Friday, June 04, 2010

The Heresy of Orthodoxy

Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger
The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture's Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped our Understanding of Early Christianity
Foreword by I. Howard Marshall
Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010.

I have on my desk a book to review for RBL by Charles Freeman called A History of Early Christianity and the blurb of this book states: "Charles Freeman shows how freedom of thought was curtailed by the development of the concept of faith. The imposition of "correct belief", religious uniformity, and an institutional framework that enforced orthodoxy were both consolidating and stifling. Uncovering the difficulties in establishing the Christian Church, he examines its relationship to Judaism, Gnosticism, Greek philosophy and Greco-Roman society, and he offers dramatic new accounts of Paul, the resurrection, and the church fathers, and emperors". I won't prejudge this book since I haven't fully read it yet, but it looks like a fairly predictable narrative replayed over and over since Walter Bauer, Elaine Pagels, Karen King, and Bart Ehrman. It is what I call the "Myth of Christian Origins" whereby:

The early church was characterized by a deep-seated diversity where proto- orthodox and proto-gnostic Christians existed side-by-side from the beginning, there were yet no heresies or heretics (except perhaps for Paul), neither were there any hierarchical orders, no single theology of Christ’s person was in expression, and it was a period of innocent pluralism; but this ended some time between AD 80-100 when a vociferous minority of proto-orthodox leaders sought to silence certain voices within the Christian movement and imposed their own rigid theology, ethical rigorism, sacred texts, and ecclesial hierarchy upon a religious movement that was beginning to tire in the absence of Christ’s parousia and this led to the eventual catholizing of the church (see my TynBul article on New Testament Theology Re-Loaded).

In light of this now all too standard mantra of "diversity, diversity" and the wicked orthodox who imposed their views on everyone else, the volume by Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger is a breathe of fresh air that ably tackles these revisionist histories of early Christianity.

D.A. Carson's endorsement of the volume rings true: "In the beginning was Diversity. And the Diversity was with God, and the Diversity was God. Without Diversity was nothing made that has been made. And it came to pass that nasty old 'orthodoxy' people narrowed down diversity and finally squeezed it out, dismissing it as heresy. But in the fullness of time (which is, of course, our time), Diversity rose up and smote orthodoxy hip and thigh. Now, praise be, the only heresy is orthodoxy. As widely and as unthinkingly accepted as this reconstruction is, it is historical nonsense: the emperor has no clothes." And Carson is right that Kostenberger and Kruger have exposed his nakedness.

The book moves in three parts. Part one examines "The Heresy of Orthodoxy: Pluralism and the Christian Origins of the New Testament". This is by far the best section of the book as the Bauer thesis is taken apart brick by brick. Bauer over-estimated the influence of the Roman church, certain groups like the Valentians were parasitic on the proto-orthodoxy rather than prior to and independent of them, and Bauer claimed to know too much based on far too little. There is no denial that Christianity was diverse, but there are good arguments provided to support the notion that the groups that were later judged as "heretical" deviated from a common core of widely accepted beliefs and traditions.

The second section covers "Picking the Books: Tracing the Development of the New Testament Canon" where it is claimed that the canon was not created by the church but received by the church, meaning that it was not an arbitrary collection based on little more than ecclesial politics. The third section "Changing the Story: Manuscripts, Scribes, and Transmission" directly challenges Bart Ehrman's claim that the text of the NT is highly corrupted and was deliberately molested by scribes who sought to conform the text to their own theological perspective. Here I would highlight the discussion on canon, covenant, and community that demonstrates the dynamic relationship between the faith of a community, the expectations of new Scripture that accompany a new covenant, and the textual tradition that the community itself creates.

This is a great book that deserves to be read and it is an excellent counter-point to the repeated assertions that the early church was just a nebulous array of diverse sub-groups until one was able to strong arm the rest. That said, there were a few points that I would contest.

First, Paul's opponents in Galatia are called "Judaizers" and "Heretics" in the book (p. 90). Strictly speaking only Gentiles can Judaize while Jews can proselytize. This is a term that needs to be eradicated from our nomenclature for Paul's adversaries in Galatia. But calling his opponents "heretics" is anachronistic as well. Heresy should be reserved for those who depart from the mature creedal statements of the Church's faith. Galatians was written during a period of the church's formative theological development where the issues of how much of the old carries over into the new was still an open question. Paul calls his opponents "false" not "heretical" since their position departed from an agreed norm with the Jerusalem apostles. But Paul's own view of the Law was developing as well and Galatians is a very raw and radical response to an intrusion onto his turf. Paul's Christ/Law contrast remains fairly consistent throughout his epistles, however, his remarks in Romans are obviously more mature and moderate compared to the explosive rejoinder in Galatians. In fact, if Galatians was the first and last word on the Law, Marcion might well have had a better case for rejecting the Old Testament. In the NT we can identify various positions concerning the Law (Matthew, James, Luke, Revelation) and the early church exhibited a wide diversity of opinion on the matter. Paul was right to object to any view of the Law that denigrated the work of Christ and argued that Christian Gentiles must embrace Judaism, but Paul's own formulation of Christ vis-a-vis the Law was not the unanimous view in the early church at this juncture.

Second, I remain unconvinced by the authors' reiteration of the Protestant apologetic claim that the church discovered the canon rather than created it (pp. 120-21). It is obvious that the church is a creatura Verbi, that is, a creation of the divine word. However, the church was the means by which the the divine word was placed into its canonical context. In my mind, the authors do not adequately distinguish between "Scripture" as a text of religious significance and authoritative weight for a community and a canon which is a closed register of sacred books. As such, I prefer Craig Allert's account of the formation of the canon (see also the book I've edited by Michael Pahl called The Sacred Text which deals with this issue in the opening chapters). I think that the building blocks for the canon are pretty much set in place by the mid to late second century. However, we cannot escape the genuine diversity within the canonical lists, books judged to be inspired were done so retrospectively, that is, after they met the criteria of apostolicity, catholicity, and orthodoxy. That is when they evolved from Scripture into Canon. There was no treasure hunt for inspired works that were found and then declared canonical. Those qualifications aside, the authors are right that: "The Holy Spirit was at work in both the canonical documents and the communities that received them, thus providing a means by which early Christians could rightly recognize these books" (p. 124).

Anyone studying NT Theology, unity and diversity in the early church, or historical theology would do well to consider this book.


Ari said...

Thanks for sharing. Do they take up the question of manuscript distribution and the implications of this? Or at least take it beyond C.H. Roberts' Manuscript Society and Belief in Early Christian Egypt?

Steve Duby said...


In light of your critique of the book I'm wondering what you would say about John Webster's dogmatic account of the process of canonization in which the church assumes a fundamentally passive role.


Anonymous said...

Revisionist history my butt. Paul contradicts Acts on the story of the Jerusalem council and with that all of 'orthodoxy' instantly falls and disintegrates. 'Heresy' clearly did precede 'orthodox' and 'heresy' is derived from Paul whereas 'orthodoxy' is held together by a fictional work called 'Acts of the apostles.'

To explain further.

Paul says he went to the Jersualem council "by revelation." Acts says he was sent by men as an underling of the Antioch church.

That's just one of the many ways in which Paul contradicts the story of Acts.

Aside from the Jerusalem council there are other contradictions. Paul teaches that we are by nature children of Wrath and must be adopted as children of God, in the epistles. In Acts he is represented as teaching (on Mars hill) that all men are by nature children of God (and he quotes a Pagan poet speaking of Zeus "in him we live and move and have our very being" as proof of this).

So, we have two Paul's. The real 'heretical' Paul, and the fake 'orthodox' Paul. Therefore 'orthodoxy' is proven false and anyone who doesn't recognize the 'diversity' of early Christianity proves themselves to be blind and illiterate.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this review. I concur with some of it, and differ at other points.

I've started a three-part review of this book on my blog:

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