupled that a genuine conversation is rendered impossible because of no common language, or when dialogue is repressed by one side so as to avoid critique, then that raises problems.
  • Michael Canaris
    October 14, 10 - 3:25am
    I'd have placed the general quelling of European religious tensions more in the Baroque period than amongst the Enlightenment, with things gradually getting quieter roughly between the respective treaties of Westphalia and Utrecht.
  • Frederick J Anderson
    October 14, 10 - 10:51am
    It warps faith to consider communism and nazism as faith. Perverted ideologies yes. Faith no. I cannot accept that secularism has been a good. Scientific progress has been good. But secularism is not something Christians should celebrate.

    Michael's point raises my question re Calvin and Arminians: would the reformation in the British Isles been a better and more substantial/lasting epoch had the reformers applied a purely English/British formula? Can they be separated? Perhaps Michael could answer this?
  • Jeremy Halcrow
    October 14, 10 - 11:18pm
    While you could certainly claim Nazi mythology had pre-modern elements you'll have to do better to convince me the French Enlightenment or Communism is pre-modern.

    The terror of the Soviet Union hardly existed merely in a 'critical period' of 'qualitative change'... 75 years is a long time!

    And this says nothing of the countless killings in the name of the modern nation-state.

    Eric, as I said in another thread I am not convinced it's possible to have human society without transcendent beliefs and myths.

    In Australian these are secular ones - all human beings are equal ; ANZAC mythology etc. But these are still beliefs and myths that bind civil society together.

    Are you seriously suggesting you put your faith in nothing and your trust in no one?
  • Eric Henry Wynter Best
    October 15, 10 - 12:35pm
    Thanks Jeremy for your comment. I wasn't saying that Communism or the French revolution were pre-modern. In fact, both came symbolise modernity in different ways. I would say that there is was much that was pre-modern within them, which would hardly be surprising.
    In fact, secular utopianism in various forms has been a major theme in modernity, but does not this have roots in Judeo-Christian utopianism? We've had to wait for post-modernism to get beyond this.
    My assertion is that one of the gifts of the Enlightenment was 'de-con-fusion' of major strands of cultural endeavour - science, faith, reason, politics, arts, etc, so that one did not need to be in service to the other. It started before then, but the Enlightenment gave it legitimacy.
    There has been some work done on the development of values systems. Even ones we take for granted, such as those gained in the Enlightenment, are tenuous because every human being must grow through less sophisticated values to reach these and beyond. We need a certain amount of sophistication and work to maintain these, and it is easy, particularly in times of stress to regress. One only needs to read the Murdoch press or listen to talk back to see the temptation to retreat to easier, populist stances.
  • Eric Henry Wynter Best
    October 15, 10 - 1:07pm
    On the issue of myths, Jeremy, the issue is not whether or not we should have them, but how we relate to them (Fowler). Myths, taken literally, enslave us; but 'owned' are the stuff of creativity. We see all the time how myths are used to manipulate public opinion. But they are not transcendent, existing in a hyperreal space above us. A major significance of the Cross (that greatest of myths) to me is that it leads to the place of speechlessness where all myths fail us - but still we get up and walk on.
    I put my faith in lots of things and in nothing. I put my faith in faith itself: "We walk by faith, not by sight", but even to walk by sight requires faith in sight. I have faith that people will be people. So while I applaud the bishops' social justice reports and vigorous Christian critique of government, do I want them to control our politics? No way!
  • Frederick J Anderson
    October 15, 10 - 9:00pm
    I agree entirely with Jeremy's post at #33 above.

    One cannot say post-1789 progress has been a triumph for rationalism and then ignore the absolute carnage wreaked by those seeking to be the ultimate rationalists ... Man, left to his own devices and without a humility before God's will, cannot but think himself a god. We have an innate sinful nature that wants to forever eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, attracted to the idea of empowering ourselves, free of constraint. The messianic and utopian nature of the French and Russian revolutions, as well as the Nazi one based on an evil eugenics, is reflective of this sinful nature, where some ideologically determined who lived and who died.
  • Jeremy Halcrow
    October 16, 10 - 3:38am
    We see all the time how myths are used to manipulate public opinion. But they are not transcendent, existing in a hyperreal space above us.

    Of course, I would agree with the first sentence. By transcendent beliefs I mean "universally applicable" not merely "non-immanent".

    A belief in human rights would be an example.

    I have faith that people will be people.

    I'm wondering what do you mean by that?
  • Eric Henry Wynter Best
    October 16, 10 - 7:41am
    Its an interesting issue, Jeremy: to what extent are our transcendent beliefs projected out onto "the world" or are about being open to what is? Were human rights discovered or invented? Don't know, but I'm glad we've got them! I don't think we can stand totally outside these - when we think we do we are just standing inside another one of which we are unconscious. But, at least we can be conscious of them, which is a good thing because freedom, responsibility and creativity lie in that direction (which, of course, implies another transcendental belief!).
    If the last few centuries in the West demythologised God, they did not think to demythologise the transcendent ego, the Self. As Frederick said, we took God's place. But I don't think we can go back. We must continue the work and deconstruct ourselves. I was first alerted to this around 20 years back by theologian Mark C Taylor ('Deconstructing Theology', 'Erring'). I attempted this recently in an essay published here. More interesting is seeing this theme being taken up in the emergent church, such as this YouTube video.
  • Eric Henry Wynter Best
    October 16, 10 - 7:46am
    On your second question, Jeremy, I just meant - not too deeply - that the past is a pretty good predictor of the future. There are things that our species has been shown to be good at and things not so good. Therefore, I see much wisdom in the separation of the church and state and the separation of powers. There may have been earlier exceptions, but I believe this to be, where it occurs, a relatively recent accomplishment of our species.
  • Peter Clark
    October 17, 10 - 11:09am
    On a lighter note: Two learned theologians were having a discussion and one asked the other what his definition of orthodoxy and heterodoxy was.
    He replied
    "Orthodoxy is my doxy, heterodoxy is another man's doxy."
  • Godfrey Saint
    October 18, 10 - 12:15am
    One thing that would also be helpful is context of the Church fathers' battles with the heretics, and whether any counselled accommodation with any heresies, or whether the Church fathers were resolute in their opposition. This might have some useful lessons for us today as we have orthdox or heterodox Christians, but always a silly call for "tolerance" as if mature adults cannot disagree in a firm but respectful manner.
  • Ernest Burgess
    October 18, 10 - 12:50am
    Michael, one of the new lines of thought that has emerged over the last 10 years is that of heaven on this planet and the garden will be restored here. It seems that 40 years ago the christian hope was to be in heaven with the lord and that seemed to be based on the teaching of Paul and the other NT writers the old hymn writers wrote with great gusto about the hope in heaven and that any form of heaven here was a Jehovah's Wittness heresies. The pasages in Revelation sometimes conflict we are all gathered round the throne,then there is the ones that speak of a new heaven and a new earth not necessarly this planet. That Jesus word's in John 14.2 In my fathers house are many rooms; if it were not so I would have told you Iam going there to prepare a place for you. this is now seems to mean not a place in heaven but his work on the cross. your clarification would be appreciated.
  • Michael Canaris
    October 18, 10 - 12:57am
    Michael, one of the new lines of thought that has emerged over the last 10 years is that of heaven on this planet and the garden will be restored here.
    New? That line of thought has gone through various iterations since Joachim of Fiore, and was especially popular in the late 19'th Century.