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.