Saturday, 1 March 2014


Egglestone Abbey

For there must be also heresies among you that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.” (1 Cor 11:19) 

I was at our Darlington church this morning for our monthly men’s meeting aimed at those wishing to go deeper into the theology of the bible (it is not a meeting for faint hearts).

This month we were talking heresy.

Well OK, hopefully we were just talking about heresy.

 In the verse quoted above aἵρεσις  (heresies) signifies divisions or factions. Paul seems to be reminding the Corinthians again of the factionalism that he had rebuked already in the first chapter (1:11-13).

 What is ironic here is that Paul uses the term in the context of the Communion Table. One divine purpose of the ordinance was that it should serve as a reminder of our oneness in Christ. Yet here they were in Corinth abusing the ordinance and seemingly squabbling over it. But then again the Church has squabbled over Communion ever since!

 It is well to note that we only have this epistle at all because of the challenges that had arisen in this church over a whole raft of moral and doctrinal problems. If Corinth had not been such a basket-case of a fellowship then Paul might have had no reason to write to them at all. Of course, he might instead have written to them on still deeper things given the chance; certainly it was his desire that he be able to do so (1 Cor 3:1-2).

 Yet without the epistle that he did write we must say that we would be so much the poorer in our understanding of a range of issues such as the resurrection, the spiritual gifts, communion, marriage etc.  This reminds us that an understanding of biblical doctrine both crystallizes and deepens in situations where biblical beliefs are under challenge.

The situation in Corinth would create a pattern that was to be repeated throughout Church history. Over time aἵρεσις became a technical term to describe departure from doctrinal orthodoxy. In the Church much of the next few centuries would be spent fighting these departures. And God used these battles to illuminate key doctrines.    

People in the ancient world didn’t spill ink nearly as often as we do today (actually I don’t know what the IT equivalent of spilling ink is). Papyrus was too expensive for one thing!  By and large,  where there weren’t problems & disputes in the Church nobody writes all that much.   

 This is problematical for us because it makes it harder for us to know what people actually believed at any given time.  Usually theological issues only got a good airing when someone put his head above the parapet and challenged the prevailing orthodoxy. Hence the writings we have from these early centuries often tend to be confrontational in nature (including the work of Irenaeus whose title I have stolen for this series of posts)

It was in the midst of these intense theological debates that the early Church was enabled to deepen its understanding of the nature of God, especially as revealed in Christ.
 These debates and disputes played a vitally important role in crystallizing what the Christian faith is, and importantly what it isn’t. We may think of the old idea of the jeweller displaying his prize necklace on a dark background in order to bring out the contrast. So God in history has used controversy and division to highlight the great truths of Christianity and also to make manifest those men who are approved.  

I wish to explore this theme of heresy over a few posts. 

What is to be classed as heresy in the Church? How soon does heresy begin in Church history? Can you be a heretic and still be saved?

Stay tuned…