A New Book on Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christianity

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

February 16, 2015

1934 was a big year for Germany.  It was the year that Adolf Hitler became the Führer and complete head of the German nation and the Nazi party.  And, as we all know, it wasn’t long after that time, that Germany invaded Poland and began World War II.

But 1934 was a significant year for another reason.  Very quietly, behind the scenes, a book was published that would change the landscape of early Christian studies for years to come.  Walter Bauer published his now famous monograph, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity.   Compared to Hitler’s rise, this was not very newsworthy.  And Bauer’s book did not have much of an impact at first.  But, in 1971 it was translated into English and since that time things have radically changed in the academy of the English speaking world.

As is well known now, Bauer’s main thesis was that early Christianity was a bit of a mess.  It was a theological quagmire.  No one could get along; no one could agree.  There was in-fighting and competition between various competing factions, all warring it out about what really constituted “Christianity.”  Thus, for Bauer, there was no such thing as Christianity (singular) during this time, but only Christianities (plural).   And each of these Christianities, argues Bauer, had its own set of books.   Each had its own writings that it valued and thought were Scripture.   After the dust settled, one particular group, and their books, won the theological war.  But, why should we think these are the right books?   These are just the books of the theological winners.

Bauer’s thesis has seen a strong resurgence in recent years, particularly in the writings of scholars like Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman, and Helmut Koester.  And it is the basis for a very common misconception about the NT Canon, namely that there was very little agreement over the books that made it into the canon until the fourth or fifth century.  Before that, we are told, early Christianity was somewhat of a literary free for all.  No one could agree on much of anything.

Although Bauer’s thesis still dominates the academic landscape, scholars have begun to respond.  Andreas Köstenberger and I co-authored The Heresy of Orthodoxy (Crossway, 2010) to address the cogency of the Bauer thesis. And I am also pleased to see a new book that has just come out that is doing the same.  Paul Hartog has just published Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christian Contexts: Reconsidering the Bauer Thesis (Pickwick, 2015). Hartog, as the editor, has gathered together a number of scholars to interact with different aspects of Bauer’s thesis.  This is a great collection of essays and I recommend it to anyone interested in doing more reading on this subject.

Here is the description on the back cover:

Eighty years ago, Walter Bauer promulgated a bold and provocative thesis about early Christianity. He argued that many forms of Christianity started the race, but one competitor pushed aside the others, until this powerful ”orthodox” version won the day. The victors re-wrote history, marginalizing all other perspectives and silencing their voices, even though the alternatives possessed equal right to the title of normative Christianity. Bauer’s influence still casts a long shadow on early Christian scholarship. Were heretical movements the original forms of Christianity? Did the heretics outnumber the orthodox? Did orthodox heresiologists accurately portray their opponents? And more fundamentally, how can one make any objective distinction between ”heresy” and ”orthodoxy”? Is such labeling merely the product of socially situated power? Did numerous, valid forms of Christianity exist without any validating norms of Christianity? This collection of essays, each written by a relevant authority, tackles such questions with scholarly acumen and careful attention to historical, cultural-geographical, and socio-rhetorical detail. Although recognizing the importance of Bauer’s critical insights, innovative methodologies, and fruitful suggestions, the contributors expose numerous claims of the Bauer thesis (in both original and recent manifestations) that fall short of the historical evidence.

Here are the endorsements (including my own):

Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christian Contexts brings up to date a long-existing debate about those other gospels and early Christianity. Covering issues tied to the Apostolic Fathers, Irenaeus, Gnosticism, and the rule of faith, here is a solid compendium of essays that issues a significant challenge to the thesis of Walter Bauer–that orthodoxy emerged late from a largely sociological battle over the origin of the Jesus movement. It shows how orthodoxy’s roots are far older than claims of other options from the second century and beyond. This is simply profitable reading.”
–Darrell L. Bock, Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, TX

”With worthy contributions from both New Testament and patristic scholars, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christian Contexts offers a timely reappraisal and rebuttal of the ‘Bauer thesis.’ The authors of this handy volume simultaneously sum up Bauer’s evidence and arguments, size up subsequent post-Bauer mutations of the thesis, and serve up a needed corrective from a variety of perspectives–a must-have for students of New Testament and early Christian studies.”
–Michael J. Svigel, Associate Professor of Theological Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, TX

”Modern scholars continue to be entranced by Walter Bauer’s thesis that earliest Christianity was wildly diverse with no clear orthodoxy or heresy. Indeed, it is Bauer’s thesis that has provided the foundation for many of the modern attacks on the integrity of the Bible. Thus, I am thankful for this outstanding collection of essays aimed at refuting Bauer’s thesis and setting the record straight about what earliest Christianity was really like. With clarity and thoroughness, these essays sweep away the cloud of doubt raised by Bauer and shine fresh light on how Christianity developed in the earliest centuries.”
–Michael J. Kruger, President, Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC –Wipf and Stock Publishers



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