Sunday, October 16, 2016

Know the Heretics by Justin S. Holcomb


This year, after a long season of having babies and completing an MA (which I sometimes refer to as ‘the other baby’), I have returned to teaching.  In doing so I have been reflecting upon the importance of introductions. I have spent many a lesson focussing my students’ attentions upon the opening of a film, the first lines of a poem, the beginning of a novel, or the introduction to their essays. Whether in a novel, essay, film or poem, introductions are vitally important. It is where the author imparts to the reader (director to the viewer) what they want to say and outlines how and where they will take us. A good introduction, like a good first date, should give us an accurate picture of things as they are and, hopefully, make us want to take them up on their offer for more.

Justin S. Holcomb offers us a clear example of a good first date introduction in Know the Heretics, the companion to Know the Creeds and Councils. Holcomb is very systematic in laying out his topic, defining the terms and parameters for his book. In defining heresy, Holcomb made the point that it was not the questions the heretics were grappling with that were the problem, but the answers they arrived at. Heresy is a choice to deviate from orthodoxy (right teaching). Looking through the history of Christianity, Holcomb notes that at times it has been the powerful and influential who have been the heretics, and that there is no straightforward ‘line’ to trace, except if we go back to Christ. For Holcomb, orthodoxy “is the teaching that best follows the Bible, best summarizes what it teaches” (p. 11). Thus heresy, as it is defined by Holcomb, is that which deviates from this (p. 12), but he does go on to show how the Catholic and Reformed traditions have noted that there are “three ‘zones’ between strict orthodoxy and outright heresy” (p. 16).

Holcomb also uses his introduction to establish the importance of this topic for contemporary Christians, touching upon our own, often poor, usage of the word ‘heresy’. He takes a broad sweep at two groups. The first “who think that heresy is anything that does not agree with their own interpretation of Holy Scripture.” Holcomb sees these people as making everything “central, [so] nothing is.” (p. 17). Holcomb also looks at a second group who, seemingly influenced by pluralism, want to be rid of the terms orthodox and heretical in descriptions of the early church altogether. Holcomb is at pains to stress that orthodoxy is demonstrably that which leads us back to Christ himself, something which “heretical groups were not particularly interested in doing likewise” (p. 19).

It would serve us, the readers, well if we stopped to consider which of these two groups we find ourselves straying into. In my own reflection, I could actually see elements of both!

In thinking back to the only time when I really did consider heresy in any detail, it was during Doctrine lectures while I was at Theological College. Various heretics would be examined to show how a particular doctrine was developed, “When teachers began to lead movements that were blatantly opposed to the apostolic tradition, the church was forced to articulate the essential elements of the faith(p. 19) This is the last point Holcomb makes, that the importance of knowing the heretics, is in knowing our past, knowing where we have come from:

Learning how Christians throughout history have wrestled with the tough questions of our       faith gives us a valuable perspective and keeps us from assuming that our own know-how, pat answers, or inspiring platitudes are best suited to solving the problems of the world. (p. 20)

About this month's contributor, Sian Lim
Si├ón enjoys reading, talking about literature, writing and helping people to do these things. She is delighted that she can earn an income doing this as a high school English teacher, whilst continuing to develop herself professionally by attending theatrical performances with her husband, and reading by herself and with her three boys. She is thankful to God for words: that he created by His word, that Jesus came as the Word incarnate, and that by the Spirit she can say “Jesus is Lord”.