A History of Heresy

Recently, I finished a book called A History of Heresy by David Christie-Murray, published in 1976. Christie-Murray has an interesting background: after 27 years of being ordained in the Anglican Church, he resigned orders to join the Society of Friends or Quakers. The book left me unsure whether he is a Christian Quaker or one of the more new age Quakers out there. He is skeptical that orthodoxy exists or can be easily defined. His closing remarks include the reflection that, “perhaps the greatest heresy is the existence of any dogma at all.” Yet he acknowledges that, “somehow the thin red line of Christianity holds.”

Regardless of Christie-Murray’s personal views or editorializing, the book is an excellent compendium of heresies. First, it’s important to note Christie-Murray doesn’t consider anything non-Christian a heresy. As he defines it, heresy must be a departure from some orthodoxy. Second, Christie-Murray is clear that, for him, ‘heresy’ has no pejorative sense; as a term it recognizes the fact that a person or group does not “give allegiance to some part of the accepted norm of belief” (end of chapter 1).

I found the most value in Christie-Murray’s discussion of early heresies, particular the Christological heresies of the first few centuries. Most of these denied Christ’s humanity or His divinity. Against all of these, the church upheld the full divinity and humanity of Jesus. The truth Christians had long believed was summarized at the Council of Chalcedon, AD 451:

“One single Christ, Son, Lord, born of one human parent, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation, the difference of natures being in no way suppressed by the union, but rather the properties of each being safeguarded and reunited in a single person and a single hypostasis.”

If that seems wordy, bear in mind the council was, in one statement, trying to address multiple heretical views of Christ. To whatever degree we appreciate or understand this theological brick, it is one of the foundation stones holding up the faith we have today.

To help myself keep the early Christological heresies straight, I made a table with brief descriptions of each:

HeresyAttacks Christ’s DivinityAttacks Christ’s Humanity
Gnosticism Christ only appeared human
MonarchianismChrist was a man in whom God’s power dwelled; Father, Son, and Spirit aren’t persons but masks God takes on & off 
ArianismChrist was divine but created 
ApollinarianismChrist was just God clothed in flesh; none of His personhood came from His humanity 
NestorianismChrist was not a God-man but divine and human natures existed separately in Him 
Monophysitism Christ was one substance with the Father but not man

Versions of these heresies reared their heads throughout history, and some even exist today. Jehovah’s Witnesses embrace Arianism; they believe Christ was God’s first creation. Christie-Murray suggests Oneness Pentecostals espouse a form of Monarchianism because they believe in one God who has revealed Himself as Father, Son, and Spirit.

Doctrine is important. It gives structure and boundaries to faith. But the New Testament questions whether doctrine is the best litmus test of our relationship with God. In Acts 23 we find that the Pharisees believed many things that Christians do. Yet they led the charge to kill Jesus. Samaritans were considered heretics by Jews, so when Jesus told the parable of the good Samaritan, He was challenging the Jews’ confidence in their doctrine and tradition. In the parable, the heretic shows real love while the orthodox are callous.

Christie-Murray doesn’t shy away from the ugly things in church history. He freely discusses the brutality with which heretics and orthodox treated each other. More than once he observes the irony that the orthodox, who believed in a God of love, tortured and murdered scores of people who disagreed with them. By contrast, the Lord the orthodox claim gave up His life to a mob that tortured and murdered Him.

So yes, doctrine is important. But Jesus said all men would know we are His disciples by our love for each other, not by our doctrinal statements.

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