Christian Orthodoxy

The word "orthodoxy" has often suffered. For one thing, there's the matter of precision—technically, orthodoxy refers simply to the true beliefs and teaching of the universal Christian church, but it's also the name of one of Christianity's three major sects (the Eastern Orthodox Church). Then there's the fact that orthodoxy is increasingly maligned, painted in word pictures as the great ogre of religion, the mean old man who wants only to prove his point and squash all who disagree.

To be fair, there have been plenty in the history of Christianity whose primary goal has been to eradicate or shame those on the wrong side of a particular issue. But in the interest of reality, there's also the niggling fact that orthodoxy includes how one behaves, and persecuting others for their beliefs, no matter how wrong those beliefs may be, is simply not on the list of acceptable things for Christ's people to be doing.

So who gets to determine orthodoxy? Historically (and ironically), this has been one of those issues that have inspired people to kill, slander, and generally behave very unkindly to one another. The Roman Catholic Church has asserted from early on that the Church itself as led by the Pope is the arbiter of doctrinal purity; the Eastern Orthodox rely on the council of bishops and metropolitans, the Bible, and the apostolic tradition; and the Protestants are notoriously freeform in their approach to codifying what Christians must (and must not) believe in order to be Christians.

But it wasn't always so, at least as far as the Protestants go. We've been wildly misrepresented over the centuries both by those outside our ranks and by malicious or uninformed members within. Protestantism has its roots in the Reformation of the 16th century, and the notable fathers of the movement (Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and others) were anything but freeform in their approach to Christian doctrine.

Their goal should be obvious from the name given their movement: Reformation. These were not wild rebels, but thoughtful scholars who wanted to purify the Church rather than rip it apart into a million denominations. Clean breaks were only made with Rome when it became obvious that the Powers-That-Be were unwilling to reverse the direction their juggernaut was already rolling in.

Luther, Calvin, and the rest believed there was only one place to find true Christian teaching: the Bible. God's Word, they said, was authoritative because it was God's Word, the self-revelation of the Lord we worship and serve. They got this subversive idea from the Bible itself, which says "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

This, then, is the source of Christian orthodoxy. Without getting into the issues of human authorship and the precise nature of inspiration (which we discuss here), we affirm what the Reformers affirmed—that the best way to understand God is to study what God says about himself. As God's Word about himself, then, the Bible becomes the rule and standard for what we believe and teach about God, humanity, and the nature of salvation.

We don't want to sound glib in this assertion. It's easy to say "I just believe what the Bible says," and it's equally easy to radically misinterpret and misunderstand the propositional truths, stories, and message of the books-within-a-book that is at the center of the Christian faith. At the same time, the Bible interprets itself, and if one resists the urge to import one's own beliefs and philosophies into the text, the overall picture comes into sharp focus.

And what is the overall picture? Jesus Christ. All true Christian belief centers on God himself and his manifestation to humanity to pay for their sins and reconcile all those who have faith in him to God. Jesus Christ appears everywhere in Scripture, proclaiming himself to a lost humanity in desperate need of rescue, and any "orthodoxy" that doesn't put Christ above all else is no orthodoxy at all.

The best brief summation of the core truths found in the Bible is the Nicene Creed. Some think of the Nicene Creed as a kind of checklist to match their own beliefs to, and that everthing else is up to them. This attitude is summarized by the famous cliché, "In the essentials unity, in the non-essentials liberty." While this sounds good, the fact is that if Christ is at the center of our theology, there are no non-essentials because putting on the mind of Christ causes us to look at everything through his eyes, and to try to conform all our actions and thoughts to his will.

This doesn't mean we've got all the answers, or that you should take our interpretation of God's Word without question (or the interpretation of our pastors and favorite theologians, for that matter). Even the Apostle Paul had his message compared to Scripture by the Bereans, and they are commended for this effort. The Nicene Creed is an excellent starting place, but the real place to turn is the Bible, our one sure communication from God, and the only rule for faith and life.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.

 

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