I am toying with something here and would love to see some discussion.

Ambient orthodoxy: those beliefs that enjoyed common confession throughout the history of the church, but have not experienced any serious challenge. These matters are normally not found in the creeds and may even be lacking from some extended confessions. In other words, they may be part of historic church doctrine, but they are not part of historic church dogma.

In order to qualify for “ambient orthodoxy” as I am suggesting, the confession must not have any history in a 1) Creed, 2) Council, 3) or Controversy.

Hang with me here (as I am theologizing out loud!). Try to think of orthodoxy in three categories:

1. Dogmatic orthodoxy: These are those issue that the church has defined through an ecumenical creed such as Chalcedon or Nicea. Examples:

  • Existence of God
  • Doctrine of the Trinity
  • Doctrine of the hypostatic union
  • God’s almighty unity
  • Christ’s death and resurrection
  • Christ’s virgin birth

2. Doctrinal Orthodoxy: These are those issue that became a part of the church confession due to local councils, creeds, and controversies. However, unlike “Dogmatic orthodoxy” some of these will not be shared by all Christians of all time, everywhere.

  • Universal sinfulness of man
  • Atonement made to the Father
  • Sola Scriptura
  • Sola Fide

Nevertheless, these issues can be thought of as a part of the great tradition of Christianity due to their universal acceptance, though it may be an assumed acceptance.

3. Ambient Orthodoxy

Eternal nature of God: Though this is not written in any creed or confession, the history of the church has always believed that God’s nature exists in an atemporal transcendence. (Although the “openness debate” may qualify to have graduated this from ambient orthodoxy.)

Creation Ex Nihilo: Again, none of the historic creeds (that I know of) mention that God created all things out of nothing. Nevertheless, this belief has been a part of “ambient orthodoxy.”

(Though both Irenaeus and Turtullian have this as part of their regula fide.—probably due to their battles with gnostics who suggested that we were created not out of nothing, but out of God himself.)

Inerrancy: I might get in trouble here. Again, none of the historic creeds mention the inerrancy of Scripture (and I know there is more than one way to skin this cat), but historic Christianity has always believed in the complete truthfulness of Scripture.

(I am not sure if the 1970s and 80s “Battle for the Bible” qualifies for the graduation of inerrancy—not to mention, I am not sure who won!)

Future new heaven and new earth: While the great creeds do speak about the future judgment, none, that I know of, speak specifically to the new heaven and earth being yet future.

(A issue currently on the table with Preterism.)

Eternality of Hell: Again, judgment is spoken of in the creeds, but not its nature or duration. Nevertheless historic Christianity has always believed that hell is bad and it is eternal.

(Of course, this is an issue with the current debate about hell and universalism.)

The sinfulness of homosexuality: The historic church has always seen this act as sin.

(Today, this is in controversy.)

The historic stability of these doctrine is less grounded than other issues which have stood up to the challenge of historic scrutiny. But don’t mistake what I am saying here. I am not saying that ambient orthodoxy is less important. It may be or it may not be. This category list I put together is not a hierarchy of beliefs. Indeed, some ambient orthodoxy, as I am proposing it, can be absolutely central to the Christian faith. For example, I don’t know of any creed, council, or controversy which has dealt with the ability of an infinite God to communicate with finite creatures. If we said he cannot, then we are left hopelessly groping for truth. But the ambient confession of the church has assumed such communication possible. The same thing could be said about the nature of objective truth. Lose objective truth and we lose all of orthodoxy!

Okay, there are might thoughts half-way cleaned up. What do you think? Is there such a thing as ambient orthodoxy?

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    16 replies to "Ambient Orthodoxy"

    • Alden

      I don’t think inerrancy qualifies, at least using that term, as not everyone could accept the same definition. NT Wright has suggested that “authoritative” is the best word, and I think that would work.

      It would seem that what you are talking about with “ambient” beliefs could fall under the Eastern Orthodox concept of “tradition.”

    • C Michael Patton

      Yes, I think all forms of orthodoxy will fall under the category of tradition in some form or another. We have often referred to this as The Great Tradition. But this is trying to further break down the Vincention Canon (“what has been believed always, everywhere, and by all), the earliest definition of orthodoxy that I know of (besides the canon veritas and the regula fide).

    • Michael Bell

      Hi Mike,

      Long time, no comment!

      I don’t think that Creation Ex Nihilo belongs in this list. Two primary reasons that come to mind. Creation in Scripture usually talks about creation coming from another form – water, chaos, etc. Secondly, the Hebrew word for create “bara” has the idea of forming or shaping. In fact if you intensify the word, it can mean to cut down (as in a tree), probably showing intense forming or shaping! So the word itself lends itself against Ex Nihilo.

    • Ron

      Eternality of Hell: Again, judgment is spoken of in the creeds, but not its nature or duration. Nevertheless historic Christianity has always believed that hell is bad and it is eternal.

      This is probably correct, but many traditionalists would (incorrectly, I think) place this in your category of dogmatic orthodoxy, citing the Second Council of Constantinople for support.

    • Paul Bruggink

      How is this helpfully different from your “Essentials and Non-Essentials”?

    • Preston

      The Belgic Confession Article 12 says: “We believe that the Father created heaven and earth and all other creatures from nothing, when it seemed good to him, by his Word—that is to say, by his Son.”

      Would this support the doctrinal orthodoxy of creation Ex Nihilo? Probably not universally, but it would in the reformed tradition.

    • Patrick

      It seems that the “Eternal nature of God” is part of the Great Tradition, not by creed, council, or confession, but by prayer.
      “Lex Orandi, lex credendi.”

      The “Eternal nature of God” seem to be part of point of the Gloria Patria.
      Glory be to the Father, and to the Son :
      and to the Holy Spirit;
      As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be :
      world without end.

    • Dave Z

      @ Paul’s comment 6:
      I think CMP is hinting at the idea that just because a doctrine is not explicitly “dogmatized” in a creed, it may be no less true, and maybe even no less essential. IOW, a doctrine can be both true and essential, though not specifically articulated. For example, the deity of Christ was still true and essential before being articulated at Nicea.

      I think he’s right, but I also think that the church got the most important stuff hammered out fairly early (relatively speaking), so there are probably not many unarticulated essentials floating around today.

    • Don Sartain

      This is just fantastic! Definitely look forward to reading further thoughts on this…

    • jim


      heaven above , hell below (above and below what? Land or earth)

    • Perry Robinson

      Part of the problem is that you’re taking creeds as if the meaning of terms were not fixed in a specific context. Second, you’re privileging controversial theological claims as if they were part of Doctrinal Orthodoxy. Sola Fide and a Penal model of the atonement are rejected by the vast majority of Christians living today and in the past as Doctrinal Heresy. Universal sinfulness of man is quite vague as well. Does that include Mary? Does this mean Total Depravity? If so, then the majority of Christians are out again too since this is a protestant distinctive.
      Even if “Ambient” were a coherent notion, some of its members won’t wash. Creation ex nihilo was challenged by the pagans, time and time again. The Apologists didn’t defend it for nothing. (PUN!) It was also an implication of Sabellianism and Origenism too, both of which were condemned formally. Hence the statement that God is creator of all things, visible and invisible.

    • Perry Robinson

      Same goes for the “No Exit” thesis and eternality of hell as defended by the Fifth Council over against Origenistic universalism. The Noetusian heresy denied the eternalityof Christ’s kingdom in a similar way to some full preterists, hence the line in the creeds “kingdom shall have no end.”
      As for Dogmatic orthodoxy, it is too vague to really be workable. By the Trinity if we mean Nicene Trinitarianism, well the Reformed are out. If we mean Chalcedonian Christology the Reformed are out again, not to mention a good number of Anabaptists. Divine unity isn’t isomorphic across traditions either. How about the Filioque?
      Some other things don’t seem to be on the lists like baptismal regeneration which is taught by a number of ecumenical councils, like the perpetual virginity of Mary as well.

    • Perry Robinson

      The real question is what these phrases meant to the persons who wrote them, not what the average reader thinks they mean or can make them mean today. If the former, then terms like “Apostolic” will pick out the polity of those people who framed the terms which doesn’t bode well for Protestants.

    • Lucian

      …Since you mentioned the Vincentian Canon

    • BlueCat57

      When I was at a Christian college, way back in the dark ages, we signed a code of conduct that called out drinking, dancing, smoking and R+ rated movies. No mention of drugs or premartial sex.

      So you might add some of those to ambient orthodoxy in the category of personal conduct.

      Maybe some of the items weren’t included because scripture already made God’s position on the subject clear. Many would put homosexuality in this category. No need to include it in a separate document. The Bible already made a clear statement on the subject.

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