Review: The Heresy of Orthodoxy (Part I)

Title: The Heresy of Orthodoxy

Editors: Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger

Bibliographic Info: 256 pp.

Publisher: Crossway, 2010.

Cover: Soft

ISBN: 9781433501432

Buy it at Amazon

Note: I read this book on my Kindle so any quotes I provide will not have the page numbers.

This book is written in response to the the Bauer school of thought regarding orthodoxy and heresy in earliest Christianity. The Bauer school of thought traces its inception back to the publication of Walter Bauer’s pioneering work, Rechtglaubigkeit und Ketzerei im altesten Christentum (published in 1934 with the English translation being released in 1971, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity). Today, Bauer has found popular advocates in the voices of Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels, whom this book is primarily written against.

The book is divided into three sections:

  • The Heresy of Orthodoxy: Pluralism and the Origins of the New Testament
  • Picking the Books: Tracing the Development of the New Testament Canon
  • Changing the Story: Manuscripts, Scribes, and Textual Transmission

The first section is comprised of three chapters. In the opening chapter, the authors provide a summary of Bauer’s thesis and offer examples of proponents and critics of Bauer’s school of thought. Bauer’s idea can essentially be summed up as the notion that there was no orthodoxy or heresy within earliest Christianity; instead, there was only various Christianities, each competing for dominance.

I somewhat agree with Bauer’s hypothesis. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the orthodoxy that coalesced only did so because it was the view of the powerful ecclesiastical hierarchy that imposed its view on Christendom. But I definitely agree with Bauer and support the notion of an early variegated Christianity, and more importantly, that “heresy” was the predominant form of Christianity in some regions. I do think, though, that there was unity in all the earliest streams of Christianity, at least insofar as they all arose as a result of the resurrection of Christ. The theological implications of the resurrection, however, is where the diversity comes in.

The second chapter is where the authors lay out their case against Bauer’s thesis. How they do this is by examining four of the urban centers that Bauer examined and try and reclaim them back to orthodoxy (the places are: Rome, Asia Minor, Edessa, and Egypt). Note, though, that not all of Bauer’s arguments would be supported by followers of his school of thought (e.g. Ehrman). Why? Because Bauer was simply wrong on some things, in part due to the fact that he didn’t have a lot of the data that has come to light since the publication of his book (e.g. archaeological discoveries).

The authors make salient points against Bauer concerning Asia Minor and Rome, yet they failed in their attempt at reclaiming Egypt and Edessa in the name of orthodoxy. While the evidence is too scant to firmly establish whether orthodoxy or heresy was first introduced into Egypt and gained a foothold, it is much more certain that the primacy of orthodoxy in Egypt was not apparent for quite some time (late second-century or so).

The main argument the authors use regarding Egypt revolves around the Epistle of Barnabas – specifically how it is not Gnostic. Yet while that is true to a large degree (though it isn’t entirely orthodox either), proving that Barnabas is not Gnostic doesn’t prove the predominance of orthodoxy; just because Barnabas doesn’t represent Gnosticism, doesn’t mean it represents orthodoxy. The main failure of the authors regarding Egypt, however, is that they just simply ignore Bauer’s main argument, which was that Bishop Demetrius (ca. 190-230) is the earliest indication of institutionalized orthodoxy in the area.

I think it is almost certain that Christianity was first introduce into Egypt within a couple of decades of Jesus’ crucifixion, but Bauer is correct in asserting that the first ten Alexandrian bishops provided by Eusebius are but a “puff of smoke and could scarcely have been anything but that.” There just isn’t any evidence that orthodoxy was the first stream of Christianity in Egypt, or even that it was the predominant form. In fact, I would say that it is most likely that a Gnostic stream of Christianity was the dominant form in Egypt considering that Egyptian Christianity was always distinctly different from Western Christianity (by “Western” I mean the Christianity in the Asia Minor-Greece-Rome sphere of influence). This can be seen in the second-century theologians Egypt produced (especially Origen). Regardless as to whether heretical or orthodox Christianity was dominant in early Egyptian Christianity, it is certainly true to say that Egyptian Christianity wasn’t as ecclesiastically orientated until the late second-century (unlike Western Christianity which was from quite earlier on).

Similarly for Edessa, the authors don’t interact or even mention Bauer’s main argument, which in this case was concerning the fictional Abgar correspondence from the third century that was fabricated in order to confirm and endorse the presence of orthodoxy in Egypt. Instead, the authors focus on Marcionism in Edessa, noting that the presence of Marcionism attests to an earlier form of Christianity preceding Marcion. They suggest it may have been Pauline or Jewish Christianity (which I think is too vague of a term in this instance). I don’t remember them offering any evidence to support this, which is not surprising considering there is no account of the origins of Christianity in Edessa. I know that some believe the Christianity that preceded Marcionism in Edessa was in fact an incipient form of Gnosticism (as presented by the Gospel of Thomas).

The third and final chapter in this first section concerns the heresy and orthodoxy that is to be found in the NT. The authors see the New Testament as bearing credible witness to the early unified doctrinal core of orthodox Christianity. I won’t go into detail concerning this chapter, but suffice to say I thought it barely scratched the surface of issues it touched upon. For instance, in discussing the Christology of the New Testament, specifically the deity of Christ, the authors say:

[T]his core component of Christian orthodoxy … was not forged in the second century on the anvil of debate among various Christian sects. Instead, such a belief dates back to the very origins of Christianity during and immediately subsequent to Jesus’ earthly ministry.

I’m not sure why they say that Jesus’ deity dates back to the time of Jesus’ actual ministry, unless they believe that John’s Gospel contains Jesus’ actual words of declaration that he is divine rather than decades later theological reflection retrojected into Jesus’ mouth. The Synoptic Gospels don’t convey Jesus as being God, so the only other option I can see  for this claim is the Gospel of John.

They also say that:

[T]hus, the universal New Testament ascription of “Lord” to Jesus attests to an early and pervasive understanding of the orthodox view that Jesus was God.

I think they needed to provide a more nuanced view on the application of kyrios to Jesus rather than give the simple, highly ambiguous, and frankly wrong, statement that it conveys that “Jesus was God”.

Another quibble I have with this section was that the authors didn’t really attempt to show that orthodoxy was the form of Christianity first introduced into all the geographic areas (which is what I think Bauer was primarily concerned with). Instead, they concentrate on showing that the apostles’ were the successors of Jesus due to their seeing the resurrected Lord, and that they faithfully handed on orthodox, sound doctrine. Yet, even if this was true, it still does not equate to orthodox Christianity being the form of Christianity prevalent in all geographic areas. Also, it simply assumes that all of the apostles’ held to some sort of unified doctrine which is strange considering we don’t have writings from most of them.

One more issue I disagree with in this chapter which I can’t pass over is their claim that one’s methodology has to be open to supernatural claims in order to arrive at the correct conclusions. The authors say that the Bauer-Ehrman hypothesis is mistaken “because their interpretation proceeds on the basis of a flawed interpretive paradigm”, i.e., anti-supernaturalism. Personally, while I do strongly believe in the existence of the supernatural (or whatever you want to call it), I think it is foolhardy to appeal to it when do historical studies in antiquity. I wonder if the authors would take the same approach when studying the rise of Islam and the formation of the Qur’an. If they are not open to the possibility of God’s providence being behind that, then why are they willing to say it has to be taken into account when studying early Christianity? Because naturally they approach the subject with the presupposition that their views are correct (which just makes this book look like a piece of Christian apologetic rather than more historical objective scholarship).

In this first section of the book, all I can say is that the authors have not demonstrated that orthodoxy and heresy existed in the earliest Christianity of all geographic places (especially Egypt and Edessa). Bauer’s hypothesis still stands firm (which I will reproduce below):

Perhaps certain manifestations of Christian life that the authors of the church renounce as ‘heresies’ originally had not been such at all, but at least here and there, were the only form of the new religion – that is, for those regions they were simply Christianity. (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, pg. xxii)

Read Part II here.

One response

  1. About to read Walter Bauer’s book but haven’t read this one. One thing i do know is that there’s a lot more work to be done on understanding even basic Christianity and as Christians we cannot sit on our laurels. I have my own thoughts on the issue of what has been ‘left out’ of the Bible and therein lies the answer to many of those questions that plague believers and unbelievers alike.

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