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How Diverse Was Early Christianity?

In recent years, scholars have increasingly proposed that early Christianity was not unified but diverse. Is this borne out by historical fact? How diverse was early Christianity? And if diverse, did such diversity extend only to the personal style and theological emphasis of a given New Testament writer or is it possible to speak of doctrinal diversity in the early church, to the extent that there were in fact multiple Christianities? Did what we today consider historic and traditional Christianity only emerge in the second and subsequent centuries as a set of beliefs imposed by the ecclesiastical hierarchy onto all Christians?

We discuss this topic (the so-called “Bauer-Ehrman thesis”) in our book The Heresy of Orthodoxy. The following summary and chronological timeline summarizes our main findings in that book, particularly chapter 2.

Early Orthodoxy as the Standard for Later Heresies

In short, although the late first and early second century gave birth to a variety of heretical movements, the set of Christological core beliefs known as orthodoxy was considerably earlier, more widespread, and more prevalent than advocates of multiple early Christianities suggest. [tweet_box design=”box_01″ float=”none”]The proponents of second-century orthodoxy were not innovators but mere conduits of the orthodox theology espoused already in the New Testament period.[/tweet_box] The following timeline will help summarize and clarify the relationship between orthodoxy and heresy in the patristic period.

Chronological Timeline

  • AD 33: Jesus dies and rises from the dead.
  • AD 40s-60s: Paul writes letters to various churches; orthodoxy is pervasive and mainstream; churches are organized around a central message; undeveloped heresies begin to emerge.
  • AD 60s-90s: The Gospels and the rest of the New Testament are written and continue to propagate the orthodoxy that preceded them; orthodoxy continues to be pervasive and mainstream; heresies are still undeveloped.
  • AD 90s-130s: The New Testament writers pass from the scene; the Apostolic Fathers emerge and continue to propagate the orthodoxy that preceded them; orthodoxy is still pervasive and mainstream; heresies begin to organize but remain relatively undeveloped.
  • AD 130s-200s: The Apostolic Fathers die out; subsequent Christian writers continue to propagate the orthodoxy that preceded them; orthodoxy is still pervasive and mainstream, but various forms of heresy are found; these heresies, however, remain subsidiary to orthodoxy and remain largely variegated.
  • AD 200s-300s: Orthodoxy is solidified in the creeds, but various forms of heresy continue to rear their head; orthodoxy, however, remains pervasive and mainstream.

Conclusion: No Early Multiple Christianities

The timeline shows that heresy arose after orthodoxy and did not command the degree of influence in the late first and early second century that proponents of multiple Christianities claim. Moreover, the orthodoxy established by the third- and fourth-century creeds stands in direct continuity with the teachings of the orthodox writers of the previous two centuries. In essence, when orthodoxy and heresy are compared in terms of their genesis and chronology, it is evident that orthodoxy did not emerge from a heretical morass; instead, heresy grew parasitically out of an already established orthodoxy. And while the church continued to set forth its doctrinal beliefs in a variety of creedal formulations, the DNA of orthodoxy remained essentially unchanged.

Note: This post is adapted from Andreas J. Kostenberger and Michael J. Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 66-67. To view the Supplementary Resources for The Heresy of Orthodoxy, click here. To buy The Heresy of Orthodoxy, click here.