• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

What “Orthodoxy” Is and Isn’t: Some Questions about Statements

When someone sits down to specify orthodoxy, he is up to something. Count on it.


No one ever—at least, no one of note I can think of, in the entire global history of the Christian church—takes up stylus, pen, or keyboard and says, “You know, I think I’ll just bang out a new statement of the central tenets of the Christian religion and send it out into the world to do whatever good it can do.” The same thing applies to groups. No meeting, session, council, synod, assembly, or conference ever, ever, drafts a statement of anything unless—

Well, unless what?


Theological musing can take place anytime, anywhere, by those interested in theological problems, provocations, and puzzles. But the setting out of orthodoxy—which has come to mean “correct doctrine” (especially in the Western Church) or “correct worship” (almost exclusively in the Eastern Church) as it literally means “correct glory,” or the correct manifestation [of God’s truth/reality/revelation]—is always occasional and occasioned. Statements of orthodoxy, that is, always emerge from a deliberate project at a particular time in response to a specific challenge or opportunity.


Orthodoxy thus is always exactly what most people, including most framers of such statements, think it isn’t: provisional. Contingent. A product of a particular set of circumstances and actors, orthodoxy is inescapably historical, and thus human.


Yes, “I believe in the Holy Ghost,” as more than one creed avers. But I don’t believe that the Holy Spirit has guaranteed anywherethat statements made beyond the pages of Holy Scripture are to be treated as timelessly and spacelessly true, binding on every believer in every time and place. The Bible itself is The Book of all Christians who deserve the name. But any other statement of faith is just that: human beings doing their best to articulate what they think needs articulating about whatever happens to be concerning the Church in their situation. See how historically bound that is?


Those who argue that some statements are universal don’t know much about the history of creeds. How “universal” are statements—such as those hammered out “on the road to Nicea” (to coin a phrase), which actually then needed further tuning at Constantinople decades later, or at Chalcedon—whose drafting did not, in fact, include anything like a proportional and geographical representation of the whole Church of the day?


Check the rosters: Not a lot of representation from, say, the Ethiopian Church, or the far eastern churches, or almost anyone from the European west. So “universal” really means “representing a rough compromise worked out, albeit with considerable dissent and under imperial insistence, among most of the churches around the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea plus a few others.” Not exactly what Vincent of Lérins celebrated as “that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.”

Now, I love the creeds. And centuries of Christian reflection have shown that the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Chalcedonian Definition have done a lot of good work in the Church precisely as they were intended: as regulae fidei, rules of faith, guidelines to help pastors and believers and inquirers to come to grips with some of the crucial and difficult teachings of the Christian church and to avoid repeating the understandable but important mistakes lots of people can easily make in trying to articulate the deeply mysterious teachings of Christianity.


Those who think they can just toss aside the creeds as merely the product of imperial politics aren’t facing the fact that Vincent, allowing for enthusiastic exaggeration, was right: Orthodoxy is what Christians have generally believed throughout the world over twenty centuries. Check any world religions textbook and you’ll find remarkable agreement about the tenets of this faith, and those tenets are pegged to Nicea and Chalcedon.


But the creeds are not Scripture. Even John Calvin felt the Nicene Creed was “wordy” (“God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God” does seem to warrant a bit of editing). And one wonders at the Apostles’ Creed’s omission of, among other non-trivial parts of the gospel, the entire life of Christ between birth and passion….


Ah, omission. Nowadays, many earnest Christians, as well as some troublemakers, are concerned about other Christians setting out new statements of orthodoxy. Those who make the statements are, let us presume, concerned to make clear what they believe is unclear to one or more audiences they seek to enlighten about matters that are essential to the Christian religion.


So two sets of questions can be asked about such statements. First, who (really) are the intended audiences, and is there really unclarity among them—let alone actual dissension, disputings, and even rupture—such that this new statement (or any statement) will sort things out? And is the subject matter of the statements truly such that getting it wrong will ipso facto distort the framework of the Christian religion into something importantly different?


Among those who oppose the statements are those who suggest that all such statements ought to be confined to the subject matter of the ancient and so-called ecumenical creeds. But these folk don’t seem to appreciate that statements of orthodoxy have been generated over all the subsequent centuries whenever theologians, individually or in groups, have believed a key audience needed clarity on any matter integral to the faith in a particular time and place.


Thomas Aquinas, for instance, is just the most famous of the medieval theologians who set out a summa (well, in his case, two of them) of the faith. Conflict over the variety of teachings unleashed in the Protestant Reformation produced an appropriately wide range of statements on a very wide range of theological issues that extended into matters of church government, the sacraments, civil authority, and more—from the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent to the Augsburg Confession to Melanchthon’s paradigmatic Loci communes to Calvin’s Institutes to the Thirty-Nine Articles and to the Schleitheim Confession.


As a historian of the evangelical movement, I’ve become intrigued by statements of faith—of orthodoxy—generated over the last century or so by evangelical organizations, from denominations and congregations to a welter of “parachurch” or “special purpose” groups. I want to muse upon my findings at greater length somewhere else in due course. For now, though, I note that if one examines the “Baptist Faith and Message” of the Southern Baptist Convention, the “Doctrinal Basis” of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, the “Statement of Faith” of the World Evangelical Alliance, the Lausanne Covenant, or the “Core Values” of World Vision, one will find that the subject matters vary considerably. It’s not that the actual beliefs are at odds with each other, since as evangelical organizations one can expect them largely to agree, and they largely do. It’s that the topics they address vary interestingly from one to the next, and they especially vary also by omitting topics felt to be crucial in other Christian statements of orthodoxy, such as the sacraments, ecclesiastical polity, clerical celibacy, certain versions of eschatology, and more.


Each of these statements is designed, and in my view quite rightly designed, to perform a certain kind of work. Each of these statements signals the identity of the organization, welcomes supporters, warns those who think differently, and provides one of the bases (doctrinal agreement) of organizational cohesion. That’s what creeds do, and always have done.


To be sure, some of these organizations would protest that I am misunderstanding the nature of their statements. They are not claiming to set out orthodoxy for the Church Universal, but are merely acquainting their various publics with their fundamental doctrinal commitments.

True enough. And yet it’s hard to imagine evangelical organizations deliberately keeping out anyone they felt truly believed all the right things about Christianity. So I suggest that these organizations really are setting out statements of orthodoxy—not necessarily comprehensive statements mean to guide all aspects of Christian life, but statements that articulate at least sine qua non doctrines of truly Christian identity and endeavour.


When a new statement is issued, therefore, we can ask a handful of key questions that arise from the very genre of orthodoxy-specification:

What is being specified? On what basis? To what conclusions?

And who is doing the specifying? To whom? Because of what? In order to accomplish what?


And if the statement is to be taken seriously as orthodoxy, one must also ask: Is the subject matter and the particular way that subject matter is discussed truly such that the fundamental shape of the Christian religion is articulated and protected? If one seriously disagreed with the statement, would one be in fact believing and practicing a significantly different religion? That’s what orthodoxy is about.

The mere fact, then, that topics are being discussed in statements today that weren’t specified in authoritative statements in the past may be a sheer matter of history: What wasn’t up for debate now is. A consensus has given way, and so orthodoxy must be identified in a new context. The sixteenth century raised issues not widely discussed in the thirteenth or the fifth, but that doesn’t mean that those issues weren’t integral to the faith and could be safely left up to differing groups or individuals. Likewise the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and almost certainly also our own.


No, the question is not whether the subject matter is new in the history of creed-making. The questions instead are about importance and correctness. And if the questions don’t get sound answers, we conclude that we are not dealing with orthodoxy.


We have merely opinion. Or something worse.