A broad orthodoxy

Pastor Robb (a.k.a. LutherPunk) recently asked how people defined orthodoxy. The question was raised in the context of the recent decisions of the ELCA church-wide assembly, as many traditionalists are now accusing the ELCA of lapsing into heresy. Interestingly, Robb got about as many different definitions of “orthodoxy” as he had commenters responding to his post, which might say something.

The way I think about it is this: you’re essentially “un-churching” whomever you declare a heretic (i.e., not orthodox). That is, a heretic is someone beyond the pale of orthodox, historic Christianity. So, in pondering how I define orthodoxy, I have to think: who would I consider a heretic?

Put this way, I end up with a very generous definition of orthodoxy. Despite theological differences, I certainly don’t consider Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Mennonites, free-church Christians, non-denominational evangelicals, or Pentecostals to be “heretics” in the sense of being beyond the bounds of Christianity.

This seems to imply that there’s a kind of Lewisian “mere” Christianity that all these groups have in common. I’d specify that as roughly (1) a confession of the triune God (2) a commitment to the authority of Scripture and (3) participation in a community gathered around the proclamation of the gospel and the administration of the two dominical sacraments. I think I’d also want to include certain other key practices, or “marks” of the church, like the forgiveness of sins, hospitality to the poor and marginalized, and a triune pattern of prayer.

Beyond that core there are theological elaborations of first-order proclamation and practice. I’d include here things like theology of the sacraments, church polity, soteriology, views on election and predestination, eschatology, etc. And beyond that are all our attempts to work out concrete moral, social, and political implications of the gospel. Here we get into the realm of adiaphora–things that Christians can in good faith disagree about.

This definition, admittedly broad though it is, does recognize certain borderline cases: Unitarians, Mormons, and some Quakers for example (depending on their specific beliefs) would likely fall outside my definition of orthodoxy. And, naturally, a Muslim, or Jew, or Hindu would not be included. Though it makes little sense to consider them heretics: they’re simply not Christian and make no claims to be.

My view clearly allows for a lot of diversity in both belief and practice. I’m not claiming that this is what most Christians have historically meant by “orthodoxy,” but I just don’t think it’s feasible, for a whole host of reasons, to insist on a fully specified list of doctrinal beliefs in order to be considered orthodox. A certain epistemological pluralism is just our lot in life at this point, and I don’t think people should claim to know with certainty things they couldn’t possibly know. Plus, if, as we believe, truth is primarily a Person, we should expect that truth will elude complete capture in our theological and doctrinal language.


2 thoughts on “A broad orthodoxy

  1. And doesn’t your broad definition still manage to exclude the Salvation Army? (No communion, hence no ‘dominical sacraments’?)

    Just picking holes, really – it’s a tough issue. Doesn’t the NT itself major rather more on the nature of and attitudes towards Jesus as a touchstone of orthodoxy?

    Just wondering – an interesting post!

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