Have you ever been called a heretic? Have you ever had someone say that your faith is “unorthodox”? Have you ever wondered what it meant to be “orthodox”? No, I don’t mean Greek Orthodox or Eastern Orthodox. I am talking about orthodoxy which carries the meaning of “straight or right teaching and worship.”
The answer is not easy. For some people, “orthodoxy” is a shallow word meaning that you agree with them. For others, it means you agree with their particular denomination or local church confession. For many, it is a meaningless heavy handed designation that should no longer be used.
What does it mean to be orthodox in your beliefs?
There are really six primary views that I find represented in the church today. I am going to try to explain these views using both established and original terminology.
1. aOrthodoxy. Belief 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 pessimistic approach is influenced by the belief that defining the “boundaries” of Christianity according to beliefs has brought nothing but shame and unnecessary 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 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.
Progressive Protestants (formerly known as Emerging Christianity)
- Sees the importance of orthopraxy.
- Understands the difficulty of defining Christian orthodoxy.
- Christianity loses any distinction.
- 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 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 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.”
- 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 Christian faith can be found in the consensual beliefs of the church. This is a form of “consensual orthodoxy” (consensus fidelium). This search for consensus follows the dictum of Saint Vincent of L’rins: 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 (Oden, Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements), before the “speculative scholasticism” of western Catholicism. The idea of theological progression is normally thought by strict adherents of Paleo-Orthodoxy as a post-enlightenment influenced methodology that should not be followed.
Eastern Orthodoxy and some Evangelicals
- Looks to the early historic body of Christ for orthodoxy.
- 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.
- Hard to find justifiable reasons to believe that theology cannot develop or mature beyond the first five or six 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 change and advancement.
- Too open to change and advancement.
- Christianity loses any roots.
- Often values the credibility of human progress above the credibility of 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, 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 that cannot be found 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. Reforming 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 expressed in the ecumenical councils. But it also believes that our understanding of these issues can and may mature and reform both through articulation and added perspective. This “maturing” does not amount to any essentialchange, 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
Here is the chart that illustrates this view:
- Often hard to define what is the difference is between maturity and 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 do lean in the direction of the Reforming 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 which matured later, even if they do not enjoy the same consensus (i.e. sola fide, substitutionary atonement, imputed sin, etc.—which I believe existed in seed form in the early church, but did not develop more fully until later controversies.)
Where do you all stand?
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
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. He can be contacted at [email protected]