Where the world comes to study the Bible

Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church

by
Dr. Harold O. J. Brown

Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. 512 pages March 1998.

This book was originally published in 1984 under the title Heresies : The Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy from the Apostles to the Present. There was a very good review by Joseph Sobran in the October 5, 1984 issue of “National Review” which led me to purchase the original book.

Dr. Brown is currently with the Reformed Theological Seminary Resident Faculty, in Charlotte NC. Heresies is a comprehensive history book as well as a copious treatise of various heresies since the first century A.D. This would explain its renaming for the current editions.

“Heresies” are defined by Dr. Brown as those beliefs that are so at odds with orthodox Christian theology that they are a direct threat to the basic beliefs necessary for adequately understanding God’s plan for personal salvation. They are more than differences of opinion, and the heretic must have some claim on calling himself Christian, some real original relationship to orthodoxy or the “FAITH ONCE REVEALED.” A non-believer cannot be a heretic. He can only be a non-believer. In this sense some “heresies” are not truly heretical but another religion.

Dr. Brown explains that all theological concepts subject to heretical interpretation are found in the Bible. These are primarily those on the Trinity and those on the nature of Jesus, as well as other subjects that became the basis for some heresies. The earliest Christians generally understood these concepts. However, until heretical beliefs started materializing and needed formal refuting these truths were not systematized and comprehensively presented in an understandable way. Yet these early orthodox beliefs are available to us through the analysis of the writings of the heretics themselves. (Hence the “...Mirror of Heresy...” in the original title of this work.)

It took several centuries for the early theologians to develop the ideas and vocabulary needed to present orthodox beliefs on the Trinity and on the nature of Jesus. When this was done the results were the various major creeds (Apostles, Nicene [AD 325/381], Athanasian, Chalcedonian [AD 451]) created for popular use. But even this is not enough. For though some will generally agree with the particular postulations, the intellectual need to further explain these basics in the extreme leads to heretical thought. And this leads to the subsequent (to AD 451) one thousand five hundred fifty years of repeating heresies. For most, if not all, modern heresies are revivals of or share assumptions with heresies of the first four and one half centuries of Christianity.

Dr. Brown brings this to us in a logical, well written, chronological narrative. It is easy reading, chockfull of interesting details and bibliography/footnoting par excellence. He discusses the early persecutions and shows that even some heretics were genuine martyrs. Most importantly to the layman, he explains clearly the ramifications of any particular heresy. He does not stop with an explanation of why it is wrong, but discusses thoroughly the logical implications, conclusions, even actions to which this variant belief brings the heretic.

The story progresses to the political successes of the church when it achieves official state recognition and eventually becomes an official state religion. He recounts with sadness the change of the church of the martyred saints into a government organization persecuting, or when not yet official, having the government persecute, its “enemies.”

These enemies were not always heretics, but often political rivals with minor differences of theological opinion. Even some of this difference of opinion was really the result of linguistic misinterpretation (willful or incidental depending on the goals of the personages) between Latin and Greek speakers. When the opponents actually were heretical there were instances when the persecutions strengthened opposition to orthodoxy much in the same way early persecutions strengthened the church. It was some of this attitude an prejudice that left varieties of North African and Middle Eastern Christians vulnerable to the wholesale conversions to Islam in the 7th and 8th Centuries. The author also shows a point in time when it is the state that is interested in Christian orthodoxy and unity, and the official Church is more interested in making war.

This newer publication was improved immensely with the addition of a more comprehensive index. One can now find and relocate entries dealing with the myriad of types of heresies and historical topics discussed. A glossary would improve reviewing the meanings of the sundry heresies and sub-heresies but might make the book, already at 512 pages, too unwieldy. Looking them up in the index is the next best. A companion book of terms with page references would be helpful. Even to find what the creeds say it is necessary to look them up from other sources. It is too bad some of the more explanatory footnotes cannot be parenthetically added to the text, for this also would make a large book even bigger. The reader needs to get used to flipping back to the footnotes from the beginning or he will miss a lot of information.

The book was not updated in any form since its original publication in 1984. Though cults are only touched on (and then only in historical perspective) notorious examples might be used to illustrate current heresy revivals.

I recommend this book most to conservative Christians, which is no surprise. Next are “moderate” Christian Protestants and Roman Catholics who are comfortable with their Salvation in Jesus. Roman Catholics who are wedded to the Church hierarchy and tradition add-ons will find parts of the work difficult to accept. Those who will be least pleased are liberal and universalist Christians whose doctrines and beliefs themselves border on the heretical.

I also highly recommend it to non-believers who have any interest in church history, or are interested in Christian beliefs and controversies. Everyone will find this a terrific source of excellently documented information.

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation), Scripture Twisting, History, False Teachers