For my Introduction to Theology students, both online and at the Credo House:
I am thoroughly orthodox. No, not Eastern with a capital “O”, but orthodox, meaning that I believe all the right things—well . . . at least I think I am. But, really, it depends on how one defines “orthodox.” What does it mean to be orthodox?
The question of “orthodoxy” is an issue of Prolegomena (issues that need to be covered before, in, and with your theology). Your “theology of orthodoxy” should be a vital part of your theological toolbox that guides your thinking.
With this in mind, I have written this short series on this subject. I am going to argue that there is such a thing as orthodoxy and it means first and foremost “right teaching” or “right belief.” I am also going to propose that orthodoxy is a stable yet progressive representation of truth as it has been understood throughout history.
Here is the chart that I will use to serve as a visual aid. We will break it down and add to it throughout this series.
Let me start at the beginning.
Notice the dotted line. This represents the division between God’s eternal existence, which is static (above the line), and man’s time-bound existence, which is dynamic (below the line).
God gave man revelation in a progressive fashion. This is often referred to as “progressive revelation.” This simply means that when Adam and Eve were in the Garden, God did not give them a completed Scripture. For example, Abraham did not know as much as Moses about redemption. He had some basic components, but very few details. The same can be said of David. While he knew more than both Abraham and Moses, he did not know as much as Isaiah, and so on.
The canon itself is a dynamic and progressive revelation of truth as God brings about his redemptive purpose with man. The small “t” represents the first installment, if you will, to truth. The “tr” shows how this revelation of truth was progressive through time. As you can see, revelation is completed in the New Testament when the complete truth of God’s revelation has been finalized in the coming of Christ and the writings of the Apostles.
But notice something important: “truth” is all in lower case below the dotted line, while above the dotted line it is in upper case. This refers to the revelation of truth in contrast to the understanding of truth. While God’s revelation was completed at the closing of the New Testament, the understanding of this truth as a canonical whole had just begun. I have more to say about this, but I don’t think it would be beneficial at this point. Just keep this in mind because it serves as an important presupposition of my thoughts.
Notice here that, while revelation has ceased, our understating of this revelation is developing. Both Catholics and Protestants hold to a theory called “doctrinal development.” While the details of how doctrine develops is much different, the basic confession is the same: doctrine develops from one stage to another. This is because truth itself is better understood as time goes on.
For example, think of a seed developing into a tree. Or, even better, a baby developing into an adult. The same basic components (DNA) are in the adult as was in the baby, yet the adult has matured through time. The adult has learned and developed into a more articulate sounding and distinct looking human. The same can be said about doctrine: our understanding, pushed forward through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, has grown.
It is not the “one deposit of faith that was once for all handed over to the saints” that has changed, but it is our understanding of it that has matured.
The capital letters in “truth” begin to arise. Again, this is not because truth itself is changing, but because our understanding of truth is maturing. For example, while the early church believed in the deity of Christ in some sense, they did not know how to articulate this understanding in relation to the Father and the Holy Spirit. As controversies arose, the contrast that were provided helped the church develop their understanding into a more mature form. This maturation eventually gave forth in the articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity in Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381). That is why we have a capital “T” while the rest remains lower case. As time goes on, the church is forced to wrestle with their understanding concerning many more issues.
The capital letters are not meant to convey that we understand truth to the degree that God understands truth, but that we have come to what we believe is a maturation of the faith. Can it mature more? — possibly, but this maturation will seldom be antithetical to that which has gone before. In other words, the capital “T” will not change to a “D” or an “N.” I will have to defend this more as we continue our study, but hopefully this is a helpful start.
Finally, we have this chart which illustrates how our understanding of “orthodox” is in development along with our illumination to the truth.
The primary argument here is that while our orthodoxy may not be perfect this side of heaven, it nevertheless can be an accurate understanding of TRUTH. As Dr. John Hannah would say, “We cannot know God fully, but we can know him truly.” I would say the same for orthodoxy.
I was at a seminar where a certain church leader said that he believes truth itself is dynamic, changing, and evolving. I was very uncomfortable with his proposition.
Truth does not change.
I am also uncomfortable with the idea that orthodoxy changes. Use the words “develop” and even “evolve,” but the word “change” is too strong. It implies an antithetical development of orthodoxy that I don’t think a proper view of history need allow.
Part 2: Six Views of Orthodoxy
Christians have different presuppositions that they bring to their theology. This does not make it right or wrong, but we must understand that the unexamined presupposition is not worth having. Our view of history is no different. It is a presupposition that we bring when asking the question, What does it means to be “orthodox”?
There are essentially six basic views that I find represented in the church today. I am going to try to explain these views using both established and original terminology. I have tried to stay away from certain terms such as “neo-orthodox” and “emerging orthodox” so as not to skew perspectives and stack the deck for or against any of them.
1. No Orthodoxy. This belief maintains that there is no such thing as “orthodoxy” (as a set of “right beliefs”) or, at the very least, Christianity should not be defined by our beliefs except in a very minimalistic way. This view of orthodoxy takes a very pessimistic view of the Church’s need and ability to define truth, believing that orthopraxy (”right practice”) is the only thing that should be in focus. This approach is influenced by the belief that defining the “boundaries” of Christianity according to beliefs has brought nothing but shame and divisiveness to Christianity. This is illustrated most in the bloodshed of the inquisition, Crusades, and wars among Christians. To be labeled “orthodox” or “unorthodox” to the aOrthodox (as in “atheist”) is an arrogant power play that is oppressive to the cause of Christ. Orthodoxy, therefore, is a contextualized, subjective “moving target” that cannot be defined.
Those of the Emergent tradition (although they may no longer go by this name).
- Sees the importance of orthopraxy.
- Understands the difficulty of defining Christian orthodoxy.
- Christianity loses any distinction and ability to define itself.
- Follows a self-defeating premise by establishing a new minimalistic orthodoxy of its own.
- Unjustifiably follows a “guilt by association” premise. Just because others killed in the name of orthodoxy does not mean that those who seek to define orthodoxy will do the same. In fact, most have not.
2. Scriptural Orthodoxy. This is the belief that Scripture alone sets the bounds of orthodoxy without any (or minimal) aid from the historic body of Christ. This should not be mistaken for sola Scriptura—the belief that the Scripture is our final and only infallible authority in matters of faith and practice—but as a radical rejection of any other sources of authority such as the church, tradition, natural revelation, etc. It is often referred to as solo Scriptura or nuda Scriptura. Here, there would not be minimal (if any) authority derived from the body of Christ, historic or contemporary, as an interpretive community that either fallibly or infallibly has the ability to define orthodoxy. Adherents would often be found saying, “No creed but the Bible.”
Anabaptist tradition and some fundamentalist Protestants.
- Understands that the Bible is the only infallible source.
- Causes people to go back to the source (ad fontes).
- Discounts the historic Church as a Spirit-illuminated interpreter of the Scriptures that must be respected as a voice (albeit fallible) of God.
- Creates their own orthodoxy based upon their subjective interpretation. This way there will be many orthodoxies.
- Often results in cults who deny essential elements of Christian theology that have been held throughout church history.
- Fails to see that we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us.
3. Paleo-Orthodoxy. This is the belief that the orthodox Christian faith can be found in the early church—namely in the consensual beliefs of the early church. This is a form of “consensual orthodoxy” (consensus fidelium). This search for consensus follows the dictum of Saint Vincent of Lerins: quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus, “that which was believed everywhere, always.” Normally, according to Thomas Oden, who coined the term “paleo-orthodoxy,” this consensual faith can be found in the first five centuries of the Christian church, especially in the “Doctors” of the Church (Oden, Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements), before the “speculative scholasticism” of western Catholicism. The idea of theological progression or development is normally thought by strict adherents of Paleo-Orthodoxy as a post-enlightenment-influenced methodology that should not be followed.
Eastern Orthodoxy, some Evangelicals.
- Values the authority of the historic body of Christ.
- Understands that God’s providential concern for the Church would have established the most important truths early.
- Can elevate the authority of the early church above that of Scripture.
- Very difficult to find justifiable reasons to believe that theology cannot develop or mature beyond the first five centuries.
4. Dynamic Orthodoxy. This view of orthodoxy would be highly influenced by a dialectical approach to theological development, believing that orthodoxy is not in any sense static, but dynamically changing as new discoveries are being made. Early views of orthodoxy might be completely overshadowed by new discoveries. This approach has characterized the more liberal theologians, especially in the early twentieth century. Theology, according to dynamic orthodoxy, can change radically in an antithetical way once new discoveries are made through the advancements of human knowledge.
Open to advancement.
- Too open to advancement.
- Christianity loses any roots.
- Very modernistic.
- Often values the credibility of human progress above the credibility of God’s revelation in Scripture.
5. Developmental Orthodoxy. This view of orthodoxy is unique to Roman Catholicism, therefore, it must be understood according to the Catholic view of authority. Developmental Orthodoxy sees the fullness of Christian orthodoxy contained in the one deposit of faith given by Christ to the apostles. These Apostles handed this deposit over in two forms of tradition, written and spoken. The written tradition is found in the Scriptures, the spoken is primarily contained in the early church. This tradition is interpreted by the infallible magisterial authorities in the Roman Catholic church. Orthodoxy itself is defined progressively by this authority as situations develop throughout time. According to this theory, it is not as if orthodoxy develops ex nihilo, but only as the situations make necessary. Once orthodoxy has been defined, then Christians are responsible to believe it, even if it was previously obscure or non-existent (e.g. acceptance of the Apocrypha, the dogma of the assumption of Mary, rejection of birth control).
- Can be more definitive about a definition of orthodoxy.
- Ability to contextualize orthodoxy.
- Sees value in church history.
- No regulation for abuse in the Magisterium.
- No justification for an authoritative system of infallibility beyond pragmatism.
- Elements of newly established orthodoxy (e.g., assumption of Mary) that cannot be found early in church history is hard to justify.
- Does not take a consensual approach to orthodoxy which, in the end, positions most members of the Christian faith, living and dead, as unorthodox according to their current definition.
6. Progressive Orthodoxy. This is the belief that the ultimate authority for the Christian faith is found only in the Scriptures (sola Scriptura) and that orthodoxy is a progressive development of the Church’s understanding of the Scriptures. Like paleo-orthodoxy, progressive orthodoxy seeks the consensus of the Church throughout time for the core, essential theological issues, finding most of these in the early church as expressed in the ecumenical councils. But it also believes that our understanding of these issues can and may mature both through articulation and added perspective. This “maturing” does not amount to any essential change, but only progressive development as theological issues are brought to the table of church history through controversy and exegetical discovery. In other words, once orthodoxy has been established, its antithetical opposite cannot be entertained. Orthodoxy can only be advanced.
Most Evangelicals, Protestant Reformers, some emergers.
Here is the chart that illustrates this view:
- “Maturity” can be mistaken for “change.”
- Who defines when a doctrine has “matured”?
- It is anchored in the Bible while having a great respect for tradition.
- Leaves the door open for the Holy Spirit to mature the church’s understanding.
- Seeks first to define orthodoxy in a consensual way.
- Leaves room to distinguish between essential elements of orthodoxy and non-essential.
Of the options given above, in my opinion the two that are the most credible are Paleo-Orthodoxy and Progressive Orthodoxy. Both are rooted in the ultimate authority of Scripture and both have a high view of God’s providential care throughout Church history. I appreciate the consensual approach, which I think must be present to some degree if one is to have a proper defense of the history of the Church.
In the end, however, I am a strong advocate of the Progressive Orthodox view. I believe that all the essential doctrines of Christianity were established in the early Church, but that their maturation came throughout church history. Some, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, matured earlier than others. Because of this, we find that these enjoy a greater Christian consensus. I put a higher priority on these. Yet I also believe that we need to take seriously others that matured later, even if they do not enjoy the same consensus (i.e., sola fide and sola Scriptura—both of which I believe existed in seed form in the early church, but did not develop more fully until the controversy of the sixteenth century.)
The distinction between the orthodoxy established in the early church and the later, developing, tradition-based orthodoxy must be made and reflected upon.
quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus
Part 3: The Maturing of Orthodoxy
My view of what I call “progressive orthodoxy” allows for maturation and development in our understanding of orthodoxy. I will now further explain this position. First, let me restate the definition:
Progressive Orthodoxy: The belief that the ultimate authority for the Christian faith is found only in the Scriptures (sola Scriptura) and that orthodoxy is a progressive development of the Church’s understanding of the Scriptures. Progressive orthodoxy, like paleo-orthodoxy, seeks the consensus of the Church throughout time for the core essential theological issues, finding most of these in the early church expressed in the ecumenical councils. But it also believes that our understanding of these issues can and may mature both through articulation and added perspective. This “maturing” does not amount to any essential change, but only progressive development as theological issues are brought to the table of church history through controversy and exegetical discovery.
Here is how it looks so far:
The questions are many at this point. Here are some of them:
- How does this “maturing” process take place? This is not an easy question to answer because every tradition will claim that their maturation is the correct one.
- Once a doctrine has “matured,” does this mean that it’s mature form is the “new” orthodoxy?
- What if someone rejects the maturation in favor of its immature form? Are they still “orthodox” in an immature sense?
- What if some person, tradition, or institution favors a form that has matured slightly differently? Are they “unorthodox”?
Let me give you some examples:
I believe in the doctrine of salvation by faith alone (sole fide). This means that the sole instrumental cause of justification, from a human standpoint, is faith without the addition of any works, including baptism. But this doctrine, as such, was not fully articulated until the time of the Reformation. It was not until then, due to the controversy that arose, that the church was forced to mature in this particular aspect of soteriology (salvation). But there’s a problem: the church, until this time, generally accepted some form of works-based/aided/energized justification, whether it be through baptismal regeneration, or the addition of some other good work or participation in the sacraments.
The same thing can be said about my view of the atonement. I believe in what is called the vicarious, substitutionary view of the atonement. This means that I believe that Christ served as the substitute for man (or the redeemed), taking their punishment (from the Father) and making it his own while on the cross. Yet this doctrine only existed in seed form until the time of Anselm. In the 11th century, he introduced the church to the “satisfaction” theory of the atonement. This was more fully developed later by John Calvin. It now goes by the name “substitutionary” or “penal” atonement. What of those who did not believe such before Anselm or Calvin?
For both of these (and others), I have a few options:
1. It could be said that before these doctrines were understood and articulated, according to current Protestant understanding, no one was truly saved or, at the very least, orthodox. (Radical Restorationism)
2. It could be said that these doctrines did exist before, just in unarticulated form. (Thomas Oden)
3. It could be said that these doctrines did exist in the earliest church, but the church became corrupted and lost them to some degree. (Reformers)
4. It could be said that their immature state was sufficient for the time, but is now insufficient. (Conservative Progressives)
I am torn by some of these. The only one that I reject outright is #1. I also have some problems with #4. The rest may contain truth. In fact, the answer may lie in a combination of 2-3. It depends on the issue at hand. In other words, I don’t think any one of these can comprehensively explain the maturation of orthodoxy for all issues. Some beliefs I believe were held by the early church and later corrupted (e.g., sola Scriptura). Some were just assumed without question and the lack of questioning amounted to their immaturity (e.g., baptismal regeneration). Some, once questioned, did reveal orthodoxy as it should be understood by all (sola fide). Some came into later maturation, but should not have any bearing on historic Christian orthodoxy (Calvinism, dispensationalism, rapture, etc.).