If there is one thing that Protestants are often guilty of, it is most certainly being ignorant or at least naive of Church History. Historical Theology is more or less left to the academic world and often considered to be too “Catholic” to be of any use. This is unfortunate. I have found that we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) and these witnesses from the past can greatly enhance our passion for the Lord and our passion for truth. I’m often amazed that people hold beliefs or at least consider holding certain beliefs that were dealt with early in the first four centuries. Whether dealing with the low Christology of Liberal Protestantism or the concept of Jesus not being God as taught by Mormons & Jehovah Witnesses, we can look back nearly 1500 years (or more) and find that the questions and answers have not changed. We would do well to pay attention to Church History and the subject of Historical Theology in order to trace the development of doctrines which may help keep us from reinventing the wheel.
But what is heresy? Better yet, what is orthodoxy? Do these terms have clear definitions or are they simply words that scholars toss around in the hopes of confusing the general reader? If orthodoxy is “good,” than is it safe to assume that heresy is always “bad”? Has heresy served a purpose? How has the authority to declare that which is heretical and that which is orthodox? Does the Roman Catholic Church have this power or do the Orthodox Churches (e.g. Greek Orthodox, Roman Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox)? What about Protestants and their insistence that the Scriptures alone carry the truth (Sola Scriptura)? But then we must ask, who has the correct interpretation of the Scriptures? Issues or authority surface in these types of discussions quickly…
I’m convinced that there is much we can learn from Church History and yet I’m equally impressed with the reality that time is precious and that most people will probably not purchase Philip Schaff’s eight volume History of the Christian Church (despite it being excellent). I doubt most will pick up Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language, Williston Walker’s A History of the Christian Church, or any of the other fantastic works on the subject (e.g., Brown’s Heresies is another excellent work on the subject). It’s just simply not a priority for most people aside from seminarians or scholars. And, if we’re being honest, most pastor’s would probably rather read a copy of the Leadership Journal.
So, since I’m convinced that Church History is important and I’m also equally impressed that time is precious, what is our solution? The Internet! Most specifically, thinktheology.org. Yes, come to us for all of your theological needs… okay, that sounds quite excessive, rather depressing, and extremely arrogant! My point is simply to suggest that your studying of Church History can benefit you greatly. In fact, we have much to learn, as well as much to appreciate from Church History. There are so many interesting stories and insights into the development of what many of us take for granted (e.g., Athanasius’ awesomeness!). Church History deals with the likes of Polycarp, Origin, Tertullian, Augustine and then works its way into the lives of men such as St. Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and what ultimately led to the Reformation.
Studying Church History is filled with many stories of redemption and ridicule. It has its ups and its downs. On one hand you see orthodoxy rise and on the other heresy spreads. It is the “battle” of the orthodox against the heretics, or at least it seems to often be reduced to such. Perhaps my favorite quote concerning the topic of heresy and orthodoxy comes from the late Harold Brown, who stated,
“Heresy… presupposes orthodoxy. And, curiously enough, it is heresy that offers us some of the best evidence for orthodoxy, for while heresy is often very explicit in the first centuries of Christianity, orthodoxy is often only implicit. If we hope, today, that the orthodoxy we believe is the “faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude v. 3), then it is necessary to assume that it is older than heresy. But heresy appears on the historical record earlier, and is better documented, than what most of the church came to call orthodoxy. How then can heresy be younger, orthodoxy more original? The answer is that orthodoxy was there from the beginning, and heresy reflected it. Sometimes one catches a glimpse of another person or object in a mirror or a lake before seeing the original. But the original preceded the reflection, and our perception of it. The same, we would argue, is true of orthodoxy — the original — and heresy — the reflection. The heresy we frquently see first, but orthodoxy preceded it.” – Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church, p. 4
Thus, we can recognize that heresy has played its part within the development of what is often considered orthodox and essential. From these initial thoughts, let’s consider some questions:
- How do you define “Orthodoxy” and “Heresy” and who do you believe can determine those terms?
- Do you view “Heresy” as a positive or a negative or are you unsure how to react to it?
- Why do you think many Christians ignore Church History? Does it matter?
Anybody care to guess what is both scripturally and historically the first major problem? I’ll give you a hint: I don’t consider Acts 6’s problem between the “Hellenistic” Jews and the “Hebrew” Jews to be the first major problem.
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.
The term “orthodoxy” is relative to who is using it. Catholics view their doctrine as “orthodox” because they view it in connection with church history and tradition. Protestants view “orthodoxy” through the lense of the Word. I side as a Protestant.
I wish heresy did not exist because a great number of people have been deceived by it and followed after foolish doctrines that lead nowhere but to hell.
As to your last question, most Christians ignore church history for the same reason that they do not read their bible or pray or evangelize.
Luke, I’m sure you are familiar with the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas but I’d be interested in your thoughts of these documents and how they are to be used by us today.
I enjoyed reading the insight you gave about the relationship between Orthodoxy and Heresy and Brown’s quote an eloquent way of stating it.
I’m looking forward to these upcoming blogs!
I think the Didache is an interesting document specifically because of its take on traveling apostles and prophets 🙂 If they are using congregations for money… kick ’em out!
Brown’s book is awesome. I’ve read it twice now and I’m rereading it for the third time. It’s so interesting!
Are there any famous women in church history? What’s a Didache?
There are many famous women in church history, although I don’t know if any of them helped determine correct doctrine or anything. I don’t know what a Didache is either. 😀
I enjoy church history. It’s kind of cool to think that, once we get to heaven, we’ll get to ‘rub elbows’ with people like Moses, the Apostle Paul, and various folks from church history that paved the way for us to become believers! I love that “cloud of witnesses” verse. 😀
Our daughter asked me, one time, why I read so many missionary books to her when she was a child, including the children’s book of martyrs. I’m not entirely sure why, except that she was interested in history and that is my favorite kind of history. They set some great examples for us…especially as it pertains to enduring trials that come our way and being fearless in witnessing.
I’m looking forward to this one. Clement of Alexandria,Origen, & Greek philosophy vs. Tertullian, Irenaeus, & Chiliasm!
I don’t have much time right now but if I had to guess what next week’s subject will be, I’d say justification by faith or the law of Moses?
The Didache is an early church document that dates between the end of the 1st century and into the second, depending upon which scholar you follow. It’s a rather early church document, regardless of what date you find it at. The term “Didache” is a transliteration of the Greek, which means “teachings.”
Searching, I’m a Premillennialist (Historic) so you’ll certainly get some Chiliasm from me 🙂 I’m also a big fan of the Alexandrian school… apart from its disturbing allegorical hermeneutical philosophy. I like reading Origen’s commentaries just because they are just that… wierd 🙂
What do you think about them folks?
Hello everyone. This is my first time visiting this blog and I’m already responding! I guess it is because I like what I’m reading.
I’m personally very careful when it comes to declaring someone as a heretic or labeling certain beliefs as heresy because I too question who makes those rules. Do pastor’s make those rules? Do church councils? Do we make them ourselves? I do not have a degree in biblical studies or in theology so I’m probably the least qualified person to make those judgments but I am not so sure that we always should. Maybe I’m wrong. I certainly believe that theology is important and that believing the right things is also important. I just don’t know how to get from A to B so we can move onto C.
I’m inclined to sound very “Catholic” here, but I find a lot of comfort in councils. The idea that a group of people could prayerfully discuss and study a certain topic and come to a conclusion sounds the best to me.
Councils are great. That’s what the JW’s use, and it works for them.
I’m unsure if you are being serious or being sarcastic but I did not know that JW’s used councils. From what I’ve studied, they started by following Russell and then started following Rutherford. Didn’t the changes start because Rutherford more or less made them?
Church councils are what preserved orthodoxy for nearly 1000 years, which is why I am inclined to use them.
groups of pharisees making decisions on the bible scare me. can i be on a council?
Didn’t the apostles have a “council” in Jerusalem to determine whether Greek converts would be required to adhere to Judaical rules when they became converts? The ultimate decision was that they would only be required to refrain from blood and food served to idols, I believe. Something like that, anyway. Were they wrong?
Good observation. As a Presbyterian, we find Acts 15’s Jerusalem council to be very important in our polity.
My point is that a council, in and of itself, is no guarantee for orthodoxy, or for truth.
JW’s have a council — they call it the prophetic organization. The members of the council are allowed to remain anonymous under the guise of humility, which prevents them from being required to exhibit their own fruit to the general population of followers.
A friend of mine told me that, “Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all right.”
I said, “They can’t ALL be right; they disagree. They are in contradiction with each other.”
He modified his stance: “Well, where they agree, they’re right, and where they disagree, they are wrong.”
I said, “So basically, truth is determined by ‘majority rules’?”
* * *
Which, of course, we all now know to be faulty reasoning. After all, truth is determined by our own individual value systems, and sin is operating in contradiction to that value system. But — bonus! — God wouldn’t punish sin by sending people to hell, so we’re off the hook!! (See Obama post.)
So… what is</em a guarantee for orthodoxy?
The first four Ecumenical Councils: Beauty.
Five, six, and seven: questionable.
Council of Trent: I'm Protestant.
Synod of Dort: Pretty sweet times.
Yeah… I like the idea of councils but it depends entirely upon who is on the council and what is at stake… I suppose.
I guess all of the answers have their problems. I love the idea of the council and then I think about Trent. But, since Trent didn't really give the Protestants a fair hearing, maybe I'm judging councils incorrectly because it doesn't seem like Trent really was a truly "ecumenical" council.
Then again… maybe folks like Benny Hinn should be in charge.
oh, no, you didn’t, Luke… 😉 You WENT there! Don’t forget an equally balanced council including Joel Osteen and the Copelands and good ol’ Benny. There wouldn’t be any heresy in that one.
Hm. I vote for a council that includes Billy Graham, KJ-52 (cuz he’s the best rapper around, right?), Obama (cuz he’s the prez and has all the answers, right?) and KBO (to slap ’em all upside the head and make sure they get it right the first time). 😀
I can’t believe someone called KJ-52 the best rapper around! Didn’t you hear about the guest appearance at the TCF Lock-In by the BEST rapper around??? KJ-52, at best, is, er, second-best.
Nah…I’m sticking with the “plain white rapper in a mini-van” 😀
if kj is on any council i would probably move.