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Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church Paperback – July 20, 2017
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"If you've ever wondered what happened to the church after the apostles, how the church began to expand and grow, and why it developed its particular beliefs, then Michael Kruger has written the book for you. In this learned volume, Kruger takes readers into the mysterious second century, where he lucidly explains things like the formation of a distinctive Christian identity, pagan responses to Christianity, the rise of certain heresies, and the canonization of the New Testament. This book will open a whole new world that you never knew existed!" (Michael F. Bird, lecturer in theology, Ridley College, Melbourne, Australia)
"This is a good introduction and overview of Christianity in the second century, which was a crucial period of growth, opposition, and development of doctrines and practices. Readable and informed, Kruger's book is a recommended choice for course readings and for individuals seeking to know more about early Christianity." (Larry W. Hurtado, professor emeritus of New Testament language, literature, and theology, School of Divinity (New College), University of Edinburgh)
"Kruger takes us into a world in which 'Christianity' is still very much at risk and up for grabs, struggling to find its identity in the midst of forces within and without seeking to define its identity or suppress its existence. His book invites us into the tensions and trajectories that would eventually give shape to what we, in distant retrospect, take for granted as Christian faith, practice, and polity. I recommend it highly, alongside the texts that have richly informed it (the apostolic fathers, the early martyrologies, and the apologists), to all those interested in learning how 'New Testament faith' found its footing and began to take root." (David A. deSilva, trustees' distinguished professor of New Testament and Greek, Ashland Theological Seminary)
"Though most of us are pretty sure that something happened between the apostolic era and the Council of Nicaea, even professional historians can be pretty foggy on what that 'something' was or why it matters; the second century has always been the black box of Christian history. Now with this well-researched yet highly accessible book, Kruger recovers important flight data that shows just how crucial this overlooked trajectory is to understanding Christian history and even Christianity as we know it today." (Nicholas Perrin, Franklin S. Dyrness Professor of Biblical Studies, Wheaton Graduate School)
"The second century, a sprawling, fascinating, and formative period in the history of Christianity, may be well studied, but it is neither well nor easily comprehended. Mike Kruger's Christianity at the Crossroads is an excellent remedy for that problem! Any reader who wants a better understanding of the situation of the church in that period, its place in the world, its worship, its struggles, and its Scriptures will benefit from this highly informative compendium. Besides being a trustworthy guidebook, it is also a well-designed source-book for those interested in further study." (Charles E. Hill, John R. Richardson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando)
"Many scholars of early Christianity are pushing beyond the New Testament era, into the second century; however, the complexity of issues magnifies due to the intersection of such a diverse expression of Christian groups interpreting biblical texts and developing their approaches to theology and society. With Christianity at the Crossroads, Michael Kruger provides an orientation to the diversity of groups, texts, and practices that students and scholars of Christian origins will find invaluable. He summarizes the best of contemporary research about second century Christianity and provides robust bibliographies for further study. This is definitely a book I wish I had a decade ago, when I began my work in this area." (Ben C. Blackwell, assistant professor of Christianity, Houston Baptist University) --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
About the Author
Michael J. Kruger is President and Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. His recent publications include The Question of Canon (IVP Academic, 2013) and The Early Text of the New Testament, co-edited with Charles E. Hill (Oxford University Press, 2012).
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Faulkner’s quip came to mind repeatedly while reading Michael J. Kruger’s new book, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church. The authors and controversies of that century are unfamiliar to most Christians, but they fundamentally determined what Christianity became and continues to be today. In the words of Gerd Lüdemann, quoted approvingly by Kruger: "To put it pointedly, in the period from the first Christian generations to the end of the second century, more important decisions were made for the whole of Christianity than were made from the end of the second century to the present day" [emphasis in original].
What kind of decisions are we talking about? Over the course of seven chapters, Kruger surveys the sociological makeup of second-century Christianity (chapter 1), its political and intellectual acceptability (chapter 2), and its ecclesiological structure (chapter 3). The next two chapters interact with Walter Bauer’s seminal book, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, and describe both the diversity (chapter 4) and unity (chapter 5) of the Church during this time. Finally, Kruger examines the “bookish” nature of Christianity during this period (chapter 6), concluding by making a case that the canon of the New Testament was functionally established by the end of the second century (chapter 7).
These issues might strike some readers as “academic” in nature, of no concern to the average Christian today. And yet, academic debates tend to spring up in popular culture in unexpected places. So, for example, a version of Bauer’s thesis — a mangled version, I hasten to add — underlies the plot of Dan Silva’s (awful) 2003 mystery, The Da Vinci Code. Leading characters in that novel argued that Christian “orthodoxy” was merely the side that won the era’s theological debates with a considerable assist from imperial Rome, that true faith in Jesus was better expressed by doctrines that came to be known as “heresy,” and that the canon of Christian Scripture originally included many Gnostic “Gospels” that Emperor Constantine suppressed.
I was a teaching pastor when Brown’s book came out, and I remember answering numerous congregants’ questions about it. “Is this true?” they asked. “Is Christian orthodoxy just one option among many? Were Gospels excluded from the New Testament canon?” Any answer I gave required getting second-century Christian history right. Like Faulkner said, the past isn’t even past.
Let me briefly summarize chapters 4 and 5 Christianity at the Crossroads to show the relevance of Christian history to such concerns.
These two chapters interact with Walter Bauer’s Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, mentioned above. First published in German in 1934, then translated to English in 1971, Bauer’s book argued that, in Kruger’s words, “the earliest (or predominant) version of Christianity in these locales [Asia Minor, Antioch, Egypt, and Edessa] was what eventually became regarded as ‘heresy.’” Kruger’s summary goes on, “It was only in the later centuries — largely due to the influence of the church at Rome — that the doctrinal debates were settled and the ‘heretical’ nature of these beliefs was to become evident.” Consequently, as Kruger explains the implications of Bauer’s thesis, “the distinctions between orthodoxy and heresy in these earliest centuries are nonsensical. Instead, what you have in these early centuries are just various competing versions of Christianity all claiming to be original.”
Kruger concedes in chapter 4 that self-described Christians in the second century disagreed with one another. “Just a short time after the time of the apostles [i.e., the first century], it appears that the early Church was mired in controversy over a number of different theological issues.” These included the doctrines of creation, Scripture, salvation and Christ — core doctrines all of them.
And yet, Kruger goes on to argue that these controversies don’t establish Bauer’s thesis. “Diversity by itself does not mean there is no way to distinguish between heresy and orthodoxy,” he writes. “Nor does it mean that heretical views were as popular as orthodox ones.” In fact, he argues in chapter 5, “even in the midst of diversity, there was a core set of beliefs that unified most Christians together,” and “these beliefs appear to have an ancient pedigree — one that goes back even to the days of the apostles.”
Kruger employs three arguments to reach this conclusion. First, he argues that “there was widespread unity centred [sic] upon the ‘rule of faith’, one of the earliest expressions of apostolic teaching.” The rule was “not just an abstract collection of doctrinal affirmations, but [was], in essence, a history of redemption.” It began with God’s creative work, included God’s self-revelation through Old Testament prophets, and focused on Jesus’ acts of salvation. The “widespread, early and uniform nature of the rule of faith” rebuts the notion that “no meaningful theological unity” can be found in second-century Christianity.
Second, Kruger argues that “there are a number of lines of evidence that suggest [the] ‘orthodox’ crowd…constituted the majority of Christians” in this period. These include the number of leaders, the geographical spread of churches, the preponderance of ‘orthodox’ literature, and the fact that critics of early Christianity, such as Celsus, aimed their heaviest fire at the ‘orthodox’ camp, presuming it to be the majority.
Finally, Kruger argues that “the teaching found in the rule of faith matches most closely with the earliest accessible apostolic teaching, namely the seven undisputed letters of Paul” (i.e., Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon). “If the earliest apostolic teaching is a reasonable standard for what counts as ‘orthodoxy’,” he concludes, “then it seems that title is best applied to the mainstream Church that embraced the rule of faith.”
From this brief review of Christianity at the Crossroads, I hope you can see, as Lüdemann saw, the crucial importance of second-century Christian history. Nineteen centuries later, contemporary Christians of various denominational stripes can recognize continuity between their faith and that of what both Celsus (the critic) and Irenaeus (the apologist) called the “great church,” a church that can credibly claim to represent the faith of the apostles.
Christianity at the Crossroads is an illuminating study. It introduces the people and controversies of second-century Christianity in a clear, accessible manner. And it guides readers through scholarly debates about that century, fairly summarizing all sides of the debate, even as it argues for a traditional reading of the historical evidence. I highly recommend this excellent book about that “most important” century.
The second century also saw Celsus' attack on Christianity (about 177 AD) and, in response, clear declarations of the core beliefs of Christians, such as Aristides 'Apology', about mid century.
How could scattered groups of Christians withstand the Gnostics, not to mention the scorn of pagans like Celcus?
For one thing, the letters of Ignatius (110 AD) reveal "the monoepiscopate as if it were already normative for at least some Christians in his day...Ignatius indicated...there are bishops in each of the five Asian congregations he addresses...One of the primary duties of the bishop, according to Ignatius, was the proper administration of baptism and...the Eucharist" (p 81).
The Eucharist became a core indication of unity among Christians. Holding to heterodox theology would mean, after attempts to bring the group back into comity, they could no longer share the Eucharist. Only important issues could result in a refusal to share the Eucharist. Gnostics were denied the Eucharist since they were regarded as heretics, but Christians with competing views on feast days, such as Anicetus and Polycarp, shared the Eucharist, since their disagreement was not based on a point of dogma.
It is also worth noting that almost every Christian apologist was also a bishop. Significantly,"when we turn to heterodox groups...what is lacking is evidence...they held the office of bishop" (p 147), or, even if they did hold the office, they had it taken from them.
As for dogma, Irenaeus appeals to "this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth " (p 83). The idea that apostolic faith was conveyed through bishops was also present in 1 Clement (95 AD).
So, although the second century saw an increase in diversity, there were clear ways to distinguish between heresy and Orthodox Christianity. The rule of faith - regula fidei - was a concise declaration of faith dating back to the apostles. Paul uses the words for passing on oral tradition among Second Temple Jews, as do the Gospels, indicating Christians had preserved the truth and passed it on. "Missing from...Ehrman is one critical fact, namely we have access to historical sources from the first century that contain primitive apostolic teaching" (p 158).
Christian churches kept in touch with one another so that there was a "busy, almost hectic traffic of messengers and letters between churches" (p 143), which was another check against heterodox beliefs.
If Gnostics were so many and so influential, as Bauer claimed, then there is no explanation for the fact that archaeologists have found that orthodox Christian documents outnumber Gnostic or heretical documents by about 6 to 1. If it was so difficult to distinguish between Gnostics and Christians, then why do Christian apologists only cite the orthodox texts?
In fact, unlike the claims of Bauer, both anti Christians such as Celsus says the Gnostics were few in number, as do the Christian apologists. "For Celsus, Christianity was predominantly of the orthodox type. which he recognized as theologically closer to its origins and numerically stronger than the other forms" (p 155).