Today we have another of those wonderful student essays from Daniel Gullotta. His focus in this essay is the theory of the German theologian, Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), who proposed that the Church was born out of conflict between two opposing viewpoints which only gradually became synthesised into a single, united view. It's an essay that will probably be of interest to the theologically well-educated as well as those of us who are theologically illiterate in the theories of a lesser-known figure like Ferdinand Christian Baur. Daniel's original title for the essay was "Competing Churches and Rivalling Saints".
Ferdinand Christian Baur and the search for the historical Church...
What was earliest Christianity like? It is a question that has plagued the minds and books of New Testament and Pauline scholars for centuries. There are literally millions of texts on the subject struggling against one another in providing both historians and Christians an explanation to how and why the early church started. One of the most important figures that emerged from this debate and dialogue was the church historian Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), forming what is known to early Christian historians as the 'Two-Missions Thesis'. Of Ferdinand Christian Baur influence on New Testament scholarship, James Dunn describes that,
"as Hermann Reimarus inaugurated the quest for the historical Jesus, so Ferdinand Christian Baur is the key figure in the quest for the historical church."
This thesis can be summarized by the statement made by William Baird that, "the early church was made up of two parties: a Jewish faction represented by Peter, and a Hellenistic group under the leaders of Paul, two parties that by the end of the second century, were merged into the catholic church." This essay will examine Baur's 'two-mission thesis' and in doing so will explore its strengths as well as its weakness.
The 'Two Mission Thesis'...
Baur describes early Christianity as characterised by a conflict between Jewish-Christians and Pauline Christians. On the one hand the Jewish-Christians view the Apostles and the Twelve as those who have been personally commissioned by Jesus, and those who were associated with him personally as one of his disciples. Yet on the other hand, Paul claims his apostleship and vocation as the Apostle to the Gentiles to be something inward and spiritual, a personal revelation from the risen Jesus. Prior to Paul, Baur sees the split within the church of the Hebrews and the Hellenists and the death of Stephen as a split which forebodes the larger conflict between Paul and the Judaizers.
The key to understanding the basis of Baur's thesis and arguments is his exegesis and examination of Acts 15 and Galatians 2, to which he argues is the same council. According to Paul in Galatians, the dispute is between Paul and the Jerusalem apostles, while according to Acts, the opponents of Paul belong to a third party being converts from the Pharisees, which Baur sees as an invention of the Luke to obscure the Pauline-Petrine conflict. After the deaths of Peter and Paul, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the spread of Pauline Christianity across the Roman Empire, Luke and other later Christian writers begin a process of harmonizing the two gospels into one, and the two churches into one. This harmonising reaches its climax with such traditions as Peter and Paul travelling together to Rome on a common mission and sharing the same day of martyrdom. The life and expansion of the church for Baur, displayed not an immaculate realisation of the Holy Spirit but a story of opposition and conflict, of the Holy Spirit dialectically at work, but facing the reality that the myth of the united early church is precisely that, a myth.
Personally, I am in favour of the heart of Baur's arguments and thesis. Baur unlike so many modern scholars of earliest Christianity take the problem of conflict and division within the early church seriously. I agree with David Sim that a vast majority of early church scholarship, "the usual demarcation between Jewish Christianity and Gentile Christianity is simply inadequate." So much scholarship simply ignores the obvious conflicts within the writings of the New Testament that it fails to recognize how serious an issue the Mosaic Law, in both arguments of keeping to it and breaking from it. While I would disagree with how much Baur relies on Hegelian dialectics, his thesis provides scholars with answers (whether solely or partially) to how and why so much of the New Testament was written and how and why so much of the New Testament is in disagreement with one another. Theologically speaking Baur affirms historical revelation and its relationship to history, tradition, and meaning. In the words of William Baird on Baur's theology of history,
"the tradition provided the content, historical criticism assessed its historicity, and philosophy interpreted its meaning for humanity in relation to ultimate reality."
However while I agree with the heart of Baur's thesis, its skeleton is clearly flawed. His dating of almost the entire New Testament literature is clearly mistaken and almost every scholar of the New Testament, both liberal and conservative would disagree with his views on the formation of the canonical gospels. Baur's thesis stresses so much of the internal events, figures, and writings that shaped earliest Christianity that he ignores the external events, figures, and writings that would have had just as much, if not more of an effect on the early church, for example, the persecutions of Nero and the rise of Gnosticism. Yet ultimately Baur's theory is far too simple, and at times its desire doesn't meet its reach. For Baur to simply place all the various groups and factions of earliest Christianity into two competing groups, namely "Pauline" and "Petrine", does not adequately aciculate the complexity of the multiple and differing conflicts within the earliest days of Christianity. Finally, Baur is firmly and clearly on the side of Paul, almost to the point of anti-Semitism, portraying Petrine Christianity as narrow minded and legalistic and Pauline Christianity as spiritual, cosmic, and universal.
In conclusion, Ferdinand Christian Baur's thesis of the Two-Mission Church is one that must be taken seriously and if rejected must be explained in a way that takes seriously conflict in the early church. Baur, has proven beyond a doubt, despite the weakness of his arguments, the formation and origins of earliest Christianity was clearly much more confused, conflicted, and contested from within than was traditionally recognized. Such themes have been carried into the New Testament scholarship of today with the works of Michael Goulder, Paula Fredrisken, David Sim, and Ian Elmer, (just to name a few) proves that the heart of Baur's thesis still commands respect for its potential explanatory power.
What are your thoughts on this commentary?