Thinking Out Loud

August 24, 2015

Heresy for the Rest of Us

Would we call Buddhism a heresy? (p. 148)

Counterfeit Christianity - Roger OlsonThere is a striking difference between heresy and heretics, and as the question above illustrates, much depends on where you’re standing when you ask it. Theology and Ethics professor Roger Olson has written a book which occupies a middle ground between the usual academic text and a popular survey of cults and isms. Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church (Abingdon) makes examining the plethora of Christian beliefs and doctrines accessible to the common parishioner, but is in no way light reading.

Olson has written many hardcover textbooks, but with this 176-page paperback seems to go out of his way to make this sideways look at church history more appealing to a broader readership, using some colorful imagery:

The Nicene Creed means that Christians are to believe in a God who is “one what and three whos.” The Chalcedonian Definition, hypostatic union, means that Christians are to believe that Jesus Christ is “one who and two whats.” (p.32)

Got that?

Or in the contrast between the Protestant and Catholics views of doctrinal authority, he quotes Modecai Kaplan:

Tradition always gets a vote, but never a veto. (p.39)

The approach is fresh, and some of it helps explains areas where non-theologians get stuck trying to untangle complex concepts:

In other words, the doctrine of the Trinity can be explained; the Trinity cannot be explained. The doctrine of the Trinity was never intended to be an explanation of God; it was intended to be a model that helps people think about God in a way that does not destroy the mystery of God, is faithful to God’s self-revelation in Christ, and protects God’s triunity from misunderstanding and distorted explanations. (p. 90, italics added)

And again,

Folk religion is to historic religion what astrology is to astronomy… Not all folk religion is totally wrong or heretical, but it’s a fertile seedbed in which heresy can grow and flourish. (p.140)

Organizationally, the book begins with two chapters outlining heresy and orthodoxy, five chapters dealing with what we might consider classic heresies, and three chapters dealing with modern, unofficial heresies; those not condemned by a particular historic council.

Many chapters offer prescriptions for confronting flawed teaching:

The only way to have it in its full and true reality is to delve deeply into the Bible and Christian history by studying the whole Bible, not just passages that support our values and desires, and all the great voices of the Christian past – especially those who suffered for swimming against the stream of their cultures.

[There is] a need for American Christians to receive missionaries from Christian movements in the Global South where Christianity is thriving and, by all account, God’s involvement in day-to-day life is evident. (p.152)

Overall, I feel this title is something needed in the religion/apologetics/church history book market at this time. Again, this is not a textbook — though it could certainly serve as an undergraduate text — but has great potential for the average churchgoer who wants to go deeper into an understanding of false doctrine in the Christian era.

Review copy provided by Augsburg-Fortress Canada

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