Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Avoiding Heresy

Written by: on March 21, 2018

Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics hits the church right in it’s theological gut.  He says our problem with American Christianity is not atheism nor secularism, but just good old-fashioned Biblical heresy.  The kind of heresy he speaks about comes from pride, arrogance, greed, and overconfidence in debased versions of the Christian faith that he calls a “hubris” nature.[1] I see my dissertation problem with Spiritual Warfare in the North American church as the underlying factor supporting Douthat’s thesis that heresy has overtaken Christianity, one of the many schemes of Satan.  This post will search for linkages between his call against heresy and his call for revival and add those to the doctrines of how to resist Satan by putting on the whole armor of God.

“Unchecked heresy among ordinary religious citizens” is the what Polson identifies as Douthat’s most significant challenge facing the Christian church today.[2]  Polson summarizes heresy in Bad Religion as the problem with pluralism, modernization, accommodation, simplification, and deemphasizing important tensions that exist in “Scripture, doctrine, and tradition.”[3]  I personally connect with Douthat’s observation that we have a problem with becoming a one-sided faith.  It almost feels like our nation has been high-jacked by the forces of evil who use political, social, and economic tactics to hold Christians hostage in their own homes and churches; awaiting some sort of a divine tactical rescue.  Take accommodationist Christianity as an example.  This is an overt gnostic position that Christians need to “modernize and secularize to survive.”[4]  Douthat gives the example of a modern day gnostic, Elaine Pagels, who suggests we should reject the Old Testament and create more “theological space” for new a new type of Christianity.[5]  Paul says we should resist Satan’s schemes, tricks, deceptions, and near-truth arguments.[6]

What are the spiritual warfare schemes that Douthat exposes in Bad Religion? First, I see the biggest modern scheme or threat to Christianity in the prosperity theology that believes “God grants believers wealth.”[7]  He calls out and names of a list of  popular TV evangelists from Osteen to Meyer who all give a similar message; obey God, do what He says, and you will be financially and spiritually blessed.[8]  Second, I see accommodation, or adapting the church to fit the changing social and cultural circumstances, as a predominate heresy and scheme of the devil.[9]  Third, I see moral, judicial, and theological relativism as another transforming heresy scheme used in spiritual warfare.  Overall, Douthat does a good job of exposing many evil works-based schemes of the devil, but he fails to call out the real threat.  Satan and his demons are the responsible agents for the increase in heresies described in his Bad Religion book.  Sadly, this is the trend of many contemporary authors who try to remain soft on Satan, so they do not appear too radical and maintain a wider readership.  I hoped that Douthat, being a conservative columnist for the New York Times and an avid editorial critic, who goes after all the human agents of heresy, would at least acknowledge the author and creator of the schemes of heresy.  He uses the word “forces” 40 times in the book, but only once does it fringe on the forces of evil when he is taking down Osteen’s prosperity gospel.  Douthat describes “some other forces at work in their struggles” as he cited Osteen’s followers leaving him because their lives did not have a perpetual “sunny vision” with financial rewards from God promised by his preaching.[10]

Additional reviewers like Steinfels recommends that Douthat should have called the book “Good Religion, Bad History.”[11]  Douthat’s heresy thesis, according to Steinfels, is the effort to banish tensions in orthodoxy, and “render the faith simpler.”[12]  He criticizes Douthat for making exaggerations, using undocumented rumors, promoting urban legends, and offering plain misstatements in his book.[13]  In particular, Steinfels offers Douthat’s use of the New York Review as a poor source to describe the “complete dismantling of Roman Catholic theology.”[14]  Brook accuses Douthat of using “predicable rants” and says the book is full of “emotional incontinence” that is sometimes surpassed by “intellectual detachment.”[15]  I tended to look past the negative critiques and focused on Douthat’s ideas that link to my dissertation problem with spiritual warfare in the North American church.  I was very satisfied with linking heresy, of all forms, with spiritual warfare.

Finally, Douthat makes a concluding plea for revival style Christianity but seems to use a similar form of intellectual adaptation and accommodation to fit his idea of what will fix-it.  He says we need to be political but not partisan, confessional, not just ecumenical, and holistic, not just moralistic.[16]  His solution sounds good, and he presents a three-point application message.  Unfortunately, I am suspicious because I do not see where his plan replaces the scriptural tension, paradox. or edginess that following Christ demands.  I will use his book as a good source and plan to review his other works as I research the problem of heresy in spiritual warfare.  I like Hunter’s “faithful presence” solution better than Douthat’s model.

Stand firm,

M. Webb

[1] Ross G. Douthat. Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. (New York: Free Press, 2013) 29.
[2] Edward Polson. (2013). Ross Douthat. Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. Christian Scholar’s Review, 42(2), 198.
[3] Ibid., 199.
[4] Ibid., 168. ,
[5] Elaine Pagels. The origin of Satan: How Christians demonized Jews, pagans, and heretics. Vintage, 2011.
[6] Eph. 6:10-18. The Armor of God Doctrine, putting on the full armor of God so that one can stand firm against the schemes of Satan.
[7] Douthat, Bad Religion, 193.
[8] Ibid., 188.
[9] Ibid., 83.
[10] Ibid., 210.
[11] Peter Steinfels. (2012). Accommodation or Engagement? (‘Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics’) (Book review). Commonweal, 139(9), 23.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid., 25
[14] Ibid.
[15] Brooke Allen. (2012). Truth or heresy? (Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics) (Book review). The Hudson Review, 65(2), 304.
[16] Douthat, Bad Religion, 287.

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4 responses to “Avoiding Heresy”

  1. Great post once again Mike! I agree that there are many misunderstood things about spiritual warfare and the armor of God that need to be corrected for us to be protected from the schemes of Satan. Your statement, “His solution sounds good, and he presents a three-point application message. Unfortunately, I am suspicious because I do not see where his plan replaces the scriptural tension, paradox. or edginess that followed Christ demands.” rang true for me as well. We can’t be afraid to be a little edgy if we are to come against the Father of Lies.

  2. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Mike,

    Here, here! I agree with you on the enemy using the prosperity gospel to take the church off track. I personally witnessed several people groups being told that if they only had faith, they could have wealth beyond their imagination, which for a person who is starving, sounds very good.

    Thank you for exposing this teaching for what it is–heresy! And keep up the good work. You are making a positive difference in our Cohort.

  3. Jean Ollis says:

    Mike, thank you for always keeping us on point regarding spiritual warfare. You make some excellent points that all the heresy listed by Douthat could be pointed back at evil. Why do you suppose we are fearful of this message?

  4. Trisha Welstad says:

    I agree with you that I like Hunter’s model better as well. He connects it more clearly to Scripture and not only to modern culture. I read an interview with Hunter and Douthat was one of the panelists in dialogue with him about ‘To Change the World’ and it was fascinating. Douthat loved every point Hunter made.

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