How To Be orthodox With A Small “o” – Part 1
About six months ago I took part in a conversation with a dear Protestant friend and mentor of mine, who likes to give me a hard time about being Orthodox – as she does with believers from any tradition – for the sake of light-hearted controversy. She was saying that, when it comes to beliefs and doctrine, what is important is that one be orthodox – with a small ‘o.’ I completely agree with her sentiment here. The term “orthodox” comes from two Greek terms that have great depth of meaning, but on the most basic level they combine the concepts of “accurate” or “properly aligned” (e.g. “orthodontics”) and “doctrine” or “worship” (e.g. doxology). Orthodoxy is not a mere branch or denomination of the Christian faith but a place towards which believers orient themselves as the term expressed throughout the councils of Church history when “orthodoxy” was victorious over the “heterodox” dissenters of the true faith.
But my friend’s argument stems from the premise that Christians should never pledge their full allegiance to any official ecclesiastical community because none of them are truly “orthodox with a small ‘o.’” They all are doctrinally errant and we must approach every tradition, indeed every teacher in the Christian faith, with a giant chunk of salt because it is only through independent thinking, logic, and trusting in the guidance of the Holy Spirit that we can arrive at the proper conclusions and interpretations. Everyone is human and prone to error, so we simply have to do the best that we can with the material given to us, namely Scripture, in order to align ourselves with what seems to be the right beliefs and practices. Further, God is forgiving of our honest blunders as we “do theology,” that academic task of the intellectual class within the Christian community.
My purpose in this article is to explore what could be meant by “orthodox with a small ‘o’” as well as how one can know whether one has arrived there. Is the mentality described above effective in accomplishing this task, is it biblical, and is it the method believers have always followed in their effort to preserve the true faith, once for all delivered to the saints?
WE ALL MAKE MISTAKES
In the milieu of denominations and schools of thought in contemporary forms of Christianity, the inevitable approach of believers has come to, on the one hand, accept unity in diversity (since everyone has accurate and inaccurate theological conclusions), while on the other hand, remain suspicious of teachers and independent in how we handle theology (because a seminarian expert can be just as misled as the next guy on any given issue). What holds the confusion together is the common understanding that there are “essentials” as well as “distinctives” of the faith. “Essentials” comprise the non-negotiable tenets that all believers must affirm to be truly Christian, while “distinctives” involve areas of theology that, while important parts of the Christian story and derived from the Bible, should never become dogmatic for anyone since they are not essential to salvation. There is a plethora beyond a plethora of various beliefs about these distinctives, and they simply give us different “flavors” of the faith without compromising what is really important.
In general, the one agreement that all these believers uphold is the teaching of sola scriptura, that the Bible alone is to be trusted as authoritative for Christian life and practice, and inevitably this causes every expositor and teacher of the Scriptures to be treated with some level of distrust as listeners evaluate whether the teacher makes a good and acceptable argument that seems nicely based in the Scriptures. But since it quickly becomes so foggy as to what aspects of various teachings can be embraced and what should be discarded, it seems that in order to be consistent with the sola scriptura teaching that sermons would consist solely of readings from the Scriptures rather than lengthy explanations as to what they mean. After all, if we listen to what anyone says they mean then we are going outside of the Bible for our source of authority.
As an Orthodox Christian I am criticized for embracing fully the teachings of my Church, because I am not being independent in my thinking and picking and choosing which teachings are right and wrong – as allegedly all Christians are supposed to do today – since every tradition has true and false elements. I am told that I am simply being gullible, that I am just enamored by the novelty of it all as compared to my background, that I am making the central mistake that lands people in dangerous cults. But being uncritical of the historical beliefs of one’s faith tradition is not what defines cultish behavior. A cult is born from unswerving allegiance to a single figure who forms a certain offshoot “denomination” (if that term can be used), who claims that all previous methods of doing the faith were wrong, and who argues that God has called only them to restore everything to the way it was supposed to be. Now everyone must listen to and follow only this figure’s opinions of what the true faith is. But being careful to humbly align oneself with the historical consensus of what all believers in your faith at large have always believed on any given doctrine, so as not to innovate, is certainly not naïve cultish behavior.
I have dear loved ones who belong to a non-denominational group, whose doctrine is essentially based on the opinions of a single figure who started the movement in California a few decades ago. However, for them this is justified as not being cultish, as well as for most of contemporary Christianity, because most churches do not really care whether their congregation totally affirms the church’s statement of faith. It remains unclear why the statement of faith even exists, except to offer a preview to visitors of what flavor of sermons will be preached there. My loved ones would not totally identify with the views of their church’s founder, and indeed this is seen by most Evangelicals as a very good thing since we should not be followers of any man or woman as they are fallen and all make doctrinal mistakes. Believers are called to study the Scriptures thoroughly for themselves and make their own conclusions.
In light of all this, a chilling, suppressed question begins to lurk in the subconscious of this contemporary, individualized approach to the Christian faith: How can one know for sure that anyone is right about anything? When it comes to groups, for example, that deny the Holy Trinity or the two natures of Christ as fully God and fully man, how can one know for sure that they are interpreting the Scriptures incorrectly, since they are also using Scripture to prove themselves? In the early fourth century the Church was dealing with the Arian heresy, where a man named Arius was teaching that Christ was not eternal God, but was rather the first Creature God made. It is significant that the man used very applicable Scriptures to back up his views – such as “My Father is greater than I,”[i] or “He is . . . the firstborn over all creation.”[ii]
BY WHAT STANDARD OF MEASURE?
As important as thorough exegesis of the original biblical languages is, it soon becomes evident that if the objective, non-negotiable doctrine of the Christian faith is confined solely to the dissection of the linguistic arrangement of the scriptural text, then one is really in no superior position than the most grotesque heterodox sects who are doing the exact same thing.
Under the “essentials” and “distinctives” approach, A, B, and C essential doctrines are taught to be vitally important for one to truly be a believer because being confused on these hinders one from embracing the true, full gospel. But how does one consistently evangelize this to newcomers to the faith? How does one explain to the thoroughly confused inquirer: “You must affirm the A, B, and C essential doctrines but the X, Y, and Z distinctive doctrines are unimportant tenets we simply like to discuss and debate based on our own reading of Scripture; the XYZ distinctives are important details, but they are also not important because NO ONE has the scoop on whether ANY of them are for sure or not. Oh, and the deeper you dig into the faith you will discover more and more people who cannot agree on which tenets even belong in the ABC essentials category versus the XYZ distinctives!”
It is therefore imperative that an ultimate standard be in place by which to differentiate essentials from distinctives. What is needed is an authoritative exposition of Scripture by which to determine whether an interpretation is erroneous. The only way one can take the upper hand in, say, the previously mentioned issue with heretical non-Trinitarian interpretations, is to appeal to the historical understanding and application of the Scriptures by God’s people over the ages. When it came down to the final decision of the first ecumenical council, Arius’ views on Christ being a “creature” and not fully God were condemned not because someone came forward with a counter argument with other Bible verses. He was condemned because his views did not line up (“canon” in Greek) with any teaching of any Christian prior to that period. Thus even if the Scriptures seem to suggest one thing, it is clear that they are being misunderstood if the suggestion is outside of the way that they have historically, always been received and applied within the Church community. The “canon” of Scripture is named thus because these books were determined over time to line up with what was believed and practiced by all Christians historically.
Rather than going on and on with the Jehovah’s Witnesses at our doorstep over the implications of the absence of a definite article before theos in John 1:1, as well as theos and logos both being in the nominative case (etc., etc.), we can simply say, “This belief of yours was universally rejected by the Church at the first ecumenical council because it did not line up with the belief and practice of the Christian community up until that time, and it died out until Charles T. Russell resurrected it in the nineteenth century. It is unorthodox.” – period, full stop, end of discussion.
In part two we will further discuss the role of history in providing a grounded coherency in our adherence to Christian tenets and continue the consideration of pursuing “orthodoxy with a small ‘o.’”
[i] John 14:28
[ii] Colossians 1:15