Heresy still alive and well today

Published January 1, 1999

Heresy is a word many Christians would shy away from in an age where tolerance is seen as a virtue. But heresy accurately describes many modern ideas about central Christian dogma, including notions of tolerance and acceptance instead of repentance and forgiveness, says a retired American bishop.

Bishop C. Fitzsimons Allison was speaking at a conference at Wycliffe College, Toronto, sponsored by SEAD Canada. SEAD stands for Scholarly Engagement with Anglican Doctrine. The Canadian chapter was formed in 1997.

The second annual Canadian meeting was attended by about 60 bishops, clergy, academics and lay people, and focused on the theme, “The Cruelty of Heresy,” the title of a recent book by Bishop Allison.

In Bishop Allison, SEAD Canada found both a provocative speaker and one of the founders of SEAD. In an interview the bishop was blunt in his assessment of the job the church is doing in handing down traditional doctrine.

“We can lose Christian teachings if we don’t pass them on effectively,” he said. “Dogma is what it means to be faithful people. Heresy is misdirection. It’s like moving to the other side, then going off the cliff.

There’s very little new in heresy, Bishop Allison said. In his book he explores many of the ancient heresies which caused conflict in the church during its first few centuries, and finds echoes with modern debates over the divinity of Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Trinity.

One of the heresies the bishop sees as most dangerous in the 20th century is the idea of zeitgeist, or the spirit of the age. That leads to the church taking its agenda from the media.

“Instead of Christians having a word to the world, we reflect the world. We substitute tolerance for forgiveness and don’t pay much attention to sin.”

Bishop Allison said some post-modern critics go even further than heresy. “Bishop Jack Spong isn’t really a heretic. He’s into apostasy. His position is that he’s given up on the whole thing. He doesn’t even believe in a God who answers prayer.”

One reason Bishop Spong has had so much success with his books is the church does such a poor job of teaching its history and doctrine, said Bishop Allison. That leaves the field open for popularizers like Bishop Spong.

The church can remedy the situation by going back to the classical Anglican heritage, which includes the Scriptures, creeds, and four ecumenical church councils, he said. Bishop Allison said while these date back more than 15 centuries, they have stood the test of time, and provide what is needed for Christians to understand their faith and apply it to the world today.

The retired bishop would also like to see the church get back to passing on Christian ethics and morality. “You can’t have ethics and morality up in the air. They have to have roots ? We’ve substituted disclosure and acceptance for repentance and forgiveness. This is heresy and we’re allowing people to go on a self-destructive path.”

Other presenters at the conference included Bishop John Baycroft of Ottawa, Professor Glen Taylor of Wycliffe College, Professor Edith Humphrey of the University of Ottawa and Professor Joe Mangina of Wycliffe.

The Canadian chapter of SEAD lists nine bishops among its honourary patrons, and hopes to promote further reflection and study on the biblical and theological foundations of the Gospel. Prof. Mangina sees SEAD as part of a larger effort in all Christian churches to retrieve basic Christian traditions.

“We often think of Vatican II as modernizing the Roman Catholic Church,” he said. “But it was really about reclaiming the Scriptures for the church. That’s what we are doing in a broader ecumenical context.”

Bob Bettson is a Toronto freelance writer.


  • Bob Bettson

    Bob Bettson is a Toronto freelance writer.

Keep on reading

Skip to content