The Bauer Thesis
Recently, Dr. Michael Kruger and I filmed a series of videos on our book, The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity. In these videos, we discuss the Bauer thesis, named after the German scholar Walter Bauer. Beginning with Bauer in 1934, the denial of clear orthodoxy in early Christianity has shaped and largely defined modern New Testament criticism. Recently, Bauer’s thesis has been given new life through the work of spokesmen like Bart Ehrman. Spreading from academia into mainstream media, the suggestion that diversity of doctrine in the early church led to many competing orthodoxies is indicative of today’s postmodern relativism. Over the next several weeks, we will be posting the videos of our conversation and providing the transcripts as well. Dr. Kruger has also published a series of blogs on his website summarizing our discussion. You can read the first part of his series here.
Why a book on orthodoxy and heresy in early Christianity?
MK: It’s hard to believe that it’s been 10 years since we wrote The Heresy of Orthodoxy—a book on diversity and unity in early Christianity. Let’s reflect on why we wrote this book and what we set out to accomplish.
AK: I think we both believe that the issues that are addressed in the book are very significant. When you think about it, it’s all about foundations—the foundations of our faith, the origins of Christianity, the apostolic gospel, the identity of Jesus as the Messiah, and whether the Bible is trustworthy or not. How did we get the books of the Bible? How do we know that the biblical manuscripts which our translations are based on are reliable? As you know, the detractors of Christianity are trying to attack Christianity at the very foundation—the origins of Christianity and the Bible. In this book, we wanted to defend Scripture. And as scholars and historians, we wanted to look at the evidence and ask if this is true in the case of the Bauer thesis—that early Christians had a diversity of beliefs and only later did the Roman church, in some sort of power play, decree what all Christians ought to believe. In other words, the cynical view is that Christians don’t necessarily believe the truth about Jesus and Christianity but simply what the church imposed on Christendom.
MK: I remember that when you and I originally talked about this book years ago, the word that was being kicked around in scholarship was “diversity.” And we know that this comes from Walter Bauer’s original thesis—the idea that there really was no Christianity—only “Christianities” in the plural. I’m reminded again why this is so critical. If there’s no such thing as original Christianity, then what we say we’re doing now is not significant at all. I know that was a large part of why we wrote this book. Say a quick word about Walter Bauer.
AK: Well, he was a very influential scholar. Most people know him for his work in Greek lexicography, the famous BDAG lexicon that is still the standard today. But in many ways, his more influential work came through his book Heresy and Orthodoxy in Earliest Christianity, which originally appeared in the 1930s but wasn’t translated into English until the early 70s. Since then, it’s been very influential in the English-speaking world. So essentially what Bauer argued is that the early Christians did not have one, unified belief but instead there were multiple versions of Christianity, “Christianities” in the plural if you will. And it was only in the second and third centuries that Christianity gradually coalesced around what today is historic, traditional Christianity. That’s what others have picked up on because it resonates so well with the contemporary worship, you might say, of diversity as a supreme value. That’s what tolerance is all about. So, it puts Christians on our heels because we find ourselves presented as bigoted, narrow-minded, and intolerant. That explains the popularity of Bauer’s thesis even eighty years after it was first published.
MK: I think one of the things that people love about the Bauer thesis—if they want to criticize Christianity—is that it reverses the typical order. We think things started out unified and later became diverse, but Bauer argues for the opposite. Things started off diverse and later became unified. Well, I’m looking forward to this conversation and the opportunity to go deeper into this book as we reflect on why we wrote it and how relevant it is today.