Review: The heresy of orthodoxy, part 1

Andreas J. Köstenberger and Michael J. Kruger have written an interesting book by the title of The Heresy of Orthodoxy.  They contend that New Testament studies is being corrupted by a theory originally advanced by Walter Bauer in 1934 in his book Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei im Ältesten Christentum, and popularised by an English translation and the works of Bart Ehrman, and that this in turn is dripping nonsense into our culture in general. 

The book begins with a short introduction, indicating the purpose of the book — to refute Bauer’s book — and also containing the usual thanks and dedications, plus a note that this is by no means an academic issue alone because of the widespread use of the theory by those seeking to attack Christianity in contemporary society.  This last statement indicates that the authors are Christians, but it is the only such statement in part 1 (I have yet to read parts 2 and 3).

According to K&K, Bauer’s theory was a classic bit of revisionism.  He took the narrative of early Christian history, found in all ancient sources that discuss the matter, and inverted it.  

In the primary sources, we have Christ teaching his disciples, the apostles preaching and founding churches, and the churches transmitting that teaching, and rejecting one deviation after another down the centuries, with theology developing, but not changing, through this process.  But in the sources, there are also the heretics; those who want the name of Christianity, but want to attach it to other teaching.  This other teaching depends on their background; initially it is borrowed from Judaism, but thereafter it is usually borrowed from contemporary pop-paganism, right down to our own times.  Catalogues of these heresies and their infinite variety of teachings exist, such as the Panarion of Epiphanius or the De haeresibus of Augustine, and these often name Simon Magus as the first of them.

K&K tell us that Bauer asserted, in contrast, that the teaching of Jesus had no specific content, and that the movement that derived from him was very various in nature and teaching.  Out of this, at a later date, arose what they call “proto-orthodoxy”, a narrowing of the originally broad and diverse movement.  This better organised faction pushed all the other forms of genuine Christianity out of the nest, so to speak.

In chapter 1, K&K discuss the reception of the theory in North America. The book presumes the reader speaks only English, and there are no direct references to non-English sources in the literature.  But unless the libraries to which they have access are scant indeed, presumably this is a deliberate choice, in the belief that their audience, sympathetic or otherwise, will be familiar with the literature but will not have access to scholarly literature in French and German.   It may be relevant that scholars in North America rarely referred to the work until it was translated in 1971 as Orthodoxy and heresy in earliest Christianity (p.26, n.6).  

Chapter 2 reviews a key element in the Bauer theory.  Bauer examined the data on four early centres of Christianity; Asia Minor, Edessa, Egypt and Rome.  He claimed that in each case there is evidence of heresy predating evidence of orthodoxy.  K&K spend a couple of pages on each, with varying levels of success.  The first portion, on Asia Minor, successfully rebuts the claim.  But only two pages are devoted to Edessa, and there is no mention of Syriac, which makes this portion of the book much too skimpy.  Marcion seems to be the heretic in view, and certainly Ephraim dedicates part of his Prose Refutations to dealing with the Marcionites.  Nearby, Eznik of Kolb in early Armenian likewise attacks the group, who were therefore plainly strong in this region.  Yet … when we look at the list of pre-fourth century literary texts, we think, not of Marcion, but of Bardaisan and The book of the laws of the countries.  We also consider the translation of the Old Testament into Syriac, presumably in this period, perhaps by Jews, perhaps Christians, but probably not by Marcionites.  Surely a better argument could be made here.  The authors might have verified whether any ancient source conclusively records Marcionites as present in any region before Christianity — the catalogue of data in Harnack’s Marcion: Das Evangelium vom fremden Gott would tell them — and if not, then we need not consider the idea that Marcion preceded orthodoxy in Edessa without positive evidence.  Positive evidence is not forthcoming.  The section on Egypt is better, and that on Rome is well-considered.  These sections do refer, in a shallow way, to the data in question.  The next part of the chapter then discusses the patristic view, concentrating exclusively on the regula fidei.  Perhaps the remarks of Tertullian ca. 200 AD on heresies, their origin and attitudes, in De praescriptione haereticorum 1-7 might have deserved a mention, considering its accessibility in the splendid translation by Greenslade, which I think the authors would enjoy if they read it.  Finally there is a discussion — much too shallow — of heresy in the Fathers.  Curiously they only treat gnosticism, presumably because this is the heresy advanced by most of Bauer’s admirers. 

This seems to be the right moment to mention a feature of the book, one common to most of the books on New Testament studies that I have seen.  The primary data plays a minor role, not unnaturally since it is a fixed and small corpus which the authors presume everyone knows.  Instead it digests modern book after modern book, balancing one on another and thereby telling the tale.  Unfortunately it means that much of this part of the book is essentially unverifiable to anyone who does not have the pile of books referenced before him, and looks up each in turn to see whether it does establish what the authors claim.  What I would have liked to see, instead, is a very much larger book.  In that book, each element of the argument would be established from first principles by the authors, based on the primary data and referencing only technical authorities, and describing other authors as they have contributed to the argument.  In 100 pages little can be done.  But in a sense it torpedoes the value of a book, since that value depends on the value one ascribes to the “authorities” referenced.  Some of them look a little unlikely to be able to bear the weight placed on them.

Chapter 3 discusses how heresy is seen in the New Testament.  The treatment is sound, and the authors rightly sidestep the pitfall of arguments about the dating and authorship of New Testament documents.  In the section where they discuss the pastorals, referring to “Paul says”, a footnote indicating that the authorship was not of importance for the argument would have avoided some captious criticism.

At the end of the chapter, a rather rushed set of conclusions in fact introduce new and important material in a way liable to mislead.  Part of the Bauer argument is that orthodoxy triumphed because of ecclesiastical politics.  K&K instead suggest that this is anachronistic, and that the real answer lies in the belief of the early Christians that the gospel message itself was supernatural, and that the attitude to authority was to look for what was divinely bestowed rather than organisationally conferred.  They instance Paul’s own apostolate as an example.  There is something in this, although Paul himself took care to obtain the backing of the organisation that Jesus had left behind him.  They suggest that failure to recognise this reflects an anti-supernatural bias in Bauer, and a prediliction for seeing everything as movements of men and politics, rather than allowing for the ‘charismatic’ attitudes likely to exist among the early believers.  Probably he was so biased, and, like many a scholar, far too removed from such movements to ever instinctively understand how they work.  But the point is made ineptly, and the phrasing is likely to lead to criticism as if they were writing sermons rather than arguing issues.

On the whole part 1 is a success.  On to part 2.