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Christianity at the Crossroads by Michael J. Kruger

23 March 2018

Mark Edwards on the second-century Church’s rule of faith

IS IT possible to take a unified view of such a desultory phenomenon as the cult of Jesus Christ in the second century?

Professor Kruger begins this ambitious project with a chapter on early Christian sociology, rebutting the ancient claim that the Church housed only the poor and the ignorant. The second chapter explains what was distinctive enough in Christian thought and life to invite “intellectual persecution”. The third examines the interplay between local and universal trends in the evolution of liturgy and governing institutions. In Chapter 4, the teachings of the Ebionites, Cerinthians, and Gnostics are introduced as “alternative pathways”. If we find it surprising that they should wait so long for their entrance in a book that began by noting the diversity of the early Christian world, the riddle is solved in Chapter 5, where Kruger undertakes to show that the Catholic strain was dominant throughout the era.

After a comprehensive survey of second-century Christian writing in Chapter 6, Chapter 7 returns to the principal thesis, arguing that the majority already granted canonical status to all but the minor books of our New Testament. I agree with his conclusion that the episcopate in the second century held to a single rule of faith, attested by Tertullian, St Irenaeus, St Clement, Hippolytus, and Origen; and I agree that this rule excluded all the movements that we call Gnostic.

I am less sure that these movements can be so easily shown to be less true to the apostolic deposit than the episcopate; for they, too, invoked the authority of recognised apostles whose works are lost if they ever existed; moreover, it has been held that they interpreted Paul’s views on the resurrection and the relation of faith to law more faithfully than their episcopal rivals, and that they were the first expositors of the Fourth Gospel, whose popularity Kruger cites in support of his own position.

Perhaps we should ponder the fact that, while we possess three ancient versions of the Apocryphon of John, our earliest manuscript of Justin dates from 1364. A full defence of this position would also require Kruger to study the new taxonomies proposed by David Brakke, the arguments of Joly, Rius-Camps, Hübner, and Barnes against the authenticity of the Ignatian letters, and Markus Vinzent’s denial that any of the canonical Gospels can be shown to antedate Marcion.

While we are free to challenge the “indications” of a flight to the synagogue under persecution, we cannot deny that we have the three required witnesses in Martyrdom of Pionius 13, Jerome’s gloss on Galatians 6.12, and the obvious sense of the philippic in Revelation 2.9 against those “who say they are Jews and are not”.

Professor Mark Edwards is Lecturer in Patristics at the University of Oxford, and Tutor in Theology at Christ Church, Oxford.


Christianity at the Crossroads: How the second century shaped the future of the Church
Michael J. Kruger
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