Heresies and How to Avoid Them?: Thoughts on Ikon, Heretics and a Plea to Listen to Them

imageNot long ago I got one of those recommendations for a book called, Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why it Matters What Christians Believe (SPCK 2007). How did amazon deduce my sympathy for heresy?, I wondered, before realising that the small fortune I’d spent on books by Stanley Hauerwas had probably tipped them off. Hauerwas wrote the introduction to this short but entertaining volume, edited by Ben Quash and Michael Ward.

I hadn’t really thought much about heresy before becoming aware of the Belfast-based emerging church collective Ikon a few years back. Rather than adhering to a doctrinal statement or a set of beliefs, Ikon describes itself in five words, which they call ‘coordinates’.

They are:

  • Iconic
  • Apocalyptic
  • Heretical
  • Emerging
  • Failing

In the past, I’ve attended some churches that devoted fair amounts of time to rooting out what they thought were incorrect beliefs. They might not have referred to those beliefs as heresy, but that’s essentially what they thought those ‘incorrect’ beliefs were.

imageSo Ikon’s bold claim to be openly heretical intrigued me. Why would a group that seemed to me to be trying to lead Christian lives – Christian in the sense of looking out for the poor, challenging stifling religious institutions, and seeking to transcend denominational and gender divisions – openly proclaim itself heretical?

Would this not unnecessarily annoy the institutional churches that they critiqued through their very existence as an alternative Christian collective?

But maybe annoying the institutional churches, the ones that claimed that they had right belief, was actually the point?

I can testify that Ikon’s existence and its ideas truly do annoy and frighten some people, as I’ve learned when presenting analyses of the group in various venues. What concerns me about the relationship between ‘emerging church’ groups like Ikon (in Northern Ireland and further afield) and the institutional churches is that it will not be a fruitful one.

For example, I’m concerned that the emerging churches will caricature the institutional churches. Indeed, that’s often what evangelical Christians say when I explain Ikon’s critique of evangelical churches in Northern Ireland – they say they don’t recognise the mean, bullying evangelical churches that Ikon seems to set itself against. Similarly, the accusation of caricature has been levelled against American Brian McLaren when he describes the ‘old’ kind of Christianity that he sees himself escaping from.

But I’m more concerned that the institutional churches will not really listen, and therefore will not hear, the more compelling questions and issues that are being raised by those involved with emerging churches.

So to get back to Heresies and How to Avoid Them, the most important and heartening nugget of wisdom that I took away from reading it was about how Christians should engage with each other.

Although defining a heretic as ‘a baptized person who obstinately denies or doubts a truth which the Church teaches must be believed because it is part of the one, divinely revealed, and catholic (that is, universally valid) Christian faith’ (p. 1), the spirit of the book is one of engaging and dialoguing with so-called ‘heretics’, not avoiding them.

‘Dialogue with the heretic, avoid the heresy’ would be an apt catchphrase for the book, albeit disturbingly similar to the oft abused phrase, ‘love the sinner, hate the sin,’ that is bandied about in Christian circles.

In the prologue, Quash, an Anglican priest, academic, and Canon theologian at Coventry Cathedral, argues that heretics were key movers and shakers in an ancient ‘intense drama’ that played itself out as the wider church constructed its ‘orthodox’ creeds. He sees the heretics as helping to engender healthy debate during this process.

So the heresies examined in the book all have an ancient flavour – Arianism, Docetism, Nestorianism, Pelagianism, Gnosticism, etc. Most Christians today would struggle even to know what the exact heresies were that today’s authors are explaining and ‘correcting.’

Each chapter, written by authors from the Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic traditions, were originally part of a series of sermons in Peterhouse Chapel, Cambridge. All of them are written with a surprisingly light and lively touch; who knew that learning what Marcionism is (the idea that Christians can dispense with the God of the Old Testament), explored in Angela Tilby’s chapter, could be so riveting?

But the more contemporary lesson from the book is that the enemy of a lively, life-giving Christian faith is not the heretics themselves, but rather the danger is in suppressing their difficult questions and doubts. As Quash writes,

‘The generous contention of most authors of this book is that the Church, and orthodox believers, have reason to be grateful to heresies because they have forced us to think our belief out more deeply and thoroughly – whether by their misguided attempts to clarify it, or by challenging it. They have been provocative stimuli, catalysts for energetic thought. (p. 7-8)

Another contemporary lesson – which I don’t think the editors and the authors of the chapters fully recognise – is that so-called heretics and their heresies should make the churches question whether they can really have confidence in all their so-called orthodox beliefs and doctrines.

That’s not saying that Christianity isn’t ‘true’. Rather it’s raising the question of whether we, as humans, can actually discern truth and then hold it unblemished in a creed or a form of words for all time – or whether truth might be something that we work out ourselves together by continuing to ask hard questions and perhaps, as some might say, being open to new revelations?

24 thoughts on “Heresies and How to Avoid Them?: Thoughts on Ikon, Heretics and a Plea to Listen to Them”

  1. ”That’s not saying that Christianity isn’t ‘true’. Rather it’s raising the question of whether we, as humans, can actually discern truth and then hold it unblemished in a creed or a form of words for all time – or whether truth might be something that we work out ourselves together by continuing to ask hard questions and perhaps, as some might say, being open to new revelations?”

    The Christian revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle. There will be no new revelation between now and the Second Coming.

    ”But the Paraclete, the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring all things to your mind, whatsoever I shall have said to you.”
    John 14:26

    Christ promised to send the Holy Spirit so that the Church would know the truth:

    But when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will teach you all truth.
    John 16:13

    I recommend a good essay on ‘The Development of Doctrine’, by Bishop Fabian W. Bruskewitz. It is available from the Catholic Culture library. This addresses the question posed as to how the Church can come to a greater understanding of the revelation that has been given by God, guided by the Holy Spirit. Christ promised the truth to His Church, and He promised to St. Peter that the gates of hell would not prevail, and therefore that the Church would not fall into error on faith and morals pertaining to salvation.

  2. Martin,

    I thought the Catholic Church was open to plenty of new ‘revelations’ – I am sure the Apostle Peter did not go to his grave believing in papal infallibility or the immaculate conception – ideas that didn’t become official Catholic teaching till the 1800s.

    I read this blog (and your comments) regularly and think you totally miss the point of Gladys’ blog – you use the comments section as a personal platform to spew a traditionalist Catholic perspective that allows no room for constructive debate. This was a post about the emerging church, and you manage to twist it around to your particular brand of Catholicism.

    I also would take issue with the way you think of the Holy Spirit revealing itself to the Church. I would wager you think of the Church as the Roman Catholic Church – no one else counts. I think the point of this post is that the wider church contains people that orthodox ‘officialdom’ might consider heretics, but that they also might be able to discern the Holy Spirit and teach their fellow Christians a thing or two.

  3. Paul, I think if you read the article I recommended, you will understand what I was getting at. I can’t post links so instead, Google ‘The Development of Doctrine, Fabian Bruskewitz’ – it is the first search result given.

    As regards Papal Infallibility or the Immaculate Conception, they were not ‘invented’ in the 1800s. These beliefs are belonging to the Deposit of Faith and the Church’s awareness and understanding of them became more pronounced as time went on and the Holy Spirit led the Church to the fullness of understanding of these truths, which then were pronounced by the Popes and the Councils.

    I recommend ‘Catholic Answers’ website to answer all these questions.

    I think spew is a rather unfortunate word choice. I also think you misunderstand the nature of the Catholic Church. There is unity of faith and doctrine in the Catholic Church. One is either Catholic or one is not. There are no ‘liberal’ and ‘Traditional’ Catholics, just Catholics who accept what the Church believes and teaches.

    I guess you probably subscribe to a diversity of truths. I would, on the other hand, propose that there is one truth, one faith, one baptism, one doctrine, because God is one and He cannot contradict Himself.

  4. Thanks for this, Gladys – I’ve ordered the book too and am looking forward to reading it.

    One way of looking at a heresy, perhaps, is that it’s something less than the truth. As such, it may serve a useful temporary purpose in emphasising some aspect of faith that has been overlooked or underplayed, but ultimately it will be transcended when its particular emphasis has been incorporated into orthodoxy. In this way you might say that communism, for example, is a useful heresy in regard to the Christian faith by reminding us of the Gospel’s priority to the poor. When (or if) the Christian church fully acknowledges and enacts this priority, the lesser creed of communism will no longer be needed. In this sense, heretics could be seen as a kind of medical practictioners to the church, administering what would normally be ideological overdoses in order to redress our imbalance.

    Perhaps this is one way of viewing Ikon’s perhaps slightly mischievous use of the term. The fact that they also use the word ‘failing’, however, suggests a tongue healthily in its cheek!

    While I wait for Heresies and How to Avoid Them, I think I’ll take a look at Chesterton’s Heretics – will return here if anything pertinent arises.

    p.s. While I’m very happy to dispense with labels, it is indubitably the case that there are Catholics who interpret and express their faith in a wide range of different ways.

  5. What bothers me is the fate of many of these ‘heretics’ at the hands of the church ….many were persecuted, imprisoned, killed, driven into exile of even burn’t at the stake in the name of Christ which is a total travesty of the gospel message. You can have all the correct doctrine in the world but if the ‘practice’ produces some of the fruit mentioned above it is sheer hypocrisy!

    Martin- I echo Paul’s comment above !!

    Glayds…..i was deeply involved in ikon for a number of years and all it ever was to me was a self involved debating/drama society for theology and philosphy graduates as so in no way representative of the church as a whole. is now practically defunct and am not sure if they would appreciate the label of ‘Christian’ at all if they were to meet.


  6. Hi Rodney, folks –

    Yes, sorry for giving Martin an excuse to go off on another tangent by mentioning papal infallibility and the immaculate conception. I am glad you and Tanya have managed to steer us back onto the topic!

    That said, I think Martin’s trenchant ‘either you are Catholic or you are not’ illustrates the kind of attitude that, taken to extremes, leads to the sort of persecutions that you mention, Rodney. Out with the heretics! Or, the more mild form of rooting out so-called ‘heresy’ that we see in the traditionalist Catholic blogosphere, which thinks that the ‘Catholic answers’ are the only right ones to every single question. Even the Pope, last week, had to tell the traditional Catholic bloggers to tone it down, see:

    I stand by my choice of the word ‘spew’ and it looks like the Pope might even agree with me!

    But back to the emerging church – I like this idea of thinking of heretics as the ones who are asking the hard questions and are not willing to meekly accept the ‘right’ answers, especially if the right answers lead to persecution or uncivil exchanges. (and yes, I realize that spew might not be a civil word but in this case, i am at a loss for another word!)

  7. Rodney, I think Ikon plan to meet on a quarterly basis now, so that’s not quite defunct. Maybe that’s the ‘failing’ part that Tanya mentions. 🙂 I think it’s about not thinking of success or failure in terms of perpetuating themselves as a group or institution.

    I remember when I was doing research on Ikon a few years back, one person said to me that it’s the idea of ikon (existing on the fringes, challenging the church) that matters more than its actual physical existence in a time or place. So that’s either a cop-out or something more profound?

  8. Paul & Rodney, Martin is correct in his explantion of the development of Catholic teaching. The essential truths have always been the same. But they have been clarified by the application of reason. Aquinas being the prime exemplar of this process. For an understanding of same please refer to – ” The Victory of Reason : How Christianity Led To Western Success “. By Prof. Rodney Stark. Indeed Bishop Brokewitz is also to be highly recommended for his teaching in this regard. In simple terms, Catholicism teaches that certain things are good & bad ( sinful ), & will alway’s remain so. Regardless of ephemeral/passing secular views to the contrary ; or indeed of the views of certain trendy ” scripture scholars “.

  9. I read with some relief Rodney Neill’s comment that ikon ‘is now practically defunct and am not sure if they would appreciate the label of ‘Christian’ at all if they were to meet’.

    I certainly will pass on this prognosis on to all those involved in ikon so that we can dispense with our planning and organising and get on with doing something vaguely useful with our lives.

    In practical terms this will involve cancelling the planning meeting for 24 February. As you can imagine, all those interested in helping to put together our next event (which was to be titled ‘Resuscitation’ and scheduled for 3 April) can now not get in contact with us and can make other plans for the evening. I know I will be!

    Also, other ikon people will be equally relieved that the financial expenditure we were all going to have to fork out to travel to the Greenbelt festival next August can be invested into local philanthropic activities. Of course, the organisers of Greenbelt will be getting a very terse correspondence for inviting us to participate and even giving us a choice of the venue that might suit our needs. To make such offers, obviously knowing full well of our demise, borders on the fraudulent.

    Again, we appreciate Mr. Neill’s announcement. Should ikon ever reconvene, we will do our utmost to stay on top of our public relations in such a way that we will never go a few months without planning a public event.

    Thank you for the platform given for this announcement. It was a shock to us all, but the world moves on.


    Those that were ikon, but now know better.

    PS, We’d like to thank Mr. Neill for noting that we would not appreciate the label of ‘Christian’. We never felt worthy of the term.

  10. Very pleased to know that reports of your demise were greatly exaggerated – please stay and talk to us! As secretary and now co-chair of a group that has spent years sending out newsletters, putting stuff in the papers, maintaining a website, writing endlessly to clergy and organising countless events, only to have people say in a hurt tone, ‘Nobody told me about you’ and promptly forget our existence all over again, I do empathise…

  11. As the member of the Ikon Cyndicate who runs the Facebook page, Twitter updates and Website and email, I too am sorry to hear of our demise. Man I wish I hadn’t spent all that time a couple of days ago typing up the minutes of our meeting and posting information about what we were up to! I guess I’ll have to get a real job now.

  12. Interesting post Gladys! I am currently attending a Presbyterian church and, perhaps somewhat oddly (given what people appear to think about ikon…) I know for a fact that I would not now be attending church at all if it hadn’t been for the space and dialogue afforded me by this group (call it what you will, drama group more than debating society i think Rodney!) Maybe that’s a way to look at it. If I stay at this church and if I engage with the people there then ikon will end up having affected it. Who knows what outcome that might have, maybe none, but it’s impossible to predict. In some ways my faith has changed radically over the years, in others it has not changed at all. Ikon hasn’t brought about that change, it has helped me articulate it and it has given me a way to stay within this conversation when I didn’t have any language to speak with. I can’t tell you what a powerful thing that has been for me personally, for my family, maybe even for my church, but maybe we’ll never be able to qualify that.

  13. Thanks, Shirley (and anonyjonnny – for a very entertaining comment!)

    I think one of the most theologically (and sociologically) interesting things about groups like Ikon is that unquantifiable aspect to their influence, and Shirley, your reflections capture pretty well one of the things that I think a lot of people don’t get or overlook about the emerging church …

  14. Paul McCabe:

    I think you will find the extremes now-a-days are among those who call themselves Catholic, but who support the global abortion racket. These are ‘Catholics’ who subscribe to a diversity of views about when life begins, what is a person etc… all the while their Church teaches with the authority of Christ that every human life is sacred. Rather than suggest that I am a heretic burner, perhaps you might look at the consequences of ‘diversity’ in faith and morals among those who call themselves Christians.

    Like I said elsewhere, diversity is, in the final analysis, an excuse for sin.

    As regards the Pope telling Conservative bloggers to tone it down, maybe you can read an alternative account:

  15. Ouch…..obviously I was wrong and ikon is still going on !

    I thought ikon was an example of a ‘neutral suspended place’ where all labels such as Christian, atheist, humanist etc were laid aside by the people who attended a gathering and thefore assumed that the leaders would object to being called a ‘Christian collective’ as that would identify the group too closely with the label of ‘Christianity’ so that is why I made the comment ………..I am not sure if they would appreciate the label of ‘Christian’ at all if they were to meet’.

    it is good to hear a positive reflection from Shirley which is different to mine.

    Does Ikon regard itself as part of the emerging church …..this was always a contested idea within Ikon in my period of involvement with no collective consensus

    A few thoughts in response to the above comments


  16. Rodney, about the labels… yes, you’re right, we’re not really about the label ‘Christian’…. having said that it would be hard for anyone to look at what ikon does, what are concerned with, what we talk about, and think that it has to do with any other religion or with no religion at all. It wouldn’t be right to say we are a ‘Christian group’ but it wouldn’t be wrong either. Same goes for the ’emerging church’ tag. How could we say we’re not part of that? How could we say we are? But I can’t speak for us all and you are certainly right to say that it is and always has been something we collectively wonder about.

  17. Glayds,

    i wonder if those who might be sympathetic to the emerging church in N Ireland are in essence part of the liberal progressive tradition within Christianity and thus have a considerable doctrinal differences with their evangelical counterparts. Unfortunately there is little or no sizeable progressive christian churches in NI to act as an alternative to the major denominations. I enclose one 8 point description of progressive christianity’ taken from the PCN website

    1. Have found an approach to God through the life and teachings of Jesus.

    2. Recognize the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the way to God’s realm, and acknowledge that their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us.

    3. Understand the sharing of bread and wine in Jesus’s name to be a representation of an ancient vision of God’s feast for all peoples

    4. Invite all people to participate in our community and worship life without insisting that they become like us in order to be acceptable, including, but not limited to,

    believers and agnostics,
    conventional Christians and questioning skeptics,
    women and men,
    those of all sexual orientations and gender identities,
    those of all races and cultures,
    those of all classes and abilities, and
    those who hope for a better world and those who have lost hope,
    without imposing on them the necessity of becoming like us.
    5. Know that the way we behave toward one another and toward other people is the fullest expression of what we believe.

    6. Find more grace in the search for meaning than in absolute certainty, and in the questions than in the answers.

    7. Form ourselves into communities dedicated to equipping one another for the work we feel called to do: striving for peace and justice among all people, protecting and restoring the integrity of all God’s creation and bringing hope to those Jesus called the least of his sisters and brothers.

    8. Recognize that being followers of Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and renunciation of privilege.

    I am not sure if other more traditional denominations such as reformed evangelical christianity or traditional catholicism are to respond to these points as they are part of a seperate distinct stream within christianity

  18. I’m not sure either, Rodney! 🙂 I don’t think it’s exactly right, though, to consider those who are part of the emerging church as essentially part of the liberal Protestant tradition. That belies the origin of ikon (my sense is that many involved with ikon originally came from evangelical and/or charismatic backgrounds, though not all of them) The origin of most emerging groups in the US seems to be evangelicalism too. If they were dissatisfied with evangelicalism and wanted to be liberal Protestants, it seems like they would have just joined liberal Protestant churches. So I think there has to be something more.

    I’m reading Tony Jones book, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier’ right now, and one thing he seems keen to emphasise is that emergents are trying to negotiate another way, that is different both from conservative and liberal forms of Christianity. See

    I will see what I think when I finish that book!

  19. One thing that particularly resonates with me from Shirley’s comment is the extent to which it is helpful to many Christians to be a member of both a church and an ecumenical group. In a way it’s a bit like having both a family and a group of friends and helps many of us to be both rooted in our faith and open to new questions and insights.

    As a Catholic (convert, from an agnostic family and evangelical initial encounter with Christianity) I would feel comfortable with the eight points set out in Rodney’s comment, with the exception, perhaps, of point 3 which seems to exclude a sacramental understanding of the Eucharist. I don’t know whether I’m right in reading it this way?

  20. Tanya – the 8 points are a rough guide rather than a literal description of progressive Christianity so even some people who would identify with this tradition might have a different perspective on 1 or more of the 8 points….I definitely agree with your comment about belonging to both a church and an ecumenical group ( I belong to a church but have an interest in such groups as Corrymeela and an interfaith gathering in Belfast)

    Glayds….whilst I agree that many emerging church people were originally influenced by evangelicalism I think they became diisllusioned and would now describe themselves as post evangelical. When one looks at their core values/belief system I think it is remarkablely similar to the above mentioned 8 points. i appreciate this is a very sweeping generalisation and there will be exceptions!

    This is a good description of my own journey and some of my contemporaries. i think you can see these changes in leading writers in the emerging church scene such as Brian McClaren, Tony Paggitt and Tony Jones

  21. For example over the last couple of years Tony Jones has linked up with a leading process theologian called Philip Clayton to run conferences called Transforming Christianity which has basically been a coming together of the emerging chuch plus mainline liberal Christianity in the States under the heading of emergence Christianity.


  22. Rodney, you are a legend! Lesson for Ikon’s leadership: Inconsistency and failure to meet at planned times has led to the idea that you were ‘defunct’. Don’t take it out on poor Rodders!

  23. That’s kind of hilarious RIP, given that we have struggled with getting everyone to planning meetings in the same place at the same time since… well way back, presumably since you considered ikon not-defunct. Why don’t you come along to one and help us out? You might find that the organisation that goes into making ikon happen is sometimes kind of hard work, who’d have thought it eh? Good events don’t just appear out of nowhere. Even bad ones take some effort.

  24. And for the love of Dawkins, we don’t HAVE a ‘leadership’. We are the leadership, and you are truly welcome to join us.

Leave a Reply