In my last post I started discussing the terms “orthodoxy” and “heresy,” pointing out that their traditional/etymological meanings are not very helpful for historians. “Orthodoxy” literally means the “right belief” about God, Christ, the world and so. That means it is a theological term about religious truth. But historians are not theologians who can tell you what is theologically true; they are scholars who try to establish what happened in the past. And so how can a historian, acting as a historian, say that one group of believers is right and that another is wrong?
The problem with the two terms came to particular expression in a book written in 1934 by a German scholar named Walter Bauer. The book was auf Deutsch, but its English title is Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. For my money, this was the most important book on early Christianity written in the 20th century. It completely revolutionized how we are to understand the theological controversies that were wracking the Christian church in its early years.
If you recall, the church historian Eusebius had argued (and popularized the view) that by definition, “orthodoxy” always preceded heresy, that it was and always had been the majority view among Christians, that it had been taught by Jesus to his disciples and passed on by them to their successors. This orthodoxy entailed the theological beliefs that Eusebius and his Christian cohort themselves subscribed to: there is one God, who created all things; Christ his son is both completely human and divine; salvation comes only by his atoning sacrifice; and so on.
Bauer’s book was meant to turn that view on its head. Bauer looked at our earliest evidence of Christian belief in several key locations of the empire — Syria, Egypt, Asia Minor, Rome – and he showed that ….
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