TITLE: Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church
AUTHOR: Roger E. Olson
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015, (184 pages).
Within heresies, Olson calls Gnosticism the "mother of all heresies" because it has existed alongside New Testament Christianity since the beginning. It was not the heretics that call themselves that name. Instead, it was the Orthodox Christians that assigned them this label. Irenaeus of Lyons calls them out in his classic treatise "Against Heresies." Gnosticism is more than just a set of doctrines. It is an "ethos - an attitude toward reality." At the heart of Gnosticism is two doctrines. The first is the origin of sin which is entombed in our human body. The second is that salvation is obtained through the liberation of the spiritual from the physical. The source of such salvation is that "hidden wisdom, secret knowledge, gnosis, of a Gnostic teacher." With this central principle, Gnostics go on to interpret the tenets of Christianity from a physical-spiritual dichotomy. They divide Christ into two beings instead of seeing Jesus as One. Before the second century, there was "proto-Gnosticism" which spiritualized everything. Rosicrucianism and Neo-Gnosticism updates the Gnostic beliefs by promoting a "Higher Self." With Gnosticism, many Westerners become more open to Eastern religions and New Age movement that promises a certain spiritual release from the chains of physical slavery.
If Gnosticism primarily attacks Christology, the heresies of Montanism and Marcionism try to mess with the Bible. The process of canonization was spurred on by the increasing confusion caused by Montanism which basically tried to add to the traditional books with "new prophecy" from a person called Montanus. He insisted on being led by the Spirit instead of by the book. Unfortunately, it is because of this that many churches shun the charismatic gift of prophecy. Marcion did not believe that God created the world. He even tried to exclude the Jewish canon from his canon. Even today, there are modern Montanists like Johnny Appleseed and Emanuel Swedenborg; Marcionists like Friedrich Schleiermacher. We may all have questions about the various texts of the canon, but we must remain vigilant to read from the texts instead of reading INTO the texts, the latter which is what many heretics do.
Olson writes about three major heresies after the second century that question the deity of Christ. Adoptionism in the third century sees Jesus more as an "adopted child" rather than truly the Son of God. Arianism in the fourth century denied the trinity and Jesus's equality with God. In the fifth century, Nestorianism divides Christ into two beings. In modern times, such attacks on the deity of Christ continue with English bishop John Robinson in the 60s, Jehovah's witnesses, and the rising prominence of the MTD (Moralistic Therapeutic Deism) movement. A strong dose of understanding of Christology is highly needed to counter all these heresies.
Then there are the attacks on the Trinity. Many heresies arise out of a desire to try to explain the Triune God. Olson shows us that there is a difference between the Trinity (ontological) and the doctrine of the Trinity (epistemological). Students often try to "explain" God, which is something impossible. That was the reason for the heresies of Subordinationism, Modalism, and Tritheism.
Subordinationism depersonalizes the Holy Spirit, turning Him into some kind of an energy force. It also believes that both the Son and the Spirit are created. Modalism reduces the Trinity into "modes" that sometimes modern Christians also stumble into. For example, a popular way people try to explain the Trinity is to use water in the three states (solid, liquid, gas). This is reductionism as it reduces God to modes of existence. In doing so, it reduces God from persons to different forms of state. Others try to explain the Trinity by retreating to seeing it as three gods. In modern world, JWs teach about Jesus and the Spirit as being secondary while God the Father is primary. The "Jesus only" movement is a form of modalism. Even TD Jakes has used reductionism when he often uses modalistic language with words like "manifestations" of God in the Father, in the Son, and in the Spirit. (Orthodoxy sees God in three PERSONS, not manifestations). Mormons teach polytheism. The best way for Orthodox teachers is to teach from Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience. Remember that the doctrine of the Trinity is just a human formula. God is not to be explained but to be worshiped.
Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism attack the doctrine of salvation. They offer a way for people to incorporate works and faith. Unfortunately, they also commit the error of using works as a basis for salvation. Having said that, the origins of Pelagius are noble. In the early fifth century, many believers were living in debauchery and sin which led Pelagius to emphasize the need for living according to the laws of God. Unfortunately, he went beyond to substitute works for grace. Semi-pelagians try to take the middle ground between Pelagianism and Augustinianism. Unfortunately, because semi-pelagians teach that humans can "initiate" the salvation process, they end up being labeled heretics. Many Christians dabble into moments of semi-pelagianism unwittingly. According to Olson, even people like Charles Finney, Billy Sunday, and the popular TV series, "Touched by an Angel" promote traits of semi-pelagianism.
From the 16th Century, Divine Determinism insists that everything in this word had been "planned, ordained, and governed by God." That creates a problem. What about evil? Is God then the creator of sin? We must go back to the Person of God, of Truth, Grace, and Love. The last two chapters of the book deal with the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism which is increasingly popular in many Christian circles. Such a teaching not only reduces the faith to modes of conduct and prescribing emotional medicine, it casts God out as an impersonal Being. Along with this is the Prosperity Gospel that brings along the health and wealth emphasis of the Bible. Together with positive thinking and the New Thought movements, these heresies attract people by the thousands and draw them away from historic Christianity.
Whenever there is truth, there will be heretic curtains to hide the truth; competing claims to outperform the truth; and satanic plans to dishonour the truth. Olson uses the general tool of Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience to deal with each heretic claim. At the same time, he affirms the need for readers and believers to know the doctrines and the creeds. Learn the confessions of the faith and the great orthodox beliefs. Continually keep in touch with the catechisms of the faith so that the fundamental beliefs are not compromised. The problem with many people is that they are too trusting of what they hear from the pulpit, without being biblically informed on their own. It boils down to the problem of Bible illiteracy. When people do not read the Bible for themselves, they are vulnerable to what other people say about the Bible. They approximate what they remember with what they hear. In doing so, they can be prime candidates for heretic teachings that plants a trojan horse of doubt within their hearts. Another problem is that churches do not teach orthodox doctrine frequent enough. With the tendency to entertain congregations or to make church services more attractive to people in the name of evangelism and outreach, they presume that congregations already know the truth. We must beware. Let me list some of the positives and negatives with this book.
Positively speaking, the book reminds us that heresies have not died down. Instead, we must keep up our guard against the threats of wrong teachings and errors. Olson writes convincingly about the nature of heresies to transcend various eras. What happened then is also happening now albeit in different forms. This should keep us from complacency. The moment we let down our guard, we open ourselves up to deceptions. At the same time, this book is a call for us to go back to the Scriptures and to let the Scriptures inform our thinking and our reasoning. It is tempting to presume that whatever we have learned is enough. That is not true. Whatever we have learned require us to keep learning. Just like memorizing Scripture. We can say that we have memorized lots of Bible during our younger days in Sunday School. Without regular practice and Bible reading, we would easily lose it. As the saying goes, "use it or lose it." My fear is that many believers may become complacent and ride on the premises of past knowledge, without ever feeling a need to revise what they have learned. Foundational classes remain key to orthodox faith. That is why basic education must rank high in any Christian community of faith.
On a negative note, this book may unwittingly instil a sense of fear that there is a heretic out there to get us. If we let this fear get to us, we may become bogged down with anxieties about our own beliefs to the point that we do not know what then to believe or who to trust. When reading through the list of infiltrations through well-known Christians in this book, it makes me wonder if we are all guilty of some heretic teachings from time to time. Our imperfect selves do make us susceptible to saying things that are not in line with the Scriptures. For a book of this nature, every page reeks of warnings and falsehoods around the corner. Being urged to go back to the Bible, we may tend to wonder: What makes us certain that we are interpreting the Bible correctly in the first place?
Let me suggest three things when reading this well-conceived book. First, read with another person, preferably one who has been trained theologically. That way, we can compare notes and to learn from each other what we have understood. At least the other person can be a sounding board for our thoughts. Second, use this book as a launchpad to enter into the study of Orthodox theologies. Go back to the basics of Christology and what we believed about Jesus. Study the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds about the Trinity. Recite the Apostles Creed regularly to affirm the foundations of faith. Go to catechism classes or ask your pastor to conduct one. If necessary, sign up for a Bible class at a local seminary or Bible school for the laity. Third, work through the resources listed at the end of each chapter. This is particularly relevant for those of us who prefer self-study or doing something at our own pace. Although this may mean spending a bit more money on books and resources, it can be highly rewarding. After all, in matters of faith, it may not simply be saving our faith, it is also very life giving.
Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.
This book is provided to me courtesy of Abingdon Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.