At the beginning of the semester, the professor explained our assignment. Our task was to read through the book and explain mistakes the author had done in his scholarship. What fallacies did he commit? What errors in logic? What faulty conclusions? The assignment helped make me a more critical reader.
Unfortunately, careless readers encourage careless scholarship.
In preparation for this summer’s church history class at The Gospel Institute, I’ve been reading The Heresy of Orthodoxy, by Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger. The book is a brilliant and scathing critique of something called the “Bauer-Ehrman thesis.”
Seventy-five years ago, Walter Bauer theorized that early Christianity was much more diverse than previously believed. He argued that “orthodoxy” was an invention of the fourth-century church. The early church, claimed Bauer, lived with many competing strands of Christianity. Kostenberger and Kruger argue:
This form of orthodoxy, Bauer maintained, had nothing to do with an original form of Christianity that can be traced back to the New Testament or to Jesus. Instead, it was simply the belief of the Roman church. The heretics of other cities and their theologies were relegated to the sidelines largely because they lost the battle with Rome.
Bauer’s thesis influenced many scholars and, despite the acknowledgement that his foundational assumptions were flawed, they continue to push the general narrative that orthodoxy grew out of diversity. His influence has not waned over the past few years. As the authors note:
In more recent days, Bauer’s thesis has received a new lease on life through the emergence of postmodernism, the belief that truth is inherently subjective and a function of power. With the rise of postmodernism came the notion that the only heresy that remains is the belief in absolute truth—orthodoxy.
Throughout the book, Kostenberger and Kruger effectively destroy the Bauer-Ehrman thesis. They demonstrate that even though there was diversity in the early church, there was also an early distinction between true versus false teaching. They also show how orthodoxy permeated a geographically diverse and expansive area. Quoting Larry Hurtado, they conclude:
Well before the influence of Constantine and councils of bishops in the fourth century and thereafter, it was clear that proto-orthodox Christianity was ascendant, and represented the emergent mainstream. Proto-orthodox devotion to Jesus of the second century constitutes the pattern of belief and practice that shaped Christian tradition thereafter.
In other words, orthodoxy came first. Then came divergence from the faith, i.e., heresy.
Why is this important?
First, I think it is important to understand the roots of the scholarly attack upon orthodoxy. When you hear about “alternative gospels” and suppression of “early Christianities," it’s good to know the scholarship behind these statements.
Second, it is important to understand how bias affects scholarship. Harold Bloom once said that the Jesus of the alternative Gospel of Thomas “speaks to me” in a way that the canonical Jesus does not. His bias for the message of the Jesus presented by the Gospel of Thomas caused him to elevate its importance. Kostenberger and Kruger contend:
The intriguing question is why the Bauer-Ehrman thesis commands paradigmatic stature when it has been soundly discredited in the past. The reason it does so, we suspect, is not that its handling of the data is so superior or its reasoning is so compelling. The reason is rather that Bauer’s thesis, as popularized by Ehrman, Pagels, and the fellows of the Jesus Seminar, resonates profoundly with the intellectual and cultural climate in the West at the beginning of the twenty-first century (233).
Third, it demonstrates the importance of studying Church History. The more we study the history of the church, the easier it is to detect poor scholarship.
This summer, we'll be talking through church history and ways that the study of it helps us in our understanding the faith once delivered to the saints. I'm looking forward to a fun and challenging study and hope you'll consider joining us!