F.C. Baur, The Church History of the First Three Centuries

Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860) was a church historian and a NT scholar. He taught at the University of Tübingen from 1826 until 1860, and his long tenure there changed the reputation of the university from conservative to radically innovative. He was the son of a pastor, served two years as a pastor, and remained active in the church throughout his life.

David Strauss was one of Baur’s most famous and most controversial students. Baur and Strauss "perfectly agreed on their fundamental religious beliefs." However, "Baur always prided himself on being `positive’ in his critical work and deprecated Strauss’s `negativity’.... Baur believed that world history was a revelation of divinity.... Baur was a protestant and remained a protestant because he thus allied himself with the continual forward movement of Spirit." But Baur sometimes suffered because of his association with Strauss.

Baur’s view of theological history was initially influenced by Schliermacher and Schelling, later by Hegel. His early books were on mythology, Manicheanism, Gnosticism, and the history of dogma. His lectures on Corinthians, published in 1830, set the direction for his later church history and NT criticism. In Baur’s view, church history was shaped by the conflict between gentile and Jewish factions: the grace and universalism of Paul opposed to the works and particularism of Peter and John. These positions were gradually mediated into a catholic compromise: a universal church with an episcopacy.

Many of Baur’s ideas were also held by previous scholars. His main thesis was anticipated by John Lightfoot, almost 200 years earlier, who taught that there were only two main factions in Corinth: the gentile and Jewish segments of the church. Thomas Morgan, a Deist, also saw church history as a conflict between Pauline and Petrine factions. Johann Semler also identified the Corinthian factions as Pauline and Petrine. Semler’s view of the canon, willing to question any book, is seen again in Baur.

Baur evaluated the books of the NT by how well they fit his theory. Polemic books were judged early; more irenic books were later. Only Romans, Galatians, and 1 & 2 Corinthians are really from Paul. One observer described Baur’s approach: "Paul appears constantly prepared for combat, and when an epistle presents him in any other mood, it is ipso facto unauthentic." Baird says, "His argument tends to be circular: NT documents are used to reconstruct early Christian history; the reconstruction of early Christian history provides the framework for the assessment of NT documents." Neill says, "This attempt to classify the varied literature of the New Testament according to one single principle leads Baur not infrequently to the use of methods which are neither critical, scientific, nor historical."

Most of Baur’s critical ideas about the NT books are included in the first volume of his church history, published in 1853 (ET, The Church History of the First Three Centuries, 3rd ed., trans. Allan Menzies (London: Williams and Norgate, 1878). This paper summarizes Baur’s argument, section by section, often in his own words, with my comments in brackets.

Primitive Christianity

If we begin with the idea that Christianity had a miraculous beginning, we cannot investigate it historically. If it began with miracles, then the same interruption of historical process is equally possible at any further point. But we look at it historically. In what way did Christianity reflect the general character of the age in which it appeared, at the time when the Roman empire was at its peak? It was a universal monarchy, and it saw the rise of a religion in which particularism gave way to universalism. The universalism of Christianity necessarily presupposes the universalism of the Roman empire. [This seems to ignore the universal potential of pagan syncretism, philosophies and mystery religions, and it seems to imply that Christianity was widely accepted – despite its particularistic roots. Baur’s main interest here seems to be particularism (Jewish Christianity) versus universalism (Pauline).]

What is Christianity? More than any other religion, it is free from everything external, sensuous, or material. It lays its foundations more deeply in the inmost essence of human nature and in the principles of the moral consciousness. It begins with a call to metanoia, an earnest call for humans to direct their gaze within, to become acquainted with themselves in the deep places of their self-consciousness. Christianity rests on our knowledge of ourselves as moral subjects. We have a natural instinct for truth; the germs of morality are implanted in us. [This is Baur’s view, not based on exegesis or historical work.] Christianity contains nothing that was not conditioned by a series of causes and effects going before.

If we assume that the four Gospels are all accurate, we must assume that Christ is a miracle and therefore beyond historical investigation. But it is obvious that the Johannine Gospel is not historical, and that Mark is not an independent source. Luke is colored by Paulism, and is not impartial. We therefore rely on Matthew as the most original and trustworthy of the Gospels. Here we find the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (where the focus is on the teachings, not the teacher) and in the parables. In the Beatitudes we find the fundamental mood out of which Christianity proceeded: It is religious consciousness that is penetrated by the deepest sense of the pressure of the finite and of all the contradictions of the present, and yet is infinitely exalted, and knows itself to be far superior to everything finite. In the parables, Christianity appears as a purely moral religion; the relation of a person to the kingdom of God is based upon nothing but moral conditions.

And yet if Christianity had been nothing but a doctrine of morality, nothing would have come of it. A center was needed, and that center was the person of Jesus, and a focus on a person was possible because of the Messianic idea in Judaism. Jesus became convinced that he was the Messiah, and he went to Jerusalem to see whether he would be accepted or rejected. His death then made an irreversible break with Judaism. After that, no one could believe in him as the Messiah without eliminating the Jewish aspects of messianic ideas. Faith had to break through the barrier of death itself. Nothing but the miracle of resurrection could disperse the doubts that threatened to drive away the faith of the disciples. The question as to the nature and the reality of the resurrection lies outside the sphere of historical inquiry. History must be content with the simple fact, that in the faith of the disciples the resurrection of Jesus came to be regarded as an unquestionable fact, as real to them as any historical event. It was in this faith that Christianity acquired a firm basis for its historical development.

The Conflict

Although Acts is not a reliable history, we see in Stephen that a Hellenist party in the early church opposed the particularity of Judaism. The stimulus for the growth of gentile Christianity was Paul. What Acts tells us about his conversion can be regarded only as an outward reflection of an inner spiritual process. The characteristic feature of Christianity as he knew it was the main charge brought against Stephen, and against Jesus himself: that true religion is not tied to special ordinances and places. Since as a Jew he had thrown all his energy into persecuting Christians, when converted to Christ he became a dedicated opponent of Judaism. The revelation of the Son and the call to preach to the gentiles were one and the same experience (Gal. 1:15-16). He was the first to articulate the principle of Christian universalism as a thing essentially opposed to Jewish particularism. Because the crucifixion ran contrary to Jewish consciousness, it must have a significance beyond the Jewish nation.

Fourteen years later, Jewish Christians, alarmed at the growth of the gentile church, said that gentiles must keep Jewish laws. So Paul went to Jerusalem to argue with the original apostles. They agreed only to go their separate ways (Gal. 2:9). But the tension remained, and resurfaced at Antioch. When Peter withdrew from the gentiles, he practically declared that he did not recognize them to be on the same level as Jewish Christians. The confrontation between Paul and Peter was strong. In Galatians, Paul says that Judaism is just a religion of law, no better than paganism. He asserts that he is just as much an apostle as those who saw Jesus in the flesh, and the validity of his gospel rests largely on the validity of his call.

In the Corinthian epistles the question of circumcision does not arise – Paul has to argue at a more basic level, his apostolic authority. The emotion that he shows when writing on this subject comes mainly from his uneasiness in having to do an impossible thing, namely, to prove as an objective fact a thing that was purely subjective in its nature. Some opponents had come to Corinth with letters of recommendation from the original apostles – objective evidence. Against this Paul could affirm nothing but his own self-consciousness and his view that Christianity is a new covenant that replaces the old. If people refuse to recognize him as an apostle, he can use no other argument than that they are blinded (2 Cor. 3:14).

The essence of Paulinism is the emancipation of the consciousness from every authority that is external or exercised through human means, the removal of all confining barriers, the elevation of the spirit to a standpoint where everything lies revealed and open in luminous clearness to its eye, the independence and immediateness of the self-consciousness. [Here Baur seems to be putting his own views into Paul’s pen.]

When Paul wrote to the Roman church, he did not have to defend himself, and could write with more objectivity. This is his most comprehensive argument for universalism. The great significance of this letter lies not so much in its doctrinal discussions about sin and grace, as in its practical bearing of the most important controversy of these times, the relation between Jews and gentiles. [Baur obviously had more interest in history than in doctrine!]

Paul later returned to Jerusalem with an offering from the gentile churches to help the Jewish Christians. He hoped to reduce the tensions between the two, but he was disappointed.

The Gospel of Luke reveals more about Paulinism, in that it shows that Judaism is not the true or appropriate field for the accomplishment of the work of Jesus. The choice of the 70 shows that the Gospel was intended for all the gentile races. This Gospel presents the original disciples in an unfavorable light, and does not give Peter any primacy.

The Apocalypse is an early anti-Pauline book. It presents only 12 apostles; it focuses on believers who keep the commandments; gentiles suffer the wrath of God. It condemns Paulinists under the cipher of Nicolaitanes, who ate meat offered to idols, which Paul more or less permitted. It praises Christians who rejected people who falsely claimed to be apostles. The Apocalypse was apparently written by John, who had moved to Ephesus to oppose Paul.

Even in Corinth, the Petrine party gained the ascendancy over the Pauline. The tensions remained high for many generations. Justin Martyr does not even mention Paul’s name. The pseudo-Clementine homilies also betray the tensions of the church against Paul. There, he is attacked under the cipher Simon Magus, who is accused of seeing Jesus only in a vision, and therefore having an inauthentic commission. Simon taught salvation without obedience to the law, and tried to give money to the apostles in return for acceptance. Simon Magus is nothing but a caricature of the apostle Paul.

The Reconciliation

How did these opposite parties come together? Each party modified its view. The Jewish Christians gave up positions they had defended with great zeal, as soon as it became apparent that such a course would help them assert their authority over Paulinism. Jewish Christians gave up the demand for circumcision because of the increasing numbers of uncircumcised believers, by seeing baptism as a sufficient counterpart to circumcision. They had now conceded the utmost. And they claimed that universalism was actually Petrine, that it was he who began the gentile mission. The Pauline mission had enlarged the church, but it was Jewish Christianity that supplied the organization and hierarchy.

Paulinism presents its sharp doctrine of justification by faith alone when it is contending for its existence. But as soon as its existence has been granted, Paulinism was quite at liberty to concede works their proper place by the side of faith. The apostle himself had recognized the moral value of works. So it abandoned the extreme view to achieve universalism.

The book of Hebrews is a product of a Jewish Christianity that is broad enough to have Paulinism itself as a presupposition. We do not find specifically Pauline ideas, but there is nothing antagonistic to them, either. The effort to prove that the old cultus contained already everything in the new covenant, has the result of generalizing and flattening out Pauline ideas. The contents of faith are the same under the old covenant as under the new: God.

On the side of Paulinism are the epistles of Ephesians and Colossians, with their theme of universal reconciliation, of removing barriers between Jew and gentile. Christianity is presented as growing out of Judaism, and works have an independent position over against faith. Philippians appears to lay great emphasis on the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith as opposed to justification by the law, but this is done in a purely external way.

The Pastoral Epistles carry us to the period of the Gnostic heresy; the tendency of these epistles is the same as that of the pseudo-Ignatian epistles. They are evidence of the willingness of Paulinists to cooperate for the purpose of unity.

The pseudonymous epistle of James was aimed against a one-sided conception of the Pauline doctrine of justification, but the author is not unacquainted with the Pauline idea of making the law an inward thing, a law of liberty. Whatever is opposed to one-sided tendencies, and seeks to adjust one thing with another, is in the spirit of catholic Christianity.

First Peter shows an accomodation to Pauline ideas, as when it names Silvanus as a faithful brother, and that all who accept the letter are to be accepted as orthodox Christians.

But there was still a big problem: the historical awareness of the rift between Paul and Peter. How could such memories be countered? This was done in the book of Acts, where Peter and Paul are given equality. Peter appears Pauline, and Paul appears Petrine. Paul exhorts repentance and good works; Peter preaches that God accepts the gentiles. Peter baptizes the first gentile, and Paul circumcizes Timothy and keeps Jewish laws. Both have special visions for preaching to the gentiles. We cannot doubt that the tendency of Acts is conciliatory or irenic. It was written by a Paulinist who made a few concessions so that Jewish Christians would accept gentile Christianity. And people believed it. With Irenaeus, Tertullian and other fathers, every recollection of a dispute has vanished.

The apostolic fathers, which are also pseudonymous, continue the Pauline and Petrine tendencies toward accomodation. Barnabas, Ignatius and Hermas are more Jewish; Justin is more Alexandrian than Pauline. These show a transition to catholic Christianity.

Johannine Christianity

The Johannine Gospel is the last development. Here, the law is superseded by the gospel, the old gives way to the new, the type ceases to be as soon as the substance has come. The Quartodeciman controversy of Asia Minor gives us the setting of this Gospel in A.D. 170; the question is whether the last supper was a Passover meal, and the Fourth Gospel answers that it was not. Christianity has disengaged itself from its connection with Judaism, and Judaism is a enemy. The Jews are opponents of Christ. John is distinguished as the disciple who was closest to Jesus, and Peter needed his mediation. This is an obvious protest against the primacy attributed to Peter by the Jewish Christians. Faith has the same inwardness as it had for Paul, but its object is not the death of Jesus, but the person of Jesus as the incarnate Logos, or faith in God himself. Jesus’ death is redemptive only to the same extent as the whole manifestation of Jesus is redemptive. Love is the dominant doctrine.

At this stage, the development of the Christian principle has reached its goal. It has become a universal principle of salvation; all the antitheses that threatened to detain it within the narrow limits of Jewish particularism are merged in the universalism of Christianity.

Assessing Baur

Baur is open to the charge he made against someone else: "This is without any historical foundation, and the whole question is too much removed from solid ground, and taken into the sphere of a priori presuppositions and abstractions" (p. 167). "It ends in simply denying the value of historical evidences...which do not suit the writer’s purpose" (p. 173, note). Baur sifted his evidence to suit his theory. Based on Gal. 2:12b, Peter was caricatured as an opposite of Paul, and anything that did not fit the picture was considered inaccurate, even though Gal. 2:12a shows Peter capable of a moderate view.

The early church was actually more complex that Baur posited. There were extremists and all sorts of moderates in between from the very start. An irenic viewpoint is not automatically a late view. Nor is it likely that the majority of Paulinists or Jewish Christians would so easily compromise important points just to achieve unity. For many people, it is easier to write others off as heterodox than it is to compromise.

Many of Baur’s conclusions have been abandoned, but he was very influential. Here is some of his legacy:

· His historical approach (using the social sciences rather than traditional dogma to answer historical questions) has been widely used.

· He encouraged further studies into early church history. By expounding a radical view, he made less radical views more acceptable.

· He saw conflict even in the first generation of the church. Today James is considered to be the leader of the more Jewish view.

· He called attention to the different emphases and theologies of the NT books, and noted that they had biases or tendencies in their teachings.

· He recognized that church history begins with the NT writings. The NT books are evidence about the historical situation at the time when they were written, and their setting should be considered when we interpret them.

· He highlighted differences between the Synoptics and John, and between John and the Apocalypse.