Christianity at the Crossroads

How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church

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Michael J. Kruger
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic Press
    , March
     2018.
     256 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780830852031.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church, Michael J. Kruger seeks to provide an accessible introduction to 2nd-century Christianity. Kruger emphasizes the ancient sources themselves: what they tell us about 2nd-century Christianity’s sociological makeup (chapter 1), intellectual or political aspirations and challenges (chapter 2), ecclesiological structure (chapter 3), diversity (chapter 4), unity (chapter 5), textuality (chapter 6), and scriptural canon (chapter 7). Kruger’s primary purpose is to get the reader—probably a master’s student or advanced undergraduate —interested in exploring 2nd-century Christianity itself. Correspondingly, scholarly debates play an important but secondary role. 

Exploring 2nd-century Christianity itself, however, is not the same as exploring 2nd-century Christianity for its own sake. In fact, Kruger’s argument is that the 2nd century deserves to be studied because of the pivotal role it played as an episode in the broader narrative of Christianity’s overall development. This is the century, he argues, in which Christianity was most vulnerable: it was like a toddler separated from its (apostolic) parents, surrounded by (heretical, pagan) predators. This is the century in which, quoting Gerd Lüdemann, “more important decisions were made for the whole of Christianity than were made from the end of the second century to the present day” (8).

A good plot requires uncertainty without arbitrariness, and Kruger works to show that the 2nd-century episode in the narrative of Christianity’s development delivers on this score. What form would church leadership take? Many options were possible, but the key role played by strong leaders in the defense of Christians against pagan attacks and heretical temptations led to the development of the monepiscopate (chapter 3). What texts would be used as authorities? There were many candidates, but the choice of four gospels, the Pauline letter collection, and several other books made sense in light of what emerged from the end of the 1st century (chapter 7). Of course, a key question is the degree and cause of theological diversity in the 2nd century. Kruger acknowledges that 2nd-century Christianity was indeed a diverse phenomenon (chapter 4), but he argues that the eventual triumph of the party tied to the Rule of Faith—represented by writers like Irenaeus and Tertullian—was far from arbitrary. On the contrary, judging by the Pauline epistles, this brand of 2nd-century Christianity was closest to the form of Christianity visible in our earliest 1st-century sources. Furthermore, building a cumulative case from patterns in the preservation of manuscripts, holders of the office of bishop, and the rhetoric employed by the Valentinian Theodotus of being a “select few,” among other lines of evidence, Kruger argues that the Rule of Faith brand of Christianity had a strong numerical advantage (chapter 5).

It should be clear by now that Kruger consistently adopts what might be characterized as “traditional” positions on contested questions in scholarship on 2nd-century Christianity. Christianity and Judaism formed distinct and maybe even separate identities at an early stage; the New Testament canon, at least for the most part, emerged early in the 2nd century, with roots in the 1st; the “vast majority” (226) of 2nd-century Christians belonged to the Rule of Faith group with Irenaeus, where they were the rightful heirs to the true apostolic teaching; and other, heretical groups “exploded on the scene” in the 2nd century (229). “Orthodoxy” and “heresy” appear with and without scare quotes throughout the book, but the burden of chapter 5 is to show that scare quotes really should not be necessary.

Some might suspect that this litany of traditional conclusions reveals a project of legitimizing traditional Christianity, and indeed Kruger explicitly applies lessons he gleans from this period to Christianity today (which he sees as increasingly under social and political pressure, at least in the West). There are even hints of a link to Protestant theology. When Justin Martyr mentions Christians who insist upon the necessity of observing the Mosaic commandments in addition to believing and obeying Christ, Kruger summarizes this position as a “rejection of salvation by faith alone” (114). He also argues that the Rule of Faith was authoritative because it summarized the scriptures. 

It would be a mistake, however, for those suspicious of legitimizing narratives to simply dismiss this book. Kruger generally does a good job of acknowledging the existence of perspectives and arguments that differ from his own. A reader coming to this material for the first time will gain a sense for many of the kinds of questions that are disputed among specialists in the period.

Unfortunately, despite identifying important disputed questions, Kruger is less helpful as a guide to the relevant secondary scholarship. This was, of course, not his primary aim. Nevertheless, the scholarship he chooses to cite in a given paragraph should not be used as a reliable guide to the most important literature on that topic. Two examples will need to suffice. His discussion of the “Parting of the Ways” between Judaism and Christianity cites only one article by Daniel Boyarin, despite discussing the passage in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho that is central to Boyarin’s important monograph Border Lines (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004). Similarly, his discussion of the Muratorian Fragment (which he dates to the 2nd century rather than the 4th) cites only one article (which agrees with him), even though he cites G. M. Hahneman’s important monograph arguing the opposing position earlier in the same chapter, in an unrelated section (205, 213). Kruger also occasionally acknowledges important recent monographs that challenge his preferred position, such as Candida Moss on martyrdom or Alistair Stewart on bishops, only to then cite earlier scholarship as evidence that at least some scholars believe his position “remains” the most convincing view (48, 77).

If readers are wondering whether a case can still be made from the primary sources for more traditional positions on 2nd-century Christianity, then this is a good place to look. It would serve well as an overview text in an introductory class on early Christianity, paired with primary sources—and with key secondary works arguing for opposing positions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Thomas D. McGlothlin teaches at the Christian Academy in Japan.

Date of Review: 
July 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael J. Kruger is President and Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. His recent publications include The Question of Canon and The Early Text of the New Testament, coedited with Charles E. Hill.

Keywords: 

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