The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity

Written by Andreas J. Köstenberger and Michael J. Kruger Reviewed By Peter M. Head

In this book the authors attempt to respond both to Walter Bauer's 1934 book Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity and to how his ideas and approach have been picked up in the recent popular works of Bart Ehrman. The authors create a kind of synthesis in 'the Bauer-Ehrman Thesis', which is probably best understood as the view that within early Christianity 'heresy preceded orthodoxy' (so p. 25 and often). The authors take 'the Bauer-Ehrman thesis' as a challenge to the truth of orthodox Christianity and present themselves as defenders of the true orthodox faith against these (and other) challengers. The authors are very clear that they have an apologetic goal: to defend the truth claims of Christianity to the glory of God and the health of his people (see especially pp. 15-19, 233-35). This takes them into three major areas:

  1.  the question of the relative priority of orthodoxy and heresy within early Christianity (Part 1: The Heresy of Orthodoxy: Pluralism and the Origins of the New Testament)
  2.  the history of the formation of the NT canon collection (Part 2: Picking the Books: Tracing the Development of the New Testament Canon)
  3.  the transmission of the text of the NT (Part 3: Changing the Story: Manuscripts, Scribes, and Textual Transmission)

One of the strengths of the book is the range of issues tackled. It differs from the numerous other apologetic responses to Ehrman in its breadth (it deals with a wide range of material including both text and canon) and depth(it approaches the subject from the foundational theoretical and historical work of Walter Bauer).

It has to be admitted that some problems emerge at the outset with the title. I think the title, The Heresy of Orthodoxy, is suggesting that the orthodoxy that the authors defend would be regarded as heresy by many contemporary scholars (I may be wrong but that seems to be the point on p. 16). One might hope the title could have been helped by the subtitle, but that does not really help, since 'contemporary culture's fascination with diversity' is barely mentioned in the book (I found one paragraph on p. 39, a sentence or two on p. 154, and two paragraphs on pp. 233-34); the core of the book is about the argument and influence of an eighty-year-old book. Given the significance of the key terms, one would hope for some clear and careful definitions of 'orthodoxy' on the one hand and 'heresy' on the other. I couldn't find a definition of 'heresy'; but 'orthodoxy' is defined as 'correct teaching regarding the person and work of Jesus Christ, including the way of salvation, in contrast to teaching regarding Jesus that deviates from standard norms of Christian doctrine' (pp. 70-71). But this does not address the fundamental question as to how or by whom 'correct teaching' or 'standard norms' may be determined. The authors pretty much assume this was all settled by the apostles in a.d. 40-50.

In the first part the authors discuss 'The Bauer-Ehrman Thesis' (or sometimes more simply 'the Bauer thesis'). They argue that Bauer was wrong to think that in various places in the ancient world heretical forms of Christianity are attested earlier than orthodoxy within the extant historical evidence. They argue that in Asia Minor, Egypt, Edessa, and Rome orthodox forms of Christianity preceded heresy. They make some good points against Bauer's thesis, even if not all of their arguments are equally convincing, since occasionally they depend on arguments from silence (as on p. 45 about the memory of Paul in Asia Minor) or presumption (as on p. 49 where they argue that since the nature of Marcionism was a corrective to existing orthodoxy 'it may be surmised that an element of Pauline or Jewish Christianity was present in Edessa that Marcionism subsequently sought to correct'). One might have wished for some interaction with Bauer's actual arguments (often they look at the same evidence as Bauer, but they never take the time, even once, to show that the detailed argument with which Bauer's book abounds, is wrong); and others would be willing to concede points of detail (e.g., we know the names of Gnostic teachers active in the middle of the second century in Egypt, such as Basilides, Valentinus, and Carpocrates, a generation before any named orthodox Christian leader), but our authors seem determined not only to win the battle, but also every minor skirmish.

In the second part the authors deal with the history and also with the theology of the NT canon. This is not so much an argument against Bauer as against Bauer's followers and the views of Ehrman in particular. It also moves decisively away from the normally constrained style of historical argumentation to attribute the recognition of canonical books directly to the operation of the Holy Spirit at work in the early church (e.g., pp. 122f., 126, 129, 136; elsewhere the authors claim to argue as 'scholars'[p. 18] and 'historians'[p. 229]). As a theological appreciation of the NT as a canonical collection, this section has some intrinsic and creative value; as a historical argument against the Bauer thesis, it will have less purchase, one suspects, since our authors take it that it is the anti-supernatural assumptions of the Bauer-Ehrman outlook which involves an unwarranted trust in (a-theological) assumptions (pp. 154-55; cf. p. 171 re 'myopically focusing only on the human element') and since the appeal to the activity of the Holy Spirit in the canon-forming activities of the early church is not attached to any historical actuality (it is invoked repeatedly, but without any specificity-it would appear to be a statement of faith rather than historical judgement).

In the third part of the book, the authors address the accusation attributed to Ehrman that the text of the NT has not been transmitted accurately (how exactly this section relates to Bauer's work is not made clear). Our authors assert that since we have so many manuscripts it is likely that the original text is preserved somewhere among them, that most scribal changes are minor and insignificant, that among significant variations we can usually determine the original text, and that the remainder of unresolved variants are few in number and not very important. These assertions are supported by discussion of some sample passages and the occasional critique of Ehrman's popular writing (of his scholarly writing they are surprisingly respectful and positive, pp. 221-22).

I think this book offers a useful overview of some of the issues it deals with. From my perspective it looks a bit like the authors react to an overemphasis on 'diversity' in some areas of contemporary scholarship, with their own overemphasis on 'orthodoxy'. I also think there is a tendency to present complex issues in a polarized either-or type of manner and without a significant level of directly documented engagement with Bauer's book and the relevant historical and textual details. A clearer articulation of their theistic historiography would also have been welcome since the lack of clarity on acceptable levels of assumption and method of argument have a significant impact on the success (or otherwise) of their engagement with the achievement of Bauer: it is not only the evidence and argument appealed to by Bauer, but his general method that has proven influential.

Peter M. Head

Peter M. Head
Tyndale House
Cambridge, England, UK

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