Wednesday, February 20, 2008

I'm not writing you a new orthodoxy but an old one

This post (and the others in this very interesting series) by Michael Patton got me thinking about "orthodoxy." The term literally means "right teaching" or "right thinking", though Patton gives some more thorough definitions according to various camps of Christianity. If you look at the lists of beliefs that constitute orthodoxy in Patton's post (and he did a great job assembling these), you can see that most Christian camps refer to "orthodoxy" not really as "right teaching" of Christianity as a whole but rather right teaching of specific, so called "essential" teachings of Christianity. Several questions immediately come to mind, but a few that I want to discuss here are:
  • What teachings, thoughts, beliefs are "essential" to Christianity?
  • How (and by whom) are such "essentials" to be determined?
  • How are people's beliefs to be determined for purpose of measuring them against the orthodox ones that are selected?

Along these lines, here are the guts of my comments at Scot McKnight's blog about this:

I fear that [these lists] represent what I hate to see (but frequently do) in discussions of “orthodoxy”–we don’t use Jesus’ life, ministry and teachings as the plumb line, we use some favorite [or historical] interpreter(s) of him, which leads to deeper divisions in Christ’s body, just as it did in Corinth and continues to do today. . . These lists of beliefs are, therefore, better used as history of past battles over particular pieces of reality than as wholistically accurate pictures of orthodoxy. Let’s not measure men by lists. Let’s measure men by the Man. The lists, at best, present a very partial picture of orthodoxy. Whereas, the best wholistic picture we have of who God really is and wants to say and do is in Jesus’ teachings and actions. And of course, there are very good scriptural reasons to believe that God will use Jesus own life and teachings as the means of measuring everything that needs measuring. . . . We . . . may not like that putting Jesus at the center messes with our theology and puts more mystery in the whole issue of orthodoxy than we’d like, but let’s at least be express about the plumb line and let the cornerstone be the cornerstone if we’re going to measure who “lines up.” . . . Where on these lists, for example, is the belief that love of God and neighbor are the most important guides to life? Isn’t it at least a little disconcerting that the very teaching that Jesus said was the most important of the entire revelation before him isn’t mentioned in these lists of “essentials”?

What I'm getting at is that one would not likely get the same list of "essential" teachings by studying primarily the teachings of Jesus himself; in fact, some of the teachings that were thematic for Jesus and even the apostles are not considered "essential" to teaching Christianity rightly. I'm thinking, as I mentioned in the comment, of the command that Jesus said summed up all the law and prophets--loving God with every facet of our existence and our neighbors (and enemies) to boot. It is difficult to argue that this was not "essential" according to Jesus' own thinking, or even the thinking of Paul or John or Peter, if their letters are to be believed. One could argue pretty easily based on a casual reading of the New Testament that teaching this "love" is even primary in the faith. And there are others, such as the teaching that one's conduct shows what one truly believes.

So, I'm wondering, first, what would a list of 'essential teachings' look like if we based our list on what appeared to be Jesus' own "essential" teachings and actions (and secondarily those from the rest of the NT). That would be interesting and maybe helpful. But I'm wondering even more, what if we made Jesus himself--his life, his "walk" and his teachings--as our standard for evaluating how far or close a given person or group is to "orthodox Christianity"? Isn't he the plumb line, the cornerstone? Isn't he the walking and talking definition of orthodox Christianity?

If we use him as the Standard instead of a partial list of teachings for determining orthodox Christians, we'd get at least a few benefits:

  • We'd find that he's the only one being perfectly orthodox in his thinking and acting, which will give us all a more graceful tone when evaluating someone else's "orthodoxy" (which not coincidentally will make us more obedient to one of Jesus' own teachings).
  • We'd be more appropriately and equally concerned with a person's actions as we'd be with their stated "beliefs" when evaluating what they actually believe (which again, Jesus seemed to think was a good way to think about such things).
  • We'd be more concerned about our own deviation from the Standard than other people's (yet more obedience to Jesus' teachings).
  • We'd realize that Christianity is more of a Path, more of a growing (or fading) relationship to a Person, than a checklist of right beliefs that can be verbally affirmed and checked off. More important than a snapshot of beliefs is the direction one is heading and whom one is trusting to proceed with life.
  • We'd encourage and make more 'learners of Jesus' than 'affirmers of lists'.
  • We'd be less likely to end up with whole groups of supposedly "orthodox Christians" who are content, even entrenched, to act in direct opposition to several of Jesus' teachings.
  • We'd be using the Standard that God himself will use to judge us all.


scott m said...

I think that orthodoxy "literally" means right worship. ;-)

More importantly, if you look at the early ecumenical councils, in most of them the essence of dispute was over the nature of Christ. How we understand Jesus was, I think, placed rightly at the center. For if we distort that reality, then we begin to try to order our own lives around and bring others into relationship with a false image of the one we call Lord. And that seems bound to create distortion both in ourselves as human beings and in the communities we form.

T said...


On "orthodoxy", I was just going by one of the meanings of the greek roots of ortho and doxos (thought or opinion), but, you're right it now has a more exclusively religious use.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that the decisions made by the ecumenical councils were wrong or not necessary, or certainly that the nature of Jesus isn't central. My issue is that statements about Jesus have become "essential teachings" of the faith, while the teachings of Jesus have not, leading to churches filled more with affirmers of facts about Jesus than people who do what he teaches.

Lames42 said...

loved the post. every mondday, wednesday, and friday I sit in a Biblical Theology class (which I love) and we study some of these early ecumenical councils. We even get into some heated debates ourselves.

And it is in these times that i grow more and more frustrated. Often times, i doubt that these debates and councils help people grow closer to Christ. I doubt that our lives reflect Christ more accurately because of our discussion.

May all the debates and discussion and councils and panels and blogs work to the purpose of helping us to more accurately reflect Christ. May they help us love God more. May they help us love all of humanity

T said...



Anonymous said...

Wonderful wonderful wonderful post! I've come back to Christianity after a 10 year hiatus and I find myself thinking the exact same things as I read certain blog articles and the discussions that follow. I wonder "Where is Jesus in all this 'orthodoxy?'

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