Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Book Review: The Heresy of Orthodoxy

Carl Trueman's helpful review of Andreas Köstenberger and Michael Kruger's The Heresy of Orthodoxy reminded me that I want to review this excellent book after finishing it last week. 

Since college I've enjoyed New Testament Studies as a field and since the Da Vinci Code came out I've expanded my interests into Christian origins and the early centuries of the church. For quite a while the thesis of Walter Bauer has held sway in some circle despite it's criticism and refutation at every point. Bauer's basic thesis is that earliest Christianity was not Christianity singular in terms of a burgeoning orthodoxy or proto-orthodoxy but that Christianity was really Christianities filled with diversity. This diversity was not the sort that one might find when one thinks of the difference between a horn section and a winds section in the same orchestra playing the same symphony. This sort of diversity is to some degree legitimate in the the Word of God itself--non-contradictory and harmonious. Rather Bauer believed the diversity was more wide spread and contradictory almost like a battle of the bands where they are not even competing in the same style of music. It is only looking back that the later church declared one side to be "orthodoxy" and the other side to be "heresy."

In our day of conspiracy theories this view of church history has taken off. It is so easy to assume "history is written by the victors" so that nothing is truly falsifiable since the absence of evidence because evidence of validation. This sort of methodology can create theories on the scantiest of evidence or pseudo-evidence. With respect to Bauer's theory it has been taken up by scholars such as Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels. They have of course, modified it and adapted it in their own ways. They have decimated it at a popular level--books that can be found at Barnes & Noble often given pride of place on the bookshelves.

The is why the Heresy of Orthodoxy is so helpful. It takes on various aspects of the basic Bauer, now Bauer-Ehrman, and dismantles them piece by piece. The detail provided in the book, for example on the textual data of NT manuscripts, makes this book a helpful go to book for those interested in apologetics.

The book contains helpful discussion on unity and plurality and the New Testament and beyond. It contains a basic introduction to the canon. The begin the discussion with a theological explanation of what the canon is. They argue, rightly in my view, that the Scriptures give birth to the church not the reverse. A formal process of recognizing the book and crystalizing the 'lines'  might have developed in the face of opposition but the basic structure of and reliance upon these books was well rooted in the origin of the church. It is nice to see some of the work of Herman Ridderbos and Meredith Kline utilized.  One weakness of some canon discussions in NT circles is the divorce of the historical from the theological--ignoring the latter in favor of the former. 

Furthermore, thebooks that "became" were in functional use as "Scripture" very early. In fact, before the canon was "clear," the practice of the early church was largely "clear" in the usage as Scripture, vs. books that were helpful, vs. books that were categorically excluded. Generally, as widespread as the church was in geography there was not widespread disagreement. 

The book also takes on Ehrman's use of textual criticism and seeks to soundly refute his main contentions. Not only do they address Ehrman's arguments and provide counter evidence, they also seek to address the intentions and biases driving Ehrman's arguments. They demonstrate that Ehrman is out of step with the evidence and in his attempt to refute the notion of a proto-orthodoxy has set the bar impossibly high against it. In short, his starting point predetermines his outcome.

This book gets at what the heart of earliest Christianity was. Either is was a jumbled mess of theologies emerging and bubbling to the surface until one group evolves to prominence and 'kills' out the other side. Or Christianity arise out of a set of core beliefs that were proclaimed back through the apostles and from Jesus himself. Certainly in this latter view, beliefs were clarified and crystalized often in response to emerging modifications and departures, never the less it was the clarification of this proto-orthodoxy that lead to the rise of the earliest more formalized "orthodoxy". 

Of course, Kruger and Köstenberger argue that it the assumptions of our day that often drive the thesis of diversity. Moreover, our day despises appeal to authority. Yet the earliest church fathers had no problem appealing to both the antiquity of their position and thereby the authority of something that was passed down from the apostles themselves. This is, of course, how the rule of faith developed. Earliest Christian belief defended itself by appealing to authority and tradition in order to valid the claims of truth of the doctrine against heresy.

I would highly recommend The Heresy of Orthodoxy to pastors, lay persons looking to be informed, and those academically interested in New Testament Studies and Christian Origins. It is written at a level that a non-specialist can grasp but provides solid arguments that scholars should not dismiss.

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