The Heresy of Orthodoxy

I’ve been reading Andreas Kostenberger’s and Michael Kruger’s The Heresy of Orthodoxy. This book is a scholarly response to a view that has been recently popularized by Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels, a view originally advanced by the German theologian Walter Bauer (1877-1960).

The Bauer-Ehrman Thesis (BET) is this:

BET: in the early church, heresy preceded orthodoxy.

That is, “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.”[1]

According to BET, what we now call “orthodox Christianity” is simply the version that “won” the day, when Rome consolidated its power in the 3rd and 4th century AD. Thus, we are told, there are many “lost Christianities” that need to be recovered by incorporating so-called “heretical” sources into a new kind of Christianity.

A close examination of the actual evidence, including the New Testament documents, shows BET to be on shaky ground. I’d place my money elsewhere.

BET comes up short for at least two reasons:

First, the historical evidence (in Asia Minor, Egypt, Edessa, and Rome) all suggests that orthodoxy preceded heresy, and not the other way around (or at best, the 2nd century data is inconclusive). As Kostenberger and Kruger state, “when orthodoxy and heresy are compared in terms of their genesis and chronology, it is evident that orthodoxy did not emerge from a heretical morass; instead, heresy grew parasitically out of an already established orthodoxy.”[2]

Second, we find a “Christological core” to the New Testament that is grounded in the Old Testament messianic prophecy that is in essential continuity with the gospel that Paul and the early Christians preached. Thus, “the proponents of second-century orthodoxy were not innovators but mere conduits of the orthodox theology espoused already in the New Testament period.”[3]

So, why is the Bauer-Erhman Thesis given so much attention, in spite of the evidence? It has to do with deeper worldview issues: With the emergence of Postmodernism (a view I say is waning, at least in scholarly circles), the only heresy is the belief in absolute truth—orthodoxy. The only absolute is diversity (the notion that there are many truths). Diversity has become the “gospel of our culture”[4]

See the link, The Erhman Project, for a wealth of scholarly responses to BET and its surrounding issues.


[1] Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 17.

[2] Ibid., 66-67.

[3] Ibid., 66.

[4] Ibid., 18.

5 Responses to The Heresy of Orthodoxy

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