I gave this paper sometime ago, but it pertains to The DaVinci Code movie. What I do is deal witih the proposals of heresy and orthodoxy behind the book, and the two major proponents of these theories today: Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman. It is a bit hard-hitting at times, but I think it is warranted. I’ll do this over three days. I thought I had posted this before, but didn’t find it.
The Gospel by Niggle,
The Orthodoxy of Orthodoxy
Scot McKnight, Ph.D.
Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies
North Park University
The word “heresy” not only means no longer being wrong;
it practically means being clearheaded and courageous.
The word “orthodoxy” not only no longer means being right;
it practically means being wrong.
G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, 39.
Faith makes a Christian, but doctrine creates the church.
H.O.J.Brown, Heresies, 21.
Do you really think there are no sins of the intellect?
C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, 36.
Before us today is a subject destined for more importance than we perhaps realize. This subject, the orthodoxy of orthodoxy, is perhaps best put on the table by examining two people, well-known scholars in their own fields of earliest Christianity, who abandoned their orthodox faith. Both scholars approach us, to use the words of E.B. White about authors arriving in NYC, “with a manuscript in their suitcase and a pain in their heart.” Both book and pain concern orthodoxy.
And when I speak in this paper of “orthodoxy” I do so of the lower case “o” and not the upper case “O” of Eastern Orthodoxy.
The two scholars whereof I speak are Elaine Pagels, author most recently of Beyond Belief, and of Bart Ehrman, a graduate of a well-known institution in Chicagoland whose name is not often whispered in these hallowed halls. The book with which we are concerned today is his latest, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew.
What is apparently needed by an outcrop of suspicious American readers is for some well-heeled scholar to suggest that the Church suppressed freedom of thought. Pagels and Ehrman both contend that the Church did suppress alternative voices in the first three centuries of the Church, and both also create a spark for the sort of conspiracy theory that is so beloved in our country. Put broadly, these two scholars provide the theoretical, ideological, and historical bases upon which Dan Brown built his phantasmagoric thriller, The DaVinci Code. They march through history with a neo-Marxist hermeneutic of suspicion blanketed with the cold chill of Nietzschean power, contending that the Orthodox gained control because they were victorious in the realm of political power. Even if they are more mellow in their hermeneutic of suspicion than some, both find the triumph of Orthodoxy to be about power as much as about theological persuasion and being right. Marxism, whether paleo-, neo-, or (crypto-), wants all ideas to settle down into an economic and political nest. No one has studied Marxism more exactingly perhaps than Isaiah Berlin, who gets to heart of this system of thinking with this definition: “needs determine ideas, not ideas needs” and that “ideas are weapons which the master class generates and uses in the course of its struggle for power.”
If their analysis is as accurate as they think it is, then Christian history would have to be rewritten. No, it would have to be abandoned for an alternative story of the Church. The implications of their thesis are colossal. In my mischievous moments, their works make me wonder what these sort of people do on Christmas and Easter.
Two images may permit us to visualize the alternatives. Some think Church history is like a Banyan Tree – a powerful trunk that grew up out of NT soil, and then sent off branches in many directions. The Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics kept growing upward and onward, while the Protestants sent their runners to the ground for further stability. This Banyan Tree Image is much like the traditional account of Church history and its theological development. Another image is that it was more like a Mangrove Bush, growing out of the murky, brackish waters just inland from the oceans. It had many, many branches, most of the same size, and together they made themselves look fulsome enough to be tree-like. At some point, however, one of the branches got some power and coaxed someone powerful to hack off the other branches, and all that really remains is that one branch, now stately and tall. But, by the modern miracle of historical scholarship, a few scholars have gone under the surface with goggles and what they have found boggles: they have found that originally there were all kinds of branches that were somehow hacked down.
The Mangrove Bush image is the revisionist account of theology in the Church: the Church was originally radically diverse but, because of the power of the orthodox, the other voices have been muted. The Banyan Tree serves a traditional image of the Church. Two images, each capable of serving us well.
Ironically, both Pagels and Ehrman think “orthodoxy is heresy” and that “heresy was at one time orthodoxy,” and they think it is about time that the world knew about the “truth about the real Church.”Let me say up front that I am not offering today a point-by-point critique of either of the scholars’ proposals. Instead, while I will sketch what they have to say, I do so only to lead us into the fundamental issue they force us to consider: namely, the orthodoxy of orthodoxy.
Speaking of orthodoxy, to give both Pagels and Ehrman a sparring partner each, I shall play them off at times over against two scholars who will bring their most recent books to the table: Thomas Oden and his book The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, along with J.I. Packer (with Thomas Oden), One Faith. Packer, to my knowledge, has never taken a false step in theology. Oden has. Oden’s own work mirrors the opposite moves of Pagels and Ehrman. When they were sliding from orthodoxy to heresy, Oden was climbing from heresy up to orthodoxy. “The irony is that I changed,” Oden tells us in his brief chapter of autobiography, “only by moving closer to that which is unchanging. I plod steadily toward that which alters in no way, the still point of the turning world.” G.K. Chesterton, that quotable defender of orthodoxy, said the same in his own clever way nearly a century before: “I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before [orthodoxy]…. I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it. …When I fancied that I stood alone I was really in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all Christendom.”
In what follows I will sketch why Pagels and Ehrman think “orthodoxy is heresy” and why “heresy deserves a hearing among what counts as orthodoxy.” Following this, I shall attempt to offer a brief apologetic for the “orthodoxy of orthodoxy.”
1.0 The Heresy of Orthodoxy
In essence, Pagels and Ehrman contend for a bundle of ideas. It begins with the simple conclusion that earliest Christianity was originally radically diverse and that orthodoxy arrived much later. The Apostle Paul had his enemies – the Judaizing sort at Galatia, the “super-apostle” sort at Corinth, and the rather difficult-to-define group disturbing his ideas at Colosse. The Apostle John has some harsh words for some groups and leaders throughout Asia Minor in Revelation 2—3. And the Acts of the Apostles warns, in the mouth of Paul, about “savage wolves” and that some distortions will arise from within the Christian movement. It is difficult to know what to do with the later Ebionites, but it not unusual to see them as expressions of the Judaizing wing of 1st Century Christianity. What Pagels and Ehrman are proposing is this: these groups were within the Christian faith during the First Century.
One can easily complexify this issue: the theologies of the various authors of the NT have been the subject of intense study since the rise of redaction criticism a half-century ago. The impact of this sort of research is important, and no one put this together more pressingly than Jimmy Dunn, in his Unity and Diversity in the New Testament. In that study of 1979 he sketched four “sorts” of early (First Century) Christian faith: Jewish Christianity, Hellenistic Christianity, Apocalyptic Christianity, and Early Catholicism. Once more we are fact-to-face with a potent diversity among earliest Christians.
To use the wonderful expression from Genesis 1:2 when describing the pre-created universe, for Pagels and Ehrman the theology of the earliest Christians was tohu va-bohu, “formless and void.”
Second, they argue that much of what was acceptable in the earliest churches became unacceptable later, that much of what was seen as tolerable and teachable became intolerable and heretical. It would be anachronistic to call what was originally acceptable “orthodoxy,” but the point is clear: earliest Christianity embraced much more than was embraced after Nicea. Perhaps the tell-tale example is Origen who was considered in his day a “man among boys.” Studying under Clement of Alexandria and succeeding him at the Catechetical School, thousands flocked to hear him. Origen had his troubles with church leaders in the Holy Land, but eventually established a school in Caesarea. On the basis of some rather clear evidence, the Synod of Constantinople judged him heretical because he embraced a subordinationist Christology with what can only be called a speculative flair. Our point is not so much the details about Origen: as a matter of fact, he has been asked to come out of retirement by contemporary theologians. The rather clear point that he can be used to demonstrate that pre-Nicean Christianity had the capacity to embrace a wider scope of tolerable ideas. Following the Protestant impulse, they ask, “Should we return to those days?”
Third, and here with the cook Emeril we turn up our rhetoric a notch: earliest Christianity embraced some Gnostic versions of the Christian faith. When some Christians encountered Gnosticism, to use the words of the learned Roger Kimball, “familiarity bred consequence.” Pagels is fond of the Gospel of Thomas, so a word about it is in order. At about the same time (1945, to be exact) the world was being rocked by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the biblical and historical worlds also found a cache of books in a remote district of Upper Egypt, at Nag Hammadi, about 300 miles south of Cairo. The Arab who took responsibility for the discovery is a man with the name of Mohammed Ali (no kidding). He and his fellows found a skeleton, and then a jar, about 2 feet high, sealed with bitumen, a tarry substance. They cracked the pot, hoping it might be filled with gold. Instead, it was full of old books and they divided them up evenly amongst themselves – tearing some books apart to make the booty even. The story need not be told in full – but it does include murder and intrigue.
What was discovered was a library of Gnostic-type gospels and books, and they are now all conveniently available in The Nag Hammadi Library, edited by James Robinson, who has been in charge of them since Opening Day. Our concern here is very simply with the Gospel of Thomas. It is a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus in Coptic. No narratives; nothing about Jesus’ birth, baptism, miracles, travels, trials and nothing about his death or resurrection. He is, to use a modern term, a “talking head.”79 of the sayings have parallels with our canonical Gospels, though no saying is left “untouched.”Even if most scholars today think Thomas much later, both Pagels and Ehrman operate with the thesis that this stuff witnesses to the diversity of early Christian faith. In other words, it opens a window on the tolerance level of the earliest Christians.
Fourth, the label “orthodox” was what the upper hand held to be true and what was most needed by those in power. Thus, it was as much power as “correct belief” that determined what was to be believed at Nicea and the major councils that followed over the next few centuries. Ehrman and Pagels have given answer to St. Thomas’s famous question about which was the more powerful – the power of the king, the influence of wine, the charms of woman, or the strength of truth? They answer, the power of the king.
Arius and his ilk were a threat to the “proto-orthodox” so (in the view of Ehrman and Pagels) they did what anyone with designs on the Church as a whole would do: they set their face against such people and came up with the idea of flattening out theology so that it would agree with their orthodox views on the nature of Christ. Eventually, this side appealed to Constantine, who wanted things to settle down in this theological battle of the East and West. Nicea was where it all played out. After the Arians were put down in their proposal, Eusebius of Caesarea, the father of Church History, proposed the crucial words that were featured in the Nicene Creed, to which Constantine – so the report goes – added the word “consubstantial” (homoousion). Constantine (or those whom he backed and those who followed him and them) then repressed, suppressed, and did whatever else he needed to do to maintain unity in the Church for the sake of the Roman Empire. O.J. Brown concedes the ugliness of the process:
During the middle decades of this century, from 340-to 380, the history of doctrine looks more like the history of court and church intrigues and social unrest. It is a potentially embarrassing fact that the central doctrines hammered out in this period often appear to have been put through by intrigue or mob violence rather than by the common consent of Christendom led by the Holy Spirit.
Now, let me begin this point by reminding us of something: as Protestant Evangelicals we tend to be “non-creedal” so we might at this point think we escape their historical argument by saying, “But we don’t accept the creeds; for all we know, they may have been the result of power plays. We believe the New Testament.” This won’t do. For, as it turns out, the argument is not just about the creeds; it is also an argument that the books accepted into the New Testament were the result of the same process of power and control. The 27 books of the NT were accepted because they were the stream of Christian belief that supported the Nicene Creed. The books excluded, like the Gospel of Thomas, were excluded because they did not support orthodoxy (which is a bit of a confession itself). Abba, in their Broadway hit, “Knowing you, knowing me,” suggest a jingle for us to ponder: “knowing canon, knowing creeds.”That is, if we affirm canon, we are standing in line to affirm creeds. That is, if we affirm the creeds, we affirm also those who canonized the NT. I could go round and round but…
I won’t. But what I will do is point out that the early December wide-ranging review in The London Review of Books by James Davidson on “oracular prophecies” has blown away all the smoke from this entire issue. He wonders about the ending of prophetic utterances and of revelation:
The Book [the Bible] is nothing if it is not the Edited Version. The reason these new prophecies [discovered at Qumran] were previously unknown is that they never made the final cut, the authoritative text, that closes down the production of ‘God says’ and imposes economy on the unstructured din of the prophets after the fact. An impossible way to operate in real time became a perfectly manageable way to operate in real time, when the era of God-speaking subjects became an era of God-spoken artifacts, when religions of revelation became religions of the revealed, when the time of running races became the time of races won. If Greek religion, like the religion of early Israel, is a religion of people who had prophets, the religions of the people of the Book are religions of people who have had prophets, but don’t have them any more. There is a great gulf between the religion of the people in the Book and the religion of the people of the Book: the people in the Book didn’t have the Book to refer to.
His point is obvious: canonizing imposes finality and restricts creativeness. The irony has been pointed out before. Constantine, who converted as a result of a revelatory experience, in effect, ended the authority of any more such experiences when he convened theologians at Nicea and brought into finality a decision that was in process for the previous two centuries.
I have perhaps wandered too far from the point I am making about Ehrman and Pagels: for them, orthodoxy is about power, not just about what is true and right to believe. God’s Word, in other words, is indistinguishable from God’s Sword, or (if you will) Constantine’s Sword. As Ehrman says it, “The side that knew how to utilize power was the side that won.”
How do we respond? Perhaps with less than direct speech. “What a shame,” Joseph Epstein once sarcastically opined, “there isn’t an antonym for the phrase ‘Right on!’.” Like Freud, these scholars seem to think they know what everyone means by knowing that what they say is not what they really mean. I need to move on.
Fifth, the proto-orthodox had a multi-faceted strategy to gain control: (1) they claimed ancient roots for their faith, which was rhetorically necessary in that day; (2) they rejected the national-limitations of Judaism for a universalizing faith that would be acceptable to more; (3) they developed a church hierarchy that could adjudicate decisions and keep lines clear; (4) they operated an effective communication system with one another; (5) they appealed constantly to the unity of the Church in order to call into question any new ideas; (6) they imagined a “contamination” theory for the development of heresies, in which theory the earlier faith was always pure; (7) they composed creedal statements to establish clear boundaries and provide guidelines on how to interpret the Bible; (8) they accused heretics of moral corruption; and (9) they forged documents and corrupted the New Testament documents themselves to make sure they were anti-adoptionistic, anti-separationist (in Christology), and anti-docetic. The result of these strategies was two-fold: the formation of a list of authoritative books and the establishment of a Creed or an Analogy of Faith that formed the apparatus for an orthodox interpretation of those 27 authoritative books. [I’m not sure the formation of the NT is this simple, frankly, and the combination of oral traditional, ecclesial pneumatology, and theological discernment is not always capable of historical demonstration.]
Sixth, the central declamation of both Pagels and Ehrman is that the orthodox, or the proto-orthodox, suppressed all other forms of early Christianity and turned a beautifully round and diverse faith into a monolithic and oppressive political engine that quickly took over the Roman Empire and continues to shape Christianity to this day. A well-known incident supporting this claim is the Easter letter of Athanasius in 367 AD in which he demanded that all Egyptian monks destroy unacceptable writings. It appears that everyone did as he said, except the one person who buried the Nag Hammadi texts.
Now let me tie this all together as people like Pagels and Ehrman do: it is heresy to think that Orthodoxy represents the only legitimate form of Christianity. Orthodoxy may be what “won,” but the victory was at the expense of historical truth and realities. It is time, so they contend, to broaden our grasp of earliest Christianity and to embrace a variety of forms of Christianity, including heresy. As Nancy Mairs, that witty essayist of Tucson once put it, “early on the story [of the true Christian gospel] got into the wrong hands… and in this mangled condition it has been used to kill millions of women and to cripple and confine countless more.”
And it is time for me let off a bit of steam about all this before I turn to a more sophisticated analysis: contemporary historians of the Early Church have many uses, but their chief aim seems to be, if the press is to be believed, to cover up the truth with a cold, thick fog. These scholars are like Penrod, that delightful little Indiana fictional creation of Booth Tarkington, in this: “Gifted boys have this faculty of building magnificence upon cobwebs,” and as Tarkington moralizes, “We are apt to forget that there are actually times of life when too much youth is a handicap.”