In 1934, the influential New Testament scholar Walter Bauer published his book “Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity”, which went on to change the paradigm of how some scholars view the early church. Basically, Bauer's thesis was that there was not one single 'orthodox' version of Christianity at the very start of the movement. Rather, there were many different and equally valid versions of Christianity and what we have come to call Christianity is perhaps not even the most ancient form. According to Bauer, the only thing special about 'Orthodoxy' is that it just happened to be the version that stomped out all the others while rising to power, afterward rewriting both history and the bible in order to bolster their own opinions.
In one sense, anyone who reads the New Testament knows that there were differing viewpoints in the early church. This is really nothing new. The epistles and gospels are full of warnings about 'False Teachers' and to watch out for people teaching something different. What makes the so-called Bauer-Ehrman thesis unique, is that it doesn't refer to them as 'False Teachers', but rather people propagating an equally valid form of Christianity. Instead of 'heresies', Ehrman calls them 'Lost Christianities'. To understanding this is to understand Ehrman's ultimate argument.
The question The Heresy of Orthodoxy seeks to answer then is this: Is there any way for us to be able to judge what was true Christianity and what wasn't?
The first section of the book discusses whether or not Early Christianity was as diverse as Bauer originally claimed. According to Bauer, in almost all major geographical areas except Rome, 'heresy' was established prior to 'orthodoxy'. Since Bauer's time however, much has been learned of early Christianity. Köstenberger and Kruger show that Bauer ended up being wrong on every count. Not only this, but the very nature of many of these heresies is such that they are all necessarily dependent on some prior system. In almost every case, these 'Lost Christianities' are best understood as off-shoots, not originals.
The second section deals with another widely regurgitated claim about the early church: That since there was no such thing as a New Testament prior to later church councils, there was no standard to determine what was actual Christianity and what wasn't. Köstenberger and Kruger handle this section especially brilliantly. They point out that the New Testament church wasn't a brand new creation out of thin air, but a group that grew out of an already established system: Judaism. This means that Christianity would have already had a core set of scriptures in place (The Old Testament) right from the very start. This is a necessary control over any group that comes around calling itself 'Christianity'. How could a group which denied the Old Testament possibly be a valid form of Christianity? Any teaching that shows up and ignores the Old Testament, or chops up and edits the teachings of Jesus is disqualified from being valid automatically. Calling any of these groups 'Lost Christianities' is just to play fast and loose with definitions.
There is a terrific discussion in this section about how the New Testament church saw themselves as being a 'covenant community' just as the Jews had before them. And being in a covenant means that there must (of course) be covenant documents, as there was for the old covenant. Far from being a needless add-on hundreds of years after the fact, the written teachings of Jesus and the other writings of the New Testament would have been seen as the essential foundation of the church's existence. This way of understanding the formation of the New Testament is highly effective and offers great explanatory power to anyone questioning the role of the scriptures prior to canonization.
The third section deals with the question of whether we can know what the documents of the New Testament originally said, given that we only have error-ridden copies handed down to us from antiquity. This section is not so much against Bauer and his thesis, but against Ehrman and his writings[i]. As part of the whole, this section was a little off-topic, but illuminating none-the-less. One of the things Ehrman has become famous for is trumpeting just how corrupt the New Testament has become over the centuries. Here, Köstenberger and Kruger explain how Textual Criticism works and how we can be confident that although there are indeed errors in the manuscripts, we know with extreme accuracy what the originals would have said. As the authors common-sensically state the problem: “Although a scribe can change an individual manuscript (or an individual reading), changing the overall textual tradition is more difficult than one might think - the fact that there are so many other copies in circulation makes this virtually impossible to do.” (pg. 212)
Honestly, there are hardly any shortcomings in this work. As was stated earlier, the third section on manuscripts and scribes appeared to be somewhat out of place. It would have been more relevant to include a section on authorship of the New Testament writings. Ehrman has written in many places that the reason we don't know what Jesus actually taught is because we don't have any actual writings by Jesus himself, or even any of his immediate disciples. According to Ehrman, Matthew wasn't written by the apostle Matthew, and John wasn't written by John. James and Jude likewise weren't written by the brothers of Jesus and both 1 and 2 Peter are forgeries. With this kind of extreme skepticism, it becomes a little clearer why he says the things he does. For Ehrman, there is no real difference between a writing like the Epistle of Barnabas and 2 Peter (for example). Given that Ehrman rests much of his overall skepticism on the pseudepigraphy and forgery of the biblical books, this reviewer would have liked to see the issue of authorship addressed more thoroughly than it was. Whenever these issues do arise in the book, they are only dealt with in short footnotes[ii].
The authors convincingly sum up the situation by concluding that “The Bauer thesis is less a conclusion from the evidence, and more a control over the evidence.” (pg. 155) The truth of this becomes painfully evident after reading Bart Ehrman's books. Any piece of early orthodox writing which would suggest that orthodoxy really was the earliest and most dominant version of Christianity is dismissed with a wave of the hand. Ehrman (and others who share this view) simply gives it the convenient label 'proto-orthodox', then asserts that proto-orthodoxy was the one version that just happened to eventually win out. With this tactic in place, no evidence - no matter how early or how orthodox - would be able to convince him otherwise. This is simply a no-win situation. Yet sadly, instead of falling from favor, the Bauer-Ehrman thesis seems to have grown in popularity over the years. Köstenberger and Kruger suggest that the real reason for this is our culture's postmodern fascination with diversity and its inherent abhorrence of all things orthodox. Given the fact that there is hardly any actual evidence to commend Bauer's views anymore, one can't help but agreeing.
Even though The Heresy of Orthodoxy is a short read, it is packed with great information. For anyone who has been challenged by Ehrman's writings, or even anyone curious about the formation of the early church, this book is a great resource to have.
Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Chad Gibbons is an avid reader of theology, history, and apologetics. He teaches and occasionally preaches at the Brighton Nazarene Church in Brighton, Michigan, and blogs on classic literature at http://oldbooksblog.wordpress.com.
[i] Especially “Misquoting Jesus” and “The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture”.
[ii] To be fair, Ehrman didn't devote an entire book to the subject of authorship until his sensationally titled “Forged” which was published after this book, but he has certainly written about it many times prior to this.