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.
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.