Walter Bauer’s Orthodoxy and Heresy

Walter Bauer’s original Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei im ältesten Christentum (Beiträge zur historischen Theologie 10; Tübigen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1934), was published in English as Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (ed. Robert Kraft and Gerhard Krodel; trans. Philadelphia Seminar on Christian Origins; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971) from the second German edition published and updated by Georg Strecker in 1963.

This book has had a tremendous influence on the study of the New Testament and Early Christian History. I’m currently working my way back through this important work and wondering about how valid Bauer’s conclusions really are.

Bauer’s thesis can be summarized with two complimentary theses.

First, Christianity from the beginning was multi-valenced. In the Book of Acts Luke is simply idealistic in his sketch of the early church as originating from Jerusalem in a pure stream which later became corrupted through certain key “heretics,” such as a Simon Magus, or a later Marcion or Valentinius, etc. Georg Strecker in the forward to the second German edition, put it this way:

In earliest Christianity, orthodoxy and heresy do not stand in relation to one another as primary to secondary, but in many regions heresy is the original manifestation of Christianity.

Bauer further argues that since the Orthodox essentially won historically, the other forms of Christianity have not been able to have their day in court. Thus, a task of the historian of Christianity is to make sure this happens. However, the problem here is complicated by the fact that nearly everything we know about the supposed heretics and their groups comes from those who were against them, such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and other “Orthodox” writers. Consequently, very little has survived from the heretical point of views that would give the other side of the story. (Nonetheless, it should be mentioned that Bauer’s thesis was developed before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts which gave us access to some Gnostic texts).

The other side of Bauer’s thesis is that the Orthodox won because the church of Rome, sought, almost imperialistically, to become the center for the official teaching of the church. In Bauer’s reconstruction, Rome early sought to influence the church in Corinth (see 1 Clement), then Antioch (see the Ignatian letters), and in time the whole Western Church. What Bauer ignores for the most part is that the Eastern Church remained united—though dsitinct—with the Western Church until 1054. Additionally, the Eastern Church differed in a number of major ways from the West yet was still among the “Orthodox.”

So why is Bauer’s thesis important? Because if Bauer is right, then the way most Protestant groups read church history is simply wrong. If Bauer is correct, then there is no such thing as pure Christianity, Orthodoxy is the name given to the winner by themselves, and any attempt to “restore” the church must seriously engage the question: which church? And, I think the more important question, why do church at all?

As I get deeper into Bauer I will share more of what I discover.


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