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.

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

  1. BigB

    You said it, we have some, big, big problems here in regard to this matter.

    So John, let me ask you about one matter in particular. Both sides quote Aquinas and others like Calvin etc. to back their position. But let me ask you, Who would you say is orthodox on the age of the universe and does orthodoxy matter in respect to the question about the age of the universe. Who is orthodox, Dr. Lisle and Ken Ham or Walter Kaiser and Hugh Ross?? The universe is either 6000 years or 4 Billion years? A massive difference in perception and a claimed perception on biblical inerrancy etc. How does orthodoxy and science collide? And this very dispute is commented on as very critical and defining by well know atheist’s like Richard Dawkins. What do you think?

    • John

      It’s hard for me to see that orthodoxy is at stake in this debate. Yes, one side can accuse the other of failing to uphold the Bible’s authority, but that accusation doesn’t touch the many Christians who can demonstrate that they think the Bible authoritatively teaches something other than what their opponents say it does.

      And this point is suggestive in other contexts as well. Group A might accuse Group B of implicitly refusing to honour the Bible’s authority by holding a view Group A doesn’t like. Group B can respond by showing that their view is in fact consistent with the Bible’s teaching. If, however, Group B cannot show that their view is consistent with Scripture, then one does have a problem of orthodoxy by implication.

      Yet Group A needs to beware “slippery slope” and “guilt by implication” insinuations, and let Group B respond to the challenge. Just because Group A can’t imagine how someone could Biblically hold the view of Group B doesn’t mean that it is impossible for someone to fairly hold the view of Group B. Group A, especially in the light of John 17, needs to strive to maintain unity and only regretfully and as a last resort relegate Group B to the category of heretics. I’d like to see more of that spirit of unity in various disputes today…

      • BigB

        So let’s be clear here about what you mean, what you are saying in fact means that Kent Hovind went to far, when, after being asked if Hugh Ross had good intentions being an old universe theorist, went on to compare Hugh Ross to a Pharisee that gave camel rides to children on the John Akenberg show or again Kent went to far when he quoted Titus 3:10 against Hugh Ross. I am reading you right that Kent indeed went to far and prompted disunity?

        But more seriously John, what unity can be sought when indeed orthodoxy has indeed been challenged? What I means is when the ‘Answer’s in Genesis’ Ken Ham stated it undermines the Gospel when the universe is stated as existing for billions of years because it supports the ideas that death occurred before mankind sinned, therefore it undermines the purpose of the animal sacrificial system and Christ’s subsequent need to die on the cross. Have you read this argument that they make? Therefore they have made it a perceived challenge to orthodoxy and a heretical accusation of the highest order, haven’t they?

        • John

          They may be wrong in what they’ve said about fellow believers being heretical when they aren’t. I don’t follow those kinds of conversations, though, so I doubt I can shed any further light on those issues.

          • BigB

            Just curious, Do you have an opinion on the age of the universe?

        • Steve Wilkinson

          Every time I’ve ever heard Ken Ham or others from the YEC camp pose that very serious charge, I’ve yet to hear them acknowledge or address the typical response from the OEC camp / Hugh Ross, et. al.

          This doesn’t indicate which position is correct, but OEC have a substantial response that would negate the charge. The YEC position rests on the presupposition that the Bible is referring to all death vs human death. (And, there are tough verses for either side.)

          The thing that bothers me most about several of the YEC ministries (though not all YEC people), is that they regularly misrepresent, or almost certainly ignore, the viewpoints they are opposing. The OEC camp has always in my experience (maybe by being caught in the middle), addressed the arguments from the YEC and TE camps. Even the TE ministries are now doing a better job of interacting and addressing the arguments of the other positions.

          • John

            Let’s leave creation science, etc. be as a tangent to this discussion, okay, friends? Thanks!

  2. AE

    Hi John, Thank you again for your generosity in offering the above. Extending this in a similar direction: Are there any historical examples of a practice of maintaining unity in the presence of differing or opposing orthodoxies? Or has ecumenical unity begun and ended where orthodoxies did? Have heresies (in the eyes of the beholder) ever been tolerated?

    • John

      Heresies have often been tolerated in ecumenical movements: in fact, in the very nature of ecumenism there is the willingness to recognize and work with Christians whose views according to one’s own tradition are wrong and importantly wrong.

      The World Council of Churches includes groups who flatly contradict each other on sacraments, liturgy, polity, predestination, eschatology, atonement, and more. But so does the World Evangelical Alliance. So did the platform of any one of a thousand Billy Graham crusades.

      Still, there are heresies and there are heresies. What each of these organizations believed is that what united them in doctrine was more basic than what divided them, and that what united them was authentic Christianity. Without that belief, they would by definition have had something other than a Christian organization.

      So the Nashville Statement is naming certain things as heresies. One of the several crucial questions that remain, despite its definitive tone, is whether Christians who disagree about one or more issues regarding gender and sex–that is, Christians who see each other’s views as truly heretical–can yet recognize each other as authentically Christian and “do business”–or, better, “do church”–together, in one form (e.g., an evangelistic mission, a university, a publishing house) or another (e.g., a denomination, a congregation).

      • AE

        Thank you, John. It’s clarifying&comforting to have a history that includes ecumenical movements tolerating heresies, especially in light of that lingering question.

  3. Kevin Smith

    John, this is a thoughtful argument. Yes, people are up to something often. Some want to redefine things. Others want to have statements which buttress the historic Christian faith. It is usually easy to see which is which. Thinking of the Basis of Union for Atlantic Baptists, it has stood up quite well with the exception of the judgemental statement on working on Sunday. The initial part of the statement is correct. But today, many people have to work on Sunday.

    I’m unaware of statements by John Ankerberg or Ken Ham. However, I’m content to say that God is our Creator rather than to suggest that creation is more recent than 10,000 years. For some reason Genesis didn’t date the time of beginning. Let’s leave that open just as Scripture has done.

    I would welcome your reflection on the Nashville Statement.

    • BigB

      HI Kevin, What you just stated was basically what Walter Kaiser’s position is (Man, what a scholar, if you know him) and he explained that the six days in Genesis could not have all been literal days before the fourth day which is when the sun was created…In contrast Ken Ham and Dr. Lisle said that this is impossible and that it must mean “6 days” and this happened 6000 years ago…They claim you can easily add up the numbers….

      Anyway…I am sure this is a rabbit trail off of the topic of orthodoxy except for the Answers in Genesis claim that an old universe undermines the gospel….

      My question is, is this really important enough to be a topic outside of the narrow group??? Is it really even important to think about??? Atheist Richard Dawkins merely claims that if Ken Ham is right then the Bible is entirely wrong……

      which is why I was hoping John could clear this all up! I do like what you (John) said though, it almost sounds like Ankerberg when he said “this is an argument” held within the church by Christians….I rather liked that statement in contrast to the one side accusing the other of heresy.

  4. LittleB

    BigB what do you mean here? Are you trying to say that Richard Dawkins believe’s science proves an old universe of more than 6000 years and that the Answers in Genesis instance on 6 days of creation occurring 6000 years ago would mean that the Bible is false?

    Who then can rely to Dawkins and defend orthodoxy? Or is such an argument worthy of reply?

    • BigB

      Yes, LittleB that is exactly what Dawkins has said: that if Ken Ham’s interpretation is accurate…but only Walter Kaiser’s interpretation and defence of an old universe and non-literal 6day periods would satisfy Dawkins objection unless there is another alternative….but are we sure Walter was perfect in his position….PS just google ankenberg, kaiser and ken ham and you can watch the whole debate on youtube….

      John, you should moderate such a debate sometime between the theologians and scientists!

      • John

        I’ll moderate this one. Let’s leave creation science, etc., alone here, now, please. Thanks.


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