The Heresy of Orthodoxy (Book Review)

This is a review of the book The Heresy of Orthodoxy by Andreas J. Köstenberger and Michael J. Kruger. The title of this book alludes to the modern (and postmodern) belief that “orthodoxy” was an unknown concept to Jesus and his New Testament disciples. Modern scholarship has shown, so it is said, that Jesus’ teaching, and also that of the early church, had no such concept. The teaching of the early church is supposed to have allowed a much greater latitude of belief and practice than it has since the third century. It is claimed that before that there was a diversity of forms which were all accepted as equally genuine until one group, the church at Rome, managed to force acceptance of its own version as the only valid one, silencing all the others. Hence, according to this kind of thinking, to insist upon “orthodoxy” today is really to advocate doctrine, heretical doctrine, that would have been completely foreign to the followers of Jesus in the first three centuries of Christianity. This book is the authors’ refutation of the key historical claim that undergirds that thinking.

That claim is the creation of the German lexicographer Walter Bauer (1877-1960), editor of the respected Lexicon of the New Testament (its full title is A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature), a solid work of scholarship that has been widely used by both conservative and liberal scholars since its publication in Germany in 1928. Its 1957 translation into English is the well-known Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich (BAG) lexicon. But the worth of that work, say Köstenberger and Kruger, “is entirely independent of the fact that its compiler was in some respects a radical critic who claimed on the basis of his researches into second-century Christianity that there was no common set of ‘orthodox’ beliefs in the various geographical regions but rather a set of disparate theologies out of which the strongest (associated with Rome) assumed the dominant position and portrayed itself as true, or ‘orthodox’” (p. 11). Bauer published a monograph in 1934 (Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity) that set forth this claim.

“Prior to the publication of this volume, it was widely held that Christianity was rooted in the unified preaching of Jesus’ apostles and that it was only later that this orthodoxy (right belief) was corrupted by various forms of heresy (or heterodoxy, ‘other’ teaching that deviated from the orthodox standard or norm). Simply put, orthodoxy preceded heresy. In his seminal work, however, Bauer reversed this notion by proposing that heresy—that is, a variety of beliefs each of which could legitimately claim to be authentically ‘Christian’—preceded the notion of orthodoxy as a standard set of Christian doctrinal beliefs.

“According to Bauer, the orthodoxy that eventually coalesced merely represented the consensus view of the ecclesiastical hierarchy that had the power to impose its view onto the rest of Christendom. Subsequently, this hierarchy, in particular the Roman church, rewrote the history of the church in keeping with its views, eradicating traces of earlier diversity. Thus, what later became known as orthodoxy does not originally flow from the teaching of Jesus and the apostles but reflects the predominant viewpoint of the Roman church as it came into full bloom between the fourth and sixth centuries AD.” (pp. 24-25)

This monograph was not translated into English until 1971 so Bauer’s claim was not widely known outside of scholarly circles before that time, but within those circles it became highly influential. Probably the most prominent of those influenced by Bauer was the liberal scholar Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), who incorporated Bauer’s thesis into his own project of demonstrating that the truth of Christian faith is independent of historical fact. For Bultmann and his students, the Bauer thesis became the established view of Christian history because it fit well with their belief that any historical Christian orthodoxy is (at best) irrelevant to true Chrisian faith. Köstenberger and Kruger give us a quick overview of these scholars and others who were influenced by Bauer’s thesis before it became more widely known outside the academic world.

After the translation of Bauer’s monograph into English, authors writing for the popular audience took up the Bauer thesis, adapted it to their own views, and spread it more widely. Foremost among these authors is a scholar named Bart Ehrman who, among other ways of extending the Bauer thesis, has applied it to the field of textual criticism, arguing that after the victory of the Roman party in establishing its theology as “orthodox”, it sealed that victory not only by deciding which books would be included in the canonical Scriptures (excluding, for example, all works we would today call products of gnosticism), but by changing the text of those books when needed to get them to conform more closely to its version of orthodoxy. Ehrman identifies his claims so closely with Bauer’s that Köstenberger and Kruger often label the thesis they write against as “the Bauer-Ehrman thesis” instead of as only “the Bauer thesis.”

In making their own case, Köstenberger and Kruger first show that several scholars saw flaws in the Bauer thesis even at the time he published his monograph. They sum up the early critical reaction to Bauer in the following four points:

“First, Bauer’s conclusions were unduly conjectural in light of the limited nature of the available evidence and in some cases arguments from silence altogether.

“Second, Bauer unduly neglected the New Testament evidence and anachronistically used second-century data to describe the nature of ‘earliest’ (first-century) Christianity. Bauer’s neglect of the earliest available evidence is expecially ironic since the title of his book [Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity] suggested that the subject of his investigation was the earliest form of Christianity.

“Third, Bauer grossly oversimplified the first-century picture, which was considerably more complex than Bauer’s portrayal suggested. For example, orthodoxy could have been present early in more locations than Bauer acknowledged.

“Fourth, Bauer neglected existing theological standards in the early church.” (p. 33)

Köstenberger and Kruger then show how subsequent scholars have both expanded upon the initial critiques of Bauer’s book and investigated specific claims in it. They summarize:

“...while many appropriated Bauer’s thesis in support of their own scholarly paradigms, others lodged weighty criticisms against the theory. They persuasively argued that legitimate elements of diversity in the New Testament did not negate its underlying doctrinal unity (Turner, Martin, Hultgren, and Köstenberger) and that historical continuity existed between the theologies of first-century Christians and the church of the subsequent centuries (Flora). They also demonstrated the weaknesses of Bauer’s thesis by challenging his methodology and by subjecting his views to concrete—and damaging—examination in individual cases (McCue and Robinson) and by investigating his thesis in light of the New Testament data and finding it wanting (Marshall).” (pp. 38-39)

Having surveyed the other scholarly opinions of the Bauer thesis up to the present, the authors have set the stage for their own work, the contents of which are divided into three main sections, each of which examines one of the issues raised by the Bauer-Ehrman thesis. The first section, from which this review has drawn so far, addresses the issue of the diversity of early Christianity in relation to orthodoxy and heresy; the second addresses the issue of the New Testament canon; and the third addresses the issue of the textual transmission of the New Testament. In each section the authors show how the Bauer (or Bauer-Ehrman) thesis falls short of, and sometimes lacks entirely, the biblical and historical support that it needs in order to be valid.

As important as that point is, however, the authors make clear in their concluding remarks that merely refuting the Bauer-Ehrman thesis was not their main purpose in writing their book. Their main purpose was to defend the gospel of Christ against the defining heresy of this postmodern age: that the only valid truth is diversity, and that orthodoxy (i.e., objectively true doctrine revealed by Jesus, recorded in the New Testament and preached to the world by the apostles, continued by the Church Fathers, guarded by the Apologists, and summarized in the ecumenical creeds) is a heresy (pp. 233-234). In my judgment they’ve succeeded admirably and I recommend this book highly to everyone, but especially to those who may feel that church history is confusing, or is irrelevant to their faith today.

Notes and References:

Book Reviewed:
The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture's Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped our Understanding of Early Christianity by Andreas J. Köstenberger and Michael J. Kruger (Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois, 2010).

Both authors are professors of the New Testament at Reformed seminaries in North Carolina—Köstenberger at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest and Kruger at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte. Both have written multiple books for the academic and popular markets.