Friday, September 17, 2010

The Heresy of Orthodoxy - Introduction

I want to return to a work that I've described earlier, "The Heresy of Orthodoxy," by Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2010). Kostenberger is author of A Theology of John's Gospel and Letters: The Word, the Christ, the Son of God, and also the commentary on the Gospel of John from the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series. Dr. Michael Kruger is Associate Professor of New Testament and Academic Dean at RTS and author or co-author of a couple of scholarly works from Brill and Oxford that I won't be able to afford for a long time.

"The Heresy of Orthodoxy" is an affordable little book that should be snapped up and devoured by anyone who cares about an accurate and easy-to-understand history of both the history and the doctrines of the New Testament Church. It's important to note here that the New Testament provides not only "history" and "doctrine," but it is also foundational if we are to understand "the history of doctrines". All three of these are separate though related elements, and this work takes each of these seriously. I'd go so far as to say that what Jaroslav Pelikan is to "The History of the Development of Doctrine," this little work could be to "The History of the Foundations of Doctrine."

The subtitle of this Introduction is "The Contemporary Battle to Recast the Origins of the New Testament and Early Church" and this is where the authors lay out the topics to be discussed. I've gone into that in some detail in a previous post, and so I won't go into that here, except to say that I have always believed that an understanding of the earliest church was a key to understanding what genuine Christianity was all about. This book gives a remarkable picture of the earliest church, right from the pages of the New Testament and the period immediately following.

Of course we want to believe what's true. And we believe that the word "truth" describes, to the best of our ability, "what actually happened." The authors work with the understanding that the New Testament is, among other things, a true and accurate record of the history of that time period. Others have argued the point, too. For example, Paul Barnett says that "Jesus and the first Christians are genuine figures of history and that they are faithfully and truthfully written about in the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles. These documents were written close in time to the events. They are historical and geographical in character." (Paul Barnett, "Is the New Testament Reliable? Downer's Grove: Inter varsity Press ©2003).

Barnett presents a quotation from the second century (A.D.) historian Lucian, who described the task of the historian in his day:
Facts must not be carelessly put together, but the historian must work with great labour and often at great trouble to make inquiry preferably being present and an eyewitness; failing that he must rely on those who are incorruptible, and have no bias from passion, nor add or dimish anything (pg 13, citing Lucian, Quomodo 47).
Barnett goes on to analyze the historical value of the various New Testament witnesses as historians: Luke, John, Peter, Mark, Matthew. He compares the chronologies of Paul's letters with Acts and also compares and cross-checks New Testament events with extrabiblical mentions of those same events. His conclusion is that "we have not one but several independent sources, not all of them sympathetic to Jesus. If we accept the historicity of the Jewish War on the grounds of independent sources that are able to be crosschecked, it is inconsistent to doubt the essential historicity of Jesus and the early church."

The New Testament is not only history, but it is normative of doctrine and practice
But it is also true that we must put history in its proper perspective. Steve Hays has also helpfully recommended an article by Richard Bauckham, The New Testament and the Episcopacy, which discusses not only the value of the New Testament as "evidence for historical reconstruction", but also its foundational value for establishing a Scriptural norm for the church. In fact, Bauckham notes that at times, "the use of New Testament writings as evidence for historical development ('what actually happened') is being confused with the function of Scripture as theological norm."
If Scripture is to function as Scripture, i.e. as norm for the church's belief and practice, then what matters is not what historians can reconstruct behind and around the texts, but what the texts present as normative to their readers. This requires a canonical rather than a historicist reading of the texts. It must take seriously the whole canon, not a canon within the canon, and must avoid confusing date with value. Chronology will matter only if and in the way that the texts themselves give it significance. Such an approach does not make all historical considerations irrelevant, nor does it solve all problems, but it avoids making highly debatable historical reconstructions, of which the church until modern times had no inkling, necessary to the New Testament’s functioning as normative Scripture.
So what we see is that Scripture, and Scripture alone, has a normative role in determining the doctrine and practice of the church. Later writings are not normative in the way that the Scripture is normative. While we know that "traditions" show divergence from these Scriptural norms -- and we can sometimes value these traditions -- we must question those "traditions" that seemingly contradict what is written in the Scriptures. (For example, I've cited Clement's misunderstanding of New Testament "grace," and also his virtual contradiction of Hebrews 10. The rise of the papacy in the 4th century is also a "tradition" that (a) has no basis in Scripture and (b) actually conflicts with it.)

Bauer's foundational presupposition is, "Must not the historian, like the judge, preside over the parties and maintain as a primary principle the dictum audiatur et altera pars [let the other side also be heard]? When one side cannot, because of anxiety, confusion, or clumsiness, gain proper recognition, is it not the obligation of the judge–and, mutatis mutandis of the historian–to assist it, as best he can, to unfold its case instead ofsimply submitting to the mental agility and firmness, the sagacity and loquacity of the other?" (Bauer, Intriduction, xxi).

He concludes "we can determine adequately the significance the "heretics" possessed for nascent and developing Christianity only when we, insofar as it is possible, place ourselves back into the period in which they went about their business, and without hesitation cast all our preconceived ideas aside."

This is the "diversity" issue that the authors discuss. The notion that every idea, no matter its source, no matter how far-fetched it is, must be given not only a fair hearing, but the presumption of equality with every other text, no matter how legitimate and widely accepted they are. Thus, as the authors state the Bauer/Ehrman thesis:
In the first century, claim Bauer, Ehrman, and other adherence to the "diversity" doctrine, there was no such thing as "Christianity" in the singular), but only Christianities (in the plural), different versions of belief, all of which claimed to be Christian" with equal legitimacy. The traditional version of Christianity that later came to be known as orthodoxy is but the form of Christianity espoused by the church in Rome, which emerged as the ecclesiastical victor in the power struggles waged during the second through the fourth centuries. (16)
What Kostenberger and Kruger work to show is not that there were "Christianities," but indeed, there was one New Testament church, with a definite structure and practice. [And I will say it, yes, this New Testament church of history looks nothing like the reconstruction offered by those Roman Catholics who like to project the structure of today's Roman church back onto the earliest church.]

So, while the authors work from a presupposition that the New Testament is an accurate and reliable record of history, they also work from the presupposition that it is normative for the doctrine and practice of the church.


Truth Unites... and Divides said...

"And I will say it, yes, this New Testament church of history looks nothing like the reconstruction offered by those Roman Catholics who like to project the structure of today's Roman church back onto the earliest church."

Whaaaat.... No Magisterium with indulgences?

John Bugay said...

Well, no, not quite. Actually, not at all. It couldn't be more different.