Question is, What is essentially Christian? And who gets to decide the answer to that question?

For most Christians in most places at most times, believers have desired (and been able) to distinguish between orthodox/faithful members of the Church and heterodox/faithless (seeming) members. The criteria may change, or may be much debated, but the commonest assumption is that it is possible and beneficial, and perhaps necessary, to distinguish religious truth from religious falsehood, and therefore true teachers from false teachers, and therefore true Christianity from heretical perversions thereof.

Walter Bauer argues otherwise.”In earliest Christianity, orthodoxy and heresy do not stand in relation to one another as primary to secondary, but in many regions heresy is the original manifestation of Christianity.” (G. Strecker in introduction to ET of Bauer, xi)

“It is essential to bear in mind that one cannot meaningfully speak of ‘Christianity’ or ‘the church’ as a monolithic entity in the early centuries of its existence. Not only the study of the New Testament, but the history of early post-apostolic Christianity abundantly affirms the essential diversity of forms of Christianity… [O]rthodoxy is not the presupposition of the early church but the result of a process of growth and development.” (George W. Macraw, “Why the Church Rejected Gnosticism,” London: SCM, 1980, p.127, citing Baeur’s Orthodoxy and Heresy in the Earliest Christianity and James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester, Trajectories through Early Christianities)
To establish this thesis, Bauer, Koester and other modern scholars draw historical evidence to show that many divergent — what today Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox or many Protestant theologians would label heretical — forms of Christianity existed earlier than orthodox forms, or existed and were tolerated until later, or existed and later evolved into orthodox forms.Bauer et al must also seek to deconstruct and/or relativize the apparently dogmatic internal unity presupposed by early Christian writers such as Paul, John, James, Eusebius, Polycarp, and Ignatius of Antioch. They marshal historical evidence that the seemingly clear-cut self-definition in these men is not fitting to the actual situation of Christianity.

This historical evidence consists of showing that argument and disagreement existed amongst Christian communities from the earliest times and showing credal variety.

Nor does the first-century apostolic writing simplify things, “because the majority of [the New Testament’s] anti-heretical writings cannot be arranged with confidence either chronologically or geographically. (Bauer, 5) In other words, Paul is (rather often) writing his epistles to established churches to warn and defend them against false teachers, which seems to support that divergent forms existed, were accepted, and were even popular.

Bauer’s thesis is a challenge especially for Protestant theologians and biblical scholars, for whom the primary (if not the only) way to define orthodoxy is to appeal to the New Testament, which itself is a document not formally organized until later (3rd? 4th?) centuries. Perhaps a Roman or Eastern Christian would have alternate strategies. But in the early church such appeals to the NT was simply impossible. (Perhaps it was possible to appeal to this or that particular epistle, but not a “book” or a sum collection of teachings…)Is the thesis true, then, that Christian orthodoxy as defined by modern-day Christian communions was a late development? Maybe. If so, Bauer makes no progress in establishing its truth.

Bauer makes three fatal assumptions:Assumption #1. It is epistemologically possible to identify the true Church from outside the context of the Church.

Suppose two people, one Jewish and one Gentile, see two rabbis arguing about a fine point of Talmudic law. An outsider might conclude that one of them is not an orthodox Jew (if there is such a thing as ‘orthodoxy’) or that there is no such thing as orthodoxy, since they can’t agree on it. The insider is free to conclude that they both agree on a further fundamental point, or share some other identifying element that makes them both orthodox; or he may conclude, with the benefit of his knowledge of Judaism “from the inside”, that one is orthodox and one is not. For instance, it is essential to Judaism to be an heir of the promise of Abraham. Heirs of the promise may understand something about the essence of Judaism that non-heirs, by definition, do not understand. My evaluation of these two Rabbis then would be essentially limited, and any “critical evaluations” of them would be nonsensical.
Lewis makes a similar point about the Tao in Abolition of Man. One cannot critique the Tao but from within it. One who puts himself (or tries to put himself) outside of it is no longer entitled to make any moral value judgments. One must make value judgments from within the Tao; from without it all value judgments are equally transparent, gaseous, illusory.

A third example: I may evaluate rational systems by rationality. This is evaluation from inside. However, if I evaluate a Buddhist claim (say, that All is Nothing and All is Everything) from outside Buddhism, a Buddhist may tell me (and rightfully so) that I lack the appropriate faculty to evaluate this claim. “Are you to approach a spiritual reality with mere rationality?” he would say. Of course my rational evaluation finds the claim wanting. But the claim is not a claim from within rationality, but from enlightened Buddhism. I simply lack the critical faculty, namely, an enlightened spirit, by which to evaluate the claim on its own terms rather than my own.
I am not arguing that Christianity is like these examples, but rather that Bauer has simply and casually and foolishly assumed that it is not. Without establishing this by argument, I am not sure whether he intends to convince his readers of his thesis. Perhaps he only intends to convince other scholars outside the Christian tradition?
If the essence of orthodox Christianity is something that the non-Christian (or the heretical Christian) can identify, then it is something he can discuss, arguing about the relative priority of orthodoxy to heresy at this or that time. But if not, the whole project hangs.

Assumption #2. All visible differences in Christianities are essential differences.

This is similar to assumption one. Bauer levels his thesis against a variety of “brands” of Christianity. But to do this he must first establish (or casually assume) that he is able to discriminate (from the outside) what is truly Christian and what is not. Having decided what he thinks is truly Christian, (say, believing “Christ is divine”) he can attempt distinguish between heresy (believing “Christ is a divinized man”) and orthodoxy (believing “Christ is fully God and fully man”), and show that heresy existed “as early” as orthodoxy, and only later was it condemned. If however there were (and are) a variety of non-essential differences, then this does not distract from the ability to discriminate between essentially Christian groups and essentially heretical groups. It would be possible to show (from within the context of the Church) that what Paul, John, James, Peter, Irenaus, Ignatius, Eusebius, Justin Martyr, Polycarp et al called “heresy” was indeed a belief-system essentially different from Christianity. It would likewise be possible to show that what all of these men essentially agreed upon, and what all orthodox Christians believed for the first millennium of Christianity, was essentially the same: all and only the essence of the teaching of Christ.

Assumption #3. Christianity develops.

Arguably, Christianity is the doctrine of Christ. Now Christ taught all things essential to Christianity to the disciples orally. (“Go into all the world, making disciples of all nations, teaching them to do all that I have commanded you.”) The disciples made disciples, as he commanded, and taught them all things essential to Christianity, by word of mouth and by letter (Cf II Thes 2:15). If there were any essential changes to this teaching 1) only a disciple of Christ would be able to discern that essential difference (identifying the crooked by reference to the straight), 2) the change would have been a fall away from a fully developed body of doctrine and way of living, rather than a “development.”

Now, I’m not arguing that Christianity does not develop, but I am pointing out that this is an un-argued assumption of Bauer’s, and upon it the whole project hangs. One ought not leave to silence such important assumptions. Not only this, but it seems that the “developing movements” historiographical approach presupposes a neo-darwinistic social evolutionary paradigm by which we ought to approach history. Such a paradigm is, I daresay, anachronistically applied to 1st century Roman and Greek religious movements.

For scholars and theologians who are interested in this thesis and this critical project, I would not argue against the thesis itself right off, but rather against these presuppositions. Or rather ask for an argument for them. Without surety about these three assumptions, the whole argument would slack, and would need to be entirely renovated or else abandoned.

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Posted by Keith E. Buhler

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