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What Is Heresy? The Power Struggle.

From the dawn of time we came; moving silently down through the centuries, living many secret lives, struggling to reach the time of the Gathering; when the few who remain will battle to the last.

That’s a quote from Highlander (1986), a movie about a group of immortals destined (doomed) to fight and kill one another until only one is left. One by one, they all get killed off, many of them by Kurgan, the strongest of them all, who wants to bend the entire world to his evil desires. Eventually, the only two still standing are Kurgan and Connor MacLeod, the charming Scottish hero. And, of course, the movie ends with the titanic clash between them as they struggle to see who will be the One.

Because, in the end, there can be only one.

What does this have to do with heresy, you ask? Good question. There are actually two connections. First, after this movie, they made Highlander II, which was a heresy all by itself. But, second, and more pertinent for our purposes, many people understand the development of heresy in exactly the same way as Highlander.

The story goes like this. In the beginning there were many different kinds of Christianity. They weren’t better or worse, just different. And, in some other world, maybe they could have all gotten along. But not in this one.

In this world, there can be only one.

At least, that’s how one group viewed things. They simply couldn’t accept the fact that Christianity might come in different flavors. It was their way or nothing.

Unfortunately for the others, this group quickly grew in strength, numbers, and organization. They were the Borg of early Christianity, assimilating everything in sight. No one could stand against them. And, eventually, they were the only ones left. The others had fallen. And, they became the One.

But, even this wasn’t enough. They weren’t simply content with being the One. They wanted everyone to believe that they were destined to be the One all along. The others had been wrong even to try to stand against them. So, they re-told the story and re-wrote the books. And, in this new story, they were the Orthodox who held faithfully to the truth handed on from Jesus. All those who differed from or disagreed with them were the Heretics, who tried to dilute or distort the truth.

As they say, it’s the winners who write history. And, the Orthodox won.

This is a common way to view heresy today. Heresy isn’t really a thing-in-itself; it doesn’t have any essential characteristics that can help you identify it when it comes along. Heresy is simply a label that some dominant group applies to those it wants to dominate (or already has dominated). So, the statement, “You’re a heretic!”, isn’t really about things like truth or doctrine. It’s about power. Pure and simple.

Now, the first thing that we need to say about this approach is that there’s a lot of truth in it.

 1. The early church was diverse. Just look at the NT itself. The churches in Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, and Rome were very different. Peter, Paul, and John all spoke about Christianity in diverse ways. And, moving on from the NT, the diversity grows. Alexandria, Edessa, Ctesiphon, all developed ancient forms of Christianity that were noticeably different from what we associate with “orthodox” Christianity. So, however we tell the story, we can’t slip into a simplistic understanding of the early church, which assumes a single Christianity at the beginning, from which all other groups diverged. As with anything that involves humans, the truth is messier than that.

 2. The early church was far from perfect. God’s people are broken. We have been since the Garden. So, we should not be surprised that our story includes things we’d rather not see. And, the early church was no different. A close look shows the church involved in power struggles, personality clashes, manipulation, and maneuvering. In that way, they were just like us. (If you doubt, just think of some of the church business meetings you’ve attended.) So yes, the story of orthodoxy/heresy is also a story of power struggles.

 3. “Heresy” is often a power label. One of the concerns that people have with the label “heresy” today is that it often gets tossed around as a power play. Want to shut someone up? Call them a heretic. And, this is often the case. Labels have power. So, it’s easy to use them when we want to control (or end) a discussion/debate. It happens today, and I’m sure it happened then as well.

 So, there are some good things here we can learn from. But, ultimately I think this approach to defining heresy fails.

1. It sometimes relies on bad history. Most commonly, people associate the power of the orthodox party with the rise of the church in Rome and its consolidation under Constantine. (Thank you Walter Bauer.) The problem with this is that orthodoxy was well-established long before Constantine. Let’s be clear: Constantine did not create orthodoxy. He played an important role in the development of orthodoxy. But, he comes too late in the story to explain orthodoxy’s “victory.” Another common argument claims that in certain areas, “heretical” forms of Christianity developed first. They were the original forms of Christianity in those areas, with orthodoxy coming along later to squash these indigenous movements. Unfortunately for this view, there is relatively little evidence that this is true. With few exceptions, the existing evidence supports the idea that such “heretical” ideas came only after more orthodox approaches had already developed. Of course, people often argue that this is exactly what we should expect given that “the winners write the histories.” But, that’s simply to dismiss the existing evidence in favor of the story that you prefer. When lack of evidence becomes evidence, you’ve got a creative argument. But not a convincing one.

2. It overemphasizes diversity. Although we should embrace the existence of diversity in the early church, we can’t go overboard. Early Christian churches were not isolated communities that developed idiosyncratic forms of Christianity with little or no input from other churches. Instead, they all shared a common identity as “Christians,” and worked together to grow in their understanding of what that meant and how they should go about living as Christians in the world. Recent studies have demonstrated how extensively early Christians communicated, partnered, and networked with one another. That doesn’t eliminate diversity, but it does put it in context. It was diversity within a shared identity. And consequently, it was diversity with limits. Those limits were not well understood at first. But, everyone seemed to agree that you could go too far. And, they communicated constantly as they struggled to understand the implications of that idea.

3. It overemphasizes power. This probably fits under #1 as well, since it reflects a historical misunderstanding. The idea that any Christian group in the first few centuries had enough authority and power to oppress some other Christian community is anachronistic. That certainly became true later, but not in the beginning. We need to remember that early Christian groups were small, oppressed minorities within a larger Roman power-structure. They simply didn’t have the wherewithal to oppress others overtly.

4. It makes “heretics” the innocent victims. For this argument to work, the heretics have to be the poor victims crushed by the mean orthodox party. So, people often go out of their way to emphasize the good qualities of the heretical groups (i.e. they were egalitarian, open-minded, creative, etc.). But, the sad reality is that the heretics were no better (though probably no worse). They could be just as hierarchical, closed-minded, and oppressive as anyone else. If they eventually “lost,” it wasn’t because they were too nice to win.

So, wherever the concepts of orthodoxy and heresy came from, they aren’t simply labels that we apply to the winners and losers of some ecclesial power struggle. We should recognize the diversity and acknowledge the power struggles. But, there’s more to the story than this.

[This post is part of our series on “What is ‘Heresy’ and Who Is a ‘Heretic’?”]

You might also be interested in:

Flotsam and jetsam (12/13)

  • Roger Olson argues that Arminianism and Calvinism are “incommensurable” systems that should not be viewed as occupying different places on the same spectrum:

On the crucial issues of the nature of God’s election to salvation, the extent of the atonement and whether grace is resistible or irresistible  (the three main ideas that divide Calvinism and Arminianism) the divide between any and every version of Calvinism and any and every version of Arminianism is deep and wide.  So much so that it is really not possible to put them on the same spectrum.

  • Cynthia Nielsen reflects on Foucault’s understanding of “biopower” and its significance for understanding (post)modern society and the (post)modern self.

With the transition from the ancient and medieval monarchical model of absolute power to the modern model of biopower, power is no longer centralized around the person of the king but is distributed in a net-like fashion operating, invading, and permeating the social body far more efficiently and effectively than the previous model.

Okay, maybe Calvinism doesn’t lead to universalism inexorably–as if every Calvinist must become a universalist.  However, many leading universalist theologians are/were Reformed and believed that their Calvinist concepts of God’s sovereignty eventually compelled them to embrace universalism.

Review: Defending Constantine by Peter Leithart

Many thanks to IVP for sending me a review copy of Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (IVP, 2010).


Peter Leithart can usually be relied upon to produce books that are well-written, clearly articulated, and provocative. And, this one is no exception. In Defending Constantine Leithart argues that Constantine has been misconstrued, misunderstood, and abused for far too long. Instead of being the political manipulator who co-opted the Church, infecting her with visions of political power and influence, and distracting her from her true, Gospel-focused mission in the world, we should see Constantine as a sincere believer seeking to support the Church and its mission, while at the same time trying to figure out for the first time what it means to be a Christian emperor. He certainly experienced difficulties along the way, but a sympathetic and historically-grounded look at his life offers a far more positive picture than is usually given.


In the opening chapters (1-3), Leithart lays out the historical background necessary for understanding Constantine. He explains the challenges that the Roman empire faced in the third century Diocletian‘s attempted political, theological, and economic reforms. And, he also summarizes Constantine’s early life and the details surrounding Constantine’s rise to power.

Leithart discusses Constantine’s conversion and his political theology (chapters 4-6). Unsurprisingly, Leithart spends considerable time on Constantine’s vision at the Milvian Bridge and the details of his conversion, arguing that both were real and sincere (i.e. they were not just part of some political ploy). And, in what I found to be on of the more interesting portion of the book, associates Constantine’s political theology with Lactantius – an early theologian who provided theological arguments for religious freedom. So, Leithart summarizes Constantine’s position as one of general religious freedom, but in which he provides clear support for the Christian Church. Thus, Leithart argues that Constantine allows significant religious freedom to Roman pagans, but provided clear support for the Christian Church and its theology through his re-construction of public space and his legislative/administrative initiatives.

In the third main section of the book (chapters 7-8), Leithart addresses the nature of the Church/state relationship. Leithart first argues that Constantine was not ignorant of theological matters. Instead, he was well-educated in general and reasonably well-versed theologically. But, looking at both the Donatist controversy and the Council of Nicea, Leithart contends that although Constantine exercised significant influence on the Church, he did not dominate or determine Church policy or theology. Leithart rightly points out that many of Constantine’s critics seem to expect him to operate as a 20th century Western intellectual. But, “The question is, what were Constantine’s historical options in the fourth century?” (152). And, Leithart argues that everyone in the fourth century believed in the intimate interrelation of church and state:

That the emperor had oversight (‘episcopacy’) of religious life was as natural to fourth-century Romans as the First Amendment separation of church and state is to modern Americans. (182)

So, it’s not legitimate to criticize Constantine for being involved in theological concerns, that was inevitable. What needs to be considered is the precise manner in which he involved himself. And, Leithart argues that although Constantine certainly exercised his force of personality and political skill, he did not force his will on the Church. Instead, as he summarizes later in the book:

Constantine had considerable influence on the church but did not dominate it, dictate the election of bishops or make final decisions about doctrine. Councils met without his approval, and bishops were elected locally. He did not have ‘absolute authority’ over the church, and there is no evidence that he wanted to get it. (305)

I found the fourth main section (chapters 9-11) to be the least compelling. Here Leithart deals with the “baptism” or Christianization of the Roman empire through Constantine’s legislation, exercise of justice, and imperial leadership.

In the final main section (chapters 12-14), Leithart focuses directly on the anti-Constantinianism of John Howard Yoder, who has been the target of criticism throughout. Against Yoder, Leithart argues: (1) the Constantinian church never collapsed church and state or subsumed the church’s identity/mission under that of the state; (2) there was no shift from anti- to pro-imperialism; and (3) there was no shift from pacifism to militarism. Here I think Leithart convincingly demonstrates that the early church was neither purely pacifistic (e.g., it did not reject military service or coercive violence) nor purely anti-imperial (e.g. they expressed strong appreciation for the “goods” of the Roman empire). And, as Leithart argues, even the anti-imperialism that was there needs to be understood as criticism of a pagan empire, opinions that may have been phrased very differently if a Christian ruler were in view. In addition, he argues that Yoder’s argument exhibits significant historiographical weaknesses: outdated data, failure to recognize the historical biases of his sources, failure to understand Constantine in his own context, and a tendency to force the data into the metanarrative that he’s constructed.


There’s a lot to appreciate about Leithart’s book. He certainly should be commended for the historical sensitivity that his displays for this time period. Leithart is keen to make sure that we see all of the key players as real individuals, steeped in their cultural and historical contexts, and consequently limited by those contexts.

I really enjoyed Leithart’s discussion of the political theology of the church before Constantine. I don’t think that his arguments will convince anyone pre-disposed toward understanding the early church to be pacifist and anti-imperialist. Nonetheless, this part of the book was interesting and Leithart presents a number of arguments that are worth considering.

Leithart, of course, does a great job providing a sympathetic reading of Constantine. While it’s certainly possible that he has been overly sympathetic at times, this book personifies the idea that we should really try to get inside another person’s skin before we criticize them. And, I particularly like the emphasis placed on understanding Constantine’s theology – something noticeably lacking in many other works.

Finally, I liked that he treated the early church leaders as people who could hold their own in political and theological contexts, not as pushovers easily manipulated by a new ruler.


First, although the book is well written overall, certain sections did get a bit tedious at times. The discussion of Yoder was fascinating, but it seemed to go on a bit too long and could have been condensed considerably. At times if felt like the title of the book really could have been Attacking Yoder, rather than Defending Constantine. I realize that Leithart felt that the former was necessary for the latter, but it still got tedious. And, this was true with a few other sections as well (e.g. discussing Constantine’s legislative practices).

Second, as much as I appreciated his sympathetic treatment of Constantine, it did seem that he swung the pendulum a bit too hard in the other direction. Like any other human, Constantine had short-comings. And, I would have liked to see those addressed a little more clearly as part of a fair and historically balanced account. Leithart did mention several of Constantine’s weaknesses, but they tended to get swallowed up in the defense.

And third, the same can be said for the consequences of Constantine’s actions. Although Leithart did a great job explaining those actions in context, helping us understand the meaning and purpose of those actions, I would have liked to see a little more on the (mostly unintended) consequences that did impact the church negatively in some ways. Again, since Leithart’s purpose was to defend Constantine, it’s no surprise that these elements are downplayed. But, we need to recognize both the positive and the negative if we’re going to assess what happened.


Overall, Defending Constantine is an outstanding book that is well worth reading. Even if you disagree with Leithart’s conclusions, he will offer a new perspective on the early church and what exactly happened when Constantine became a Christian. I think anyone reading this book will walk away with at least a more nuanced understanding of the man and his era.

And, this book also serves as an extended critique of Yoder’s “fall” narrative, which has been so influential in recent years. Indeed, I think Leithart is successful in demonstrating that Yoder is more concerned with critiquing an abstract idea (“Constantinianism”) rather that the historical individual, and that Yoder does not succeed in demonstrating that the latter is responsible for the former. At best, he argues that there was a brief “Constantinian moment” as the church figured out how to interact with a Christian ruler.

To get a more balanced perspective, though, the book should probably be paired with one offering a different take on Constantine’s life and significance – e.g., Paul Stephenson’s Constantine: Roman Emperor, Christus Victor (Overlook, 2010).

Greg Boyd on Constantine’s influence on Christianity

Thanks to Richard Beck for directing my attention to Greg Boyd‘s 4th of July sermon, in which he decries the pagan influence that Constantine had on Christianity. Watch the video and then check out my comments below.



Now, the main thing that you need to know about this video is that Boyd is wrong. Could I make that any more clear?

To develop that assertion a little more, let me offer  few additional comments:

  1. The church was not all pure and innocent before Constantine, and it wasn’t all corrupt and guilty after. Any time you hear somebody setting their narrative up with such clean distinctions, they are almost certainly wrong.
  2. Christians did not suddenly move from images of the crucified Jesus to the victorious Jesus at the time of Constantine. You can find both images before and after Constantine.
  3. Boyd’s claim that God would “rather be slain by his enemies than slay his enemies” is a great portrayal of God’s love and grace on the cross, but fails to take into account the rest of the biblical narrative in which God clearly demonstrates that he will not allow the rebellious to undermine his plans for the world (cf. Revelation).
  4. Boyd draws way too simplistic a distinction between the church before Constantine, which lived a beautiful, countercultural lifestyle of love, and the church after Constantine, which was all about power and coercion. Again, that simply is not historically accurate. At the very least, it fails to take into account the fact that the church was beginning to develop a more nuanced understanding of the church/state relationship even before Constantine came along. And, more importantly, it fails to consider the ways in which the church continued to resist and reject a simplistic wedding of church and state even after Constantine. Boyd’s narrative simply does not hold up to historical scrutiny.
  5. I’m not even going to comment on Boyd’s claim that the church “didn’t mind” being slaughtered because this life is “just a prelude to the real thing.”
  6. I could go on, but I won’t.

Now, to be fair (even though I don’t want to be), I should acknowledge that some of Boyd’s points are legitimate. I think the church absolutely should strive to imitate the love and grace of God as demonstrated on the cross. Although God will come and defeat his enemies in the end – ushering in his Kingdom and accomplishing his purposes – the Church is never called to accomplish any of these things for him. We are ambassadors of the Gospel, not “soldiers” of the Kingdom. And, the Church was unquestionably faced with temptations and challenges after Constantine that were new and that it was relatively unprepared to handle. But, it did not simply capitulate to the challenges nor did it surrender its distinct identity anywhere along the way. Did the Church make mistakes? Yes. And, it always will. But God remains faithful.

Flotsam and jetsam (10/28)

The date is important for Christianity because Constantine went on to end imperial persecution of Christians (with the Edict of Milan in 313). He also converted to Christianity personally, and empowered and enriched the church in countless ways, from copying Bible texts, to gathering the first ecumenical council, to beginning Christian architecture. What’s not to love?

… when He became incarnate, and was made man, He recapitulated in himself the long line of human beings, and furnished us, in a brief, comprehensive manner, with salvation; so that what we had lost in Adam–namely, to be according to the image and likeness of God–that we might recover in Christ Jesus. (Against Heresies III.18.1)

Samuel, this seven pound two ounce wonder, represents, no less than other children, what Jürgen Moltmann once named ‘metaphors of God’s hope for us’, that with every child, a new life – original, unique, incomparable – begins. And that while we typically ask, who does this or that child look like…, we also encounter the entirely different, the entirely dissimilar and unique in each child. It is, Moltmann suggests, precisely these differences that we need to respect if we want to love life and allow an open future. Moltmann also recalls that with every beginning of a new life, the hope for the reign of peace and justice is given a new chance….Every new life is also a new beginning of hope for a homeland in this unredeemed world. If it were not, we would have no reason to expect anything new from a beginning.

Be suspicious of statistics, especially those that seem too good or too bad or too surprising to be true.

You’re two years into your administration and the question that arises in my mind is, Are we the people that we were waiting for? Or, are those people are still out there and we don’t have their number?