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What Is Orthodoxy?

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.


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