Thursday, October 16, 2008

Tony Burke on "Heresy Hunting"

Over at the SBL Forum Tony Burke of York University has a provocative post on Heresy Hunting in the New Millennium. In sum, he takes to task a number of recent books that criticize the writings of the Christian Apocrpha and those who purportedly glory in them. In response, Rob Bowman of Religious Researcher has an interesting post entitled, Defending Heresy in the New Millennium which criticizes a number of Burke's contentions. Burke himself responds elsewhere.

I credit Burke with correctly identifying the ideological profile of many of the books which he criticizes (Christian apologetics written from an evangelical point of view), their negative evaluation of the Christian Apocrypha, and their sometimes too general or uncritical handling of the Christian Apocrypha itself by some authors. I don't like the term "Christian Apocrypha" and I simply call these writings non-canonical documents that were not regarded as corresponding to proto-orthodoxy. I wouldn't reject everthing that Burke complains about, that said I'd like to raise a number of issues based on Burke's short piece.

1. Burke seems to assume that "heresy hunting" is in fact a bad thing, but that of course is itself a value laden judgment against those who conduct Christian apologetics. But there is nothing wrong with, say, identifying a christological pattern in a given document (like docetism in the Apocalypse of Peter) and saying that it does not correspond with the christological pattern of the New Testament and the proto-orthodoxy of the developing church. If one genuinely believes in "false belief" as the NT indicates and "heresy" as the church fathers did, then there is nothing inherently wrong in exposing deviant forms of belief and behaviour that do not correspond to a perceived norm. Christian Apologetics is legitimate so far as it can explain to lay people why the "lost" Gospels (i.e. excluded, non-canonical, apocryphal, gnostic or whatever) lost out. It explains why the church leaders rejected writings that were androgynist (like the Gospel of Thomas) or too ascetic (like the Acts of Paul). What is more, and I hope Burke would agree, debunking inappropriate use of the non-canonical writings by Dan Brown is a good thing (even Bart Ehrman wrote a book on that one) and other erroneous but populist theories like the "Jesus Dynasty" or the "Jesus Tomb" are worthy of refutation by sane scholarship.

2. Concerning the use of the non-canonical writings in research of early Christianity, I think some strands of scholarship employ them inaccurately and inappropriately. First, in regards to those who focus on Q and the Gospel of Thomas as a seedbed of the early church, I concur with Francois Bovon that some scholars have taken what was peripheral to the early church and tried to make it central. Second, the non-canonical writings are often used to show the radical diversity of the early church and how wrong Eusebius was in his depiction of orthodoxy preceding heresy and how right Walter Bauer was in his view of the development of Christianity. I genuinely concur on the radical diversity and density of the early church. However, Bauer's thesis has come under severe criticism from a number of sources (and not just from conservatives but from others like Birger Pearson and Arland Hultgren) and using non-canonical writings to under write Bauer's thesis is equally illegitimate (Burke follows Bauer without hesistation, see here with remarks against conservative responses to Bauer). Alas, Eusebius and Bauer are not the only two models for explaining the rise of orthodoxy and heresy in the early church. There is nothing wrong about giving the voices from the margin a good and fair hearing, as long as we recognize that they are from the margin and were never really contenders for becoming the official scripture of the early church. Third, we should be cautious and critical of those who promote an alternative "liberal myth" of Chrisian Origins. Something that supposes that the two hundred years of the church was a period of innocent pluralism and tolerance that was destroyed by the machinations of a self-appointed and needlessly narrow oligarchy of bishops who imposed their orthodox faith on a vibrant and diverse church. Yet perhaps the proto-orthodox were more charitable that is often assumed. Serapion, bishop of Antioch, was generous in allowing a congregation to initially use the Gospel of Peter until it was used in support of docetism (my suspicion is that the Gospel of Peter is conducive to docetism and not necessarily advocating it except perhaps in a crytpic way). The inclusion of the antilegomena in the canon meant the inclusion of writings, as Christian scripture no less, that many were still unsure about. When Burke writes, "The ancient heresy hunters were instrumental in the suppression of the Christian groups they found objectionable," while this is true to a degree, it can also be used to support the fallacy that orthodoxy was more or less forcibly imposed. Larry Hurtado writes: "There was, after all, no real means of 'top-down' coercive success for any version of Christianity over others until after Constantine, when imperial endorsement and power could be brought to bear. Second-century bishops were elected by Christians of the locale in which they were to serve. So, for example, if a bishop did not have (or could not win) sufficient support from the local Christians, he could hardly impose on them some version of faith contrary to the preferences of the majority. Thus, if any version of Christianity enjoyed success and became more prominent than others in the first three centuries (whether locally or translocally), it was largely the result of its superior ability to commend itself to sufficient numbers of adherents and supporters. To reiterate the point, the apparent success of what I am calling 'proto-orthodox' Christianity was probably the result of teaching and behavior that were more readily comprehended and embraced by larger numbers of ordinary Christians of the time than were the alternative".

3. What about those who urge Christians to explore the spirituality of the non-canonical writings which is part of Elaine Pagel's writings. Rodney Stark humorously calls such persons "Ivy League Gnostics". His book, Cities of God, is worth quoting at length (Burke strangely omits Stark from his survey):

"Purely as a matter of faith, one is free to prefer Gnostic interpretations and to avow that they give us access to secret knowledge concerning a more authentic Christianity, as several popular authors have recently done. But one is not free to claim that the early church fathers rejected these writings for nefarious reasons. The conflicts between many of these manuscripts and the New Testament are so monumental that no thinking person could embrace both (p. 142)."

"Elain Pagels stresses that the Gnostic writers 'did not regard themselves as "heretics"'. Of course note. But the issue of heresy is hardly a matter of self-designation. Let us assume that these writers (including forgers) sincerely believed that they possessed the truth and that the conventional Christians had it all wrong, while the conventional Christians were equally sure that theirs was the true Christianity. Within the confines of faith, the charge of heresy can be resolved objectively only on the basis of which side more accurately transmitted the original teachings of Jesus. That decision must come down to sources (p. 152)."

"Had the Gnostics prevailed, they presumably would be viewed today rather more in the manner that Pagels and other 'Ivy League' Gnostics would wish, assuming that such a thing as Christianity still existed. But the Gnostics did not prevail, because they did not present nearly so plausible a faith, nor did they seem to understand how to create sturdy organizations. Instead, most of them did and taught their own 'thing'. To sum up, the Gnostics gospels were rejected for good reason: they constitute idiosyncratic, often lurid personal visions reported by scholarly mystics, ambitious pretenders, and various outsiders who found their life's calling in dissent. Whatever else might be said about them, surely they were heretics. As N.T. Wright put it, they 'represent ... a form of spirituality which, while still claiming the name of Jesus, has left behind them every things that made Jesus who he was, and that made the early Christians what they were' (p. 154)."

In sum, I'm all for more accurate and more rigorous use of the non-canonical writings. Yet I advocate that Christian Apologetics written by "conservative authors" is a legitimate activity since it correctly casts aspersions on the theological character and historical origins of the non-canonicals for lay audiences whose own theological profile attempts to line up with the NT canon. The non-canonical writings can be equally abused by "liberal authors" who use them to construct an alternative Bauerian myth of Christian Origins (the unassailable liberal orthodoxy) and they sometimes enjoin a spirituality that is devious and harmful from the view point of historic orthodoxy. Note the italics here as I admit the theological and pastoral motivation that guides certain authors and even myself at times when dealing with this material. Burke is free to critique those who use the non-canonical writings in their construction of Christian history or to question how accurately the content and provenance of the non-canonical documents are described. Yet he cannot disparage the theological and pastoral motivations for critiquing these documents unless he himself comes clean on his own theological and ideological biases. In fact, I think I can detect Burke's biases when he states: "The audiences of the heresy hunters were also the writers' fellow orthodox Christians; perhaps their fears of losing members of their group to heresy were also unwarranted. Perhaps we assume too readily, based on the passion of the refutations, that the heretics were a grave threat to ancient orthodoxy". Burke can empathize with the non-canonical authors but not at all with the fears and concerns of the Christian heresiologists. Burke also wants modern apologists to reconsider if the non-canonical writings are, "late, derivative, and ultimately deserving of censure". Cool bananas, but what happens if we are led to affirm on the basis of evidence (not bias) that this is indeed the case. What if the Gospel of Thomas is early to mid second century, dependent upon the Four Gospels, and promoting esoteric schemes of salvation comparatively different from the canonical Gospels. I certainly don't want seminarians getting their theology of gender from the Gospel of Thomas or preaching the empty tomb story from the Gospel of Peter on Easter Sunday. In Burke's opinion, what does that make me? I'd like to know! For what it's worth, maybe Irenaeus' concerns were legitimate and his intentions good. The good bish wrote: "Inasmuch as certain men have set aside the truth, and bring in lying words and vain and vain genealogies, which, as the apostle says, 'minister questions rather than godly edifying which is in faith,' and by means of their craftily-constructed plausibilities draw away the minds of the inexperienced and take them captive, [I have felt constrained, my dear friend, to compose the following treatise in order to expose and counteract their machinations.]"


Edward Pothier said...

I hope I will not be thought picky or pedantic (although pedantry is a greatly underappreciated virtue!). But were there not two German scholars, separated by about a century, with similar last names who made major contributions to early church history.
Ferdinand Christian Baur and
Walter Bauer (with a "e")

While this post used "Baur" and derived forms, should they not be "Bauer"?

Edward Pothier

Ranger said...

I'd be interested in which traditionalists (if any), Burke would consider as non-apologists. Gathercole? Hurtado? It seems like he simply equates orthodox interpretation with apologetics, which is simply not true.

Thanks for responding to his article, and despite being just as biased, thank you for being up front about your biases (which he clearly was not, nor was he objective in his analysis), because only then can we have meaningful conversations.

Michael F. Bird said...

Edward: Thanks for the correction. Small errors like that can creep in when it's your third glass of wine and after midnite.

Ranger: Thanks for the compliment. I think it's important to lay's one's presuppositions and background on the table. However, simply stating one's presuppositions does not vindicate them! That vindication only comes with painstaking analysis and attention to the sources!!