THE BLOG

Where Did Heresy Begin?

01/23/2013 06:04 pm ET | Updated Mar 25, 2013

Years ago I served a church where the choir loved to sing, "Give Me That Old Time Religion." Listening to this song time and again, I finally discerned why it made me feel uncomfortable. "Old Time Religion" wasn't a way of claiming classic Christian worship. In fact, our congregation's worship practices had achieved their current shape primarily in the 19th century, not the first. Instead, the song basically amounted to a criticism of anyone who might try -- God forbid -- to do something new or different. The song may claim, "It was good for the Hebrew children," but of course none of us were sacrificing animals in a tabernacle or temple. The true sentiment lies with another verse, "It was good for dad and mother."

That claim, that our religious beliefs and practices are right because they are ancient, goes way back in our history. People still use it to beat up and exclude those with whom they disagree.

An important new book by Robert M. Royalty Jr. points out that Christian heresy did not emerge when some misguided Christians deviated from a "pure" and "original" orthodoxy. "Orthodoxy" did not precede "heresy." Instead, diversity marks Christianity as far back as we can see. Those who claimed an orthodox identity invented heresy by labeling others as deviant. Some Christians began identifying other Christians as "false teachers" or "heretics" in the attempt to privilege their own way as "orthodox."

(I should acknowledge that I count the author among my friends.)

Royalty traces heresy's emergence not to Christian dogmatic controversies but to the diversity among Jews in the second century B.C.E. Under immense cultural and imperial pressure, Jews disagreed as to whether they should maintain their distinctive cultural practices -- diet, Sabbath and circumcision -- or redefine them. As we see especially in 2 Maccabees and 4 Maccabees, some Jews endured martyrdom for their fidelity to traditional ways.

Classic apocalyptic literature emerged precisely in this context, as works such as Daniel, 1 Enoch and some of the Dead Sea Scrolls separated Jews into two camps: the "children of light" from the "children of darkness." Disagreement regarding who qualified as a faithful Jew, and who did not, marks the origin of heresiology. Apocalyptic literature promised God's dramatic intervention in history and a final judgment. At this point things had progressed beyond "we disagree" to "you're out, and God will judge you."

Jesus himself experienced water immersion under John's ministry, and full immersion in apocalyptic thought along with it. His apocalyptic message set the context in which "us and them" thinking, or dualism, prepared his followers to condemn those with whom they differed.

Royalty suggests several marks that define "the rhetoric of heresy." Contemporary readers might observe how often Christians resort to these same attacks in contemporary debates. Heresy discourse depends upon the assumptions that (1) salvation (or membership) is grounded in what one believes or thinks; (2) disagreement has demonic origins; (3) the truth represents received tradition; (4) the origins of heretical thought can be identified and traced; and (5) all opponents, whether "Christian" or otherwise, are aligned together against the true believers (26-27).

Royalty traces the invention of heresy through a series of case studies, ranging from Q to Matthew to Thomas, from Paul's letters to the letters written in Paul's name, from the letters of John to Revelation, and from Ignatius to Polycarp to the Gospel of Judas. If we stop and think about it, Royalty's point should be obvious to us. First Corinthians stands among the very earliest writings in the New Testament, less than 25 years after Jesus' death. Already we see Paul arguing with believers whose understandings of the Gospel differ dramatically from his own. While Matthew, Mark and John (less so, Luke) emphasize Jesus' death and resurrection, other Christian traditions, like Q, James and Thomas, are far more interested in his teaching. It's diversity all the way down.

At several points Royalty points out that disagreement need not inevitably lead to charges of heresy. For example, Paul does not always curse his opponents, as he does in Galatians (1:6-9; 2:4; 5:12) and 2 Corinthians (11:1-6). He can also call for unity in the midst of conflict, as he does in 1 Corinthians. Royalty observes that non-canonical texts like the Gospels of Thomas and Mary express disagreement without condemning those with whom they disagree. And while the Johannine letters treat their opponents as "antichrists" (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7), it seems clear that folks still exchanged hospitality across those divisions (2 John 7-11; Royalty 134).

Royalty's book is generally easy to read, though it requires some introductory familiarity with biblical studies. While I might quibble with the author on several points, the book's greatest limitation is its price, a hefty $125.00 until a rumored paperback edition appears. Just the same, this book performs the valuable function of reminding us that heresy is not a matter of doctrinal error so much as a political and rhetorical invention on the part of those who insist their way is the one "true" way.