Thursday, June 22, 2017

Précis: Apostolic Tradition and the Rule of Faith in Light of the Bauer Thesis (Bryan M Litfin)

A Précis of
Chapter 6 from Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christian Contexts: Reconsidering the Bauer Thesis. edited by Paul A. Hartog, Pickwick Publications, Eugene, Oregon, 2015.

“Wide diversity of opinion about Jesus existed in the second and third centuries, and normative Christianity had not yet triumphed.” (p. 141) So in some places “What is now called ‘heresy’ did precede ‘orthodoxy’.” (p. 141) There is enough evidence of this in the post-Apostolic and ante-Nicene Fathers. However, Bauer’s Thesis requires that there was no consistent and and identifiably unique Christian confession or message
in the first and second centuries that would later become identified by the term ‘orthodox.” His thesis also requires that the confession or message that became known as ‘orthodoxy’ developed after these other forms of christianities.  This view is also advance by his modern proponents, like Bart Ehrman, Helmut Koester, and Elaine Pagels.

But Bauer ignored the evidence from the first century, the texts of the New Testament. Litfin cite’s Bauer’s reason for rejecting this evidence:

“[T]he New Testament seems to be both too unproductive and too much disputed to be able to serve as a point of departure. The majority of its anti-heretical writings cannot be arranged with confidence either chronologically or geographically; nor can the more precise circumstances of their origin be determined with sufficient precision. It is advisable, therefore, first of all to interrogate other sources concerning the relationship of orthodoxy and heresy…” (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy, xxv, cited by Litfin p. 144)

Litfin makes a terminological distinction to help the discussion. “Is expressing an interest in the life and teachings of Jesus sufficient to be designated Christian? Can one simply claim that title for oneself with no regard for what the term originally meant?.... Instead, we ought to examine the historical evidence to determine whether any strands among the second or third century  Jesus-Religions more faithfully represented the earliest known layers of Christian belief.” (p. 143)

Litfin uses ‘Jesus-Religions’ as a wide taxonomic grouping covering all early groups that claimed some affinity for or belief in the teachings or person of Jesus. He uses ‘Christianity’ for those groups who held to a certain unified core of stated beliefs about Jesus that are consistent with the preaching about Jesus in the New Testament.

The focus of the article is the development of Christian creeds, confessional statements about Christ, discernable principally from Paul’s writings, the Synoptic Gospels, and John.  The main method of argument is to use the works of historical critical scholars that demonstrate the historicity of these early confessions recorded in the New Testament text.

[A side note: Whether intended or not, this method of argument also very clearly demonstrates how weak and unsubstantiated so many of the bold assertions of historical critics actually are. The chief rhetorical value for using the term historical is its truth-claim, that it implies some kind of objective certainty about what can be known of the past. However, what one historical critic asserts with certainty (in this case Bauer and his proponents) others historical critics show as feeble and lacking in historical merit.]

Looking at what historical criticism has categorized under the term Kerygma to denote the message that was proclaimed, Litfin enlists the works of C.H. Dodd (The Apostolic Preaching and Its Development 1936), Oscar Cullman (The Earliest Christian Confessions 1949) J.N.D Kelly (Early Christian Creeds), Frederick Danker, Jaroslav Pelikan and many others. Litfin focuses especially on the work of James Dunn (Unity and Diversity in the New Testament 1977). Inside and outside of historical criticism these and other authors have highlighted that there is an identifiable, uniform, and unique message that can serve to identify what is Christian from what is not. That the main points of this message were used in the 1st century for that purpose.

The message centered on Jesus, His incarnation, birth, suffering, death, and the physical resurrection of His body, and His exaltation to the right hand of the Father.

Despite differences of emphasis or formulation within Christian groups of the 1st century, the New Testament shows that this core message was held by the church of Jerusalem, the Hellenistic Jews, and the Gentile Christians.

This is prior to the known development of gnostic systems which claimed to be Jesus-Religions. An essential difference between Christianity and gnostic groups is the proclamation of the physical resurrection of Jesus, held from the time of the Apostles by the Jerusalem Church, the Hellenistic Jewish believers, and the Gentile believers. Like their later inheritors, the earliest known gnostic groups denied the physical resurrection, and this denial places them outside of what the 1st century church defined as the Christian faith.

This core message is also at the heart of what later became termed orthodoxy. Though that term is a later development, the collection of beliefs it describes is earlier than the gnostic groups.

[Side note: remember that this is all based on Historical Critical presentations, which is helpful in demonstrating how susceptible these approaches are to ideological paradigms.]

Litfin then turns to examine the regula fide as it is expressed in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. “It will not come as a surprise to find that the regula fidei of the ‘orthodox’ Christians does in fact encapsulate” the set of teachings espoused in the kerygma of the Apostolic writings. (p. 161) “The best recent collection of relevant texts is that of Pelikan and Hotchkiss” supplemented by other texts listed on p. 162 fn 71.  Litfin created a chart that lists 18 specific items of teaching about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Church, and includes explicit reference to Apostles/Tradition as an item. The other axis consists of 21 ante-Nicene chronologically ordered writings by 12 different authors/sources.

“[T]he same key ideas keep appearing over and over again (that is to say, the headings of the chart). Even if an author does not cite each and every concept when he mentions the Rule, a wider investigation of his treatise or corpus would reveal them in short order. Therefore the empty boxes [in the chart] do not indicate that the author did not believe the idea. The gaps merely reflect that many writers made passing reference to the rule in the course of their argumentation…” (p 162)


The chart demonstrates a consistent heritage from the Apostolic proclamation of the central teachings of what would be called orthodoxy. “This is the gospel, the good news of what ought to be called ‘Christianity’ Although Walter Bauer has helpfully reminded us of the many diverse opinions about Jesus in the ancient period [side note: which really never was an issue of controversy], we should discriminate carefully between them all, remembering that only one type was there at the beginning.” (p. 164)

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