Theology

How (Not) to Use the Word ‘Orthodox’: Thinking Through Faithfulness for Mission

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Misusing the Term ‘Orthodox’

Earlier this month (here), James K. A. Smith bemoaned that Christians were misusing the term ‘orthodox.’ He particularly disliked that some people used the “o” word to declare another Christian out of bounds when it comes to sexual morality. He said that ‘orthodox’ historically refers to the councils, the creeds, and the fundamental doctrines of the faith therein. We shouldn’t therefore use this term to declare a sexual practice unChristian. Instead, Smith suggested we use the word ‘traditional’ when discerning such matters lest we rule people out of the conversation (because they aren’t ‘orthodox’ Christians) before it even starts. This way we allow orthodox Christians to disagree and discern together on disputable matters of faith and practice.

There were a host of replies to Smith. Alastair Roberts complained that Smith separated theology and ethics. Good point. Derek Rishmawry argued in CT similarly saying sexual matters are tied inextricably to creedal doctrines like Creation and Christology. Interesting. Alan Jacobs came to Smith’s defense clarifying the positives of keeping first and second order issues separate. OK. Rod Dreher and a host of others on both conservative and progressive sides of Christianity argued Smith has just made his first step into affirming same-sex sexual relations. Huh?

This ensuing discussion alerts us to a very important issue. How does one discern orthodoxy? How does the church discern truth in questions/situations it’s never encountered before? How does theology work in cases of discerning disputable matters (matters not explicitly stated in the creeds)? Do we just have credentialed experts rule on such matters based on the past? Or do we discern these matters together as a body of people making space for God to do (possibly) a new thing.

‘Biblical’ as the Evangelical ‘Orthodox’

Regarding these questions, I think we can learn from how evangelicals of my youth would often use the word ‘Biblical.’ In my church growing up, it was common to assert one’s orthodoxy by claiming to be ‘biblical.’ It was the way to gain the higher ground on any issue that was in dispute. Without even working through the hermeneutics of the particular text, they’d recite a Biblical text, and simply declare their position ‘Biblical.’ Then a bunch of people in the pews would nod their head, say ‘of course!’ and that side would gain leverage in the debate. ‘Biblical’ was the power word. And it was used to cut short a conversation and exert one position over another by the so-called expert in the Bible who alone had the authority to interpret the Bible.

My point here is that ‘orthodox’ can function in theological circles as “Biblical” does in my old evangelical circles. The one who gets to claim ‘orthodoxy,’ in a very real sense, is hoisting a power move, i.e. shutting down the conversation. And so, could it be that Roberts, Rishmawry, Dreher and even Smith, with their attempts to define the use of ‘orthodox’ are all setting the terms of who’s in power, who’s not, and who gets to call things ‘orthodox?’ I think therefore that Smith accurately questions the way some are using orthodoxy. But I would go further. Is there an inherent power grab revealed in the way ‘orthodoxy’ in general has been used historically (dare I say within western ‘Christendom’). Is there another way to orthodoxy that seeks to extend the gospel faithfully into new and disputable issues that open space for conversation instead of closing it?

Faithfulness versus Orthodoxy

Towards this end, I (like Smith) suggest we dump the term ‘orthodoxy’ when discerning disputable matters. Instead I suggest ‘faithfulness’ as an alternative way of ‘orthodoxy.’ I suggest ‘faithfulness’ is taking “what we have heard” from the apostles “in the presence of many witnesses” and entrusting it “to men and women who are faithful” who can extend the teaching to others as well (2 Tim 2:2). Paul was the apostle to the gentiles. He confronted new cultural dilemmas the original apostles had not yet encountered. So he did not just enter these new situations and repeat the teachings of the original apostles in the original Aramaic. He translated them, extended them to where they had not yet been applied. He did so among (“in the presence of”) a community who affirmed these teachings as “witnesses” (who discerned what they were hearing/seeing). I suggest this idea of faithfully ‘extending’ the truth of the apostles is essential to understanding how orthodoxy works in the context of mission.

Faithfully extending the truth is essential to understanding orthodoxy. @fitchest Click To Tweet

‘Faithfulness’ takes the emphasis off of truth as a hardened formula found in a creed to be enforced over someone or a group. The emphasis instead goes to working out what these teachings mean in each new context. Faithfulness moves the emphasis off of universal statements made across cultures to local discernments made within cultures.

The Nicene Creed as a Local Theology

The Nicene Creed was written in Greek language in a Greco-Roman context as the outworking of the issues of Christology that had been raised amidst the gospel entering this new context. It was a “local theology” in the words of Robert Schreiter. Schreiter tells us ‘orthodoxy’ is the history of many local theologies strung together one after another. And so for each people (community of witnesses) we learn to believe the gospel, trust Jesus as Lord and Savior, make space for the Kingdom, in our given languages via the issues and questions presented by our culture today. To do this in continuity with the apostles is to be faithful. It is orthodoxy.

Make no mistake! Creeds—Roman orthodoxy—and confessions (Euro Reformation orthodoxy) still have authority in and over our lives as we extend the gospel into new contexts. It is however a dynamic authority as opposed to a static one. The gospel can never enter a context ex nihilo: starting all over again from nothing. The high Christology of the Nicene Creed cannot be lost even as this truth is carried forth into new places even though the homoousian may not make sense in the new language/culture we find ourselves in. (See Alain Epp Weaver’s take on J.H. Yoder in his “Missional Christology: John Howard Yoder and the Creeds,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 74 (2), 423- 441.)  And yet equally so, we learn and deepen our theology every time we work out how our beliefs translate and make sense within new cultures (Lamin Sanneh is good to read on this).

Creeds and confessions still have authority in & over our lives as we extend the gospel. Click To Tweet

If one cultural articulation of the gospel, however, portends to speak for all future times and place, we have a recipe for the coercive imposition of power into a culture. This is how the term ‘orthodox’ can function at its worst. I contend in Christendom, the creedal formulas, as worked out amidst the Constantinian power alignments of the 4th century, often did function just like that. It is a mistake, therefore, to suppose that we have articulated (or are going to articulate) our key beliefs and answers to questions once and for all for everybody. To do so is to shut down the translation/extending of the gospel into new places, new languages and new questions we hitherto have not yet known. To do so is to be tempted to impose our ready-made solutions on these new cultures. This is a ready made recipe for colonialization all over again.

Extending Faithfully What Has Been Handed On

So I’m with Smith in calling for a moratorium on the use of ‘orthodox’ on sexual matters. Let us not argue over these things as if we are going to declare the orthodox position and then impose it. Let us begin a vigorous discussion on what it means once again to be faithful to the gospel and the full history of what has gone on before. Let us call one another into the sexual redemption God is doing among us all over again in and through Jesus Christ.

Let us be faithful. We do not get to make sex up. But let us extend the richness of the sexual theology of historic Christianity into the new questions and situations we find ourselves in. Let us not exert power in the name of orthodoxy. This goes for the defensive right as well as for the accommodative left. We must enter our contexts, listen to the questions, understand the language, open space for unwinding the antagonism that drives our debates and let God work. Then, let us together articulate what we have learned, what is good, what is sin, and seek a new faithfulness to who God is, what he is doing in restoring all creation to Himself. This is the way the gospel will be proclaimed. This is contextual theology.

I am also with Alastair Roberts, Derek Rishmawry and others who resist separating behavior from belief. It is through Christians engaging the questions of our context faithfully that we extend the gospel into an actual way of life that bears witness to the life, death, and resurrection, and rule of Jesus as Lord Christ. The proclamation of the gospel as worked out in our daily lives becomes manifest in power. This, too, is contextual theology.

In these strange new post-Christendom times in North America, these are the kinds of dynamic communities we need, this is the orthodoxy we seek, this is the church fulfilling its calling in God’s Mission for the world.

If you are a pastor or a leader who is interested in becoming skilled in the work of contextual local theology, please take a look at our (Northern Seminary) Doctoral Program in Contextual Theology. It could just be the program for you as you navigate the cultural challenges of ministry in Post Christendom North America.

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