By P. Andrew Sandlin
Published May 1, 2008
The word orthodoxy derives etymologically from the Greek expressions orthos meaning “straight” and doxa meaning “opinion”; in Greek, Latin and, later, the Germanic languages, it carried the clear ecclesiastical denotation of “right belief.“Each wing of the “traditional” persuasions in Christendom-Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism-claims its tenets represent orthodox Christianity, which is to say, each insists it is the correct expression of the Christian faith.
Orthodoxy has a Criterion
The concept of orthodoxy assumes some authoritative criterion or criteria. After all, correct religious belief implies that not all professing religious belief is correct and that what more contemporary religionists style latitudinarianism — the idea that virtually all religious views are valid or that validity and invalidity of belief are categories inappropriate to religion — is simply fallacious, and, in fact, pernicious. Christendom, however, has not answered with unanimity the question of what constitutes the criterion of orthodoxy. The patristic faith in its contention with Montanism and other heresies stressed the Holy Scriptures within the deposit of apostolic tradition as the criterion. The medieval church-East and West-increasingly accorded tradition the place of ultimate criterion of orthodoxy. The Reformation heralded a revived insistence on Scripture alone as the ultimate authority of the faith, without abandoning all tradition. Among those classified as radical reformers three conflicting answers to the question of the criterion of orthodoxy were purveyed: the Bible alone, apart from any tradition (Anabaptists); immediate subjective revelation (the Spiritualists and Quakers); and human reason (the anti-Trinitarian rationalists). None of these answers sufficed in isolation from one or more of the others. For example, the Roman Catholic insistence on the primacy of tradition as the interpreter of the Scriptures was vulnerable to the charge of unbiblical traditionalism. Conversely, when the Reformation dictum of sola scriptura was sequestered from all appeal to tradition as it was among the Anabaptists, the Romanists could easily show how such an approach rendered every man capable of interpreting the Bible for himself and thus opened wide the ecclesiastical door to heterodox cults and schisms. Further, the Spiritualist policy of locating the criterion of orthodoxy (although they were not especially concerned with the definition of orthodoxy espoused by the Roman Catholics and Protestants) in immediate revelation was susceptible to the charge of utter subjectivism. The same charge could be leveled against the rationalists, in addition to that of its tendency to undermine the authority of the Holy Scriptures, some of whose principal teachings like the incarnation of Christ and the trinity seem repugnant to common sense reason.
Pelikan notes that the orthodox consensus of tradition that shaped patristic (early) Christianity-East and West- consisted of catholicity, confessionalism, and antiquity.2 For example, “In the usage of Eusebius, the terms orthodox, ancient, and ecclesiastical were almost interchangeable.“3 The patristic church did not sharply distinguish between Scripture and tradition, the teaching of the apostles and that of the ecumenical councils, for it assumed the faithful transmission of Christian tradition was in fact nothing more than fidelity to Scripture itself. It did not seem to occur to them that what we Protestants term sola scriptura could conflict with the views of the church catholic.
Orthodoxy is Inevitable
The attempt to practice Christianity without orthodoxy is as futile as the attempt to play soccer without rules-it produces anarchy and eventually no game at all. Therefore, the abandonment of Christian orthodoxy is almost always superseded not by a void of orthodoxy, but by another and erroneous orthodoxy. For instance, the denial of orthodoxy by many fundamentalists and Pentecostalists is accompanied by a new orthodoxy according to which a fundamentalist leader’s regulations or some Pentecostal “Holy-Spirit experience” become obligatory and normative.
Too, the denial of orthodoxy among liberalism produces the reinvention of orthodoxy. Liberals spurn Biblical infallibility, for example, but they do not thereby throw off the possibility of infallibility for, as Rushdoony observes, “It is a naive and foolish error to assume that ‘deliverance’ from the doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture ‘frees’ a man’s mind from the concept of infallibility. Rather, it means the adoption of a new infallibility as a rival and supposedly liberating concept… . What we face today is not an abandonment of the doctrine of infallibility, but its transfer from God to man, from God’s word to man’s word.“4 The liberal rejection of an orthodox bibliology therefore substitutes humanity for deity as the final arbiter of truth and life and thus institutes a new, i.e., humanistic, orthodoxy.
Protestant orthodoxy escapes the errors of both Papistic traditionalism and heterodox individualism: on the one hand its insistence on sola scriptura inhibits the accumulation of doctrinal and ecclesiastical traditions that undermine Biblical authority as they did in medieval Romanism. On the other hand, its stress on historical continuity and theological accountability protects the church from heterodoxies and cults spawned by appeal to a naked biblicism.
There can be no condemnation of heresy without creedal and confessional standards, and there can be no sola scriptura if tradition is permitted to dominate; hence, both sola scriptura and tradition are essential to orthodoxy.
Orthodoxy is Reviving
The revival of orthodoxy hinges from the human standpoint on two main factors: increased knowledge and rekindled appreciation of the historical continuity of the Christian church, and a recognition of the value of creeds and confessions.
If true Christianity is perceived as initiated at the inception of a particular branch or denomination of Christianity; if, worse still, it is identified exclusively with one’s own local congregation, the concept of orthodoxy is lost, for historic continuity is intrinsic to orthodoxy. When, however, Christianity, and specifically the Christian church, is recognized as the supernaturally spawned multigenerational and multidenominational citizenry populating earth and heaven, all of whose members are intimately united by faith alone with Christ as their Head and therefore to all other human members, interest in history surges, for it is then perceived as the vehicle in which God preserves His people and purpose and the terrestrial stage on which the predestinated victory of the plan of God is acted out. Orthodox believers experience the ecstasy the awareness participation in two millennia — indeed, six millennia — of Christian history sparks: by Christ they are united to Abraham, Paul, Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Whitefield, etc., and therefore to the mammoth works God executed in the church and world by the instrumentation of those men and numerous others. The Trinitarian and Christological controversies of the patristic church, and the soteriological of the Reformation church, are our controversies, our heritage. The restorationist5 impulse, according to which Christians abandon the historic dimension of orthodoxy in favor of an attempt to recreate first-century Biblical Christianity and thereby forfeit the rich heritage of God’s operation in the church historic as well as the lessons a recognition of that heritage affords, is squelched. Oddly and ironically, however, such restorationists speak longingly of the return to the “old-time religion,” by which they denote earlier days in their church’s or denomination’s particular history. For instance, they may lament the abandonment of “altar calls” and “saw-dust trails” and charge such abandonment with capitulation to “modernistic” inclinations. They are apparently unaware that these practices-and many others-represent quite modernistic innovations in the faith, and those wishing to embrace historic orthodoxy tend to reject them precisely because they are so modernistic. Likewise, when restorationists charge that a sacramental view and frequent partaking of communion bespeak a revival of Romanism, they only betray their modernistic provincialism. A high view of communion antedates Romanism — indeed, even orthodox soteriology — by centuries.
Essential to orthodoxy is the realization that the Christian faith is a sacred repository of truth designed to be protected and preserved and purveyed to succeeding generations. It follows the Biblical requirement of catechizing covenant children (Dt. 6:6-9), transmitting the oral and written testimony of Christianity to others (2 Tim. 2:2), and defending the faith as a truth deposit against relentless attacks (Jude 3). Orthodoxy perceives the inestimable value of the faith it has been bequeathed and devotes all energies to maintaining its purity. Orthodoxy is not especially concerned with popularity in modern times that prize mainly the transient and glitzy; rather, it sees its noble task as holding in sacred trust and handing on to another generation the faith it has been honored to receive.
If orthodoxy is to be revived, there must be a heightened appreciation of the creeds and confessions-especially the early ecumenical creeds and the Reformation confessions. They serve two indispensable purposes. First, they are safeguards against heresy. In fact, the creeds were hammered out for this very reason. They express a well pondered consensus regarding foundational constituents of the faith — the Trinity, Christology, etc. They guard equally against idle speculation and pernicious error. Second, creeds and confessions are positive declarations of orthodox belief and therefore instruments of education and catechism.
It is difficult to comprehend the pervasive antipathy to confessionalism in contemporary Christianity, for every main argument against confessionalism is demonstrably defective, and every main argument for it is unanswerable. To contend, for example, that “creedalism” subverts Scriptural authority is self-defeating, for every church holds some form of creed-written or unwritten-and is susceptible to the temptation to subordinate the Scriptures to human compositions. If creeds are discovered to be fundamentally defective, they may be revised on the basis of the word of God. To argue that the affirmation of creeds “rationalizes” the faith is equally fallacious, for if there is not some rational content to belief, it degenerates into mere subjectivism. Those who asseverate, “No creed but Christ” fail to understand that the very name Christ is shorn of meaning when deprived of creedal identity. To assert that creeds, like doctrine, divide Christians while Christ unites them is perniciously naive, because the abandonment of creeds jeopardizes the very nature of Christianity. It is both true and unfortunate that Christians bicker about secondary dogma, but the solution to the internecine strife is the confessing and forsaking of pride and the recognition of the catholicity of Christ’s body and authentic Christian unity generated by the Holy Spirit and founded on the objective Christian faith as expressed in the Scriptures and in the creeds of the church. Perhaps ironically, it is the repudiation of creeds that often engenders needless strife, for such a repudiation creates a doctrinal vacuum in which secondary issues easily gain a pronounced and exaggerated importance that an informed adherence to historic creeds and confessions will not readily permit.
A revival of orthodoxy will greatly impede the mad rush toward experientialism, pragmatism, and liberalism to which the modern church is vulnerable.
1 Portions of this essay appeared originally in the the October, 1993, issue of Calvinism Today.
2 Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971), 332-339.
3 ibid., 336.
4 Rousas John Rushdoony, Infallibility: An Inescapable Concept (Vallecito, CA: Ross House, 1978), 4, 7.
5 I am indebted to Theodore Letis for introducing me to this term.
Forerunner - Home » The Puritan Storm
Your comments are welcome!
“When the lives of the unborn are snuffed out, they often feel pain, pain that is long and agonizing.” – President Ronald Reagan to National Religious Broadcasters Convention, January 1981
Ronald Reagan became convinced of this as a result of watching The Silent Scream – a movie he considered so powerful and convicting that he screened it at the White House.
The modern technology of real-time ultrasound now reveals the actual responses of a 12-week old fetus to being aborted. As the unborn child attempts to escape the abortionist’s suction curette, her motions can be seen to become desperately agitated and her heart rate doubles. Her mouth opens – as if to scream – but no sound can come out. Her scream doesn’t have to remain silent, however … not if you will become her voice. This newly re-mastered version features eight language tracks and two bonus videos.
“… a high technology “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” arousing public opinion just as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 antislavery novel ignited the abolitionist movement.” – Sen. Gordon Humphrey, Time Magazine
Languages: English, Spanish, French, South Korean, Chinese, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese
Running Time: 28 minutes
$17.95 — ORDER NOW!(We accept all major credit cards and PayPal.)
Foundations in Biblical Eschatology
By Jay Rogers, Larry Waugh, Rodney Stortz, Joseph Meiring. High quality paperback, 167 pages.
All Christians believe that their great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will one day return. Although we cannot know the exact time of His return, what exactly did Jesus mean when he spoke of the signs of His coming (Mat. 24)? How are we to interpret the prophecies in Isaiah regarding the time when “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:19)? Should we expect a time of great tribulation and apostasy or revival and reformation before the Lord returns? Is the devil bound now, and are the saints reigning with Christ? Did you know that there are four hermeneutical approaches to the book of Daniel and Revelation?
These and many more questions are dealt with by four authors as they present the four views on the millennium. Each view is then critiqued by the other three authors.
$12.95 — ORDER NOW!(We accept all major credit cards and PayPal.)
Download the Free Study Guide!
Just what is Calvinism?
Does this teaching make man a deterministic robot and God the author of sin? What about free will? If the church accepts Calvinism, won’t evangelism be stifled, perhaps even extinguished? How can we balance God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility? What are the differences between historic Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism? Why did men like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon, Whitefield, Edwards and a host of renowned Protestant evangelists embrace the teaching of predestination and election and deny free will theology?
This is the first video documentary that answers these and other related questions. Hosted by Eric Holmberg, this fascinating three-part, four-hour presentation is detailed enough so as to not gloss over the controversy. At the same time, it is broken up into ten “Sunday-school-sized” sections to make the rich content manageable and accessible for the average viewer.
Running Time: 257 minutes
$19.95 — ORDER NOW!(We accept all major credit cards and PayPal.)
Exposing The Occult Roots of Abortion
This presentation looks at the spiritual roots of abortion and exposes the myths surrounding child killing. Little known historical facts about abortion and how they relate to modern feminism are presented logically and accurately. Has been effective in converting many to a pro-life position.
Massacre of Innocence goes where no pro-life presentation has gone before in “tearing the lid off abortion” to reveal the spiritual realities we must battle if we will bring an end to this crime. The presentation is absorbing, fast-paced, informative and incredibly devastating to any attempt to justify abortion.
“… an extraordinary statement … a powerfully articulate presentation about what abortion really means, and why a great and moral nation like the United States must not allow the slaughter to continue.”
— Congressman Robert K. Dornan
Running time: 85 minutes
$19.95 — ORDER NOW!(We accept all major credit cards and PayPal.)
Download the Free Study Guide!
God’s Law and Society powerfully presents a comprehensive worldview based upon the ethical system found in the Law of God.
Speakers include: R.J. Rushdoony, George Grant, Howard Phillips, R.C. Sproul Jr., Ken Gentry, Gary DeMar, Jay Grimstead, Steven Schlissel, Andrew Sandlin, Eric Holmberg, and more!
Sixteen Christian leaders and scholars answer some of the most common questions and misconceptions related to this volatile issue:
1. Are we under Law or under Grace?
2. Does the Old Testament Law apply today?
3. Can we legislate morality?
4. What are the biblical foundations of government?
5. Was America founded as a Christian nation?
6. What about the separation of Church and State?
7. Is neutrality a myth?
8. What about non-Christians and the Law of God?
9. Would there be “freedom” in a Christian republic?
10. What would a “Christian America” look like?
Perfect for group instruction as well as personal Bible study.
Ten parts, over four hours of instruction!
Running Time: 240 minutes
Watch over 60 on-line video interviews from God’s Law and Society.
$19.95 — ORDER NOW!(We accept all major credit cards and PayPal.)