(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

Theological heresy and narrative-historical heresy

In his Christian Theology: An Introduction Alister McGrath discusses the taxonomy of “natural heresies” outlined by Schleiermacher in The Christian Faith (147-49). Here is the gist of the argument.

1. The essence or basic principle of Christianity is that God has redeemed us through Jesus Christ.

2. The rejection of this principle is the rejection of Christianity itself. “In other words, to deny that God has redeemed us through Jesus Christ is to deny the most fundamental truth claim which the Christian faith dares to make.”

3. Heresy lies not in rejecting the basic principle about redemption through Jesus Christ but in “interpreting its terms in such a way that internal inconsistency results”.

4. There are two ways in which the principle may be wrongly accepted. It may be interpreted in such a way that Christ (logically) “cannot effect the redemption of humanity”. Or it may be interpreted in such a way that humanity (logically) “cannot be justified”.

5. If Christ is to be a valid redeemer, two requirements must be met. First, there must be an “essential similarity between Christ and ourselves” otherwise he cannot function as a mediator between humanity and God. Secondly, he cannot be so much like us that he is himself in need of redemption. Orthodox Christianity has “upheld this crucial insight by insisting that Jesus Christ is at one and the same time both God and a human being”.

6. Two heresies correspond to these two requirements. Docetism denies that Jesus Christ is fully human, with the effect that he “loses his point of contact with those he is meant to redeem”. The corresponding heresFailedy, which Schleiermacher identifies as Ebionitism, is the denial of Christ’s “essential dissimilarity from those whom he came to redeem”.

7. There are likewise two ways in which the condition of humanity can be misunderstood. The heresy of Pelagianism (or “plagiarism” according to the auto spell check), broadly speaking, asserts that we may be agents of our own redemption. The heresy of Manichaeism denies that we are capable of accepting the redemption that is offered to us: creation is so corrupt as to be irredeemable.

McGrath concludes:

The four heresies described above may, according to Schleiermacher, be regarded as the four natural heresies of the Christian faith, each of which arises through an inadequate interpretation of the doctrine of justification by faith. It is no accident that these were by far the most inportant heresies to be debated in the early church.

I would argue, however, that we are slowly moving from theological constructions of Christian truth to narrative-historical constructions of Christian truth. This entails learning to read the New Testament—as the foundational documents of our specifically Christian existence as the people of God—not according to Schleiermacher’s incarnational-redemptive paradigm but according to a narrative orthodoxy that centres on the establishment of God’s rule first over Israel, then over the nations, under a particular set of historical conditions. I hold that the controlling argument of the New Testament is the political-apocalyptic-kingdom one, not the personal-pietistic-redemptive one.

But if we are to take the historical reconstruction of Christian truth in the modern era as seriously as we did the philosophical reconstruction of Christian truth in the Patristic period, perhaps we should also identify—and set about expunging—a comparable set of four “natural” narrative-historical heresies.

It took three hundred years or more to establish theological orthodoxy, so we probably have some way to go before we reach consensus on the shape of the historical narrative. After all, it is only 229 years since Johann Philipp Gabler’s inaugural lecture at the University of Altdorf, which many would regard as the beginning of the division between dogmatics and historical criticism. But I think we can have a stab at outlining—and vehemently condemning—the sort of misinterpretations that will generate “internal inconsistency” in the narrative model. Work needs to be done on the terminology…

1. The heresy of Old-Perspectivism: the denial that the kingdom narrative must be understood in Jewish-apocalyptic terms (Old-Perspectivism).

2. The heresy of Schweitzerism: the understanding of Jesus as a Jewish-apocalyptic who predicted the end-of-the-world, rather than the end-of-Israel’s-world, and got it tragically wrong.

3. The heresy of Apocalyptic-Inflationism: the denial or downplaying of the political dimension of the apocalyptic narrative in favour of an inflated story about cosmic renewal. A lot of evangelical narrative theology fails at this point.

4. The heresy of Now-And-Not-Yet-ism: denial or downplaying of the future aspect of the political-apocalyptic narrative.


“Is humanity able to accept redemption?”

I’m not a fan of a certain Protestant Reformer or his legacy of tulips, but wouldn’t the monergism of his soteriology force a ‘no’ to this question as well? But I’m not aware of anyone who would classify Calvinism as ‘heretical’ based simply on its view that humans are unable to accept redemption unless God flips the switch on their behalf.

I feel maybe there’s something I’m missing about how a ‘no’ to this question leads to Manichaeism over something else?

You’ll have to read Schleiermacher, I’m afraid. I only have McGrath’s summary to go on. I must admit, though, it puzzled me. I think the point of the Manichaean heresy is that humanity cannot be redeemed in its embodied existence because of the ineradicable corruption of the material world. But if anyone has a better explanation, I’d love to hear it.


Okay, thanks for the clarification.

Hi Mark :),
Calvin (and the majority of the reformers and patristics) does not fall under Manichaeism. If people were irredeemable, then God wouldn’t even bother to “flip the switch,” because such an act would be futile. To put it another way, if God can redeem people on account of God’s grace, then people by definition are redeemable. Cont…

On the contrary - if people could, by their own thoughts, words, or deeds, manage to accept the grace of God, Pelagianism is at play, because the greatest work of all would be the work of accepting Jesus as Lord. As a result, people must passively accept God’s grace. The easiest way that this can be demonstrated is in infant baptism.

“The essence or basic principle of Christianity is that God has redeemed us through Jesus Christ.”

The thing is, this is not the starting point of the chart. There are like five charts someone has drilled through to make this the starting point of the heresy chart.

Not sure I follow you…

What I mean to say is that the starting point of the “natural heresy” taxonomy starts with this:

“The essence or basic principle of Christianity is that God has redeemed us through Jesus Christ.”

But that’s not a starting point. There are a whole lot of assumptions and decisions that ultimately led to that starting point.

I totally agree with you that even the concept of a theological flow through the heresies is a model that itself is not a good one, but I also wanted to point out that even within the confines of the model, that first, self-evident starting point is based on a wide array of assumptions and conclusions that have already been established.

Hi Andrew. I am only too aware that I too easily slip carelessly into the heresy of Apocalyptic-Inflationism. What might I best do I do with passages such as Revelation 21:3-5 to maintain a narrative orthodoxy? Thanks James

Have you actually read Rev 21:1-3? All it says is that God’s dwelling (or is that temple) is to be among men and compare it with John 14ff and Paul’s assertion that each assembly is a ‘temple’ if God dwells amongst/in them to see John is expressing the realisation of the New Covenant upon Christ’s return in judgement circa AD70.