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The Evangelical Application of ‘Orthodoxy’

May 4, 2017

It’s nothing new that liberal-progressive Christians are speaking out about matters such as human sexuality and personal hurt experienced within churches.  And it’s nothing new that Evangelical leaders have circled the wagons and gone on the attack not only against individual Christians (such as Jen Hatmaker) but also against the right of these women and men even to speak and to teach publicly. Denny Burk (SBTS) makes some noteworthy points in his May 3 post (“It is not ‘character assassination’ for the church to be the church”) with respect to the church as an institution which bears certain responsibilities in the world — not the least of which is teaching the truth about Jesus Christ and the triune God.

Burk’s basic claim is that the case of those Christians arguing for same-sex relationships is not simply irregular or novel but in fact unorthodox:

They are asking the rest of the church to accept their point of view as within the orthodox stream. The problem is that their teaching never has been, is not, and never will be within the orthodox stream. It will always be a mark of those who have fallen away from the faith.

Implicating the case for same-sex relationships with apostasy is serious business.  More pointed — and distasteful — are the comments from Rod Dreher (The Benedict Option), who quoted Burk at length when he wrote this week of “a crisis of authority within the church.” Those self-appointed teachers, columnists, bloggers, and tweeters, Dreher believes, deny the authority of Scripture and tradition as they lead the flock marching out of the front doors of the church. The borders of orthodoxy must be defended.

To grasp this pro-institutional case, though, one must contort rather severely in order to peer around the elephant in the middle of the room: Christian institutions hold no hegemonic power in the modern era.  This has been the great challenge facing the church since the Enlightenment.  Institutions no longer hold sway over individuals, and to simply reassert the institution over the individual in the modern period is at best historically naive.  For progressives search for authentic expressions of Christian existence in this world, the argument-from-institution is a non-starter.

Burk and Dreher would be right to lament this state of twenty-first century western culture, and to make the case on theological grounds that the church of Jesus Christ does and ought to possess some kind of authority over Christ’s followers (even if this is the authority of the shepherd and not the magistrate).  But that doesn’t seem to be what is behind these reactions to liberal-progressive Christian voices.  Why aren’t these voices listening to institutional authorities and submitting to their guidance? (Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that some ecclesiastical authorities, such as the Episcopal churches, do in fact lend support to their views.) Because that is not the world we live in.

Disappointed that Jen Hatmaker is teaching something contrary to the official position of the Southern Baptist Convention?  Tell it to Immanuel Kant.

~ # ~

More to the point, though, is Burk’s invocation of the language of “orthodoxy.” With its companion term “heresy” (invoked in Dreher’s post title) this word has a specific and historical cluster of meanings.  And the word’s meaning is not what Burk appears to be suggesting — at least not for Protestants.

Orthodoxy (literally “right belief”) is determined through different processes for different Christian traditions, processes deeply tied to their respective ecclesiologies. Among the Eastern churches what is most decisive for identifying and clarifying the church’s teaching on various matters is the fraternity of bishops, exemplified by church synods and councils and particularly by those councils whose judgments rise to the level of ecumenical (universal) reception.  (There were seven such councils in the east between the fourth and eighth centuries, which focused primarily on Christian teachings about the Trinity and the person of Christ.) Here “orthodoxy” refers to what the councils have decided upon; “heresy” is what those bodies have specifically identified as contrary to the Christian faith.

Catholicism too highly regards the councils of bishops. But to these they add the Catholic Church’s designated teaching office (the Magisterium) and, ultimately, the authority of the Pope himself.  (This priority of the bishop of Rome was, of course, the chief point of contention in the East-West split.)  “Orthodoxy” thus has more broad application in the Catholic context, as the Church holds certain theological and structural reasons (grounded on Matt. 16:17-19) for affirming that “right teaching” is simply what the Church teaches.

It will come as no surprise to those with even a passing knowledge of the sixteenth-century Reformation that Protestant ecclesiology does not — cannot — accommodate this view of orthodoxy and the church’s teaching authority. Martin Luther’s rejection of this principle is the very reason that the Protestant churches exist today.  (After he posted the 95 Theses in 1517 in opposition to the sale of indulgences, among the first replies that came from Catholic defenders was Sylvester Mazzolini’s argument that indulgences cannot be wrong precisely because the Church says they are right.) While the ecumenical councils are to be heard and respected here too, historically for Protestants right belief is determined by the Word of God and not by institutional authorities.  (This Word ought to be read and interpreted within the community of faith, to be certain — the Reformers were no fans of the sort of private interpretation that has come to characterize the contemporary West.)

In less than a decade after Luther’s formal break with Rome, however, Protestant groups came to recognize that at a number of important points they were interpreting Holy Scripture differently from one another. Philip of Hesse’s efforts in 1529 to promote a unified Protestant Church failed largely over Luther and Zwingli’s competing understandings of the Lord’s Supper. Which view is “orthodox” — the doctrine of real presence and what has been called Christ’s “consubstantiality” with the bread and the wine?  Zwingli’s memorialism that is born from a strictly non-literal reading of Matt. 26:26?  Or something else?  (Both in their own ways broke with tradition.)

The decisive centrality of the Word of God thus stands relativized, historically and practically speaking, by the simple fact of interpretive pluralism.

From this arises the astonishing diversity of Protestant churches over the last five centuries. This diversity comes from Protestant ecclesiology: individual churches and denominations confess their core convictions but themselves bear no power to declare a universal Christian “orthodoxy.” Protestants have no Pope and no Magisterium.

The question we are left with, then, is just what Burk and Dreher mean when they invoke the word “orthodoxy.”

~ # ~

What counts as “right belief” and teaching, then? Protestants such as Burk and (I presume) Dreher have two lines of argument open to them. First, and somewhat benign, is that understanding that is shared with Catholics and Eastern Orthodox: “orthodoxy” refers to the teachings of the seven ecumenical councils.  “Heresy” refers to the teachings those councils rejected — e.g. that Jesus is a created being, that his two natures are mixed together, or that he cannot be worshiped by means of icons.

This definition simply does not apply to these authors’ present use of the term “orthodox.” Both of them have invoked this historically loaded word in the context of same-sex relationships. But no church council recognized by Protestants has ever taken up this question, let alone issued a pronouncement upon it.  “Orthodox,” in this first sense of the word, is irrelevant to the conversation — and to invoke it in this context is misleading.

The second line of argument is much more likely to be what Burk and Dreher intend in their use of the term. If a Protestant understanding of right belief is determined by the Bible, “orthodoxy” might simply refer to what the Bible teaches. And these authors give evidence that this is their intent.  Burk writes:

The entire 2,000-year history of the Christian church has spoken univocally about homosexuality. Faithful Christians have always believed what the scriptures teach about this. Homosexuality is sexual immorality and is therefore sinful (Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 1 Tim. 1:10). We understand that this is an unpopular point of view today, but it is nevertheless what the church has always believed and confessed.

Burk is presumably aware that it is not Scripture itself that is being contested by the current wave of Christians arguing for same-sex relationships, but rather the traditional interpretation of Scripture. These are two very different things, and history is scarred by conflations of “truth” and “my understanding of the truth.” Theological speech points to divine reality and must seek to do so with the highest fidelity; but it is not itself a divine reality.

At this stage of the argument there are only two paths left open to Burk and others. The first would be to acknowledge the perhaps uncomfortable realities of interpretive pluralism, attempting to make the very best case for one’s own exegesis of the passages in question (but forced finally to acknowledge the limitations of human interpretation). This is not the path taken, of course, since it gives away the ballgame by acknowledging at least the possibility that one’s own interpretation of words such as arsenokoitai may be less than flawless.

Burk, then, opts for the second path and the only one that remains open to him: opposition to same-sex relationships is “what the church has always believed and confessed.” The appeal is to the long history of tradition, with an allusion to the fifth-century theologian Vincent of Lérins. Vincent’s most-quoted dictum is that true catholic teaching is “what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all” (Communitorium 2.6). “Orthodoxy” thus refers not simpliciter to what the Bible teaches, but more to how the majority tradition has tended to interpret it over the centuries.

Vincent’s words have proved profoundly important to Eastern and Catholic doctrines of teaching authority. The Catholic Church rejects the intimation that the Church ever changes its positions or invents new teachings, but only that doctrine develops in such a way that new circumstances prompt the church to clarify “what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.” This claim to a deep and universal continuity of belief is fundamental to Catholic ecclesiology.

The Evangelical appeal to tradition by means of an article so central to Catholic teaching therefore ought to surprise. Dreher illustrates this point when he observes that “an orthodox Catholic would be more likely to find Christians who agreed with him on key moral issues at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary than on the faculty of Boston College.” The suggestion seems to be that conservative Catholics and conservative Evangelicals are closer on social issues such as homosexuality (and their corresponding biblical interpretations) because they possess a shared value of tradition.

But it should be said that this cannot be severed from the churches’ respective ecclesiologies. The two groups reach these common convictions by different routes, since the tradition of the historic church (including anything that might be deemed a consensus of scriptural interpretation) performs radically different functions in their respective theologies. There is more to this than simply esteeming one’s theological ancestors; to invoke Vincent and the history of interpretation on homosexuality as the standard of “orthodoxy” is to make certain claims about church authority which heretofore have been largely foreign to the Protestant churches.

~ # ~

Contemporary evangelical churches exist in a particular space carved out by modernism, in which they both champion the individual, her piety, and her free exercise of religious conscience and also warn against the corrosive habits of religious individualism. Institutions, their traditions, and their historical memory are of great importance to the future of Christianity — but we have to do better than merely reasserting ecclesiastical authority over and against those believers with whom we disagree.  Otherwise, out of the very effort to protect historic Protestantism, we risk losing something vital to it.

In the twenty-first century it’s also time for Evangelicals to concede that a person’s location outside of the structures of institutionally ordered ministry is beside the point. “Submit to your bishop” doesn’t fly with Protestants, and it shouldn’t. Like Martin Luther, our consciences too are “captive to the Word of God.” Like John Wesley, “the world is [our] parish.”

But the word “orthodoxy” means something. Among Protestants it ought to be used in ways that are neither repressive nor historically simplistic, but which elevate speakers and teachers of all dispositions to the cause of the gospel in the world — that “faith once delivered to the saints.”

7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 4, 2017 7:13 pm

    Thanks for this, Darren. Very thoughtful and thought provoking. My immediate response is to honestly wonder, though, whether you’re right that this is really a matter of a straightforward exegetical disagreement among evangelicals who are equally ready on all sides to hold to biblical teaching if/when it is found to be clear. For evangelicals who disagree on the ethical validity of same-sex relationships, is the crux of the issue really the proper translation of arsenokoitai, etc? My instincts are to doubt that, not because of a lack of charity for those on either side, but just from observing the ways debates about this tend to go. The disagreement seems to revolve more around the nature of scripture’s moral authority than whether or not scripture is actually clear in its moral teaching regarding homosexuality. The arguments on the progressive side virtually always begin from experience – compassion for same-sex attracted friends – rather than exegesis. That being the case (and without making any argument for Burk or Dreher), the idea of gesturing toward an orthodox position on this being defined as something like “the clear teaching of scripture as attested by an overwhelming consensus in the church’s exegetical history” seems to fit fairly well in evangelical Protestantism’s bibliology and ecclesiology. Or am I missing the point?

    • May 4, 2017 7:26 pm

      I think there is definite slippage on both sides, and among progressives we wouldn’t have to look to far to find examples of proponents who simply relativize the Bible’s moral authority (i.e. they aren’t terribly concerned with exegetical arguments over arsenokoitai, etc.). For the sake of the argument above I’m sort of assuming the most generous posture with respect to both sides — that is, Christians who take the Bible seriously and wished to be normed by what it teaches (even where they might take lived experience as a starting point). That debate, then, is over what it actually teaches.

      “The clear teaching of Scripture” is a trope that denies the conversation entirely, by refusing to have the exegetical debate or to see it through to the end. That Scripture might not be as clear on this topic as we thought it was is precisely what progressives contend.

      I do think that the argument for a single “orthodox” line of interpretation carries a certain weight, insofar as we wish to hear the voices of the long tradition and take them seriously. But to allow them the final say, as it were, and deny the possibility for reformation in our reading of various texts is, I think, finally not Protestant.

  2. May 4, 2017 7:26 pm

    I’m largely in agreement about your thesis that asserting ecclesiastical authority in the way Burk et al does in order to defend Protestantism is itself unprotestant. I wonder, though – how does this square with your closing statement about “faith once delivered to the saints”? For this to have any kind of weight or force behind it, doesn’t it need the kind of appeal to tradition that you rightly identify as problematic? Isn’t “faith once delivered to the saints” itself just the same kind of appeal to tradition, just phrased differently?

    I guess my question can be put this way: if ‘orthodoxy’ does, in fact, mean something (surely it does), but it doesn’t/can’t mean what, say, Burk wants it to mean, can it mean “that which elevate speakers and teachers of all dispositions to the cause of the gospel in the world — that “faith once delivered to the saints” consistently? Isn’t this just an appeal to Protestantism, which is basically an appeal to tradition?

    • May 4, 2017 8:00 pm

      Joshua, with apologies, I don’t trust myself to have grasped your question enough to make the sort of reply you might find satisfying.

      I will at least say that I don’t at all reject appeals to tradition — as an historical theologian, may it never be! Tradition and other expressions of ecclesiastical structure are of great importance to contemporary Christianity. I’m attempting to make a more pointed critique of the use of the word “orthodoxy,” which is perhaps a particular way of appealing to tradition. This sets up the tradition as normative in a way that, for Protestants, I contend ought to be reserved for Scripture alone. (And as I say in the essay, “Scripture” and “interpretation of Scripture” are not identical.)

      By all means let us hold fast to tradition and be on guard against false teachers (which is Jude’s immediate context for the “faith once delivered to the saints” line, Jude 1:3). But appeals to tradition have to function in a particular way for Protestant ecclesiology to remain consistent.

    • May 5, 2017 4:40 am

      I probably couldn’t have phrased my question any worse, but your answer is helpful in spite of that. So what, exactly, is a Protestant appeal to tradition – that isn’t formally the same as Burks appeal – going to look like? Because it seems to me that appealing to the faith once delivered in order to be on guard against false teachers just is to appeal to tradition in the way Protestants ought to avoid. It almost seems as though such an appeal is the same as Burks, just kicked back one notch. Instead of appealing to orthodoxy in order to combat (say) approval of gay marriage, we appeal to the faith once delivered to be on guard against false teachers instead.

    • May 13, 2017 12:06 pm

      Joshua – I suppose in that sense the difference is between an appeal to “tradition” and an appeal to Scripture. Protestants will (and ought to) insist upon the finality of the biblical witness, and the need for fidelity to it; the subsequent history of its theological interpretation (i.e. tradition) may be normative in a derivative sense (a “normed norm”) that itself depends upon Scripture (the “norming norm”).

      It seems to me that this would be merely kicking the appeal to tradition “back one notch” only if Scripture is finally regarded as itself one instance of tradition. Protestantism depends upon a thicker description of Scripture as, in some sense, the result of divine activity. The Holy Spirit is at work here — that is why Scripture can (and must) be privileged over other elements of the church’s productivity. (This need not privilege any one account of inspiration, but it does suggest that some doctrine of inspiration is necessary.)

  3. Robert permalink
    May 5, 2017 9:11 am

    Defining orthodoxy for evangelicals is difficult, but Protestants (at least) of a confessional stripe can appeal to their confessions as definitional of orthodoxy, but not irreformably so. So I’m not sure how that relativizes Scripture as long as you hold that confessions are not irreformable.

    Dreher, at least in his ecumenical interactions, seems to define orthodoxy as that body of shared beliefs between historic Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. And at least if you operate on that basis, it’s not hard to outline the parameters of what Dreher means in his project. It’s at least the first four ecumenical councils plus a good deal of overlap in the area of ethics and morals. It’s harder for Protestants, however, because orthodoxy would also have to include stuff like sola Scriptura and sola fide.

    It would be better for Burk to couch his argument this way: “Look, for two thousand years, the three great arms of what has been considered Christianity have agreed on this topic even where they haven’t agreed on many other things. It’s not impossible that this aspect of the broader Christian tradition is wrong, but if it is, you need to do the heavy weight of making your case Scripturally, not me. I think that will be impossible for you, since it’s not only evangelical biblical scholars but also those who are in favor of the moral approval of homosexual practice who recognize that Scripture’s view is uniformly and exclusively negative for all kinds of homosexual relationships. But you are welcome to try.”

    It is certainly correct that among those who wish to be normed by Scripture, the debate is in essence over the right interpretation of the text. Even here it is difficult because of differing views of Scripture. Those who hold to inerrancy, for example, are not seeking to be normed in the same way as those who want to respect biblical authority but do not believe in inerrancy. That’s just one example. And that’s just one example. Barthians, for instance, aren’t seeking to be normed in the same way as non-Barthians.

    At the end of the day, the fundamental presuppositions about the nature of Scripture and church authority are going to be the driving forces in this and other discussions.

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