Was Early Christianity Diverse?
The Heresy of Orthodoxy (Part 3)
In this third installment of our series on The Heresy of Orthodoxy, Dr. Michael Kruger and I discuss one of the greatest weaknesses to Bauer’s thesis—the fact that he never deals with evidence from the first century. You can also follow previous installments to our series: Part 1 and Part 2.
What Do the New Testament Books Tell Us About Early Christianity?
AK: Maybe we should talk a little bit about the New Testament material. Even though Bauer doesn’t, in our book, chapter 3—my favorite chapter in the book—is devoted to a close study of the heresies found in the New Testament and the apostolic gospel that is advocated there. To start out with our main conclusion, we demonstrate that apostolic Christianity was universal and geographically widespread over the entire Greco-Roman empire, while heresies were always localized and limited both in time and in region to a fairly, narrow geographic area. So, when you look at Galatia (where you have the Judaizers), at the Colossian heresy (where you have a syncretistic blend of Jewish and pagan and other philosophies essentially limited to the Lycos Valley near where the church of Colosse was located), and at books such as 2 Peter or Jude or 1 John—in each case, those heresies were current just in that particular location. On the other hand, you look at several passages in the Gospels and Acts, such as Acts 2:42, where we learn that the early Christians devoted themselves to the apostolic teachings—already right at the cradle of Christianity after Pentecost. Or probably the most important passage, Galatians 1:6, where Paul says that “if anyone preaches another gospel, let him be accursed, even if it were an angel or myself.” So clearly, Paul was very adamant about safeguarding and protecting the gospel, which in turn was rooted in the Old Testament. First Corinthians 7 would be another example, which may even be an earlier liturgical fragment, where we read that there’s one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ. In 1 Corinthians 15:3–4, Paul says something that was passed onto him already—namely that Jesus was crucified, buried and rose according to the Scriptures—that was the gospel that Paul defended at great lengths. So, we see that the New Testament clearly shows apostolic Christianity as a unifying factor—and yes, heresies, localized and in no way a genuine rival to apostolic Christianity.
MK: One of the things that you bring up there that is so critical is people ask the question, “Wait a second, if you lived in the first century, what standard would you use to know something was heresy or orthodoxy?” Bauer would come in and say that there was no standard. But you just raised two standards. One is the Old Testament itself. The Christians weren’t without a Scripture in the early phases. They had the Old Testament narrative, which they thought pointed to Christ. They saw a Christocentric understanding of the Old Testament, which informed their understanding of truth and doctrine. And then the second thing that you mentioned is these early creedal affirmations, these early apostolic nuggets that have been passed down—what we might call an early version of the “rule of faith,” if you will. There was a sense clearly, broadly, and deeply within early Christianity that there’s a core amount of things we believe that are not in dispute. And that would rule out things like Gnosticism and other types of heresies.
AK: Absolutely, that’s so important. Our book establishes a very important distinction between legitimate diversity and illegitimate diversity. With people like Bart Ehrman, they lump those all together as if they’re one and the same. So, what we point out is that there is such a thing as legitimate diversity in the New Testament writings. You have authors bring to their writing their own personal styles; they have their own theological emphases; they select certain events—the evangelists certainly do; the New Testament writers of letters write in their own style and temperament; they respond relationally to other churches. But Bart Ehrman talks about illegitimate diversity in terms of contradiction. And so, the four standard alleged contradictions that are often adduced are, first, Jesus on the one hand and Paul on the other. They allege that Paul was the true founder of Christianity and that he claimed to not have known Jesus, supposedly. Secondly, in the book we take up the question: What about John and the Synoptics? Of course, I’ve done a lot of thinking about this. And listening to people like Ehrman, again, he finds this irresolvable contradiction when I would argue that, for the most part, it’s a matter of legitimate diversity. In many ways, John theologically reflected further on the material that’s already found in the three Gospels. We also talk about Paul versus James—the idea that supposedly, the well-known issue of justification of faith apart from works is alleged to be contradictory. And fourthly, in the book we take up the question: Is the way Paul is portrayed in the book of Acts congruous with the way he presents himself in his letters? And again, I think this is something that probably you and I would not have thought of as a contradiction from looking at Acts and Paul’s writings. But for some more critical scholars, they find that there are some differences. So, I think what is important here is to distinguish between the kind of diversity that is not contradictory and actual conflicting beliefs. What we’re arguing is that the former is present in the New Testament but the latter is not.
MK: And just to sum up this first section of the book, you made the point earlier that the big gaping hole in Bauer’s thesis is that he doesn’t deal with the New Testament or the first-century material. When you do, you realize that there’s a very early sense of distinguishing between heresy and orthodoxy—as you put it, widespread orthodox positions—whereas heresy seems to be the outlier in most of these situations. This, once again, makes our case that, yes, there is diversity in the beginning, but not in a way that trumps the core foundational unity the church had over the gospel message.