In his influential book, Lost Christianities sceptical scholar Bart Ehrman advances what has become known as the Bauer-Ehrman Thesis.
This asserts that history reveals there to have been no single orthodox Christian faith in the early centuries but rather early Christian history- even as early as the apostolic age- was just a mess of competing theologies. According to Ehrman these rival theologies jostled together for position until one side eventually was able to win a complete victory in the 4th Century and then pronounce its view to be the orthodox, and all the others to be heretical.
In answering this we might first consider how the view that there was no single orthodox faith in the 1st Century Church might be reconclied with the words of the apostle who from the beginning declared there to be “one Lord, one faith, one baptism”( Eph 4:5) and who roasted the Galatians for their flirtations with a gospel which was really no gospel (Gal 1:6-7). Certainly Paul would have required some persuading that there was no such thing as a single orthodox Gospel in his day!
But in fact the New Testament is full of such warnings about false teachings. And this fact alone must effectively rout Ehrman’s position since the existence of false teachers demonstrates the existence of true teachers in the same way that a counterfeit £20 note proves there to be real currency. The numerous warnings of heresy found within the pages of the New Testament itself show conclusively that there must have been a recognised orthodoxy from which the false teachers had deviated.
How else could Jude exhort the believers to “contend earnestly for the faith that was once delivered unto the saints”? He could not have made a statement like that unless his readership knew that there really was one faith that had been once delivered unto the saints.
Now it is certainly true that early Church history is sprinkled with the names of a bewildering array of heresies. There were the Judaizers, the Nicolaitians, the Ebionites, the Gnostics, the Adoptionists, the Docetists, the Sabellians, the Arians, the Monophysites…and so the line stretches on to the crack of doom.
Heresy certainly existed as early as the 1st Century but from the earliest times it was already identified as being heresy. The writings of the apostles prove that there was already an orthodoxy from which these heretics had broken away.
Ehrman’s basic contention is that “history is written by the winners” and as far as it goes that cannot be argued with too much. But the real issue here is how did they actually get to be the winners?
Ehrman would have us believe that the “orthodox” camp won by the tried and tested means of first securing secular power and then using that power to impose its view upon everybody else.
This is certainly how it is done in secular history where nobody secures their place without possessing some kind of force majeure.
However that rule simply does not hold true of sacred history. There we find that orthodoxy has often had to prevail against overwhelming odds, championed by men who found themselves virtually alone against the world.
Our Lord Himself is the exemplar of this. As has often been observed, Jesus never wrote a book, never raised an army, never formed a government, or held high office. In short, He never did any of the things by which men gain and retain power in this world. And yet He became and remains the single greatest Influencer over the affairs of planet earth.
Christ in turn passed His movement on to a powerless (humanly speaking) group of twelve men who first stood alone against organised Judaism and then against all the might of Imperial Rome, and yet they too succeeded in turning the world upside down.
In the 4th Century it was Athanasius who stood contra mundum for the truth of the Trinity and was enabled to prevail. In the 16th Century it was the turn of a solitary Roman Catholic monk to pin his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church and defy all the power of the Pope.
These men didn’t win by force of arms but by force of arguments. They “conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions” and did this despite the vast forces that were arrayed against them. They won not because they had a big army but because they had a big God. They won because they were able to prove the old adage that “one man with God is a majority.”
Far from orthodoxy winning simply because it grew more powerful than its rivals, orthodoxy often has had to win its battles from seemingly hopeless positions.
Yes, history is written by the winners but history proves God to be the ultimate Winner.