Saturday, March 24, 2018

Book Write-Up: Christianity at the Crossroads, by Michael J. Kruger

Michael J. Kruger.  Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church.  IVP Academic, 2017, 2018.  See here to purchase the book.

Michael J. Kruger has a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh, and he teaches New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary, which is in Charlotte, North Carolina.  He is also the President there.

As the title indicates, this book is about Christianity in the second century C.E.  Kruger engages such topics as who was attracted to Christianity, the views of Christians that were held by the larger non-Christian society, the church’s ecclesiological organization, diversity and unity within second century Christianity, the importance of texts to second century Christians, and the emergence of a New Testament canon during the second century.

What marks this book is its judicious engagement of scholarship.  Kruger often identifies where there is scholarly doubt about certain narratives, where scholarship has changed, and his own views on the issues.  Kruger’s conclusions tend to accord with a Reformed Protestant view.  He argues that churches were initially shepherded by elders, and that the leadership of bishops, let alone an overarching bishop (i.e., pope), was a later development; Catholics, by contrast, would trace the papacy back to Peter.  In a passing comment on page 104, Kruger states that “the particular way that connection [with Christ] was achieved [at the Eucharist] was a continuing matter of debate” in the second century; this statement would contrast with Catholics and other believers in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, who would see the real presence as the original Christian position and the view that the bread and wine are mere symbols as a much later development.

Kruger also challenges claims from more “liberal” (my word) scholars, such as Walter Bauer, Bart Ehrman, and Helmut Koester.  Kruger contends that the Christianity of the second century church fathers, which won out, was the mainstream, majority Christianity, with a connection to the apostles; other Christian sects, by contrast, were comparatively marginal or were heretical deviations.  Kruger holds that there was a New Testament canon during the second century C.E., while acknowledging that some books were still in dispute; he argues against scholars who think that the canon came later, or that the second century church lacked a canon because it valued oral tradition over written texts.

To determine whether Kruger characterizes the scholarly positions accurately, one would have to read them, and Kruger provides secondary references.  Overall, however, in arguing for his own positions, Kruger does so very effectively, as he looks closely at primary sources.  One argument that was impressive was when he contradicted the view that Marcion’s version of the New Testament came first and that the “orthodox” version was a supplemental response to Marcion; essentially, Kruger pointed to scholarship that indicated that Marcion was harmonizing the New Testament Gospels (or borrowing others’ harmonizations), indicating that the New Testament Gospels were already widely respected by Christians in Marcion’s day.

Compared with his discussion of other issues, Kruger’s treatment of the Eucharist was rather disappointing.  He appeared to be implying that Justin Martyr held a memorialist view of the Eucharist, whereas Ignatius (and perhaps Irenaeus) saw the bread and wine as Christ’s literal body.  (I am inferring this from his references in a footnote, on page 104.)  His footnote did not cite Justin’s “First Apology,” chapter 66, in which Justin seems to affirm that the bread and the wine are Jesus’ flesh and blood.

I am somewhat ambivalent about Kruger’s argument that the second century church fathers had a connection with the apostles.  On the one hand, the “orthodox” positions of the church fathers do appear to be more consistent with the New Testament than are the Christianities of the Marcionites and the Gnostics; the New Testament does not seem to believe that there was a pure, anti-matter God who was above a sinister sub-deity, the God of the Old Testament.  Kruger may also be correct that the “Gnostic” Christians were imitating the “orthodox” Christians by claiming that their teachings went back to the apostles.  On the other hand, my impression is that the New Testament is too diverse for one to claim that it accords with the second century “rule of faith.”  The synoptic Gospels may not depict Jesus as pre-existent, as the “rule of faith” does; Paul may not have had a concept of a virgin birth, as the “rule of faith” has.  To his credit, Kruger actually does mention and express doubt about the argument that Mark’s Gospel may be adoptionist.  My suspicion is, though, that the line from first century Christianity to the second century “rule of faith” was messier than Kruger might think.

Other critiques that I have: Kruger was a little uncritical in his acceptance of Papias, as there are scholars who have questioned Papias’ reliability.  Moreover, while Kruger did well to demonstrate that a number of New Testament books were deemed to be inspired—-even Scriptural—-in the second century, his explanation of Clement’s quotation of extracanonical Christian works was somewhat of a stretch.  It reminded me of conservative Christians who try to argue that Jude did not consider the I Enoch to be inspired Scripture when he quoted it.

One may get the impression from my review that this book is like the numerous classical Christian apologetics books that are out there.  While Christian apologists may find this book to be useful, it is more advanced and scholarly than popular apologetics books, and it also does not recycle the same old hackneyed arguments.  Overall, it is a robust scholarly engagement with other scholars, even as it tells the stories of second century Christians.  The book also has a humble and modest tone, in that Kruger distances himself from an apologetic agenda: he states, for example, that orthodox Christianity being the mainstream Christianity during the second century does not, by itself, mean that it was true (even though he believes that it was true).

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.

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