Irenaeus: Not a Lucky Winner

Here’s an abstract of my paper, “Irenaeus: Not a Lucky Winner.” Feel free to post any questions or comments below.

Contemporary writer and lecturer Bart Ehrman has achieved great notoriety over the past decade by espousing his view that the Christian church of the early centuries was a variegated enterprise.  Consolidated only by a series of political and ideological victories, the victors of these theological battles bestowed upon themselves the title “orthodox,” while the losers, deemed “heretics,” were erased from the history books.  Ehrman’s idea is not original.  In fact, the 1934 treatise by Walter Bauer which gave the thesis it’s fullest expression has taken severe criticism which has flowed constantly since the 1950’s.  Yet, postmodern skepticism has kept the ground fertile for contemporary writers to continue the promulgation of the theory.  Perhaps the greatest recipients of this skepticism have been the early Fathers of the Church.  Among these, none is more central than Irenaeus, the second century bishop of Lyons and author of Against Heresies, the anti-Gnostic polemical work.  In the face of insinuations that Christianity lacked any unique identity and that Irenaeus’ motives were to enforce his own version of Christianity in order to increase his power base, this paper will demonstrate the contrary.  An objective orthodoxy can be established and Irenaeus was a man of both high competence and noble motive.

Posted on May 6, 2010, in Historical Theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Having engaged Ehrman as much as you have, what would you say (if anything) that evangelicals can/should learn from his arguments? Is there anything of value in his work that you would want to affirm?

    • Ehrman does force modern evangelicals to wrestle with the reality that there was diversity within early Christianity. The early Christian communities developed amid varied cultures and traditions, and as a result, different emphases within Christianity emerged. Ehrman, and Bauer before him, have forced contemporary Christians to investigate more fully the first and second century milieu (or perhaps milieus) from which it came, improving upon the caricature of that era which we previously used to describe it. However, I’m hesitant to give credit to Ehrman for much more than this rather banal observation. That the Gospel, at its core, could conceivably be transcendent to culture – rigidly defined and preserved, and faithfully transmitted – is something he will not grant. His skepticism has, overall, I believe, been a destructive force against the Gospel, and consequently he has become quite popular among those eager to accept any voice disparaging of Christianity.

  2. Where’s the paper?!

  3. Although I think you’re right to be largely critical of Ehrman’s work, I’m not sure that I’d dismiss his conclusions as “banal.” I spend a lot of time in every church history class deconstructing the notion that there was a pure “Golden Age” of the church in which everyone was unified in theology and practice. The work of critical scholarship has helped demonstrate that the reality of God’s people in the world has always been messier than that.

    Now, having said that, your point about the Gospel in light of this messiness in the early church is also important. I actually think that a narrative about the “Messy Age” of the church magnifies the power of the Gospel that much more!

    • Standing alone, his point that early Christianity was diverse remains a significant one. It is probably more within the full context of his assertions that judging this to be a ‘banal’ conclusion may be more fitting. Ehrman flirts with the sensational. If he is correct, the implication of his assertions is that no authoritative or normative form of Christianity exists. In light of this, affirming early Christian diversity as the capstone of his contribution rejects the majority of his effort. The sensational sheen which goes far beyond this has been stripped away, and like the kid arriving three hours late to the prom, one asks, ‘Is this really all that’s left? What happened to all the excitement?’ So, perhaps Ehrman’s conclusion of early Christianity as diverse should not be described as banal without qualification, but rather, banal in comparison to the more sensational elements of his work, which I would argue constitute a majority of what makes him unique and should be rejected.

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