Cinderella, You Shall Go to the Ball!

The second century of the early church is generally neglected in favor of other, apparently more exciting and accessible, periods.

 Michael Kruger argues in his new book, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church, this period is critical for understanding the development of the post-apostolic church.    Issues of theology, authority, worship, ecclesiology, culture and canon all emerge at this time and directions of later discussions are established.

 

The second century is arguably the Cinderella of the early church, generally neglected in favor of other, apparently more exciting and accessible, periods.    It is populated by largely shadowy figures about whom we know enough to be tantalized, even impressed, but it lacks the giant intellects and the elaborate doctrinal disputes and formulations that emerge from the third century onwards.   Yet, as Michael Kruger argues in his new book, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church, this period is critical for understanding the development of the post-apostolic church.    Issues of theology, authority, worship, ecclesiology, culture and canon all emerge at this time and directions of later discussions are established.  Further, the period also has a more immediate practical relevance for us:  there is much to be gained from reflecting on the analogies between the church in the West in our day and that of Christianity in a largely indifferent and at times overtly hostile Roman empire.

The historian of Christianity in the second century faces numerous problems.  First, the primary evidence is often fragmentary and incomplete.  Second (and often taking full advantage of the first), the existing secondary scholarship is frequently tendentious, driven by the desire to justify later convictions, whether that be the primacy of the Roman see or the ineradicable and incoherent doctrinal pluralism of the post-apostolic church, to cite but two examples.   Kruger’s expertise is New Testament and he has done extensive work in the area of canon development and the emergence of orthodoxy.  He is therefore well qualified to guide the reader through this complicated territory.  If you teach patristics, this book should be on the bibliography.

In seven chapters, Kruger addresses the sociology of the early church, the political and intellectual context, the emerging ecclesiastical structures and their relation to worship and Christology, the vexed issue of Gnosticism and the concepts of orthodoxy and heresy, the nature of early Christian unity, the role of texts in a largely illiterate society, and the emergence of the New Testament canon.  That is a lot of ground to cover but Kruger writes with clarity, highlighting scholarly debates where necessary, and provides a helpful bibliography for further reading.  This is a very accessible book but not of that type which pretends that the answers to difficult questions are easier than they really are.

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