For some critical scholars, the most important fact about early Christianity was its radical theological diversity. Christians couldn’t agree on much of anything, we are told. All we have in the early centuries were a variety of Christian factions all claiming to be original and all claiming to be apostolic.
Sure, one particular group–the group we now know as “orthodox” Christianity–won those theological wars. But why (the argument goes) should we think this group is any more valid than the groups that lost? What if another group (say the Gnostic Christians) had won? If they had, then what we call “Christianity” would look radically different.
Thus, according to these critics, in the second and third centuries there really was no such thing as “Christianity.” Rather there were “Christiantities” (plural), all of which were locked in a battle for theological supremacy.
This entire line of thinking, of course, goes back to Walter Bauer’s 1934 book Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. But, its most ardent supporter today is Bart Ehrman. Ehrman describes precisely this view of early Christianity:
The wide diversity of early Christianity may be seen above all by the theological beliefs embraced by people who understood themselves to be followers of Jesus. In the second and third centuries there were, of course, Christians who believed in one God. But there were others that insisted there were two. Some said there were thirty. Others claimed there were 365 (Lost Christianities, 2).
Ehrman then proceeds to provide a laundry list of many of the conflicting beliefs held by early Christians–a list that no doubt would (and was certainly designed to) overwhelm and shock the average reader.
So, what can be said in response to such claims? Was early Christianity really as diverse as Ehrman claims? Was there no credible standard by which Christians in the second century could tell the difference between true and false beliefs?
There is much to be said in answer to these questions. I have already addressed some of them in a prior blog post (here) and, of course, in my book The Heresy of Orthodoxy.
But, in this short post, I simply want to observe (and respond to) something noteworthy about Ehrman’s methodology. Notice that as he described groups that believed in 2 or 30 or 365 gods, that he refers to these groups as “Christians.”
And why does he do this? Because, as he said, these people “understood themselves to be followers of Jesus.”
But, the use of this terminology by Ehrman is a bit misleading. Sure, these people claimed the name of Jesus. That is not in doubt. But, it strains credibility to think that this is a title that accurately and fairly describes their theology.
The fact of the matter is that Christians did not believe in 2 or 30 or 365 gods. Christians were committed not only to the Old Testament but to a monotheistic system. The historical evidence for this is overwhelming.
The groups that believed in, say, 365 gods were in fact, Gnostics. In particular, Ehrman is referring to Basilides here (and they weren’t really “gods” in the way we think of it, but more like creator-angels).
And the theology of the Gnostics was so out of bounds that it could not be recognizably given the label “Christianity” with any historical or theological credibility.
But, it is not difficult to see why scholars insist on using labels like “Christianity” to describe such groups. The answer is because it creates the impression that there was greater diversity than there really was.
The more the label “Christianity” can be tossed around indiscriminately, then the more it appears that Christians could believe just about anything (and did). In strips the word of all its meaning.
What you have in Ehrman’s statement above, then, is a bit of semantic slight of hand. Yes, it is defensible under the heading that “these people thought they were Christians and who am I to say otherwise?” But, at the same time, it remains substantially misleading and, in the end, unhelpful.
To take a modern example, consider the UFO religious group “Heaven’s Gate” led by Marshall Applewhite. This group believed that they would, upon death, be transported to an alien ship following the Hale-Bopp comet—a belief that led 39 of them to commit mass suicide in 1997. They also claimed to follow Jesus and to be fulfilling the prophecies of Revelation.
What if a newspaper reporter tracking these events went on the evening news and declared, “Christians believe in UFO’s and also believe that they should commit suicide in order to join an alien spacecraft trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.”
When challenged about such a statement, the reporter could say, “Well, this group claims to be Christian!” But, I think we all know that defense is inadequate. No one with journalist integrity would speak in such a misleading way when they know that, historically speaking, this does not represent the Christian faith.
In the end, not everyone who claims to be a follower of Christianity ought to be considered a follower of Christianity. If that basic principle were applied to our study of the second century in a balanced and fair way, I think much (though not all) of the rhetoric about radical diversity would have to be modified.
Great post. Very helpful.
We have been brought up to regard academics as some kind of seekers after truth but in fact many are just careerists earning a nice salary doing what they are good at – reading and writing. They do what is necessary to maintain their comfortable life – so no rocking of boats unless that proves to be a profitable line. Unfortunately there are some who are out and out liars – who deliberately misrepresent issues and conceal facts to advance themselves – Ehrman seems to be one of these.
Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says
It appears that Ehrman, like others, are real selective on their selection of evidence to support their position; even us.
Now, it seems that a lot of the problems is the lack of knowledge about early Christianity in seminary theology and church history classes; let alone Christian colleges and universities.
Let us look at the following:
Clement of Alexandria
The Shepherd of Hermas
David Smithey says
In Mike’s book The Heresy of Orthodoxy he visits the sources you mention above. Ehrman tries to use a Jedi mind trick (these aren’t the droids your looking for) to keep you from realizing the real truth that the Canon was essentially closed very early on. It’s all there in the sources if you care to look at them.
My answer for Dr. Ehrman:
I’m a well-known scholar and expert in biblical textual criticism and I disagree wholeheartedly with him.
What’s that? Do I have degrees from reputable institutions of learning in any field related to this? Am I on the faculty of a major university? Am I published?
Of course not. Why do I need any substance to back up my claims? All I need is to make the claim. Apparently it’s good enough for anyone who claims to be a Christian to be considered so. Therefore, it should be good enough for me to claim to be a well-known scholar and expert in biblical textual criticism to be considered so.
Aaron Carpenter says
Dr. Kruger, I appreciate this post, and I think I need to get your book.
But while I agree with this post, could you please explain why you are not committing the “No true Scotsman” fallacy here?
Daniel Miller says
The “No True Scotsman” fallacy refers to essentially “changing” the definition or raising the bar of something to avoid criticisms or maintain purity. The classic example:
Person A: “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
Person B: “But my uncle Angus likes sugar with his porridge.”
Person A: “Ah yes, but no TRUE Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
This is an appeal to purity of the definition of Scotsman. However, the definition of Scotsman is not “Someone who doesn’t put sugar on his porridge.” Sugar has nothing to do with the definition of a Scotsman–the real definition of a Scotsman is “Someone from Scotland.”
It’s not a “No True Scotsman” fallacy to say “No Native American is a REAL Scotsman” because by definition that person is a Native American… not a Scotsman.
In the same way, Christianity is defined by following the teachings of Christ. Someone who claims to follow 365 gods or that aliens will come to rapture them away is not believing Christian teachings by definition. Therefore, Dr. Kruger is not committing the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.
Aaron Carpenter says
Thanks for that – that’s a better understanding of this fallacy than I had previously.
But what happens when we get a little closer to the correct definition – say, transubstantiation? Many evangelicals would rightly deny any characterization based upon the behavior of Catholics, who most likely make up the majority of the world’s historical “Christians,” e.g. the Crusades?
365 gods is pretty easy to separate from orthodox Christianity, but the Gnostics and other early heretics surely held beliefs that were a lot closer. It’s one thing to say that “true Christians” follow the teachings of Christ, but is that not exactly what many of the early heretics claimed they were doing? To say they aren’t “Christians,” when that’s what they would have claimed to be, presupposes our own definition of orthodoxy. And that just begs the question.
It depends on at least a couple of factors:
First, it depends on your authority. Those who “won the theology wars” actually did so on the basis of what the Scriptures teach over and against what they don’t. That makes the definition external, objective, and knowable to all who can get hold of a good translation of the Bible. It also raises the question of whether our exegesis is well-founded or not. That is not as arbitrary as many would have us think.
But it also depends on what your goal is. If your goal is to destroy Christianity, you can either do it by diluting it by including people who aren’t really Christian or by restricting the definition of Christian to an exegetical stance that doesn’t allow for the differences necessary to give grace to people who are still being sanctified (which is all of us).
On the other hand, if your goal is to build up Christ’s Church, then we must be unapologetically confessional with regard to certain doctrines while recognizing the limits of our understanding on less-important doctrines. Some pastors and theologians have come up with useful tools and categories for sorting these things out. For example, Dr. Al Mohler came up with what he calls “theological triage” – it’s freely read on his web site and easily googled. Dave Miller, a pastor in Iowa, published a book a year or so ago called Brick Walls and Picket Fences that addresses this as well – it’s available on Amazon. Both of those are pretty accessible works. I know there are others as well, but those are the resources I know off the top of my head.
Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says
I would go further. ALL Christians MUST be intellectually honest in their dealings with the evidence. Every person has presuppositions that they have with them when approaching the material that is being scrutinized.
Now the person who is “against” my position will be condemned when making incorrect conclusions, statements, etc. The person who is “for” my position is praised. But what if the person who is “against” my position is correct or the person “for” my position is incorrect would we “honest” and praise or condemn?
The deliberate misuse of the evidence by using half-truths, ad hominem arguments, etc., does not serve the truth nor God regardless of what is done by the opposition.
Bart Ehrman is well-qualified in the area of his expertise: textual criticism. Unfortunately, he has the habit of overstating the evidence when applying that expertise to othet areas; as you are well-aware of.
Finally, the Apostles did have some areas of disagree ment, cf. Acts 15; Gal. 2. Thus, those disagreements evetually led to reconciliation by the participants; although the disagreement with the Judaizers exist to this day.
Jim, are you sure they won “on the basis of what the Scriptures teach over and against what they don’t.”? This begs a biiig question, because it assumes that what the Scriptures teach is established once for all. To see how untenable such assumption is, you only have to imagine yourself living in Europe during the 30 years war 1618-1648, when everybody was at everybody else’s throat on that very issue: what do the Scriptures teach? And also your other assumption that Scriptural truth is knowable to “all who can get hold of a good translation of the Bible” is not serious at all, as you seem to have forgotten some pesky facts like:
1.very few people were literate in the Middle Ages, let alone in the apostles time,
2.no canon was yet established(until 4th century),and
3.the only source of information about the new faith was your friend just back from Rome or any other big city, or your itinerant preacher, or, at the very best, your local congregation’s leader.
So, no, almost nobody could “get hold of a good translation of the Bible” (sorry, but this sounds very much like a 20th century thing), and so they had to trust the leaders. If the leaders were not teaching correctly, you were pretty much out of luck.
Yes, they were on the basis of what the Scriptures teach over and against what they don’t. God used the events of the early church to focus key doctrines on what the Scriptures taught rather than importing external ideologies. Neoplatonism was a prime example.
“This begs a biiig question, because it assumes that what the Scriptures teach is established once for all.”
I agree, and actually conceded this in my original comment. But what you follow with actually doesn’t follow. You bring up the 30-years war. I could be mistaken here, but this was at the end of medieval history where the Reformation had exacerbated the political ills of the papal-Christian synthesis. It’s a reproval not of genuine Christianity, but of a departure from authentic Christianity.
Now let me answer your numbered items:
1. Enough people were literate for it to be an issue of the Reformation.
2.The canon wasn’t established in the 4th century. What was already recognized as canon by the Apostles, the apostolic fathers, and the churches in the West, Alexandria, and Antioch was formally acknowledged.
3. You’re seem to be making a general principle based on a particular state of affairs that was only true in a certain location at a certain time. That’s fallacious.
My comment in general was an observation of church history that people today use to distort other people’s view of Christianity. I could be mistaken, but it seems like that’s what you are trying to do. It helps to set the record straight on such occasions so that people are not deceived, and I welcome correction from my brothers and sisters who know church history better than I do, but I also offer it from my own understanding if I think someone may be in error himself. As I indicated before: it depends on whether your goal is to damage the church or build it up. Christian epistemology is at least an ethical issue according to Romans 1-3.
Pluskic Grayson says
Great point Aaron Carpenter.
Tony Scialdone says
Paul, when writing to the Christians in Galatia, loudly proclaimed that there is ONE Gospel, and that anything other than that one Gospel is a counterfeit:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!
The key is not to ask a diverse crowd what they believe Christianity to be. The key is to go back to what Jesus taught, and how He was understood by those He discipled, and to acknowledge that THAT is Christianity…and there is no other.
David Smithey says
I’m finishing up your book The Heresy of Orthodoxy. Very good!! I have Canon Revisited waiting in line and then The Question of Canon to follow.
Present day Christianity IS in fact a kind of heresy, actually several heresies. We could call them ‘christianistic’, because we have several varities of neo-platonism and other myths, including Hindu. There is no such thing as ‘pure’ Christianity. That should not prevent us from looking to Scripture as our ‘platform’ upon which we live, think and speak.
Epiphanies of Salamis in the late 4th century wrote a compendium (the Panarion) refuting the heresies of his day. He attacks pagan philosophy and Jewish sects, along with about 60 Christian heresies. Books like this show it is no secret that that there was some variety of Christian groups at the time.
The witness of the Church Fathers is important because they show the extent and depth of catholic Christianity. A look at their writings shows their concerns. Christians who believed in 365 gods wasn’t a big concern.
What Ehrman fails to acknowledge is that all the reliable sources he uses are from the Proto-orthodox (as he calls them) or the catholic group. A quick look at gnostic texts shows they are later than the NT.
The blind leading the blind. What is known as religion today is nothing more then the worship of children. God desires not worship or adoration but for his children to avail themselves of the light and be grateful for his blessings.
Commit no wrong, but good deeds do and let your heart be pure. That is true religion!