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 below.
The “Gospel according to…” theme stems back to the earliest collections of Gospel texts. The fact that there were four canonical Gospels, and the fact that readers had to understand that any one “Gospel” had to be clarified as “according to” someone in particular, bothered some ancient Christians.
Around 170 a Christian writer named Tatian called into to question the validity of having multiple Gospels – after all, could not God have given one authorized version? – and in order to solve the problem Tatian created a sort of “Super-Gospel” (called the Diatesseron) which harmonized all four. To be sure, Tatian was not the first or only Christian to see the Gospels as texts that could be reworked, but for now let us acknowledge that, unlike Tatian, most early Christians saw no problem with the “according to” aspect of “the Gospel.” For the majority of Christian tradition, any retelling or recording of “The Gospel” will always be a version “according to” someone. Jesus apparently set up what we call evangelism (notice the borrowed Greek word for “Gospel,” euangelion; i.e. “Gospelization”) so that the Good News would be dispersed in this “according to” strategy (see Acts 1:8). The Gospel would always be according to various witnesses.
The four canonical Gospels were not the only ones, and beyond Gospel texts there were numerous expressions of the Good News of Jesus Christ, such as oral proclamation, letters, and apocalyptic literature.
But what about the so-called heretics, who may or may not have written a Gospel text, but who nevertheless always had their own particular understanding of the Gospel? My book is an attempt to hear what the heretics preached about Jesus.
What if the “orthodox” version of the story has misled us? What if people like Arius were misrepresented and maligned? What if the Gnostics were not wolf-like philosophers in sheep’s clothing, but well intended disciples who utilized a different conceptual and imaginative approach to their theology? I could go on and on with such What-ifs.
These questions are not simply intellectual gymnastics, much less are they conspiracy theories in the making. The best historical studies of the last century have found evidence to suggest that our understanding of the “heretics” is so one sided as to need revising. This book is an attempt to take this scholarly reassessment seriously. Such reassessment has been done extensively for each individual heresy, but a study of the various unorthodox alternatives that shaped traditional Christian thinking offers those who wish to understand their own orthodoxy a more complete picture.
If our orthodoxy was forged in the fires of heretical debate, then we had better understand what these heresies taught. On the other hand, some heresies offered untenable versions of the Gospels. Exactly what was their heresy and why was it untenable is something that I try to unpack fully in the body of this study.
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.