First, yes, there was diversity of thought in Early Christianity. Just like there was in Medieval Christianity. Just like there is in Modern Christianity. Historical distance often has a flattening effect leading to all sorts of over-generalizations about what was or was not believed in various times and places–especially if we try and lump several centuries and many thousand square miles containing different languages, cultures, societies, etc. into one little box.
Second, we scholars of the New Testament and Early Christianity can and have identified quite a number of different theological trajectories in the writings of the New Testament and in the writings of the Early Church. The field of New Testament scholarship has, for most of its life, existed as a subfield within the History of Ideas. As such, it has focused on who came up with what ideas when and how these were then transmitted. This means that the methodological focus of the field is on teasing out, separating, and isolating various theological themes. The key word here is “isolating”. It’s much easier to tease out a singe theme than to understand how it operated within an organic whole and related to a constellation of ideas around it. Since the separating task is logically and pragmatically prior to a synthetic task, it receives most of the focus. Axiom: it’s a lot easier to tease distinctions out than to weave them back together!
Indeed, we in the field have a mania for drawing out distinctions. There are schools of scholars who have identified as many as five different strata in Q—a hypothetical work that we’re not certain even existed… With the recent trends that combine redaction and social scientific methods, independent communities are posited for every single theological trajectory that someone thinks they can detect in a group of texts. Or even in a single text. The much learned and well-respect Ray Brown took this entirely over the top in his Community of the Beloved Disciple which attempted to map out a complex history of the Johannine community based on little clues sprinkled in the Gospel and Epistles of John that may or may not signal what he suggested they did.
Another mania that we find especially in the left-wing of the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus (best represented by the Jesus Seminar, Burton Mack, Marcus Borg, et al.) is an evangelical Arianism that is ever on the lookout for texts or communities (or communities implied by texts) that didn’t consider Jesus divine. A classic example is how scholars view the Epistle of James. Some will tell you it represents a community that didn’t think Jesus was divine (as claimed by Rev. Coggin). A more accurate reading will reflect that it’s not an issue discussed by the text. A close reading of the text notes the equation between God and Christ in the first verse—remarkably similar to how Paul uses it—and the appearance of “our Lord Jesus Christ the Glorious” in 2:1. No, James doesn’t come out and say: “My community and I believe that Jesus was divine in just that way that Ecumenical Councils will decide he was in the coming centuries”. However, the use of what appear to be common formula with someone like Paul who does explicitly discuss the divinity of Jesus, makes the anti-divine position much harder to sustain.
Third, the whole project of teasing out distinctions sometimes fails to note what seem to be cases of dialogue between items of different “trajectories” Take, for instance, the Book of James (since we’re thinking about it already…). James discusses the issue of faith and works. How interesting—Paul also discusses faith and works especially in Galatians. So what do we have here—two texts that independently take differing positions on a major issue of the faith? Two texts that stand in polemic opposition? Or two texts that offer correctives to one another? Those who prefer to emphasizes the diversity will suggest that we have polemic opposition. Let’s not forget, however, that we find the two books bound into the same canon… Whatever their intent (and I don’t think the texts present definitive clues one way or the other), the retention of both signals that the broader community decided that they could and should be read together. Rev. Coggin states that this Jewish Christian group “loathed” Paul. But I don’t think the text of James supports that. (How the writer of Revelation felt is a different and open question but even there we have hints that can be read as against Paul but nothing clear or definitive.) Yes, there was diversity—but not necessarily antagonistic disagreement. Remember, the church settled on our four different gospels—but only four—by the time of Irenaeus in the mid-second century. Several different theological strands can still be united in faith and practice.
Fourth the notion of diversity sometimes presented—and certainly presented in Rev. Coggin’s text—fails to recognize that the early church itself made distinctions about what kind of diversity was permissible and what was not. The text of the NT itself reflects distinctions between true and false teachers. The very earliest texts that we have (Paul’s letters) display an awareness that there are boundaries to Christian belief. When I approach a text as a New Testament scholar interested in uncovering the history of ideas connected to Christianity in the early empire I draw no distinction between texts on the basis of “orthodoxy”. When I approach a text as a believing Anglican looking for ways to understand my faith and how my ancestors in the faith understood their faith, these distinctions do come into play.
When I look at the texts, I find an urgency and an emphasis on the truth of the incarnation—that Jesus came in the flesh. And, I see a number of passages that seem to me to be creedal formulations that concern themselves with a divine incarnate, enfleshed, Jesus. As we move from the first to the second century, these solidify. Both Tertullian and Irenaeus present clear creedal statements. Also, the baptismal creeds that we’re familiar with (like the Apostles’ Creed) appear then. Finally, as we move further, the creeds become the normative method for setting theological boundaries.
As far as I can see, this is the intent of “the faith once delivered to the saints”. That is, “the faith” as a body of content is the set of boundaries that focus on who and what Christ is—and is not.
I could say more but I think I’ll stop here for now…