Tuesday, June 2, 2015

"Collected Writings on Scripture": Blogging Through Carson - Walter Bauer Thesis

"Collected Writings on Scripture": Blogging Through Carson - Introduction 
"Collected Writings on Scripture": Blogging Through Carson - The Canonization of Scripture"Collected Writings on Scripture": Blogging Through Carson - The New Hermeneutics
"Collected Writings on Scripture": Blogging Through Carson - Faith and Practice
"Collected Writings on Scripture": Blogging Through Carson - Walter Bauer Thesis


In the third chapter of his book Collected Writings on Scripture, Carson raises the following issue:
One might well ask, in the contemporary climate of academic theology, why a student whose prime focus of scholarly interest is the New Testament documents should meddle with questions concerning the foundations of systematic theology. The reasons are many, and few of them easy. We live in an age of increasing specialization (owing in part to the rapid expansion of knowledge), and disciplines that a priori ought to work hand in glove are being driven apart. More important, there is a growing consensus among the New Testament scholars that any systematic theology that claims to summarize biblical truth is obsolete at best and perverse at worst. Any possibility of legitimate systematic theology presupposes that the discipline will look elsewhere for its norms, or begin from some center smaller than or different from the Christian canon. ( 111)
Carson then adds that the above is rooted in a number of common assumptions. The first assumption regards the belief that the New Testament is full of contradictions. Secondly, many believe the New Testament "embraces many different theological perspectives that cannot be arranged into one system (111-112).

As such it is impossible to speak of New Testament theology. We can at best speak of New Testament theologies. If this is true at the New Testament level, then it is impossible to produce Christian systematic theology. The contradictions would be multiplied and the task more improbable. We cannot speak of Christianity - even in the early decades of the church - but must confess that from its conception Christianity was a diverse movement.

This position finds root in the Walter Bauer (1877-1960) Thesis. According to Carson, Bauer asks "whether the church early embraced a clearly defined doctrinal corpus that enabled it to reject false belief, or whether the distinction between orthodoxy and heresy is a rather late development" (112-113)? He then adds:
Methodologically, Bauer abandons the New Testament evidence because it is so disputed and conducts his readers on a whirlwind tour of second-century Christianity. He concludes that from the beginning so-called heretical and orthodox churches existed side by side, the latter frequently in the minority; and the reasons why the "orthodox" groups eventually won out have less to do with self-conscious theological incompatibility than with what we might call politics. The implication of all this is that even first-century Christianity was no different: highly diverse and even mutually exclusive beliefs were tolerated without embarrassment.(113)
This thesis remains popular. One can see it in the works of Bultmann and Elaine Pagels among others. The average believer is confronted with this, without ever hearing the name Bauer, every time they watch a special on the Bible or Christianity on the Discovery Channel, History Channel, National Geographic Channel, etc.

For the time, I will leave Carson behind to discuss the legitimacy of Bauer's thesis. To Bauer, orthodoxy and heresy are one and the same. Admittedly, if he is right, then orthodox Christianity has a serious problem on its hands. If Christianity was a diverse movement from its genesis, then we cannot speak with confidence on what Christianity is or believes. If the Judaizers, the Gnostics, and the so-called orthodox believers are all legitimate, then Christianity is a mess.

To begin, it should be noted that Bauer's thesis has been massaged and developed since its original English publication.* Many scholars today question his conclusions. One important book which responds to Bauer and his followers is Alister McGrath's Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth. Though space will not allow a full, detailed treatment of his criticism of Bauer, a few thoughts are worth mentioning here.

Let us begin with this observation. Bauer's thesis fits a postmodernism template. Postmodernity views history exclusively as being told by the winners. Thus, what we call orthodoxy is nothing more than so-called heresy that won out. Furthermore, postmodernity questions authority. This thesis fits that narrative. In regards to a history of religions (rooted in evolutionary thinking), doctrine has its origin not in historic events but historic movements. Thus baptism is borrowed from the Essence and the resurrection is borrowed from Greco-Roman myths. The point is to show that Christianity is neither new nor unique - nor historic. This thesis only makes sense in the world we now live in. Logically, then, the thesis is on shaky ground. Whatever the next cultural wave might be, it is likely that Bauer's thesis will need another update.

Secondly, Bauer's thesis, though insightful in some ways, is based on clear historic reconstruction. Most notable in this regard is Nicaea. Whether it be Waltar Bauer or Dan Brown, Nicaea is discussed in conspiracy terms. Often it is believed (thanks to Dan Brown) that the deity of Jesus was subject to a close vote in the fourth century. That is simply not true. Furthermore, it has been suggested that the mighty powerful Catholic Church (along with newly converted Emperor Constantine) chose the 27 books of the New Testament canon for political - not spiritual - reasons. None of this is true.

In regards to the Catholic Church, it is inaccurate to suggest that it exercised any power or authority in the opening centuries of the church. No doubt it became a mighty force, but the opening decades and centuries of the church, the Roman church exercised little control. On this McGrath writes:
This suggestion has proved very difficult to defend, given that Rome's influence over other churches int he region began to become significant only in the third century. Bauer seems to have retrojected the later influence of the Roman church onto an earlier period, when, it is perfectly clear, the Christian communities at Rome did not have the power or authority that later emerged. (56)
Later, McGrath adds "Bauer's assertion has, it must be said, puzzled most historians of this period, who correctly note that the early Christian communities were simply not in a position to coerce anyone" (74).

Thirdly, it is true there was some diversity of expression among the first churches but not really a diversity of doctrine. The first Christians had a clear understanding of what Christianity was and was not. What needed to be developed was a system of thought and how to articulate those core doctrines. Such a process is slow in the ancient world in general and with a persecuted sect in particular.

Again, McGrath:
Yet despite this obvious diversity of early Christian expression, the historical evidence clearly points to a shared sense of identity, expressed and maintained int eh face of considerable geographical distance and cultural differences. Early Christians clearly saw themselves as belonging to the same extended family, characterized by a minimal "basic kit" of beliefs, values, and attitudes toward worship. (57)
More points could be added in criticism of Bauer. It all leads McGrath, and other scholars along with him, to conclude that "Today, Bauer's thesis looks decidedly shaky." His "critics," he adds, "have called most of his conclusions into question, expressing particular concern over his extensive argumentation from silence." (75)

I am in agreement with McGrath here. Yet Bauer remains popular. Why? Because too often scholarship follows more than the evidence and academics can be easily wooed and beguiled by personal biases. Bauer offers a helpful framework to deny the orthodox claims of Christianity. That is what matters, not the evidence. Bauer's thesis has become like Darwinism; supporters keeping looking for the missing link. Yet it is doubtful their search will yield any results.


*His thesis was first published in German and received little notice. Decades later it was translated into English and the rest, they say, is history.
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