Beyond the Book – Later “Heresies” and Schisms


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.**


Whereas the first five chapters of my book are devoted to early Christological heresies, the last few chapters continue to explore “heresies” (now an unacceptable label) that survive to this day.

Some of the early heretical groups, such as the Marcionites, Ebionites, and Gnostics (all of which are problematic categories), call into question the nature of early Christianity itself. Just how diverse was it? Can any of these groups claim a legitimate line to the original Jesus community? Etc., etc.

Cover ArtThen, there are groups like the modalists and the “Arians” (more problematic categories), which had largely moved past some of these foundational questions, and instead raised questions about how the various Christian teachings fit together. Is there more than one God? Is Jesus the one God in the flesh? Etc., etc.

All of these are treated as Christological controversies in the early Christian sources, but then, after these questions are largely settled, new Christological debates emerge.

When we turn to Apollinaris, who himself was responding to Arius, we mark a turning point in theological history. Apollinaris (allegedly) taught that the Word of God came in the flesh, but was not fully human. Christ had no human soul, or at least no rational mind (depending on the source), but instead he was merely God tabernacled in human flesh (cf. John 1:14).

Apollinaris marks a turning point because his is the last major heresy treated in this book eventually abandoned by all as untenable. Even the later Alexandrian tradition which wished to stress the oneness and the divinity of Christ in the flesh would reject Apollinarianism because it makes Jesus’ human experience a farce.

The alternatives to Apollinarianism, however, have their own problems, or at least they will prove less than persuasive. What we will see, therefore, is that none of the post-Apollinarian options can claim absolute victory. The Nestorian option (chapter seven) will be denounced by the Christian empire, but the so-called Nestorian church, the Church of the East – as it calls itself, will thrive for generations even until the present.

The Monophysite option (chapter eight) will likewise continue in sectors outside of Byzantine control, such as Egypt’s Coptic Church that is still active today. The Chalcedonian option, known to Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant Christians simply as orthodoxy (see conclusion) will claim a clear majority, but it cannot claim to be unrivaled nor to be the only truly Christian option.

What to make of all this is beyond the scope of this book, since my primary aim has been a historical investigation. Nevertheless, these historical schisms raise questions for our present situation, especially at a time when these Oriental Orthodox communities are coming into our western Christian conscience more and more due to the political upheaval in the Middle East. Any present dialogue will need to be well informed by the history, and it is a history rooted in the Christological debates themselves. In my conclusions, therefore, I offer some possible ways to think of “heresy” and schism in terms of historical theology.


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.