Bart Ehrman, in his essay in the National Geographic presentation of the translation of The Gospel of Judas, once again raises his oft-argued point: by the time of Nicea (c. 325) there was a “winning” side and a “losing” side. The winners were the “orthodox.” The losers were the heretics. Prior to that time, Christianity was much more diverse.
Here’s a quotation from Ehrman in the NG book The Gospel of Judas: “In brief, one of the competing groups in Christianity succeeded in overwhelming all the others. This group gained more converts than its opponents and managed to relegate all its competitors to the margins. This group decided what the Church’s organizational structure would be. It decided which creeds Christians would recite. And it decided which books would be accepted as Scripture” (118).
Bart, be fair: Did this group really decide all these things? Was there really a competition or were there splinter, sectarian, small-numbered groups that had other ideas about the Christian faith? [The difference I’m suggesting makes all the differences in the world.] Did it decide the “organizational structure”? Did it decide which creeds? Did it decide which books?
This is a simplistic summary that masks a multi-faceted reality: we have an apostolic faith that was carried on fairly consistently, with developments no doubt, into the early second century into folks like Ignatius and Irenaeus. There are adumbrations of creeds that were very early that look not a little like the later ones. So, what I’m suggesting is that Bart is overcooking his claims here. Yes, these texts were there; yes, the proto-orthodox fought against these views; yes, the orthodox party became powerful; and yes, the orthodox party shaped the faith we now know as Christianity. No one should dispute that. But, really, how serious was the competition?
And the voting on the creeds was overwhelming as Ehrman claims, but why? Because it was the faith the Church recognized as the faith everyone affirmed. It was not a faith imposed but a faith recognized, even if that Nicean council came to fresh new terms to give expression to that faith.
Ehrman’s got something right here and it is important for we evangelicals to come to terms with it: the rise of canon and the rise of the Nicene Creed are simultaneous and mutually-interacting conclusions. The canon expressed that creed and that creed expressed that canon.
A good book on this can be found in D. Bock, but I see now that it is not out until August.
The winners decided two things: which books were canonical and which beliefs were orthodox (the Nicene Creed). When they got hooked up with Constantine, who wanted to unify the Roman Empire (and the arch of his standing near the Colloseum), a tragedy occurred: the orthodox party forced Christian uniformity in faith and scriptures.
In my assessment, this is the foundational issue behind all the current swirling trends in anti-Christian debate. The DaVinci Code, Bart Ehrman’s several books, Elaine Pagels’ books, and others, along with this recent publication are all rooted in this singularly potent idea: the orthodox party suppressed alternative voices. Alternative voices deserve to be heard; therefore, we need to hear what these folks believed about the Christian faith. On top of this, for many, there is the added suggestion that we should try to recover the kind of diversity, bewildering as it was, that characterized pre-Nicean Christianity.
And we are led to another question: Which of these forms of the Christian faith is most consistent with the facts as we know them from the life and teachings of Jesus and the theologies of Paul, Peter, James, John, the writer of Hebrews, etc.? I don’t think there is really much debate here. It is not just that the canonical texts and the creedal faith were developed simultaneously, for they were — but that the canonical texts and that creedal faith can be traced to one degree or another to the very earliest period. Larry Hurtado, in his magisterial Lord Jesus Christ, provides a complete analysis of the rise of orthodox christology and it is pretty clear that this is the faith that can be connected to the earliest times.