Book Review: The Heresy of Orthodoxy

The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity by Andreas J. Kostenberger and Michael J. Kruger (Crossway: Wheaton, 2010).

Cover of the Heresy of OrthodoxyIn recent years there have been renewed attempts to call into question how the Christian canon of the Bible was formed. One particular approach has been to assert that there were multiple “Christianities” at the time of the first and second centuries. The Christianity that is known today is simply one of many forms which finally won out over the rest. Part of this process of winning out involved certain church leaders denouncing the other forms as heresy; and with the force of their position in the church as bishops or other leaders the other forms were forced into seclusion and eventual disappearance. Only in modern times with the discovery of ancient documents such as the Gospel of Judas and a host of other Gospels, Acts, and Revelations are we able to recover a greater understanding of what these other churches believed.

The Heresy of Orthodoxy takes up this matter with its arresting title. In order for orthodoxy to get to the top, so it is claimed by the detractors of Christianity, it was necessary to denounce the other forms of Christianity as heresy. Thus, if this account of history is true, the real heresy is Christianity.

In the past Walter Bauer (of the authors, Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich who gave us the Greek Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature) advocated such a pluralistic  understanding of the history surrounding the rise of Christianity based on his concentration on urban centers of the early centuries (so his Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity).  More recently Bart Ehrman (in Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why; 2005; and in other works) has taken up this approach of multiple Christianities and emphasized the aspect of variant readings in the Greek New Testament. His point is that scribes who copied the NT deliberately chose the orthodox readings over those that were less orthodox, thus adding to the cover-up of alternate Christianities.

To refute this approach to the understanding of Christianity and the formation of the NT canon is the objective of Kostenberger and Kruger. They do this in three ways, representing the three sections of their book. First, they challenge the idea that Christianity was pluralistic in the first two centuries; then they trace how the NT canon developed; finally, they deal with the transmission of the NT text.

Regarding the first matter they conclude (p. 66):

Although the late first and early second century gave birth to a variety of heretical movements, the set of (Christological) core beliefs known as orthodoxy was considerably earlier, more widespread, and more prevalent than Ehrman and other proponents of the Bauer-Ehrman thesis suggest. What is more, the proponents of second-century orthodoxy were not innovators but mere conduits of the orthodox theology espoused already in the New Testament period.

Thus “heresy grew parasitically out of an already established orthodoxy” (p. 67).

Regarding the second matter, that of the formation of the NT canon, Kostenberger and Kruger define the meaning of the canon in early Christianity, interpret the historical evidence for the emerging canon, and show how the Church drew the boundaries to separate out the apocryphal books. In the third section, the authors deal with the issues of how Christians copied and circulated the text in the ancient world and did not willfully alter the text in favor of orthodox theology. In the midst of this discussion the authors give a scathing rebuttal to Bart Ehrman  (pp. 222-224).

The authors complete their work with a concluding appeal (“The Heresy of Orthodoxy in a Topsy-turvy World”), and with Subject and Scripture indices (pp. 237-250). They scatter well researched footnotes throughout their work.

Overall, this is an exceedingly important exposure of the fallacies circulating today regarding the reliability of the NT text and the priority of the orthodox faith. The book is based deeply in history, and is faithful to the NT text and the Christian faith. The attacks levelled against the faith have received far more credence, much of it in the popular media, than they deserve. Every evangelical student, pastor, and teacher should read this book so as, among other reasons, to be able to respond to the demeaning of the Christian faith and its Book.

About Jim De Young

James B. De Young is professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary, Portland, OR, where he has taught since 1975. Dr. De Young has authored numerous books, including Burning Down the Shack: How the “Christian” Bestseller Is Deceiving Millions (2010). He lives in the country where he has a mini farm and raises rhododendrons, Christmas trees, and beef cattle. They have two dogs, several cats, and four cows.

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