Have you ever wondered if Apollinaris was actually Apollinarian? Or how about Ebion? Was he really an Ebionite?
If you’ve ever dabbled in Christology or Church History, you’ve probably encountered these questions. If you haven’t been exposed to those intellectual concerns, then you may not have heard of such oddly named villains of the early church. However, these are perennial debated figures with often excoriated views.
In The Gospel According to Heretics, David Wilhite explores the panoply of historic heretics in one accessible volume. For the MDiv student in Church History I or whichever theology course covers Christology this is a goldmine of summary, analysis, and further footnotes.
Wilhite covers ten different heresies in the ten chapters of his volume. There is a simple formula to each chapter, which is helpful for progressing through the text simple. He begins with a summary of what the accusers of the heretics said, then he breaks down what the available primary sources say the heretic taught. Next he outlines the orthodox response to the alleged teaching of the heretic.
The book progresses chronologically through the major heresies of the early church. It begins with Marcion, who is said to have argued that Jesus is a new and different God than the one of the Old Testament. The second chapter covers the Ebionite heresy, also called adoptionism, which denies the deity of Christ. In Chapter Three, Wilhite tackles the Gnostics, who denied the humanity of Jesus because of their stark dualism. The subject of the fourth chapter is the modalism of Sabellius, who allegedly argued that God exists as either the Father, Son, or Spirit at separate times. In Chapter Five the most famous heretic of all, Arius, is analyzed; the subordinationism attributed to Arius, which argues that Jesus was divine, but not quite equal with God forms the subject matter.
Wilhite comes down the backstretch of the volume with Apollinaris to whom is attributed the argument that Christ has a human body but a divine mind, which challenges his full humanity. Nestorius is the topic of Chapter Seven, especially his argument that the Son of God is a divine person that inhabits the human Jesus. In the eighth chapter the monophysitism of Eutyches is the subject matter; he is alleged to have taught that Jesus is half man and half divine and thus a sort of super-human hybrid. Chapter Nine takes on the iconoclasts who argued that Jesus must not be depicted, which seems to challenge the notion of an incarnate Christ. Then in the tenth chapter, Wilhite outlines the heretical Christology of Muslims, which portrays Christ as merely a human prophet and not divine. Finally, Wilhite concludes the book with a call for gracious interaction by both the orthodox and the heretical, though he recognizes that both exist.
The debate about whether the heretics discussed in Church History courses were really heretical is the subject of many seminary papers and late night debates over coffee. Wilhite does not definitively end any of those debates, but The Gospel According to Heretics does present a helpful tool for those discussions and papers (for any seminary students reading this).
Wilhite approaches his topic with the mind to revise the received traditional accounts. However, unlike other revisionist church histories, Wilhite is not out to argue that there is no orthodoxy. Rather, his argument is that there is an orthodoxy that Christianity should be centered around and the the early Christological debates helped in its formulation and documentation. It is simply that the historically accepted accounts of the heretics themselves may have been overblown. The doctrines the heretics represent are and were bad, but their locus is, perhaps, historically unrecoverable. This approach makes Wilhite’s book both edifying and informative.
The chief weakness of this volume is one that others may see as a strength. In some ways, Wilhite’s call to an irenic attitude toward contemporary heretics, in light of the perhaps wrong treatment of historical heretics, is a positive. However, there are situations in which a refusal of those in teaching positions to recant non-orthodox positions warrants vocal and vehement refutation. Wilhite is right to call for this to be handled as generously as possible, but in the face of a proud heretic, that individual may indeed need to be removed from positions of power, which in the case of a pastor or professor may cost him or her a livelihood. If legitimate heresy actually distorts the gospel, then it is a big deal and should be resisted accordingly, which seems to be downplayed in The Gospel According to Heretics. At the same time, Wilhite’s call for patience and humility is an important one to create the balance of speaking truth in love.
This is one of those books that has the potential to become a favorite textbook for years to come, if it remains in print. Wilhite’s careful research, vibrant writing, and simple outlines make this accessible volume a useful tool for years to come.
Note: A gratis copy of this volume was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.