Beyond the Book – Defining Heresy (and Orthodoxy)


Today we are pleased to share the latest post in our weekly series, Beyond the Book. This month David Wilhite discusses the development of orthodox Christology in light of early heretical movements.

***Also, as part of this series we are giving away three copies of his book The Gospel according to Heretics. The winners will be announced at the end of the month, and you can enter here.***


From a historian’s vantage point it is obvious that orthodoxy was not a pre-packaged set of doctrines. This is not news, but it needs to be clarified. J.N.D. Kelly describes Christianity on the eve of the Council of Chalcedon (451) in ways that could probably be applied to many other contexts, “The Church at this epoch was feeling its way towards a balanced Christology.”

Many Christians would wish to exchange Kelly’s “feeling its way” language, which sounds too much like unguided groping in the dark, for a more pious description: the Spirit leads the church into all truth (John 14:17). Nevertheless, whether one sees this as a quest or a guided tour, the attempt to express Truth doctrinally, it must be admitted, was the practice of a pilgrim church, a people of “the Way” (Acts 24:14). The doctrinal formulations never were clearly articulated in a primal creed, catechism, or Summa by Jesus or his original followers. Instead, orthodoxy as doctrinal proposition is a response to heresy.

Cover ArtEven ancient writers admitted to this way of thinking about orthodoxy. In a mock dialogue between an “Orthodox” (dyophysite) and a heretic, Theodoret has the protagonist back the antagonist into a corner, so that the heretic has to change his preferred terminology. When the Orthodox protagonist outs the heretic for the semantic flip-flop, we hear the following admission from the heretic: “The struggle with our adversaries forces me to do this.” The Orthodox, it turns out, agrees and does the same: “What you say is true, for it is what we say, or rather what everyone says who has preserved the apostolic rule intact” (Eranistes 2). In other words, theological terms, statements, and doctrines develop over time and in response to other terms, statements and doctrines.

While this book is focused on “heretics,” the nagging question throughout is what is the definition and criterion for orthodoxy. Several things need to be said about this (see both the intro and the conclusion), but for now we can note that Christian orthodoxy, in terms of doctrine, is something that emerges in response to its structural other, heresy.

While such a notion will be controversial in some circles, I would like to table the debate for one moment in order to identify one surprising effect of studying heresy. In presenting heretics from the first eight centuries of Christianity in this book, I frequently had to offer the rationale of the heretics’ opponents, the orthodox. Therefore, this book ended up explaining many classical Christian doctrines that are often misunderstood, if not maligned, today, such as the pre-existence of Christ, the incarnation, the Chalcedonian Definition, and the divine attributes (immutability, impassibility, etc.).

While the audience is not asked to agree with either the heretics or their opponents, both sides are presented on their own terms so as to provide a more informed understanding of their theological developments. Augustine would say it more strongly: “The rejection of heretics brings into relief what your Church holds and what sound doctrine maintains” (Confessions 7.19.25).


David E. Wilhite (PhD, University of St. Andrews) is associate professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University. He is the author of Tertullian the African: An Anthropological Reading of Tertullian’s Context and Identities and coauthor of The Church: A Guide for the Perplexed. He is the coeditor of Tertullian and Paul and The Apostolic Fathers and Paul in the Pauline and Patristic Scholars in Debate series.