04 May 2014

Review of Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church by Jonathan Wright

Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern ChurchHeretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church by Jonathan Wright
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an informative book, well-written and with an easy to read style/voice. It's good enough that I plan to re-read it, hoping to get even more out of it. I'm very interested in Church/Christian History as a whole, but especially enjoy reading history from an objective perspective. I don't get the sense that I'm reading a particular brand of Christianity's history, or even a history with too much slant on it, i.e. it’s not making up my mind for me, but simply presenting information and allowing me to think and make conclusions for myself.

According to Wright without heresy, orthodoxy may never have been solidified. He writes, “Heresy certainly helped define orthodoxy, but it still required a bold leap to equate that orthodoxy with the only reputable version of Christianity” (82). This last statement is a thought I have often had, but have not been able to put into words as clearly as Wright does. Wright is not giving a prescription, here, but rather a description. Again, he lets the reader come to their own conclusions.

Wright presents representative arguments from all sides before, during and after the seemingly all-important councils. The arguments on the Trinity vs. Unitarian concepts; the god-nature vs. human nature of Jesus Christ. He discusses how the Holy Spirit slowly changed from an almost afterthought to one third of the Trinity. He gives information on the various heresies and the people who were accused of holding them and what happened to them. And, as Wright states, “we are reminded that the line between orthodoxy and heterodoxy was always very thin” (104). This is even more true today.

According to others (e.g. Ross Douthat) heresy is now almost the norm, having overcome the most staid and staunch orthodoxy. Wright takes a different thought, writing that “[i]t is hard to reach a firm conclusion. Was there really more heresy during the medieval era, or simply more attempts to seek it out and eradicate it?” (135). I tend to be between the two ideas, that there is heresy. I think it’s prominent because of modern knowledge (particularly scientific knowledge). In order to keep people interested, the leaders in churches have to avoid deep theological issues. In order for people to feel congruent, they have to hold unorthodox ideas. Some orthodox concepts are quite hard to jibe with what is experienced on a daily basis. I have a feeling that most of what we call Christianity, today, would have been considered heresy in the Middle Ages. Wright may agree. He writes, “There was no more conspicuous example of medieval Christianity’s inability to neatly define the borders between heresy and orthodoxy than the Beguines, who were welcomed, at first, by paeans of support and ended up being thrown into the flames” (142).

One good thing about the tolerance of/freedom of religion we enjoy, at least in most Western countries, few are dying for their unorthodox beliefs and thoughts. “It has recently been calculated that, across Europe in the sixteenth century, as many as five thousand people were legally executed for their supposedly heterodox religious beliefs” (Wright 181). That is progress, but others (again, Douthat) seem to bemoan this change. I’m probably reading to much into those ideas, but I prefer heresy to mass killings of supposed heretics.

Wright also presents the concept “In one of the more notable plus ca change moments of European history, the persecuted quickly became the persecutors” (187). This continued throughout church history.

I appreciate how Wright gives equal ink to both sides of the issue; he keeps a pretty objective voice throughout and makes it easy for the reader to come to their own conclusion. He also has a good scholarly apparatus: i.e. notes, bibliography, index.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it highly. If you are interested in history in general or Church/Christian history in particular, this is an excellent book to increase your knowledge of this subject.

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