Notes on Walter Bauer’s “Orthodoxy and Heresy” – part 2 – introductory material

When you’re dealing with some theory or other, it is usually good practice to rewrite what is said in your own words, plainly and simply and without adjectives or distractions.   English prose can be used to conceal the deficiencies of a thesis; and this is how you deal with it.

Firstly, I was looking for a summary of the subject of the first chapter.  Not found it yet, beyond the heading, “Edessa”.  Back to the introduction.  The introduction to the 2nd edition by  Georg Strecker is here.  This is helpful, as a way to see how the book is understood, and it begins as follows:

In earliest Christianity, orthodoxy and heresy do not stand in relation to one another as primary to secondary, but in many regions heresy is the original manifestation of Christianity.

Two different ideas are mingled here, worryingly. 

The first statement is that heresy is not derived from orthodoxy.  Now that sounds like a falsehood, as anyone familiar with the origins of heresies knows.  But perhaps there is some evidence to be offered? 

The second is the claim that in “many” regions there were heretics before normal Christians got there.  The latter part is to be proven; but it can certainly happen, as the career of Ulfilas and the evangelisation of the Germans shows.  However that really belongs to a period when heresy does not mean “raving pagan rubbish” but “complicated theological difference”.

But … the two statements may appear in the same sentence, but they are not logically linked.  Rather the link is insinuated; if it can be shown that there were heretics in “many” areas of the Roman world before Christians were there, then plainly Christianity must be later and heresy first.  It will be interesting to see if any attempt is made to argue this claim, or if it is presumed.

The reader familiar with patristic thought will notice that the thesis of the second part is an inversion of the claim made most clearly by Tertullian, ca. 200 AD, in De praescriptione haereticorum, that heresy comes later, and that this is why it is untrue; it has no connection with the apostolic teaching.  Tertullian makes the point that the heretics cannot document their existence in the apostolic age, but in fact derive their teachings from contemporary schools (haireses) of pagan philosophy. 

Bauer has chosen to try to argue the opposite, based on the survivals of literature from the period, estimated at 1% of the total.  Tertullian, of course, lived in that period and had far, far more and better and earlier sources, as well as oral testimony of various sorts.  And those sources could be very early.  Irenaeus, who knew Polycarp, the disciple of the apostle John, was contemporary with Tertullian, who uses some of his work.  Only two of Irenaeus’ works now survive; doubtless Tertullian knew them all.   When we have a positive and entirely credible statement from 200 AD on this subject, it is curious to attempt to argue the contrary.

What else can we get from this introduction, as to the purpose and subject?  Nothing.

Then onto Bauer’s own introduction.  This is strangely evasive as to the subject and purpose, and littered with self-referential flattery such as “Scholarship has not found it difficult to criticize these convictions”, etc etc.  I have highlighted a few words.

I will proceed from the view concerning the heretics and their doctrines which was cherished already in the second century by the ancient church, and will test its defensibility in hopes of discovering … a route to the goal. The ecclesiastical position includes roughly the following main points…

… historical thinking that is worthy of this name refuses to employ here the correlatives “true” and “untrue,” “bad” and “good.”

[Modern opinion] all too easily submits to the ecclesiastical opinion as to what is early and late, original and dependent, essential and unimportant for the earliest history of Christianity. If my impression is correct, even today the overwhelmingly dominant view remains that for the period of Christian origins, ecclesiastical doctrine (of course, only as this pertains to a certain stage in its development) already represents what is primary, while heresies, on the other hand somehow are a deviation from the genuine. I do not mean to say that this point of view must be false, but neither can I regard it as self-evident or even demonstrated and clearly established. Rather, we are confronted here with a problem that merits our attention.

Note that Bauer does not state explicitly what this “goal” is, although it is pretty clear that Strecker’s summary is correct. 

Note also how the term “ecclesiastical doctrine” (terminology that in English at least invokes shades of “dogma” and “inquisition”) is being used in differing senses; first to represent the view of the church in the 2nd century; then to represent the statements of Christian writers of a later period.  An “ecclesiastical opinion” of the 2nd century as to what is early or late is one that we, today, could hardly disagree with!  But using the term allows Bauer to conceal this.

What he does NOT say, and certainly should have done, is that we are not discussing some abstract “doctrine” or “teaching” or “tradition”.  What we are proposing to discuss, I hope, is the statements made by specific individuals living at a specific time and place, recorded in the literary texts that they composed, and which are available for us to consult today.  It is never a good sign when people are imprecise on this point.  All too often it is found that such imprecision easily blurs into “we can dismiss this opinion because it is merely ‘traditional'” with the implication that it is hearsay.

Bauer would have us believe, therefore, that he is examining the ancient claim that Christians come first, and heretics later.  One would have thought that it was reasonably self-evident that pagans who have never heard of Christ are unlikely to start calling themselves Christians without contact from a Christian community.  So Bauer’s real thesis must be, not to examine that claim — where he could never have enough data to contradict the positive testimonies of people living before 200 AD — but instead to see if he can build a case that there is evidence that some of the heresies have an independent link back to Christ and his apostles.

Finally he leads into the first chapter:

As we turn to our task, the New Testament seems to be both too unproductive and too much disputed to be able to serve as a point of departure. The majority of its anti-heretical writings cannot be arranged with confidence either chronologically or geographically; nor can the more precise circumstances of their origin be determined with sufficient precision.

The excuses seem rather feeble, and this creates an immediate problem for Bauer’s thesis.  The early Christian writers take their lead from the apostles and the New Testament.  In what sense can we examine their claim, while ignoring one of the main witnesses to it?  The attitude which it contains is one, which unlike Dr Bauer, is quite willing to employ terms like “true” and “untrue”.  That underlies every element of the Christian approach to heresy.  Yet it is not to be consulted? 

It is advisable, therefore, first of all to interrogate other sources concerning the relationship of orthodoxy and heresy, so that… we may try to determine the time and place of their origins.

I have chosen to begin with Edessa and Egypt so as to obtain a glimpse into the emergence and the original condition of Christianity in regions other than those that the New Testament depicts as affected by this religion.

There is certainly no reason not to look at the evidence from Edessa, and we shall do so.  However one cannot help reflecting that Syriac Christianity is not at all well documented before the 4th century. 

It seems reasonable to ask why Dr Bauer seeks for data in regions primarily known from late sources?  For if he dismisses the statements of Christian writers of the 2nd century, and won’t even consider those of later times, how will a region whose sources are nearly all 4th century help him? 

Unless, of course, his readers fail to notice this inconsistency?

I cannot avoid the reflection that, even in his introduction, Bauer is proceeding in a manner which is very much less than satisfactory.  It is very important to avoid muddy terms like “ecclesiastical opinion” in examining a specific and limited set of texts.  It is very important to clearly indicate your method and objective.  It is really important to work from the mass of the data to edge cases.   None of this he does.


3 thoughts on “Notes on Walter Bauer’s “Orthodoxy and Heresy” – part 2 – introductory material

  1. It’s been a long time since I read that book, but it may be worth mentioning that the concept of heresy, in its current sense of a disapproved choice, apparently did not exist in the first century (or, at least not before 70), when the Greek word hairesis still had the neutral meaning of a particular association, whether philosophical or medical or the like. And the same appears to be true of the more or less parallel Hebrew term, minut, from minim, kinds, as in the kinds of trees in Genesis. Minut, translatable as heresy, does not appear, for example, in the Qumran scrolls. The concepts of heresy and orthodoxy may have developed in the second century. In some cases the terms (with the new senses) were retrojected back into accounts of earlier times. For a bit more along these lines: page 536 note 5 here:

  2. I would certainly agree that the term “heresy” must be understood in the first or second century with the original meaning of philosophical school. Tertullian indeed makes considerable use of this point, and the link, in De praescriptione haereticorum 6 and 7.

    But of course the idea that there is such thing as right teaching and wrong teaching is in the NT. Indeed it must have appeared approximately ten minutes after Peter stood up at Pentecost, as the followers of Jesus discussed whether or not they agreed. It is, indeed, an inevitable concept for any movement based on an ideology rather than a community. “Are you one of us, or not?”

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