Tag Archives: heresy

Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (1934)

Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (Original 1934; English translation 1971).

Thesis: “Perhaps—I repeat, perhaps—certain manifestations of the Christian life that the authors of the church renounce as ‘heresies’ originally had not been such at all, but, at least here and there, were the only form of the new religion—that is, for those regions they were simply ‘Christianity’” (xxii).

Introduction: Here Bauer sets forth his methodology and presuppositions. He explicitly takes a non-faith-based approach to studying the development of Christianity. For him, the historian plays the role of the judge—adjudicating fairly between two sides, “instead of simply submitting to the mental agility and firmness, the sagacity and loquacity” (xxi) of the dominant party, here orthodoxy’s view of Christian origins.

Ch. 1, “Edessa”: This chapter argues that the earliest Christians in Edessa were heretics—namely Marcionites, Manichaeans, and Bardaisanites—with orthodox (Palutian) Christianity only appearing afterward and as the minority, and ecclesiastical Christianity not arriving until the beginning of the fourth century. Marcionism first came to Syria by 150, and for a long time, it was the most prevalent form of Christianity there; even in the sixth century “Marcionites designated themselves as the Christians—much to the offence of the orthodox, who must be content with misleading alternatives such as ‘Messiah-worshippers’” (24). Orthodoxy did later become dominant in Syria, but only by forcibly converting heretical Christians.

Ch. 2, “Egypt”: Bauer argues that, in Egypt, the earliest form of Christianity was Gnosticism, as evidenced by the lack of non-Gnostic Christian literature in Egypt before the late second century. Bauer postulates two contemporaneous Gnostic groups there: one comprising Gentile Christians and the other Jewish Christians. He acknowledges that Orthodox Christians were certainly present in Egypt before the end of the second century, but says they were the minority. In addition, he argues, even into the third century, Egyptian Christians did not draw sharp distinctions between orthodox and heretics.

Ch. 3, “Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna; Macedonia and Crete”: In the late second century, orthodox Christians were the minority in Antioch (Gnostic Christians were the majority), leading, Bauer writes, to Ignatius’ struggle for episcopal authority: “orthodoxy in Antioch, deprived of its champion Ignatius, was in danger of being driven back, if not routed from the field, by heresy” (65). In Polycarp’s Smyrna, different types of Christians (orthodox, Marcionite, Gnostic) coexisted, albeit not very peacefully, and it is possible that two bishops—one orthodox and one Gnostic—competed for dominance there. Heretical Christianity also predominated in Crete and post-Pauline Macedonia, while orthodoxy was dominant in Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, and Philadelphia —all in Asia Minor.

Ch. 4, “Asia Minor Prior to Ignatius”: Here Bauer correlates Ignatius’ letters and the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2–3. He writes that the churches that “fare best in the Apocalypse [viz. Smyrna and Philadelphia], appear also to be especially free of heresy” (79) in Ignatius. Likewise, Ignatius does not write to Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, or Laodicea, while Revelation has them full of its doctrinal enemies, making it likely that heretical Christianity had control there. In addition, 1 Peter does not mention churches in SE Asia Minor, leading Bauer to the conclusion that orthodox Christianity had not gained a foothold there; instead, “a gnosticizing Jewish Christianity” (88) held the majority position, though heretical and orthodox Christians associated with one another, as Jude and 1-3 John attest. Moreover, a significant number of Marcionites and Montanists were martyred in Asia Minor, along with orthodox Christians.

Ch. 5, “Rome and Christianity Outside of Rome”: Bauer argues that early Roman Christians sought to establish dominance over the Christians in other cities, as shown by 1 Clement, which brought the Corinthian Christians in line with the Romans’ doctrinal positions (though the Roman influence did not spread to the rest of Greece). The Roman Christians wanted to expand their influence to the major cities of the Empire, like Corinth, Alexandria, and Antioch; this drive was the source of orthodox missions to heretical areas.

Ch. 6, “Rome’s Persuasive and Polemical Tactics”: The Roman Christians relied on Peter and Paul—who were connected to Rome through their martyrdom there—to legitimate their strategies of expansion, including 1) emphasizing a single, authoritative bishop at the head of each city’s church, 2) requiring the apostolic succession of the episcopate, and 3) rejecting heresy. They also gave money (gathered from donations by rich Christians) to poorer churches, in an effort to win hearts and minds.

Ch. 7, “The Confrontation Between Orthodoxy and Heresy: General Characteristics and Operating Procedures”: This chapter mostly deals with the confrontation between orthodoxy and Montanism. Bauer argues that the orthodox polemics against Montanism dealt largely in unfair caricatures of the Montanists, because orthodoxy was the minority in places like Phrygia—where Montanism flourished—and needed to make itself seem superior to the heretical majority.

Ch. 8, “The Use of Literature in the Conflict”: Bauer argues, contra Eusebius, that anti-heretical writings were not widely produced and disseminated during the second and third centuries, and that Christian groups—both orthodox and heretical—produced many forgeries, deceptively edited texts, and relied on epistolary networks in order to further their own interests. Polemical texts from both sides took the form of divine revelations and biblical exegesis; the opponents’ revelations were couched as demonic possession and falsifications of the true Word.

Ch. 9, “The Old Testament, the Lord, and the Apostles”: Bauer shows how, from its beginnings, orthodox Christianity accepted the Old Testament alongside Christian writings (interpreting the OT in light of Christian scriptures), while heretical Christians rejected the Old Testament. In addition, different Christian groups used different gospels (both canonical and non-canonical) as their source of Jesus’ teachings. The proliferation of gospels was a major source of intra-Christian polemics. Finally, the apostles (especially Paul and, in Rome, Peter) were the “third authority of Christianity” (212) among both orthodox and heretical Christians.

Ch. 10, “The Beginnings”: This chapter summarizes the rest of the book. Bauer also argues here that Rome was the earliest center of orthodoxy, which ultimately beat out other forms of Christianity because it was the most organized group and because it was the one that was able to spread most efficiently.

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The Apocalyptic Messiah and the Philosophical Trinity

Andrew Perriman has a great post on the difference between the biblical narrative of Jesus and the later doctrines of the Trinity. Here’s an excerpt:

Such an understanding of the Trinity binds our God into the narrative of history, not in modalist or process terms, but perhaps eschatologically: it is our way of saying that we relate to God only on the grounds of the messianic intervention in the story of Israel and of the hope of a final new creation to which that intervention gave rise. Significantly, Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 that at the end the “kingdom”—this authority to rule—will be given back to God the Father, with even the Son subjecting himself to him. That would make the “Trinitarian” arrangement contingent, not absolute, confined to the circumstances of human history and the contextualized witness of the covenant people. . . .

The doctrine of the Trinity may not come into quite the same category of redundant intellectual furniture as theories of the atonement, but if we are going to retain the construct, I would argue that it has to be done in a way that is much more transparent to the dominant lines of biblical thought. Clearly we still need to be able to speak coherently about Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but I seriously wonder whether the Western ontological-relational paradigm still serves a useful purpose. As with the atonement, I suspect that the narrative-historical approach has a lot to teach us.

Go check it out.

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My Troubles with Heresy and Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy and heresy are interesting things.

Over the past year or so, I’ve come to believe that the limits of true Christianity are often inscrutable. That is, I’m willing to count not only the orthodox as true believers, but also many heretics, as well. I’m finding that this position is becoming increasingly hard to hold without some measure of doublethink. On the one side of things, the weight of church tradition stands firmly on the side of a sharp distinction between heresy and orthodoxy, with only the orthodox being counted as true believers. But on the other hand, the weight of church history stands firmly on the side of pluralism, because if only the orthodox are true believers, then no one is a true believer.

On the one hand, church tradition. Ever since Justin Martyr’s denunciation of Marcion in the second century, extending all the way to contemporary culture warriors, the church has had a strong tradition of heresy-hunting. This view makes sense for two reasons. First, in order for an ethnos (a “people,” which is the way the early Christians saw themselves — as a race) to be a true ethnos — that is, for all the members of the ethnos to share common practices — ethnic boundary markers must be in place. It must be very clear who is and who is not part of the Christian people. By necessity, that entails defining what is right practice (orthodoxy) and wrong practice (heterodoxy/heresy) and setting those up as religio-ethnic distinctives. Second, this view is the most scientific. According to the scientific method, a hypothesis is either right or wrong — there is no “maybe” in a rigorous description of how the world works. Likewise, since God is knowable and has revealed himself objectively, it is possible to determine exactly what modes of worship and service he finds acceptable and which he finds unacceptable. Therefore, we may distinguish very easily between right and wrong worship.

On the other hand, church history. Since 1054 CE, every Christian has been a heretic. (1054, of course, was when the Great Schism took place, with the Eastern and Western churches excommunicating each other.) To an Eastern Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholics and Protestants are heretics. To Catholics, Protestants and the Orthodox are heretics. To Protestants, Catholics and the Orthodox are heretics. Each subgroup of Christianity has claimed to be the only right way to worship God. The problem, of course, is that each side uses the same text (the Bible) to support their views, and each side is deeply convinced of their own superiority over the others. So, among the Christian churches, it is impossible to distinguish between right and wrong worship.

Thus, the two sides rage inside me. It is intensely difficult to believe, based on church tradition, that there is a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable worship, while also believing, based on church history, that it is impossible to know what that distinction is.


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