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Monday, May 08, 2006 

Unity and Diversity: A Review

James Dunn's work has always impressed me. I first encountered Dunn in his edited work entitled Paul and the Mosaic Law. I was immediately impressed by his essays in that book and was prompted subsequently to purchase his Theology of the Apostle Paul. Since then I've read much of his work including Christology in the Making which has been very influential on my thought concerning the place of Adamic Christology in Paul. Though I obviously do not agree with everything Dunn has proposed in his career my thought is probably closer to his (with a mix of Dale Allison) than any other NT scholar. So then it is with much sorrow that I came away from Unity and Diversity with a critical attitude.

Though I agreed with the basic position that there is substantial diversity within the NT and early Christianity such that it is probably not best to speak of single "orthodoxy" during the first centuryI found it hard to be convinced, as is Dunn, that the one unifying strand that creates unity amongst the diversity is simply the person of Jesus. This claims Dunn is the one thing that allows Christianity to be diverse, but at the same time also acts as protective barrier to ensure that the diversity does not get out of hand and so become unacceptable. However, this is simply to cast the net too wide. There needs to be a standard, uniform tradition which further keeps Christianity in check. Because without further qualifications it is difficult to see why extreme versions of Christianity such as later Gnosticism should be regarded as unacceptable diversity since for all their excess, they could still be said to be centered around an exalted Jesus thus meeting Dunn's criteria.

To Dunn's credit, he tries to bracket this diversity with a discussion concerning the Christian canon as the "norm that norms the norm" such that later diverse forms of Christianity can be deemed as unacceptably diverse since they are not within the canon. But to use this argument one has to address the question of the "authority" of the NT. And though Dunn has a section specifically concerning this topic he does not offer any answers but simply raises questions to leave with his readers to ponder. So then to use the NT as the endpoint of diversity is of no use without a reason for first accepting the NT as authoritative. In short Dunn leaves us with a severely pluralistic understanding of early Christianity and then proceeds to assert the validity of each simply because they remain centered on the person of Jesus. Dunn downplays the importance of tradition significantly and though I do not wish to impose later creeds onto anyone I think there is still a need to adopt a common tradition that can serve to keep in check diverse forms of Christianity. Otherwise we are forced to call any movement that claims to center itself around the person of Jesus as a genuine development of Christianity no matter how far off from the center they may be.

To conclude, I still thoroughly enjoyed reading the book even if most of its conclusions failed to convince me. The important contribution of Dunn's book is to highlight that a certain amount of diversity did exist during the 1st century and can be found in the pages of the NT documents themselves. But I remain unconvinced that the person of Jesus is enough to hold the thread of unity together.

Chris, a good review! I had similar thoughts when I read Unity/Diversity. I think recognition of diversity in the NT and early Christianity is missing in conservativesque churches. Though I think he overplays the diversity card somewhat. I take issue with those who think that diversity means "rivalry" or "opposition". I prefer the term "complexity" because it can imply differences which are not necessary incompatible or even hostile. Larry Hurtado also suggests the term "proto-orthodoxy" as a way of understanding the developing christolog of the NT.

Enjoyable read.
You make a good point I think.

Again contra Dunn, but from a different angle, one has to accept the diversity of christological reflection in the NT as well, and not a simple unity in 'the person of Christ' - cf. recent article by Wiard Pokes, 1 Kor 2,2 und die Anfänge der Christologie (Zeitschrift für die NT Wissenschaft, 95, 2004. p64-83)

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