Bauer has his name attached to another project as well, and this one is somewhat more controversial. “Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity” (1934) has probably set the pace for what “liberal” biblical scholars have believed over the last 50 years. Names like Rudolph Bultmann, Helmut Koester, James Dunn, and Bart Ehrman have all attached themselves to this “thesis” in one way or another. Of course it has been challenged as well.
In a comment thread below, David Waltz dropped a couple of comments along these lines:
Does John realize that a number of the scholars that he cites in his posts believe that it is impossible to speak of 'a church', but rather, that one must speak of 'churches'? …What he’s talking about here is “The Bauer Thesis,” or the notion that there were multiple competing Christianities that sort of “fought it out” during the second century. Bauer posited that what became known as “orthodoxy” was sort of “muscled-through” by Rome, at the expense of some of the other sort of “gnostic” versions of Christianity, all of which competed on equal terms. We have also heard this endless refrain from David Waltz:
You make it sound as if there are no 'gaps' in the historical record and that a unified theory exists among NT scholars as to the precise nature and theology of the early church/churches...I don't buy it John, I am just too well read on this issue to do so.
… that Lampe, and so many other liberal revisionists”, have offered us little more than dubious theories filled with gaping holes…David has not just repeated this notion in many different variations from his own blog, but in that a range of mindless followers of his are parroting this too.
What follows is from Darrell Bock, “The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities” Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishing, ©2006:
Walter Bauer’s Theory on Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early ChristianityI want to just take a break here and note Bock’s treatment of “The Bauer Thesis”. I had originally intended to give a kind of overview of what “Liberal Biblical Theology” has held to over the last couple of centuries, but I thought that would just be a bit too much information. (If anyone wants to go into this brief history, please let me know. But this is the foundation of a lot of what we are seeing today.) “The Bauer Thesis” is highly representative of what “liberal biblical scholars” believe today. This is what “liberal biblical scholars” “presuppose” in their work.
Bauer’s theory is the base for current material. If there is any doubt, listen to comments from some of these works.
Helmut Koester taught as professor of New Testament at Harvard University. He is the figure most responsible for promoting Bauer’s ideas in recent decades. He was aware that Bauer’s ideas needed refinement but still lauded the work. He wrote in 1965, “Walter Bauer … demonstrated convincingly in a brilliant monograph of 1934 that Christian groups labeled heretical actually predominated in the first two or three centuries, both geographically and theologically. Recent discoveries, especially those at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, have made it even clearer that Bauer was essentially right and that a thorough and extensive revaluation of early Christian history is called for” (Koester 1965, 114).
Elaine Pagels (1979, xxxi) says, “Bauer recognized that the early Christian movement was itself far more diverse than orthodox sources chose to indicate.” She then goes on to mention but dismiss substantive criticism of Bauer: “Certainly Bauer’s suggestion that, in certain Christian groups, those later called ‘heretics’ formed the majority, goes beyond the gnostics’ own claims: They typically characterized themselves as ‘the few’ in relation to ‘the many’ (hoi polloi). But Bauer … opened up new ways of thinking about Gnosticism.”
Pagels’s remarks are accurate, but let’s consider what she says. In effect, she says that although the evidence from the voices of the unheard does not agree with Bauer, he still has opened up new ways of thinking about these groups. It is almost as if history be damned; what counts are the new ideas.
Bart Ehrman (2003, 172–80) also offers praise. Ehrman says of Bauer (1877–1960), “His most controversial and influential work was a study of theological conflicts in the early church. Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (1934) was arguably the most important book on the history of early Christianity to appear in the twentieth century” (p. 173). Ehrman summarizes the assessment of Bauer this way:
Specific details of Bauer’s demonstration were immediately seen as problematic. Bauer was charged, with good reason, with attacking orthodox sources with inquisitorial zeal and exploiting to a nearly absurd extent the argument from silence. Moreover, in terms of his specific claims, each of the regions that he examined has been subjected to further scrutiny, not always to the advantage of his conclusions. Probably most scholars today think that Bauer underestimated the extent of proto-orthodoxy [Ehrman’s term for orthodoxy in the early period] and overestimated the influence of the Roman church on the course of the conflicts (p. 176, emphasis and bracketed explanation added).This summary is exceedingly fair to the post-Bauer discussion, but it raises a serious question. If the two central Bauerian positions are flawed, why does his overall thesis stand? When does this schizophrenic handling of historical evidence lead to a conclusion that Bauer had it wrong?
Assessing Bauer’s Theory
His Contributions in Terms of Method
What are we to make of this schizophrenic handling of Bauer’s work? On the one hand, this work has been epoch-making with regard to method. Bauer’s study has reconfigured how historians talk about the historical evidence from this period. Bauer’s appeal to listen to both sides of the historical material and to consider how the alternative views expressed their own beliefs was a much-needed word. Nag Hammadi discoveries reinforced this point.
Two methodological emphases of Bauer have stood the test.
1. In their desire to refute these views, the church fathers overstated their own case and sometimes were inaccurate about what was taking place, especially when it came to treating all heresies as coming from a singular root, whether it was back to Simon Magus or calling most of these movements Gnostic (Wisse 1971; Beyschlag 1974). Scholarly consensus exists on this point (Harrington 1980). [Emphasis added by JB]
This observation about the fathers should not be exaggerated. A check of Irenaeus against the sources of views he challenged reveals that he described those views accurately. Many of the details of views noted in other fathers also stand corroborated. The implications are important. The new and secret gospels, now paraded as fresh discoveries, were in fact well-known centuries ago. What the blurbs and endorsements claim is new and exciting information is not so fresh after all.
Nonetheless, Bauer’s questioning produced a more careful assessment of the fathers. His call to view the sources from the church fathers in light of their polemics and to listen to proponents from both sides describe and present their views was a necessary historical corrective. [Emphasis added by JB]
2. The examination of evidence by geographical region was an important insight. Ideas move across time and space in different directions at different speeds. Sometimes they reflect a variety of cultural factors, with some of those factors being unique to a given region. [Emphasis added by JB]
These lasting observations make Bauer’s work significant. However, one must distinguish Bauer’s method from his thesis. The content and value of Bauer’s claims are not synonymous with his methodological breakthroughs (pgs. 46-49).
But David Waltz has made comments such as those I’ve reproduced above, and further, he’s lumped Lampe in with “Bauer, Dunn, Ehrman, and so many other liberal revisionists” who “have offered us little more than dubious theories filled with gaping holes…”
But I have a question or two for David. At this point, is Bock “inconsistent” to suggest that Bauer, that pillar of “liberal” theology, has provided anything useful at all, much less “a necessary historical corrective”? If so, why, and if not, why not?
Can you imagine that some church fathers “overstated their case”? That some of them “may have been inaccurate about what was taking place” in their own eras?
In his point 2, can you imagine that it was “an important insight” to know that certain “ideas” might move across regions “at different speeds”? Ideas such as “the monoepiscopacy”? You know, catching on in one place at one time, but not catching on at another place for another 50 or 100 years?
So can you imagine that when Lampe is pointing some of these things out, he’s not being a “revisionist” but rather, is providing a “corrective”?
I’ve got a detailed treatment of Lampe’s work in the works, which shows he is not to be simply lumped with the “dubious theories,” and in fact, is more of the “corrective”. And I’ll hope to share that, Lord willing, in a future post. Next time, I’ll follow up with part 2 of Bock’s treatment of The Bauer Thesis.