Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth, by Alister McGrath is a detailed overview of the progression of heresy in the church. Part one defines heresy and provides a helpful summary of the origins of the idea of heresy. “The essential feature of heresy is that it is not unbelief (rejection of the core beliefs of a worldview such as Christianity) in the strict sense of the term, but a form of that faith that is held ultimately to be subversive or destructive, and thus indirectly leads to such unbelief.”
Part two examines the roots of heresy. McGrath provides a fascinating historical survey of the development of heresy and its early development in church history.
Part three summarizes the classical heresies of Christianity including Ebionitism, Docetism, Valentinism, Arianism, Donatism, and Pelagianism. McGrath does an especially noteworthy job on his treatment of the arch-heretic, Pelagius. However, I would commend R.C. Sproul’s, Willing to Believe to any readers interested in a deeper look at the Pelagian heresy.
McGrath rightly points out the pervasiveness of Pelagianism “on Western culture, even if its name means little to most. It articulates one of the most natural of human thoughts – that we are capable of taking control of ourselves and transforming ourselves into what we would have ourselves be.” Indeed, the tentacles of Pelagianism are not only choking the world, this diabolical worldview has found entry into the American church.
Finally, part four focuses on the impact of heresy. The author urges the reader to recognize that “the pursuit of orthodoxy is essentially the quest for Christian authenticity” and to recognize the tendency that heresies have in “repeating themselves.”
McGrath’s book is a noteworthy summary of the history of heresy. However, if one is a newcomer to this subject, I recommend starting with John Hannah’s, Our Legacy: A History of Christian Doctrine. Additionally, Harold O.J. Brown’s work, Heresies will provide readers with a detailed look at the heresies that have consistently plagued the church. Each work is a clear reminder of the danger of heretical ideas creeping into the fabric of the church.