The Heresy of Orthodoxy

Andreas J. Köstenberger and Michael J. Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Shaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway: 2010). $17.99, 256 pages.

In 1934, Walter Bauer published Rechtsgläubigkeit und Ketzerei im Ältesten Christentum, translated into English in 1971 as Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Michael J. Krueger summarize the argument of that book, the “Bauer thesis,” as follows: “close study of the major urban centers at the end of the first and early second centuries reveals that early Christianity was characterized by significant doctrinal diversity, so that there was no ‘orthodoxy’ or ‘heresy’ at the inception of Christianity but only diversity—heresy preceded orthodoxy.” In light of that diversity, Bauer concluded that the distinction between orthodoxy and heresy reflected the triumph of a particular Roman form of Christianity over other forms in the fourth through sixth centuries, which was subsequently projected by the newly minted orthodox back onto their opponents in the theological debates of the second and third centuries, who now were described as heretics.

In The Heresy of Orthodoxy, Köstenberger and Kruger argue that the Bauer thesis is demonstrably false, on both historical and exegetical grounds (Part 1). Despite these manifest failures, however, the Bauer thesis continues to influence our understanding of the historical development of early Christianity.

Part 2 examines this influence in the debate over the extent of the New Testament canon. If earliest Christianity was irreducibly diverse, as Bauer claimed and as scholars such as Bart Ehrman continue to claim, then the 27 books of the New Testament reflect the literary choices of the winning side. Köstenberger and Kruger challenge this interpretation of history in Part 2. They argue that the canon begins to arise, in the New Testament period, as a result of the authority inherent in the apostolic office, whose teachings were committed to writing for future generations. From a very early period in the late first century, the writings associated with the apostles—especially the fourfold Gospel and the collection of Paul’s thirteen letters—were known, cited, collected, and distributed among churches. Other writings, such as the Gnostic gospels, which often claimed apostolic provenance, were not even written until the second century, when the apostles had passed from the scene, and espoused ideas that had no rootage in first-century Palestinian soil, the milieu in which Jesus was formed and to which he ministered. Moreover, despite exaggerated claims that the proto-orthodox (Ehrman’s preferred name for orthodox Christians in the first three centuries) arbitrarily excluded Gnostic gospels and other second century writings from the biblical canon, the historical record reveals that they were never considered in the first place, precisely because of their late date and non-apostolic provenance. What evidence we do have indicates that 22 of the 27 canonical New Testament books were early on and almost universally agreed to be authoritative, forming the core of the canon.

In essence, Part 1 argues that there is such a thing as normative Christianity. Part 2 argues that the New Testament canon evolved naturally out of this early orthodoxy. Part 3 considers whether modern readers can know that the New Testament documents we have accurately reflect these early apostolic documents. Through writings both academic (The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture) and popular (Jesus, Interrupted), Ehrman has argued that the answer to this question must be no. Textual criticism has revealed the massive number of textual variants in our extant manuscripts of the New Testament. Further, close study of these variants has revealed—in many cases—a tendency by orthodox scribes to make the text explicitly theologically orthodox. Consequently, one simply cannot know what the apostles themselves taught, for the winning side in the debate of the second and third centuries has corrupted the Scriptures beyond all possibility of repair. The problem with Ehrman’s argument is both logical and factual. Logically, we cannot know that the orthodox corrupted the text unless we have a pretty good idea of what the text originally said. Factually, text critics are confident that we have a pretty good idea of what the text originally said because, when it comes to the number of New Testament manuscripts, especially contrasted to the number of manuscripts for other ancient documents, we suffer from what Eldon Jay Epps called “an embarrassment of riches.” The overall quality of these manuscripts indicates that Christian scribes took their copyist duties seriously and performed them professionally. Moreover, the vast majority of the textual variants that have been documented are entirely trivial, while those that are major do not affect any doctrine, since they are not the only biblical texts that speak in favor of a doctrine. Luke 7:53-8:11 is a well-known textual variant, which textual critics are certain (or as close to certain as textual critics can be) was not part of the original Gospel of Luke. It is not in the earliest and best manuscripts, it was not known to early second century commentators on Luke, and it is sometimes found appended to late copies of the Gospel of John. Remove that wonderful story of Jesus’ interaction with the woman caught in adultery and what happens theologically? Nothing. No doctrine hangs on any textual variant, even the major and still disputed textual variants.

In sum, contrary to Bauer and Ehrman, orthodoxy preceded heresy. It was original and normative, while heresy was late and counterfeit. The question that rises as the result of Köstenberger and Kruger’s demonstration is why the Bauer thesis still has legs. If it has been refuted in the particulars, why does it live on in general? “The reason it does so, we suspect”—write Köstenberger and Kruger—“is not that its handling of the data is so superior or its reasoning is so compelling. The reason is rather that Bauer’s thesis…resonates profoundly with the intellectual and cultural climate in the West at the beginning of the twenty-first century.” That climate, “contemporary culture’s fascination with diversity,” is a thoroughgoing relativistic pluralism. I suspect that the authors are onto something important with this observation. The major failing of The Heresy of Orthodoxy, in my opinion, is that they didn’t argue this thesis with as lengthy and well-documented a case as they offered in demolition of the Bauer thesis.


P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

3 thoughts on “The Heresy of Orthodoxy

  1. We are a prison ministry in Florida. I visit a man who’s Faith in God was completely destroyed by reading the musings of Bart Ehrman. He is now an Atheist. I enjoyed your review.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s