When you think of the early church, you may very well picture a dry and dusty time. Or, perhaps it is dry and dusty books about a time that might otherwise be intriguing. Maybe I’m being unfair. But, I don’t know a lot of people who get psyched to study the early church, and if I do, they’re in Ph.D programs somewhere. The average theological reader might not be so stoked.
Hopefully, a new volume by David Wilhite can change that. In The Gospel According to Heretics: Discovering Orthodoxy through Early Christological Conflicts, Wilhite takes readers on the ins and outs of all the major heresies from the early church. The twist is that he offers a fairly sympathetic reading of the heretics themselves. By doing so, Wilhite is not trying to rehabilitate them as theological role models for the 21st century. Rather, he is trying to surface their motivations for making the theological formulations that they did in order that we might understand orthodox Christology better in the process.
Or, as Wilhite says, “In the present book, we would like to hear how orthodoxy was defined by ‘the losers'” (13).
To further clarify the aims, it is important to note that “gospel” in the title is “the intersection of Christology and soteriology” (3) rather than a clear proclamation. Also, because you were somewhat curious, Wilhite says “at the end of the day, I see the heresies as heresies because the teachings are inadequate and unconvincing” (3). So, while he may take the scholarly reassessment of the heretics seriously (rather than strictly sympathetically), he thinks the heretics were ultimately wrong (but not “evil, wicked deviants,” 3).
This becomes important as the book proceeds. As Wilhite notes in the introduction, just because “one of the orthodox made a claim about a certain heretic does not mean we can dismiss said claim and assert the opposite” (4). In other words, while we ultimately disagree with the heretics, we should take the orthodox charges against them with a grain of salt since it was not exactly an age of nuance when it came to denouncing false teaching.
Wilhite wraps up the introduction by opting to not strictly define “orthodoxy” or “heresy.” Instead, he offers some brief characteristics of each and then proceed to show how each heretical teaching came to be considered unorthodox in the chapters that follow. The heretics and teachings he covers are:
- Marcion: Supersessionism
- Ebion: Adoptionism
- Gnostics: Docetism
- Sabellius: Modalism
- Arius: Subordinationism
- Apollinaris: Subhumanism
- Nestorius: Dyoprosopitism
- Eutyches: Monophysitism
- Iconoclasts: Antirepresentationalism
- Muslims: Reductionism
If you could see things on my end, you’d immediately noticed all the red squiggles. What might jump out more so is the final two items in the list. The first, might not make many Presbyterian’s list of early Christological controversies. The latter wouldn’t make anyone’s list of Christian theological controversies, but Wilhite makes an interesting case for how Muslim Christology developed in context. Given many recent discussions about whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God, this final chapter might be worth the price of the book just on its own.
As far as the earlier chapters, Wilhite does an excellent job of presenting the teaching of each heretic from the point of view of that particular individual (as much as that is possible). He explains his approach earlier in the introduction:
Each chapter begins with a simple summary. This is usually the view expressed about the heretic by the orthodox opponents. Each summary is then supplemented with a closer investigation into the accused heretic and alleged heresy. The heretic in most cases probably did not actually teach the heresy named after him. For example, Nestorius most likely did not teach “Nestorianism.” An alternate name is given, therefore for the actual teaching in order to differentiate what Nestorius himself said (according to our best sources) from the Nestorian heresy (known from the hostile sources) (17-18).
He continues, clarifying his distinction between heretic (and “ism” derived from their name) and heretical teaching:
Again, every case is different: Arius probably taught the heretical doctrine of subordinationism, but even then the term needs to be used instead of “Arianism” because many, if not most, of those deemed “Arians” never read anything by Arius. The heretical doctrine is the main issue, even if it was attached to a certain “arch-heretic” (as the founders of heresy were called), and even if historians doubt the credibility of the accusation against the accused heretic (18).
Having a good general foundation in early Christological conflicts from both my time at Dallas and my reading since, I found Wilhite’s approach intriguing. At times you feel like he’s going to say that someone like Arius really wasn’t wrong. But, he never comes to a conclusion like that, even as he recasts several figures in more sympathetic light. They end up being misunderstood, but never quite orthodox.
This re-reading of the heretics, to me, is a mark of good scholarship on Wilhite’s part. He ultimately doesn’t agree with them, but presents them in the best possible light before pointing the way to orthodoxy. His writing style is also refreshing. He’s done his homework and offers a well researched volume, yet presents his findings in a very conversational and engaging tone. Having never heard of him, or read anything else by him, this was a good introduction to his scholarship.
On the whole, I’d highly recommend this book. For a church history type class, it would make a good textbook because of the design layout (sidebars and whatnot). It is probably a mid-level introduction for someone to get into the early Christological conflicts. That is to say, if you’ve never heard of the many or all of the “isms” listed above, this might not be the best place to start (try Holcomb’s Know the Heretics instead). If however, like me, you’ve interacted a bit with the early church conflicts that led to many of the church councils. This is a very intriguing read. It is also worthy grabbing for the final chapter on Muslim Christological developments as well. It follows the same trajectory as the other heretics, which as you can imagine, would make for interesting reading.
David E. Wilhite, The Gospel According to Heretics: Discovering Orthodoxy through Early Christological Conflicts. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, October, 2015. 304 pp. Paperback, $22.99.
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Thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy!