Biblical scholar April DeConick has suggested using a new term to describe the variety of forms of Christianity that existed early in the faith's history, prior to the establishment of a firm and dogmatic orthodoxy. The term she proposes is "plurodoxy." I like this suggestion. I think it is an admirable way of getting around the problem of how to describe early Christianity in a somewhat more impartial way without serving the propaganda interests of a prevailing orthodoxy. After all, the very word "orthodoxy" is essentially a tool of theological warfare; it is a means by which the winners in internecine theological struggles can discredit the losers. By calling themselves "orthodox", the winners establish themselves as the standard bearers of Truth, against which all else is measured; thus those who disagree--the heterodox, the heretics--have deviated from this standard and are thus discredited.

There is a kind of grand mythical narrative that is used to reinforce the legitimacy of the winning positions. This narrative of "apostolic" Christianity does not merely hold that its version of Christianity is true and all the others are heretical and false. It goes much further than that in an effort to discredit free thinking dissenters. It essentially assigns legitimacy to itself, and itself alone, by proclaiming the inevitability of its own positions; it argues that one can draw a straight line from Jesus right to the Nicene Creed, that it and it alone derives from the apostolic faith, that everything that preceded the Nicene Creed pointed the way directly and without deviation to what eventually became the orthodox faith.

In fact, this was not the case. Christianity was characterized by diversity from more or less the very beginning. And because of this, historians and scholars are thus presented with a problem. If they are to assume some level of impartiality, they really cannot be parties to this process of discrediting the losers in historical disputes. This would make them passively complicit in a propaganda war. But this raises the question of what terminology to use in place of "orthodoxy". Bart Ehrman, for example, has used the word "proto-orthodox" to describe, prior to the establishment of orthodoxy, early theological positions that resembled later forms of orthodoxy. But this is really only a half measure, and still grants a greater air of legitimacy to certain views that ostensibly evolved into the "orthodox." In fact, all the various competing viewpoints at the time considered themselves "orthdoox". Calling only one of those "proto-orthodox" is a historical anachronism.

In another blog entry, April DeConnick elaborates on why she thinks new terminology is necessary:

Why? Because there wasn't an orthodox Christianity in the second or third centuries from which others deviated and were heretics. This language only works if (1) you have an established historical orthodoxy that dominates the scene or (2) you use it in terms of a theological self-reference, as in my way is orthodox and yours isn't.

Now some of my readers might like the apostolic church and identify with it, and therefore say that there was an orthodoxy and the apostolic church was it. Everyone else is a heretic. Fine, but this is not a historical perspective.
Interestingly enough, one commenter in her blog has objected strenuously to this terminology, more or less admitting that the whole point of using the word "orthodoxy" is to promote one point of view and to discredit the others.

Yet, as April DeConick points out:
As historians we cannot be theologians. The texts tell us the story. And this story was a story of many competing orthodoxies, all who claimed for themselves the "Christian" name. At least in the pre-Constantinian period, the marking of a heretic comes from within each of these orthodoxies, and represents their individual understanding of what it means to be the "real" Christians.
I think that the idea of plurodoxy is an interesting way of trying to capture the reality of competing theologies in early Christianity.


Chris said...

I'm not sure what the use of this terminology would be, but I appreciate the concept, anyway.

Mystical Seeker said...

Well, Chris, I suppose it might be of more use to April DeConick as an author and researcher than to some other people. Anyway, I found it interesting regardless of the use. :)