Is it okay to study heresy? On the question of counterfeits and polemics

(Originally posted August 22, 2008)

I cannot tell you how often I have heard the story told in a pulpit of how bank tellers spot a counterfeit bill. Apparently, the Secret Service has tellers study only true currency. The idea is in knowing the genuine article, a person will be able to spot counterfeit bills more readily.

The spiritual application of this tale is that Christians should only study true things, rather than spending extra time learning about heresy. If the Christian only knows truth, then he will not be tricked by error.

One problem: the bank teller story is a myth. Tellers are given counterfeit bills, as well, so they can learn some of the tell-tell markers of fakes.

I'm currently reading Roger E. Olson's The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform. He writes of this myth on pages 20-21.
On checking with the Treasury Department's Minneapolis Secret Service agent in charge of training bank tellers to identify counterfeit money... He laughed at the story and wondered aloud who would start it and who would believe it. At my request he sent me a letter confirming that the Secret Service does show examples of counterfeit money to bank tellers.
He gives the following two benefits to studying heresy:
It "is almost impossible to appreciate the meaning of orthodoxy ["theological correctness"] without understanding the heresies that forced its development" (21).
One "never knows when God might strike a heavy blow with a crocked stick," meaning "even a heretic might have something to contribute to a proper Christian understanding of truth" (ibid.).
I have to agree with him on this. While we don't want to become open-minded to the point of allowing all manner of theological beasts into our minds, we also don't want to become spiritual hermits believing only our present selves are all we need.

So, yes, it is okay to study heresy, and may be healthy in small doses.

If you want to search for a cute illustration to replace the bank-teller urban legend, try this on as a probable option: Think of how one inoculates children from a particular disease. The child is injected with a small portion of the disease to train his immunity system in fighting it. In the same way, studying some of the heresies and heretics from the past will guard against current versions of the same error, and help one become stronger in his spiritual walk.

God bless you in your studies!

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