2.0 The Orthodoxy of Heresy
Ehrman, who relentlessly tries to unveil the truth about earliest Christianity in order to demonstrate that it was a suppressive machine of power-mongers, commits the very sin he castigates. If the “sin” of the proto-orthodoxy is suppression and intolerance, he aligns himself with their method for he never engages the traditional or even an alternative view of the general thesis in his entire book. Someone has said, and I forget who, that you either have time to write books or read books, but not both. What I haven’t forgotten, though, is that, in commenting on academics not knowing who else is writing about what, Ian Samson said:
most writers are so wrapped up in their own diddlings and dawdlings that it’d take a smack in the face with a piece of unplanned two-by-four to get them to sit up and take notice of the world outside.
After Brutus and Cassa slay Julius Ceasar, Shakespeare puts in the mouth of Brutus, “not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.” And then he confesses to the depth of his apparent love of Rome: “that as I slew my best lover for the good of Rome, I have the same dagger for myself when it shall please my country to need my [own] death” (Julius Caesar, 3.22, 43-46). Ehrman, too, think he has to slay the orthodox to save the truth, but to do so he must keep his opponents under lock and key – and there are plenty who argue not only that orthodoxy is early (which Ehrman would agree with) but that it was the majority viewpoint or that it was, after all, what was most accurate about the early faith. I’m thinking especially of Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham, and C. FitzSimons Allison. The singular disappointment of Ehrman’s books for me, written always with a measured reserve, is that they never engage the traditional viewpoint or take their arguments into consideration. What we get is a single exposition of a view that very few believe.
Tertullian tells us that Marcion interpreted the Bible, as did Thomas Jefferson, “with a pen knife” (Prescription, 108). If Marcion used a pen knife to cut out what he did not like, both Ehrman and especially Pagels use “glue.” They add and add to what is already accepted as sacred.
So sacred that Pagels embraces the Gnostic vision of reality, calling the orthodox and the heretical “complementary interpretations of God’s presence on earth” that became rivals. She confesses two things that she “cannot love: the tendency to identify Christianity with a single, authorized set of beliefs – however these actually vary from church to church – coupled with the conviction that Christian belief alone offers access to God.” The Nag Hammadi texts, she claims, “are transforming what we know as Christianity.”
I am concerned at this point to emphasize that Pagels’ appeal to the marginalized as a prop to respond to marginalization in our society is not without value. Gnosticism has been embraced by feminist scholars, in part because they find in Gnosticism a similar marginalized voice. I support some of this agenda. What I don’t support about Pagels (and Ehrman) is their theology and history. Copernicus, too, made a discovery; it is of no use to science today to canonize pre-Copernican astronomy as an alternative scientific view.
What Pagels is claiming is the same thing Victorinus asked of Simplicianus who said Victorinus’ conversion meant nothing until he could see him inside a church. To which Victorinus asked, “Is it, then, walls that make a Christian?” Augustine then tells how Victorinus went to church in a “hubbub of delight”(Confessions 8.2.4-5). I am asking to take those real walls and make them metaphorical, and suggest to Pagels that indeed, she may not like it, but it is “walls that make Christians – creedal walls and creedal Christians.” And something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down. She wants those walls down. In effect, she wants to invert Danté’s Sixth Circle in Inferno to the Sixth Circle of Paradise. I am sorry to say this, but she knows she is standing Church history and theology on its head. We must make clear what these two scholars are actually suggesting.
Pagels loves to cite G.Thom. 70: “Jesus said, ‘If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” She observes her central creed: “The strength of this saying is that it does not tell us what to believe but challenges us to discover what lies hidden within ourselves… this perspective [she admits] seemed to me self-evidently true.” And it was also to Rousseau and his innumerable progeny, to use the words of Alan Jacobs. Pagels then connects G.Thom. 70 to Genesis 1:26, in the “image of God,” and argues that in Thomas Jesus “suggests… we have spiritual resources within us precisely because we were made ‘in the image of God’.” I will quote further from her own words: “In other words, one either discovers the light within that illuminates ‘the whole universe’ or lives in darkness, within and without.”
Pagels argues that John’s Gospel is a face-to-face repudiation of the Gnostic understanding of Jesus and, while very few would date G.Thomas that early, her points needs to be understood: she is not contending that Thomas is the original view of Jesus, but an alternative interpretation of Jesus. Again, Thomas and John differ, as she states it: “Thomas’s Jesus directs each disciple to discover the light within …; but John’s Jesus declares instead that ‘I am the light of the world’ and that ‘whoever does not come to me walks in darkness’.” And, “what John rejects as religiously inadequate … is much like the hidden ‘good news’ that Thomas’s gospel proclaims.”
Here is perhaps her most potent claim: “What such people seek, however, is often not a different ‘system of doctrines’ so much as insights or intimations of the divine that validate themselves in experience – what we might call hints and glimpses offered by the luminous epinoia” (spiritual intuition). “Most of us, sooner or later, find that, at critical points in our lives, we must strike out on our own to make a path where none exists. What I have come to love in the wealth and diversity of our religious traditions … is that they offer the testimony of innumerable people to spiritual discovery. Thus they encourage those who endeavor, in Jesus’ words, to ‘seek, and you shall find’.”
C.S. Lewis had words for this sense of creativity in humans: “’Originality’ in the NT is quite plainly the prerogative of God alone… Our whole destiny seems to lie in the opposite direction, in being as little as possible ourselves, in acquiring a fragrance that is not our own but borrowed, in becoming clean mirrors filled with the image of a face that is not ours.” So, Lewis contends, the proper method is not to ask “Is it mine?” but “Is it good?” Augustine said this only slightly differently: speaking of his past, he said: “My sin lay in this, that I sought pleasures, distinctions and truths within myself and in the other objects of your creation; and in doing so I fell headlong into pain, disgrace and error” (Confessions 1.20.31).
Avoiding nuances for the moment, the fundamental weakness of this growing school of thought, which fits comfortably within a general social ill-will against major religious establishments, especially the orthodox ones, is this: it is simply inaccurate to argue that the canon and the Nicene Creed is a singular event, suddenly dropped on unsuspecting church leaders by powerful political leaders with ulterior motives. By permitting, and I see this more in Pagels than Ehrman, the historical facts to fall so neatly into the lap of the orthodox as power-mongers who were embodied politically in Constantine, this revisionist scholarship suggests that what Christians have always believed is actually the thought of only a powerful few rather than the rounded faith of the majority.
Scholarship has offered alternatives to this revisionist historiography. My concern is the issue they raise for us to consider.
Here it is: one either chooses creedal orthodoxy, the faith Vincent of Lérins once described as “ubique, semper, omnibus,” “everywhere, always, by all,” or one chooses a radicalization of Christian diversity with boundaries either knocked down or enormously extended. In the time that remains, I’d like to offer a mild defense of the “orthodoxy of orthodoxy.” In doing so, I am trying to set the table for discussion; I do not pretend to be able to offer a definitive or complete defense. Instead, I propose some observations that can provoke our discussion to explore how we might defend our own orthodoxy.
In fact, I want to suggest that these scholars point out a gaping hole in Evangelical ecclesiology and that together we need to begin to think about how we might best plug that hole.