Wednesday, March 31, 2010

McGrath's Heresy

Heresy is not a popular concept. Few recent books address it. One noteworthy exception is Alister McGrath’s (2009) book Heresy. (Here is a short review). McGrath makes a number of interesting observations that are pertinent to our times.  

1. What is heresy? According to McGrath heresy is not unbelief, which involves rejecting core biblical beliefs, but a subversive modification of doctrine that often leads to unbelief. He defines heresy as "a doctrine that ultimately destroys, destabilizes, or distorts a mystery rather than preserving it." (p.31)

The fundamental character of heresy is "the maintenance of the outward appearance of faith coupled with the subversion of its inward identity." (p.147) In other words, heresy is an idea that maintains the form of orthodox Christianity while inadvertently undermining it.

Historically, McGrath asserts, most heresies evolved from within the Church. They were usually sincere but misguided attempts to articulate something about Christianity--particularly about Christ--that went astray.

2. What motivated heresy? McGrath argues that heresy arose through a desire to preserve, not to destroy, the gospel (p.176). More often than not, the original intentions and motivations were good. A major goal was to more effectively present the gospel to contemporary culture, by making Christianity more relevant to prevailing social norms and more amendable to secular rationality.

But good motivation does not guarantee good results. The gospel should stand above any culture, and pass judgment on it. Yet, all too often, attempts at enculturation and accommodation lead to the rise of heresy. By seeking to assimilate into current intellectual, ideological and cultural norms, the gospel often has to be watered down or radically redefined in order to fit. Such drastic accommodation and compromise can destroy Christian orthodoxy.

3. McGrath gives more than a mere history of heresy. He seeks also to establish that the very concept of heresy must be regained. Regretfully, McGrath does not discuss many recent examples of what he would term heresy.

Unhappily, in terms of his own definition, McGrath himself seems a prime candidate for heretic.

Why do I say this? Consider the following facts about theistic evolution:

a. It comes from within the church.
McGrath himself embraces theistic evolution. Recently he stated that Adam & Eve are merely metaphorical representations rather than real historical figures. Here he joins fellow subversives Pete Enns, Bruce Waltke, and Tremper Longman, who all once taught at Westminster Seminary, who all once supported non-literal creation days, and who all now deny the historical Adam. (Note, en passant, that this shows that the denial of the historicity of Gen.1 inevitably leads to a denial of the historicity of Gen.2-3--and far beyond).

b. It is motivated by the desire to make Christianity more relevant to modern society.
Listen to Waltke's naive plea:
“if the data is overwhelmingly in favor of evolution, to deny that reality will make us a cult…some odd group that is not really interacting with the world...To deny scientific reality would be to deny the truth of God in the world. For us as Christians, this would serve as our spiritual death because we would not be loving God with all of our minds. It would also be our spiritual death in witness to the world because we would not be seen as credible."
Before capitulating, Waltke should have recalled Paul's words about biblical "foolishness" versus worldly "wisdom" (1 Cor.1:17-30).

c. It is a distortion of biblical doctrine that leads to the rejection of core Christian beliefs.
A denial of the historical Adam undermines the penal substitution notion of Christ's atonement and, consequently, salvation by grace.

Consider the assessment of Patricia Williams:
 Liberal theologians who treat Adam's story as a myth ruin Paul's neat equations. Adam and Eve's mythological disobedience cannot be atoned by Jesus' historical actions, nor can Adam and Eve's mythological sin be responsible for our sinful nature or our death…if Adam and Eve are not historical, the historical Jesus has no work to do under existing atonement theories that treat the atonement as a deed" [Doing without Adam and Eve: Sociobiology and Original Sin , 2001, p.182].

Moreover, acceptance of evolution is a major cause for loss of religious faith. Huston Smith claims:
“Martin Lings is probably right in saying that “more cases of loss of religious faith are to be traced to the theory of evolution…than to anything else.” [The Christian Century (1982) p. 755]

In short, let's take McGrath's timely warning to heart. However sincere and well-motivated he and his co-horts may be, their teaching undermines the core of Christianity. It should thus be dismissed in no uncertain terms for what it is---heresy.


Henrietta said...

Thanks Dr. Byl, for a very interesting posting. On defining a heretic: Did the Catholic Church not see Luther as a heretic? For the Protestants however he was the man who was inspired by God to re-form the church. If the majority of a church becomes liberal, will conservatives not be seen as heretical?

Your second statement (b) on theistic evolution , “It is motivated by the desire to make Christianity more relevant to modern society”, is more or less what we are starting to experience in some churches in South Africa presently. Compromising Biblical truths to suit current trends and accommodating liberal views are rife, for instance on homosexuality, abortion and sexual relations outside wedlock. Are these the little foxes that will eventually spoil all the vines?

Reducing the first chapters of Genesis to mythology, as some theistic evolutionists do, will definitely have far-reaching effects on the gospel, as Patricia Williams point out. Henrietta Klaasing

john byl said...

Hello Henrietta

Thanks for your comments. Heresy is defined in terms of the orthodoxy it undermines. Thus, in terms of RC orthodoxy, Luther was a heretic. Likewise, as you point out, once heretics undermine orthodoxy so as to effectively replace it with a new standard of orthodoxy, then the conservatives will be viewed as heretics. The basic question, of course, is which standard most closely adheres to Scripture.

As to theistic evolution it undermines biblical orthodoxy in two ways: (1) by attacking doctrines (historical Adam, historical fall, original sin, penal substitution, etc.) based on the historicity of Gen.1-11 and (2) more generally, by attacking the basic notion that the Bible is our ultimate standard of truth. If we can't believe all the Bible says, how can we believe anything it says?

Fred Butler said...

Did you see Waltke's recent response:


john byl said...

Hi Fred

Thanks for the link, which states that Waltke has recently, due to pressure from his seminary, withdrawn his video and backpeddled somewhat. He now says, among other things,:

"1.Adam and Eve are historical figures from whom all humans are descended; they are uniquely created in the image of God and as such are not in continuum with animals.
3.....I believe that creation by the process of evolution is a tenable Biblical position, and, as represented by BioLogos, the best Christian apologetic to defend Genesis 1-3 against its critics."

However, Biologos promotes full evolution, including that of humans. Thus most Biologos writers either deny an historical Adam (e.g., McGrath, Longman) or deny that all humans descended from Adam (e.g., Keller).

Hence Walkte's 3rd statement seems to contradict his 1st statement.

So, which is it? Waltke needs to elaborate on what he means by "historical figures from whom all humans are descended" [i.e., does Walkte believe Adam lived a million years ago?], "not in continuum with animals" [i.e., no animal ancestry?], and "Biologos is the best Christian apologetic to defend Gen.1-3" [i.e., does really he know what Biologos is really up to?].

Arnold Sikkema said...

John, you say, "Recently [McGrath] stated that Adam & Eve are merely metaphorical representations rather than real historical figures." I listened for this in the clip, but I don't see McGrath making that dichotomy.

Paul too (in Romans 5:12-20 & I Corinthians 15:20-23) affirms the historical and representative character of Adam.

Sincerely, in Christ,
Arnold Sikkema

john byl said...

Hi Arnold

Thanks for your comment. McGrath does make this dichotomy between historical and metaphorical. He starts off with:

"Are Adam and Eve real historical figures that lived 6000 years ago, or are they metaphorical representations?"
and, a bit later,
"There are those who would say that Adam and Eve in some way designate specific historical figures....but for me it makes even more sense to say that Adam and Eve are stereotypical figures that represent human potential as created by God but also with the capacity to go is the story of each of us, created with the greatest of intentions and gifts but
going wrong..."

Later on he says that science doesn't have a huge lot to say about Adam and Eve...presumably because they are not historical.

In the texts you cite (and elsewhere) the Bible presents Adam as the historical cause of human sin and death, never as a "metaphorical" or "stereotypical figure" representing our human capacity for going wrong.

Indeed, Adam is NOT typical of us, as he was created righteous whereas we are born corrupted by Adam's original sin.

If McGrath does in fact believe in an historical Adam , fall and original sin then he should clarify his position. My take on what he says in the clip seems to be shared by most of the comments following it.

Robt Mann said...

A decade ago I composed the following note for church friends:

Genesis 3 as contrasted with 1 & 2

It's striking how literal reading becomes straightforward wrt Adam & Eve, whereas the major creation myths in Chs 1 & 2 just before certainly cannot be understood literally. Perhaps a bridge can be built towards our fundamentalist brethren by reassuring them of literal readings of Adam & Eve. I doubt they'll respond, but it may be worth a try.

The attempt to over-ride science by literal reading of Genesis 1 & 2 (& the Noah story) is called "creationism". The quote marks are richly deserved, but infuriate some followers of this sect. Mainstream Christian doctrine has emphasized the theological significance of this, the start of the Holy Scriptures as they were in Christ's life in Palestine. The attempt to use them to trump science i.e evolution is only a century old, but has been cowing more & more of those interested in Science/Faith issues.
Media have been successful in misleading the public, and surprisingly many scholars, to think that "creationism" represents an important part of Christianity.

Meanwhile, the far more important issues of Genesis 1&2 are little discussed by our 'agnostic' leaders intent on tolerance, diversity, multifaith PC.

Broom & I took a couple y to write our conciliatory article 'Creationism v. Evolution, but not Creation v. Evolution', Stimulus (May 2000), insisting with care & diplomacy that Gen 1 - 2 is theology, not science that can be understood as trumping the fact of evolution. All we got for it was heated irrelevancies from "creationists" refusing to come to grips with our reasoning. Indeed, Stimulus soon printed not one but two bursts of libel against one of us.
Gen 3 is different. No strife can be readily worked up regarding the existence of a first human couple. Science has found no evidence among the remains from 10^6 - 10^4 y BC to contradict the concrete idea of a first human couple who, in a sudden evolutionary discontinuity, showed the principal human characteristics of which Gen 3 warns us.
Discontinuities in evolution (saltations, 'punctuations') dominate the fossil record and in the theorising of some atheists, notably S J Gould. For some unknown reason, however, Dawkins insists on discussing only gradualism - a mode of change less apparent in the actual record. Anyhow, the sudden appearance of a human couple is not in any way contrary to science. Whether this was a special creation by God or not is a question science cannot illuminate. To put it in conventional philosophical terms, final and formal cause cannot be studied by science. But the simple scientific notion of a new species with unprecedented abilities is fully consonant with science. It is therefore perfectly reasonable to take Adam & Eve literally. That God used many building-blocks from prehuman anthropoids is no skin off anyone's nose.
But Gen 3 is mainly, of course, a prime source of theology - in particular on how sin arose in the human species. The Bible is clear that the first humans were created male & female, and evil came into this world through, in the first instance, the female. A supernatural tempter (in disguise as a natural being) targetted the helpmeet in the first instance, and she then led astray her husband. It is not stated that the woman was the more susceptible to temptation, but that possibility is not ruled out as an explanation of Satan's choice of whom to target first. The man is not stated to be more inclined to blame his spouse for his own moral laxity, but that possibility is not ruled out either.