The Heresy of Orthodoxy by Michael J. Krueger and Andreas J. Kostenberger

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The Heresy of Orthodoxy by Michael J. Krueger and Andreas J. Kostenberger

The Bauer-Ehrman Thesis

The Bauer Thesis: Proceeded on the basis of the four major geographical centers of early Christianity: Asia Minor, Egypt, Edessa, and Rome. In Asia Minor, there was a conflict in Antioch between Peter and Paul. Moreover, there are references to heresy in the Pastoral Epistles and the letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation.

In Egypt, there was an early presence of Gnosticism that wasn’t outnumbered by orthodoxy until 189. Moreover, Marcionism was the earliest form of Christianity in Edessa (just north of modern day Turkey, and Edessa) until the fourth or fifth century when orthodoxy finally prevailed.

In Rome : The orthodoxy that eventually came to be was the result of a power play made by the ecclesiastical hierarchy that impose its view onto the rest of Christendom. In particular, the Roman Church rewrote the history of the church between the 4th and 6th centuries AD in keeping with its views, eradicating traces of earlier diversity.

However, in each of these four major areas, heresy preceded orthodoxy. Thus, Christianity as we have it today, is not organically connected to Jesus’ and the apostles teaching.


  1. Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976)—Made Bauer’s thesis the substructure of his New Testament theology that had a large impact on generations of scholars.

  2. Arnold Ehrhardt (1903-1963)—Used Bauer’s thesis to argue that the Apostles Creed and the creedal formulas of the early church differed.

  3. Helmut Koester & James M. Robinson (1971)—Used Bauer’s thesis to argue that notions ‘canonical,’ ‘non-canonical,’ ‘orthodox,’ ‘heretical,’ were too rigid and inapplicable. Instead, they proposed the term trajectory.

  4. James D.G. Dunn (1977)-Dunn applied Bauer’s thesis to the N.T. itself to show that diversity trumped unity on the NT and that even though there was a unifying theme of belief in Jesus as Lord, this theme itself was the result of struggle between differing viewpoints, with the winners claiming their version of this belief as orthodox.

Summary: Bauer focused on the second century situation, Ehrhardt compared the Apostle’s Creed to selected NT passages, Koester and Robinson explored extra-biblical trajectories, and Dunn applied Bauer’s thesis to the NT itself.

THE BAUER THESIS GOES MAINSTREAM: Elaine Pagels (1979: The Gnostic Gospels, 2003: Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas), Bart Ehrman (Lost Christianities) made Bauer’s thesis popular amongst laymen. They think we should embrace a diversity of equally legitimate beliefs since diversity prevailed during the days of the early church before the institutional hierarchy imposed its standards onto the rest of Christendom.

INITIAL CRITIQUES OF BAUER: 4 representative points of the tenor of Bauer’s critics:

1) Bauer’s conclusions were unduly conjectural , and in some cases an argument from silence since the limited nature of the available evidence didn’t support his thesis.

2) Bauer neglected the NT evidence which is the earliest available evidence and anachronistically used second-century data which is ironic since the subject of his thesis was the ‘earliest’ form of Christianity.

3) Bauer grossly oversimplified the first-century picture; for example, orthodoxy could have been present early in more locations than Bauer acknowledged.

4) Bauer neglected existing theological standards in the early church


Henry E.W. Turner offered the first substantial critique of Bauer in 1954 including the claim that Bauer overdrew his conclusions, and that he defined orthodoxy too ‘narrowly’. Turner conceded that theologians before Bauer overestimated the fixity of doctrine in the early church, but Bauer went to far in the other direction doctrinal openness. Turner pointed to three fixed elements:
1) The core of Christianity included what Turner called ‘religious facts:’ A realistic experience of the Eucharist, belief in God as Father-Creator, belief in Jesus as the historical Redeemer, and belief in the divinity of Christ.

2) Turner maintained that the early Christians recognized the centrality of biblical revelation. However one viewed the canon, the early church reviewed it as revelatory.

3) The early believers possessed a creed and rule of faith. Turner here refers to the ‘stylized summaries of credenda which are of frequent occurrence in the first two Christian centuries to the earliest creedal formulas themselves. For example, such creeds include the earliest affirmations that ‘Jesus is Messiah’ (Mark 8:29, John 11:27), ‘Jesus is Lord’ (Rom. 10:9, Phil. 2:11, Col. 2:6), and ‘Jesus is the Son of God’ (Matt. 14:33, Acts 8:37).

According to Turner, there were also three flexible elements:

  1. Differences in Christian idiom-In earliest Christianity there was an eschatological and metaphysical interpretation that existed side by side, but the Christian faith is not wedded irrevocably to either one.

  2. There existed varying philosophical viewpoints among early Christians that resulted in different ways of explaining the same phenomena.

  3. The theologians themselves were not monolithic but had diverse intellects and personalities.

Jerry Flora sought to establish a historical continuity between early and later orthodoxy in 1972. Flora maintained that there was essential historical continuity between earlier and later orthodoxy, contending that later orthodoxy was grounded in earlier doctrinal convictions that through the early apostles extended all the way back to Jesus himself.

I Howard Marshall argued in 1976 that by the end of the first century a clear distinction existed between orthodoxy and heresy. In some places, heresy might have preceded orthodoxy, but Bauer was wrong to suggest that orthodoxy only came after heresy.

In 1979, Brice Martin used the historical-critical method to show a unity throughout the New Testament.

James McCue argued that the Gnostic Valentinians originated and evolved out of orthodoxy, and not the other way around.

In 1989, Thomas Robinson took Bauer’s thesis head on, as well as those who built upon Bauer to consistently demonstrate that the evidence in these geographical regions was inadequate for Bauer to lodge his claims. He concluded that Bauer’s work only supported the conclusion that early Christianity was diverse. In direct opposition to Bauer, he argued that heresy in Ephesus and western Asia Minor where evidence is most readily available that orthodoxy preceded heresy and was numerically larger.

In 1994, Arland Hultgren agreed with Bauer that diversity existed in the earliest stages of the church, but suggested the following four unifying elements:

1) apostolic teaching is orthodox,

2) Jesus is Messiah, Lord, and God’s Son

3) Christ died for humanity’s sins, was buried, and was raised from the dead

4) The Lord is the God of Israel as the Creator, the Father of Jesus, the Father of humanity, and as the gift of the Spirit to the faithful

In 2002, Andreas Kostenberger argued that acceptable diversity existed, but that such diversity didn’t rise to the level of mutually contradictory beliefs. The NT had three integrating motifs: 1) monotheism, belief in YHWH of the Old Testament, 2) Jesus as the Christ and the exalted Lord, and 3) the saving message of the gospel. Thus, the first Christians developed from unity to diversity, rather than from diversity to unity.

CHAPTER 2: Unity and Plurality: How Diverse Was Early Christianity?

Asia Minor: Book of Revelation, and Ignatius; John wrote to seven churches in Asia Minor: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea whereas Ignatius wrote a series of letters to Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, and Smyrna.

Bauer offered three reasons why John and Ignatius support his thesis: 1) They only wrote letters to church leaders in locations where the form of Christianity they agreed with were; Bauer surmised that the other regions that weren’t written to were Gnostic. RESPONSE: Paul Trebilco points out that most scholars now think that full-fledged Gnosticism had not yet arisen during John’s and Ignatius’s time. It is more likely that wrote with a variety of other heretical groups in mind, while Ignatius faced Judaizers in Magnesia and Philadelphia, while in Tralles and Smyrna he faced Docetists. However, neither of these opponents preceded orthodoxy in Asia Minor. Judaizers taught that Christians should obey the Old Testament law alongside Jesus’ commands. The most likely reconstruction of the historical evidence is that Judaizers appeared after John and before Ignatius since they both wrote letters to Philadelphia but only Ignatius mentions them. Docetists believed that Jesus’ physical body and death on the cross were only apparent rather than real. Trebilco argues that Docetism presupposes an underlying high Christology to start with. It is hard to understand how communities that had never heard of the major events of Jesus’ life would have understood and embraced Docetism. Moreover, Docetism is not attested in the mid-first century, but only appears in rudimentary form by the end of the New Testament period as is evidence from John’s letter to Smryna in the book of Revelation which makes no mention of Docetism. This suggests that Docetism arose sometime between John’s letter and Ignatius’ which means that Docetism wasn’t the original form of Christianity in Smyrna. 2) Bauer also argues that the reason why John and Ignatius didn’t write to two known churches in Asia Minor (Colossae, and Hierapolis) is that they knew these churches would have rejected their letters because these churches were heretical. RESPONSE: Trebilco says that Colossae was overshadowed by Laodicea because it was the most prominent city in the Lycus Valley which was one of the cities that John did write to. Moreover, the Roman historian Tacitus mentions that Laodicea was destroyed by an earthquake in 60 AD, and since Colossae was only 11 miles away, it too was probably damaged and since it was smaller, we do not know how long it would have taken the city to rebuild, and recover. So then, John and Ignatius probably didn’t write to Colossae because it was small and insignificant compared to Laodeicea especially in the aftermath of an earthquake. Concering Hierapolis, all that is known is that Papias occupied the office of bishop and that Philip along with some of his daughters settled there around 70 AD. Thus, it is unwise to draw any inferences based on such scant data. In addition, it is likely that the churches written to in Revelation were along a postal route given the order they are mentioned. Even Bauer himself says, “To be sure, this is only conjecture and nothing more!” 3) Bauer also argues that the theological diversity in Asia Minor took the form of doctrinal disagreements between church leaders and church members. RESPOSNE: Trebilco responds that the primary disagreements between bishops and church members was over church leadership, which wouldn’t make church memebers heretics! 4) Bauer also argues that it is odd that Paul founded a church in Ephesus but John never mentions his name nor his theology in the letter to the Ephesian church. The lack of reference to Paul suggested to Bauer that Paul had lost the struggle with the ‘enemies’ through ‘internal discord and controversies.’ However, it is unlikely that Paul’s teaching would have been forgotten in one generation, and John may have been aware of Paul’s teaching but simply chose not to mention it.

EGYPT: Alexandria was a strategic city on the Mediterranean coastline in northern Egypt that represented a bastion of learning and culture. Even though the literary evidence concerning early Egyptian Christianity is scant, Bauer claimed that Gnostic-style heresies preceded Christian orthodoxy in Alexandria, and that orthodox Christianity did not arrive in Egypt until the third century at the appointment of Bishop Demetrius.

RESPONSE: 1) Bauer assumes that the Epistle of Barnabas (second century work) was Gnostic rather than orthodox by extrapolating backward in time from the time of Hadrian, when such Gnostic teachers such as Basilides, Valentinus, and Carpocrates were active. However, this is erroneous since the exegetical and halakhic gnosis of Barnabas bears no relationship at all to the gnosis of Gnosticism. Rather, it can be seen as a precursor to the ‘gnostic’ teaching of Clement of Alexandria and as implicitly anti-Gnostic, 2) The Epistle doesn’t stand in the trajectory toward Gnosticism but instead reflects orthodox Christian beliefs (pg. 46 for more), 3) There is another late second-century Egyptian document (Teachings of Silvanus) that stands in the conceptual trajectory that led to the later orthodoxy of Egyptian writers such as Clement, Origen, and Athanasius, 4) Bauer ignores the fact that Clement of Alexandria, one of Egypt’s mist famous second century orthodox Christian teachers, and Irenaeus, a second century bishop in Gaul, independently of one another claimed that orthodoxy preceded the rise of Valentinus. James McCue offers three thoughts about Valentinianism: a) The orthodox play a role in Valentinian thought such that they seem to be part of the Valentinian presuppositions, b) This suggest that the orthodox are the main body, and at several points explicitly and clearly identifies the orthodoxy as the many over against the small number of Valentinians, c) The Valentinians of the decades prior to Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria use the books of the orthodox New Testament in a manner that is best accounted for by supposing that Valentinianism developed within a mid-second-century orthodox matrix, 5) There are only fourteen extant second- or third-century papyri from Egypt and of these, only one, the Gospel of Thomas may possibly reflect a Gnostic context, and it is far from obvious that the Gospel of Thomas has Gnostic origins; moreover the presence of Old Testament texts speaks loudly against the presence of Gnostic tendencies of affiliations in that community.

EDESSA: This area was the major focus of Bauer’s thesis because he believed that Marcionism clearly preceded orthodoxy. However, there is scant data for what went on in Edessa, and Edessa was not nearly as major a center of early Christianity as Ephesus or Rome. The primary problem here is that Marcionism didn’t arise until Marcion was excommunicated in Rome c. AD 144. This means that Marcionism would not have arrived in Edessa until ~150AD, which in turn forces us to believe the incredibly unlikely claim that Edessa was without Christian influence from 50-150AD!

In theory, it is conceivable that Edessa remained untouched by Christian influence since it didn’t become part of the Roman Empire until 216AD, and prior to this date, Christian missionaries may have found it difficult or impossible to travel to Edessa. Thomas Robinson challenges this contention by saying, “Although Edessa was not part of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the Christian church, it was, as a city on a major trade route in a bordering state, not isolated from the Roman Empire.” Moreover, since a prominent Jewish community existed in Edessa, it seems unlikely that there wouldn’t have been any contact with Antioch, the largest Jewish center in the area. Although Antioch was a considerable distance from Edessa (250 miles), the Jewish capital Jerusalem was a distant 750 miles away. Thus Jew probably would have been in more frequent contact with their counterparts in Antioch. Moreover, during the earliest years of Christianity, Jews and Christians were in close contact in most of the major cities of the Roman Empire.

As Robinson notes, “Quite simply, the Marcionite message had too many Christian assumptions at its core for its primary audience not to have been the larger Christian community. If, then, Marcionism neither looked for nor found an audience other than an already Christian one, the success in Marcionism in Edessa would seem to serve (against Bauer) as evidence for, rather than against, an early Catholic-like Christianity there.

ROME: If Rome was the impetus for orthodoxy, Bauer must show two things: 1) That orthodoxy did not exist elsewhere, since, if it did, orthodoxy was not a characteristic solely of the Roman church, nor was it necessarily original with Rome, and 2) That ‘Roman communication in 1 Clement…to Corinth was not merely an attempt to persuade but was a ruling imposed on Corinth.

With respect to 1), orthodoxy was already present in Asia Minor and most likely also prevailed in Egypt and Edessa. With respect to 2), 1 Clement, when compared with other letters of the same time period, did not aim to impose a theological position onto the Corinthian church but to persuade the Christians there to accept it. If the Roman Chruch had carried the authority Bauer ascribed to it, one would expect 1 Clement to convey an authoritative tone that would tolerate no dissent, but 1 Clement displays no such tone. Darrell Bock lists six additional reasons against the Roman control thesis:

  1. The idea of each city appointing only one bishop probably originated outside of Rome (in Jerusalem and Syria). This implies that Rome’s power may not have given birth to orthodoxy but simply replicated what it had inherited.

  2. Ignatius, who was not from Rome, spoke of theological schisms which implies the existence of orthodoxy outside of Roman control, which suggests that orthodoxy did not originate with Rome.

  3. To argue that Rome imposed orthodoxy on other geographical areas later on on doesn’t give due consideration to orthodox activity that was already attested to in locations such as Asian Minor.

  4. Marcion formed his canon either in reaction to an already standardized collection in the early church, or he pioneered the idea himself. Either way, it is notable that within his system he depended on works that later achieved orthodox status and this apart from Rome.

  5. The earliest liturgical texts we possess come from Syria, not Rome.

  6. Pliny the Younger wrote to the Roman emperor Trajan with regard to a Christian community in Bythynia that worshipped Jesus, a practice that points to the existence of orthodox beliefs there.

Thus, orthodoxy existed in other locations. In fact, this explains Rome’s relative easy success in acquiring ecclesiastical power and in demanding adherence to orthodoxy. If other cities had been mired in a plethora of diverse forms of Christianity, doctrinal uniformity would have been much more difficult.


Was the early church so fragmented such that there were as many Christianities as there were people?

Four Views:

  1. Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930)—Hellenism influenced the post New Testament church to the point of eradicating the original sense of the gospel message. The later church accommodated the surrounding culture, adding layers to the gospel that resulted in a message that significantly differed from the original.

  2. John Henry Newman (1801-1890)—The Christianity that originated with Jesus and his apostles was merely the starting point of a series of theological developments that continued to evolve over the centuries. As a result, 4th century orthodoxy was but vaguely connected to the original.

  3. Walter Bauer, Ehrman, and others.

  4. John Behr—The theology that emanated from the New Testament, continued through the church fathers, was guarded by the Apologists, and solidified in the ecumenical church councils represents a continuous uninterrupted stream. The theology that was espoused by the orthodox, clarified, elucidated, and expounded the theology of the New Testament without deviating from it, and the creeds accurately represent the essence of the apostolic faith.

ORTHODOXY IN THE PATRISTIC ERA: The ‘Rule of Faith’ was that second century guiding principle of the church fathers that continued the essential theological convictions of Jesus and the apostles which centered on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. The church fathers saw their role as propagators, or conduits of this unifying theological standard (96AD 1 Clement, 110AD Ignatius, etc.). The origin of this theological standard that the Fathers passed along was perceived to be the OT, which was fulfilled in Jesus and proclaimed by the apostles. The Fathers taught that the gospel originated with the OT prophets, whose message was taken up by the apostles, who like the prophets, were sent by God. This self-understanding is opposed to second century sects that stripped the gospels of its OT roots, who thought that secret knowledge trumped historical and theological continuity. After the Fathers passed the ‘Rule of Faith’ along, it was written down in creeds in the third and fourth century (See Gerald Bray and Thomas Oden Ancient Christian Doctrine I). This doesn’t mean that the New Testament writers would have conceived of their theology in exactly the same constructs as those of the creeds, but there is an organic continuation and analysis of what the New Testament writers began without any transmutation of the DNA of the NT gospel message, which is in turn, rooted in the OT. For example, the Trinity doesn’t appear by name in the NT, but it is clearly present (Matt. 28:19, 1 Pet. 1:2). But was this “Rule of Faith” predominant in the second century amongst Christians?

HERESY IN THE PATRISTIC ERA: The various forms of heresy that there were in the patristic era were not as widespread and unified as the orthodox adherents (contra Bart Ehrman). In fact, the available evidence suggests that heretical groups were regularly parasitic of the proponents of orthodoxy that were already well established and widespread.

SECOND-CENTURY HERETICAL GROUPS: Ebionites- Jewish Christians that denied the divinity of Jesus because of their Jewish roots; Docetists-Held that Jesus only appeared to be, but was not in fact, human; Gnosticism (the only group that remotely rivaled orthodoxy; some contend that the various subsets of Gnosticism: Marcionism, Valentianism, Syrian gnosis, Basilidian movement, Cainites, Peratae, Barbelo-Gnostics, Sethians, Borborites; were actually independent and unrelated entities; if so, then the following points are all the stronger)

The following three points show that orthodoxy was the norm of earliest Christianity and that Gnosticism was subsidiary and comparatively less pervasive:

  1. Gnosticism was a diverse syncretistic religious movement that, although loosely shared a few key thematic elements, never emerged as a singularly connected movement. Gnosticism was demonstrably diverse and only loosely connected by an overall philosophical framework. As a result, Gnosticism never formed its own church, or group of churches. Gnostics not only disagreed with Christians but also with one another.

On the other hand, second-century Christianity was largely unified according to the ‘Rule of Faith.’ Moreover, orthodox Christians founded thriving churches as early as the 50s AD as is evidenced by Paul’s many letters (Galatia, Thessalonica, Corinth, Rome, Phillipi, Ephesus, and others). Moreover these churches exhibited an almost obsessional mutual interest and interchange with one another.

  1. To the degree that Gnosticism became organized, it did so substantially later than orthodoxy. Scholars disagree about when orthodoxy arose: Some think it originated independently and prior to orthodoxy; Some think it arose independently and alongside of orthodox Christianity; Some think that it arose as a reaction to either Christianity or Judaism. The latter seems to be right because:

--There is no literary evidence that confirms a first-century origin of Gnosticism

--The first century data reveals, at best, a primitive, incipient form of Gnosticism

--When this is compared with what we know of Gnosticism from the second century, we see that Gnosticism began to surface in the latter half of the first century, and only begins to take shape in the first half of the second century, but it never coalesces into a unified whole.

--On the other hand, orthodoxy was organized by the 40s or 50s AD both in terms of churches and in terms of a core belief system.

3) Prior to Constantine’s Edict of Milan (313AD), adherents of orthodoxy had no official means or power to relegate heretics to a marginal role. Interestingly, during the Arian controversy (318AD), there is no mention of Gnosticism which strongly implies that it had either been forgotten or so insignificant as to hardly warrant mention. This means that prior to the Edict of Milan, orthodoxy was able to decisively refute these heretical movements which contra Ehrman, would not have been likely if orthodoxy was so insignificant and unorganized. Without an official governing body in place, the only way orthodoxy could have won, was through sheer force of numbers.

TWO QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS: 1) If orthodoxy was dominant why do we have so many gnostic documents (Nag Hammadi)? 2) Why does orthodoxy mention heresy in its writings at every turn?

The survival of the texts found at Nag Hammadi can be explained by their remoteness of location. With respect to the latter, intensity of rhetoric doesn’t necessitate numerical predominance. The message can be dangerous even if only voiced by a minority.


Larry Hurtado has established that the early Christians acknowledged Jesus as Lord and God as early as twenty years after his death (1 Cor. 8:4-6). What is more, this pattern of devotion to Jesus likely preceded Paul since it is referenced in two pre-Pauline confessions or hymns (1 Cor. 15:3-6; Phil. 2:6-11). When dealing with various doctrinal and practical issues, Paul nowhere defends Jesus’ Lordship and Divinity, but assumes these beliefs among his readers. It might be objected that this ‘Christ devotion’ did not extend to the church at large. However, the evidence from Acts and Paul’s letters regarding broader Judean Christianity (followers of Jesus located in Roman Judea/Palestine in the first few decades of the churches formation) indicates that devotion to Jesus as Lord was pervasive there as well. Hurtado also points out that “Q” in the Synoptic Traditions references devotion to Jesus as Lord. When John wrote his gospel in 80 or 90AD, he was continuing and expounding upon the early Lordship and Divine devotion that was already present. However, the Christology of Jesus in Gnostic writings is variegated. Gnostics disconnected Jesus from the OT, and saw him as a creature distinct from the Creator. For them, Jesus’s sacrificial death was not the means to salvation, but rather, his death brought secret knowledge to entrapped humanity that resulted in salvation. Most importantly, Gnosticism Christology didn’t even approach unity until the second century, and the same is true of other first and second century sects (SEE PG 66 for s great summary).

CHPT. 3—Heresy in the NT (How Early Was It?)

Bauer bypassed the NT itself in defending his thesis because he view the NT as too much disputed. He instead focused on second-century extrabiblical material; no wonder he thought orthodox was late.

THE CONCEPT OF ORTHODOXY: Bauer-Ehrman both have circular reasoning in their argument. They define orthodoxy as the fourth century product of church councils so that anything prior to this is called ‘proto-orthodoxy’ by definition! It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Diversity applies to everything else that falls short of the doctrinal sophistication reached in the fourth century even though there was a clear and conventional group of orthodoxy prior to the fourth century. A correct definition of orthodoxy would be: ‘correct teaching regarding the person and work of Jesus Christ, including the way of salvation, in contrast to teaching regarding Jesus that deviates from standard norms of Christian doctrine.’ From the mid-first century onward, we find a fixed set of core beliefs that were shared by apostolic mainstream Christianity while allowing flexibility in non-essential areas. Were there standards in place regarding the person and work of Christ in the first century that could rightly be regarded as ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’? It should be noted that Ehrman’s definitions win by default in this debate: If there is essential unity in the earliest Christian groups, then this proves that history was written by the winners, but if there is significant diversity, then heresy preceded orthodoxy.

THE RELIABILITY OF THE GOSPEL WITNESS: Richard Bauckham has argued that there was not several decades between Jesus’ day and the time at which the Gospels were generated, during which there were no sufficient control mechanisms that guaranteed the reliable transmission of the material included in the canonical Gospels. Instead, the apostles were not merely the authors or sources of information for the Gospels, but they also provided ‘quality control’ during the period of transmission of the gospel tradition, serving as an ‘authoritative collegium’ throughout the period during which the NT writings were produced. Moreover, it must be remembered that strong convictions do not madate dishonesty or inaccuracy. In fact, sometimes this can have the opposite effect of producing more careful history such as in the case of the Holocaust. So then, by the very nature of the case, the Gospels are our best sources looking for the earliest form of Christianity because they are the earliest available materials and they are based on eyewitness testimony of the followers of the founder of Christianity, Jesus.


ORTHODOXY AND THE NEW TESTAMENT: The Teaching of Jesus and the Apostles was unified with regard to its core belief encapsulated in the gospel of salvation through faith in the crucified and risen Jesus.

PAULS CONCEPTION OF THE NATURE OF THE GOSPEL: Paul gospel did not originate with him, but was a message he received and passed on to others in accordance with the Scriptures, that is, the OT prophetic prediction that God would send his Messiah to die for people’s sins (1 Cor. 15:1-5).

LITUGRICAL MATERIALS THAT PRECEDE THE NT: Phil. 2:6-11, Col. 1:15-20 are pre-Pauline and represent an early core doctrinal belief in high Christology. Phil. is unusual in its vocabulary, rhythmic style, and has an absence of Pauline themes such as redemption or resurrection. Col. Has an elevated diction, and extensive parallelism. 1 Cor. 8:4-6 is striking because Paul inserts reference to Jesus into the Shema, the most foundational of all Jewish monotheistic texts, and “…the only possible way to understand this is to understand Paul to be including Jesus in the unique identity if the one God affirmed in the Shema (Bauckham).”

CONFESSIONAL FORMULAS: Yet another important indication of early orthodoxy in the New Testament writings is the pervasive presence of confessional formulas: ‘Jesus is Messiah’ (Mark 8:29, John 11:27, Acts 2:36, Matt. 16:16), ‘Jesus is Lord’ (Rom. 10:9, Phil. 2:11, Col. 2:6), ‘Jesus is the Son of God’ (Matt. 14:33, Mark 1:1, Luke 1:35, Heb. 10:29). These formulas represent a set of core beliefs that center on the person of Jesus Christ. The NT writers universally testify to the belief that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God.

The designation of Jesus as ‘Lord’ implies an equation of Jesus with Yahweh, the Creator and God of Israel featured in the Hebrew Scriptures. Some object that this is what ‘Lord’ means when applied to Jesus and instead argue that the term only reflects the Hellenistic culture and/or a translation of a title (mara) applied to Jesus by earlier Aramaic-speaking Christians (1 Cor. 16:22, Rev. 22:20). This may be part of the background, but in light of the clear attribution of deity to Jesus in the NT (John 1:1-3, 10:30; 20:28; Phil. 2:6-8; Heb. 1:8), not to mention references to Jesus’ lordship over the created order (Col. 1:15-20; Heb. 1:3), and over history (1 Cor. 3:6; 15:25-26), the term ‘Lord’ clearly carries divine freight.

THEOLOGICAL STANDARDS: The NT writers assume theological standards. For example, Paul speaks of the gospel of Christ that differs from a false gospel, that it contains specific content (Gal. 1:6-9), even more so as Paul claims that he received the gospel by divine revelation (Gal. 1:11-12). Rom. 16:17, Paul distinguishes his teaching from false teachings. 2 Thess. 2:15, Paul commands them to stand firm and hold to the traditions. In 1 John 1:5-6, John speaks of a message (the gospel) that has determinative theological content.

DIVERSITY IN THE NT: The NT also displays a certain degree of legitimate or acceptable diversity, diversity that doesn’t compromise its underlying doctrinal unity but merely reflects mutually reconcilable perspectives that are a function of the individuality of the NT writers. Moreover, there were other groups claiming to be Christian such as the Judaizers and so the question arises: How do we know they didn’t get it right, and orthodoxy got it wrong?

What is legitimate diversity? Who is to say what was doctrinally acceptable or unacceptable in the first century? The answer is, the apostles who had been appointed by Jesus as his earthly representatives subsequent to this ascension. However, Bauer and others even argue that the NT itself has irreconcilable differences:

  1. The teachings of Jesus and the theology of Paul are irreconcilable because Paul adds theological layers to Jesus’ message, esp. about the church, the OT, and the inclusion of Gentiles whereas Jesus rarely spoke about the church, set forth his own teachings, and focused his mission in Israel (matt. 15:24)

  2. Since the 1700s, some see irreconcilable differences between John and the Synoptics (i.e. John was written later than the Synoptics and differs radically in content, John’s chronology stands in contradiction to the Synoptics and/or John presents a much higher Christology than the Synoptics)

  3. The Paul of Acts differs from the Paul of the Epistles. The former is invincible, intelligent, persuasive, moving from place to place in victory; the latter is the opposite.

  4. Paul has a contradictory development in his own theology. In Gal. Paul is egalitarian whereas in 1 Tim. Paul is patriarchal. In Gal Paul exhibits libertinism whereas in Cor. Paul exhibits legalism, and then in 2 Cor. and Romans Paul synthesizing the two.


  1. Although Paul’s theology expands Jesus’ teaching, it in no way contradicts it. Paul’s core message was that Christ died for humanity’s sin, was buried, and was raised from the dead (1 Cor. 15:3-4). This coheres with Jesus’ affirmation that he would die as a ransom for others (Mark 10:45; Matt. 20:28), rise from the dead (Matt. 20:19; Luke 9:22). Paul also shows specific knowledge of some of Jesus’ specific teachings (Rom. 12-13; 1 Cor. 9:14; 11:23-26; 1 Thess. 4:15), and he also applied Jesus’ teachings in the context of his own ministry. Moreover, continuity doesn’t necessitate uniformity. Paul’s predominantly Gentile audience ( Rom. 11:13) differed from Jesus’ primarily Jewish audience (Matt. 15:24). Paul developed Jesus’ teachingsi n the next phase of salvation history. For example, while Jesus rarely spoke of the church, Paul expounded upon this subject. While Jesus focused his mission on Israel, Paul took the gospels to the ends of the Earth, explored how Gentiles were to become part of God’s people.

  2. It is true that John is more theologically developed, but then again, he was writing almost a full generation after the Synoptics. However, this theological expansion doesn’t entail contradiction. As for the crucifixion accounts, in John 19:31, Jesus’ crucifixion takes place on the “day of Preparation,” with the very next day being a “high day” (i.e. Sabbath of Passover week), Thus, the crucifixion takes place on Friday, where “the day of Preparation” wasn’t Thursday (the day of preparation for the Passover), but is referring to the Sabbath just as in the Synoptics.

  3. With regard to contradictions between John and the Synoptics, there is evidence of ‘undesigned coincidences’ (interlocking traditions), without betraying overt literary dependence. In addition, there are ample corroborations: the Spirit’s anointing of Jesus (Mark 1:10, John 1:32), the feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6:32-44; John 6:1-15), Jesus walking on water (Mark 6:45-52, John 6:16-21). Moreover, John presupposes that his readers are aware of the Synoptics tradition, perhaps even the written Gospels (John 1:40; 3:24; 4:44; 6:67, 71; 11:1-2).

  4. The different portraits of Paul in the NT can be harmonized. Humility dictates that Paul represent himself in more humble terms even if Luke extols his prowess. Moreover the book of Acts and Paul’s letters aren’t meant to be complete biographies. Luke was concerned with to present Paul as the leading proponent of the early church who overcame all obstacles by his complete dependence upon God. Paul set out to portray himself in the shadow of Christ’ redeeming work as one who was merely a conduit for Christ and not a celebrity to be admired.

In addition to the differences there are similarities: 1) Luke nuanced Paul’s claims to impeccable Jewish credentials by teaching that Paul was educated by one of the most famous Jewish scholars of his day, Gamaliel, 2) Paul’s activities of a persecutor of the church are repeated in Acts, and Paul mentions his ignominious past in his letters, 3) The Pauline conversion in Acts is paralleled in Paul’s letters, and the location of the conversion is confirmed in Galatians, 4) Pauls supports himself by labor in both, 5) Both reveal his pattern of going first to the Jews, and then to the Gentiles, 6) Both speak of Paul as adaptable to any audience, 7) Luke is a master of salvation history, but Paul is no slouch either; he is able to view the age of law as a parenthesis in salvation history.

  1. Does paul’s theology evolve into contradictions? 1) It is difficult to precisely date the order of Paul’s letter, 2) Paul had been a believer for 15 years before he wrote his first letter, and definitely had time to think critically about his theology, 3) Paul only wrote for a span of fifteen years, 4) Paul perceived himself to be a growing and maturing believer, 5) His purposes varied from opponent to opponent, to setting forth and developing various aspects of doctrine to different churches, to instructing church leaders, 6) There is no indication that Paul thought his theology had changed.

ILLEGITIMATE DIVERSITY: Doctrinal diversity from the apostolic age that was unacceptable to the writers of the NT, judging by the documents that were included in the NT canon. However, some argue that the existence of such diversity in the first place suggests that orthodoxy was tiny minority (Gal., Col., the Pastorals, Jude, 2 Pet., 1 John, Revelation).

Galatians: It is impossible to know whether or not, and to what degree the Judaizers, or Jewish-Christians, or Gnostics, Gentiles, or spiritual-radicals, or whoever they were represented a unified group. All that can be known is that this ‘group’ sought to add additional requirements to Paul’s gospel. Moreover, this ‘issue’ was conclusively settled at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) and it was never mentioned by Paul in Romans which strongly suggests that the issue at Galatia was temporary, limited, and local.

Colossians: Paul’s opponents at Colossae were probably propagating an eclectic amalgamation of Judaism and incipient Gnosticism, including elements of astrology, asceticism, and pagan mystery cults. They were most likely not considered Christians (Col. 2:8). The type of Judaism found at Colossae seems less coherent than that in Galatia. It is unclear whether the proponents of the Colossians heresy were a well-organized group and what affinities, if any, they had to tother religious groups in the region.

Titus, 1 & 2 Timothy: Paul’s primary concern in the Pastorals is not to describe heresy but to refute it. Two regions are represented: the island of Crete and Ephesus. In both cases, the heretical teaching appears to have arisen from within the church; it is even possible that it was the elders who were teaching heresies. In Crete, both Jewish and Gnostic elements can be detected. In Ephesus, there were both Jewish and Gnostic elements as well; Paul was probably opposing an appeal to the Mosaic law in support of ascetic practices that at the root were motivated by Gnostic thinking. It is unclear whether the opposition was well organized or not.

Jude: The false teachers in this apostle cannot be identified with any other heretics. Jude makes clear that the heretic were not Christians because they did not possess the Spirit.

2 Peter: The opponents here were most likely unique, local, and unknown to us.

1 John: The heresy here was not confessing Jesus was the Messiah; some false teachers were professing this. It is unclear who these false teachers were.

Revelation: The letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 is addressed to churches in Asia Minor, and several references to heresy are made.

On the whole, it seems that most of these heresies were local and fragmented, though certain common elements can be discerned. In the end, the only group of early Christians that possessed demonstrable theological unity around a core message that goes back to Jesus and is rooted in the Old Testament was the movement represented by the NT writers. The available evidence doesn’t suggest that other groups during this era were equally widespread or unified. So then, the question isn’t whether or not there was diversity in earliest Christianity; there was; the question is whether or not there was an infrastructure and mechanisms in place by which authentic, original Christianity could be confidently passed down by eyewitnesses and others in the form of creedal statements, Christological confessions, and other set doctrinal formulations. Moreover, it is important to address the question of how widespread heresy and orthodoxy were compared to one another. So far, we have shown that heresy was not anywhere near as widespread and unified as heresy which means that heresy doesn’t possess equal and legitimate authority with orthodoxy to represent authentic Christianity. Moreover, it is important to stress legitimate and illegitimate diversity. Illegitimate diversity was denounced and renounced in the NT, not because one segment of Christianity had the political and ecclesiastical clout to impose itself on all others, it is because the gospel was seen as having intrinsic divine authority from the start that was well-preserved and passed on through a reliable chain that goes right back to Jesus, and Jesus as Messiah was undergirded by the massive sub-structure of the OT. Thus, the only power that persevered the gospel of orthodox Christianity was God’s providence and apostolic authority. Apostolic authority extended to the commissioning of Jesus, and wasn’t ecclesiastical, but rather, it was Christological.

CHAPTER 4: The meaning of the canon

Bauer’s thesis has affected the concept and meaning of the term ‘canon.’ Many scholars think that the ‘canon’ is not something that preceded (and led to) the production of the NT books within the early centuries of Christianity but is an idea retroactively imposed upon books by the later theological winners (This view is quite widespread amongst scholars.) Some even say that we cannot speak of the idea of ‘canon’ prior to the fourth century, or even later. A.C. Sundberg draws a sharp distinction between ‘scripture’ and ‘canon.’ Canon, by definition has little to do with books themselves, but is the result of decisions made by the later church. This implies that the idea of ‘NT’ is very much in trouble. Thus, the question is no longer ‘What books should be in the canon?’ but ‘Should there be a canon at all?’ However, when we consider three critical areas that were before the writings of the NT (canon and covenant; canon and redemptive history; canon and community) it becomes clear that the idea of ‘canon’ was natural, early, and an inevitable development with roots in redemptive history, and just an after the fact development with roots SOLELY in church history.

THE CONCEPT OF COVENANT: To tell the story of how God has redeemed his people is to tell the story of God’s COVENANTAL relationship with them.

THE STRUCTURE OF COVENANT (esp. Hittite ones): 1) Preamble- Opening line that included name of king who was issuing covenant and his titles and attributes; 2) Historical Prologue-history of relationship between king and vassal; 3) Stipulations-terms and obligations of covenant; 4) Sanctions (blessings and cursings)-punishment and rewards for disobedience and obedience; 5) Deposit of

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