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What Is the Heresy of Orthodoxy?

The Bauer-Ehrman thesis contends that “orthodoxy” is not a first-century phenomenon but only a later concept that allowed the Roman church to squelch alternate versions of Christianity. We have seen that Bauer virtually ignores the New Testament evidence while believing to find evidence for early heresy and late orthodoxy in various urban centers of the second century. Ehrman, likewise, makes much of second-century diversity and assigns the notion of orthodoxy to later church councils. The precursors of the orthodox, Ehrman calls “proto-orthodox,” even though it must, of course, be remembered that at the time this group was not the only legitimate representative of Christianity according to Ehrman, which renders the expression anachronistic.

A Circular Argument

What are we to say about this way of presenting things? In essence, the argument is circular. Once “orthodoxy” is defined in fourth-century terms as ecclesiastical doctrine hammered out by the various ecumenical councils, any doctrinal core preceding the fourth century can be considered “proto-orthodox” at best. Thus the validation of the Bauer-Ehrman thesis becomes in effect a self-fulfilling prophecy. Bauer, Ehrman, and others have cleverly recast the terminological landscape of this debate, most importantly by narrowing the term “orthodoxy” to a degree of doctrinal sophistication only reached in subsequent centuries, so that everything else falls short by comparison. Then they put “diversity” in place of what was conventionally understood as orthodoxy.

Legitimate vs. Illegitimate Diversity

The New Testament, however, presents instead a rather different picture. What we find there is not widespread diversity with regard to essential doctrinal matters, most importantly Christology and soteriology, but rather a fixed set of early core beliefs that were shared by apostolic mainstream Christianity while allowing for flexibility in nonessential areas. In matters of legitimate diversity, there was tolerance; in matters of illegitimate diversity (i.e., “heresy”), no such tolerance existed, but only denunciation in the strongest terms. What is more, as we have seen in the previous chapter, this early agreement on the fundamentals of the Christian faith in no way precludes subsequent theological formulation.

For this reason Christian orthodoxy for our present purposes can be defined as “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.” Defined in this way, the questions then become: Is it meaningful and appropriate to speak of the notion of “correct teaching regarding the person and work of Christ” in the first century? Were there standards in place by which what was “correct” and what was “incorrect” could be measured? When framing the issue in this manner, the answers that emerge from a close study of the New Testament present themselves quite differently from those given by Bauer-Ehrman thesis.

A No-Win Situation

One final point should be made here. As in many places, Ehrman places the conventional view in a virtual no-win situation. If the New Testament is held to be essentially unified, this, according to Ehrman, proves that it was “written by the winners” who chose to suppress and exclude all countervailing viewpoints. If the New Testament were to exhibit a considerable degree of diversity, and an unsettled state of affairs as to which theological position represents the standard of orthodoxy, this would be taken as evidence that the Bauer-Ehrman thesis is correct and diversity prevailed in earliest Christianity. Either way, Ehrman is right, and the conventional understanding of orthodoxy wrong. As a debating tactic, this is clever indeed. But will it work?

NOTE: The above is an excerpt from The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity (Crossway, 2010).

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