…During the last decade and a half a number of writers with media savvy have unleashed books and articles to support the view that originally Christianity was pluralistic in content and largely tolerant (in the new sense!) in attitude. There was no agreed orthodoxy, but highly diverse theological syntheses. We catch glimpses of the complexities, it is argued, when we peruse the many apocryphal gospels and other writings that never made it into the New Testament canon—books with titles such as Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Peter, and so forth. Unfortunately, we are told, what became “orthodoxy” won out and opposed every view other than that of orthodoxy. Our New Testament canon is such a late development, it is argued; in the first couple of centuries there was much more diversity. If the fourth- and fifth-century church councils formulated creeds still recited today, they did so at the expense of shutting down everyone else. So Elaine Pagels promotes The Gnostic Gospels, which, she claims, advocated tolerance and promoted egalitarianism, while Bart Ehrman bemoans Lost Christianities.
The subtext of these and similar books is that originally Christianity was diverse and tolerant. Sadly, relatively late orthodoxy made it narrow, bigoted, hate-filled, and intolerant. So don’t trust people who talk about orthodoxy. Surely we are in a much better situation today, Ehrman argues, when Western culture is much more akin to the “famous tolerance” of Roman paganism. Of course, the Romans were not very tolerant of the proto-orthodox, sometimes going on persecution sprees and killing quite a lot of them. But it was the Christians’ own fault for being intolerant.
As popular as this view has become, it is historical nonsense. Even a casual reading of the New Testament discloses how many of its writers were concerned to maintain the truth of the gospel (e.g., Galatians 1:8–9; 2 Corinthians 10–13; Jude). Daniel L. Hoffman has painstakingly refuted the central theses of Elaine Pagels. Simon Gathercole’s learned study demonstrates that, far from a narrow orthodox unity being extracted from a rich diversity, the flow went the other way: first to develop was the strong confessionalism; and then, as the passage of time and the pressures from the surrounding cultures spawned more and more aberrant theologies, Christians were forced to devote more thought to formulations that excluded these new aberrations precisely because they had never been part of the Christian heritage. A recent book by Charles Hill demonstrates that the fourfold Gospel structure that we know in the New Testament was not invented in the fourth century but was already well known in the second, by thinkers as diverse as Hippolytus, Tertullian, Origen, Dionysius, Cyprian, Victorinus, Marinus, Euplus, and, of course, Irenaeus. It does not seem unreasonable to infer that the devotion to diversity that marks so much of contemporary culture lies behind not a little of the revisionist historiography.
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