“The past is never dead,” wrote famed American author William Faulkner. “It’s not even past.”
Faulkner’s quip came to mind repeatedly while reading Michael J. Kruger’s new book, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church. The authors and controversies of that century are unfamiliar to most Christians, but they fundamentally determined what Christianity became and continues to be today. In the words of Gerd Lüdemann, quoted approvingly by Kruger:
To put it pointedly, in the period from the first Christian generations to the end of the second century, more important decisions were made for the whole of Christianity than were made from the end of the second century to the present day [emphasis in original].
What kind of decisions are we talking about? Over the course of seven chapters, Kruger surveys the sociological makeup of second-century Christianity (chapter 1), its political and intellectual acceptability (chapter 2), and its ecclesiological structure (chapter 3).
The next two chapters interact with Walter Bauer’s seminal book, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, and describe both the diversity (chapter 4) and unity (chapter 5) of the Church during this time.
Finally, Kruger examines the “bookish” nature of Christianity during this period (chapter 6), concluding by making a case that the canon of the New Testament was functionally established by the end of the second century (chapter 7).
These issues might strike some readers as “academic” in nature, of no concern to the average Christian today. And yet, academic debates tend to spring up in popular culture in unexpected places. So, for example, a version of Bauer’s thesis — a mangled version, I hasten to add — underlies the plot of Dan Silva’s (awful) 2003 mystery, The Da Vinci Code.
Leading characters in that novel argued that Christian “orthodoxy” was merely the side that won the era’s theological debates with a considerable assist from imperial Rome, that true faith in Jesus was better expressed by doctrines that came to be known as “heresy,” and that the canon of Christian Scripture originally included many Gnostic “Gospels” that Emperor Constantine suppressed.
I was a teaching pastor when Brown’s book came out, and I remember answering numerous congregants’ questions about it. “Is this true?” they asked. “Is Christian orthodoxy just one option among many? Were Gospels excluded from the New Testament canon?” Any answer I gave required getting second-century Christian history right. Like Faulkner said, the past isn’t even past.
To put it pointedly, in the period from the first Christian generations to the end of the second century, more important decisions were made for the whole of Christianity than were made from the end of the second century to the present day. ~Gerd Lüdemann
Let me briefly summarize chapters 4 and 5 Christianity at the Crossroads to show the relevance of Christian history to such concerns.
These two chapters interact with Walter Bauer’s Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, mentioned above. First published in German in 1934, then translated to English in 1971, Bauer’s book argued that, in Kruger’s words, “the earliest (or predominant) version of Christianity in these locales [Asia Minor, Antioch, Egypt, and Edessa] was what eventually became regarded as ‘heresy.’”
Kruger’s summary goes on, “It was only in the later centuries — largely due to the influence of the church at Rome — that the doctrinal debates were settled and the ‘heretical’ nature of these beliefs was to become evident.”
Consequently, as Kruger explains the implications of Bauer’s thesis, “the distinctions between orthodoxy and heresy in these earliest centuries are nonsensical. Instead, what you have in these early centuries are just various competing versions of Christianity all claiming to be original.”
Kruger concedes in chapter 4 that self-described Christians in the second century disagreed with one another. “Just a short time after the time of the apostles [i.e., the first century], it appears that the early Church was mired in controversy over a number of different theological issues.” These included the doctrines of creation, Scripture, salvation and Christ — core doctrines all of them.
And yet, Kruger goes on to argue that these controversies don’t establish Bauer’s thesis. “Diversity by itself does not mean there is no way to distinguish between heresy and orthodoxy,” he writes. “Nor does it mean that heretical views were as popular as orthodox ones.” In fact, he argues in chapter 5, “even in the midst of diversity, there was a core set of beliefs that unified most Christians together,” and “these beliefs appear to have an ancient pedigree — one that goes back even to the days of the apostles.”
Kruger employs three arguments to reach this conclusion. First, he argues that “there was widespread unity centred [sic] upon the ‘rule of faith’, one of the earliest expressions of apostolic teaching.” The rule was “not just an abstract collection of doctrinal affirmations, but [was], in essence, a history of redemption.” It began with God’s creative work, included God’s self-revelation through Old Testament prophets, and focused on Jesus’ acts of salvation. The “widespread, early and uniform nature of the rule of faith” rebuts the notion that “no meaningful theological unity” can be found in second-century Christianity.
Second, Kruger argues that “there are a number of lines of evidence that suggest [the] ‘orthodox’ crowd…constituted the majority of Christians” in this period. These include the number of leaders, the geographical spread of churches, the preponderance of ‘orthodox’ literature, and the fact that critics of early Christianity, such as Celsus, aimed their heaviest fire at the ‘orthodox’ camp, presuming it to be the majority.
Finally, Kruger argues that “the teaching found in the rule of faith matches most closely with the earliest accessible apostolic teaching, namely the seven undisputed letters of Paul” (i.e., Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon). “If the earliest apostolic teaching is a reasonable standard for what counts as ‘orthodoxy’,” he concludes, “then it seems that title is best applied to the mainstream Church that embraced the rule of faith.”
From this brief review of Christianity at the Crossroads, I hope you can see, as Lüdemann saw, the crucial importance of second-century Christian history. Nineteen centuries later, contemporary Christians of various denominational stripes can recognize continuity between their faith and that of what both Celsus (the critic) and Irenaeus (the apologist) called the “great church,” a church that can credibly claim to represent the faith of the apostles.
Christianity at the Crossroads is an illuminating study. It introduces the people and controversies of second-century Christianity in a clear, accessible manner. And it guides readers through scholarly debates about that century, fairly summarizing all sides of the debate, even as it argues for a traditional reading of the historical evidence. I highly recommend this excellent book about that “most important” century.
Michael J. Kruger, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church (London: SPCK, 2017).
P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.
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