Tradition(ed): Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy

So far in this series thinking about tradition, I’ve introduced a simple definition of the term and drawn some implications from that definition, and looked at how the major cultural movements of the past few centuries impact how we understand the idea of receiving a tradition ‘faithfully’. But any discussion of faithfulness to a religious tradition requires us to look at a closely related set of concepts, orthodoxy and heterodoxy. And it’s these ideas to which I will turn today.

Orthodoxy literally means ‘right praise’; it’s the idea that within any community there are those who have received the tradition correctly (the ‘orthodox’) and those who have received it incorrectly (the ‘heterodox,’ literally ‘different praise’). This division is to some extent a logical necessity: If faithfulness is a value, then that presupposes the potential for unfaithfulness. But inevitable or not, is it useful? What exactly does orthodoxy entail, and who gets to decide what is ‘orthodox’ and what is not?

These are big questions that are not easily answered. I first tackled the question of the value of prescriptive approaches to faith (i.e., what a tradition should be rather than what it is in common practice) in my series exploring religion using analogies from linguistics. There, I noted how such approaches are what allow traditions to have content and substance and to establish boundaries. Even recognizing that boundaries of orthodoxy inevitably come with a steep cost and raise a lot of questions, it should be obvious that these are positive things for a tradition to have. A tradition has to have something to say if it’s worth keeping and handing down to the next generation. But, how much of this substance of the faith is required for orthodoxy to be maintained?

Within the Christian world today, there are at least three different ways orthodoxy is understood. First there are those who believe orthodoxy is to be found within one specific Church tradition. In this view, orthodoxy is defined as not just a set of beliefs but also a set of practices and structures that have been handed down in one group. The clearest examples of this are the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. As one Eastern Orthodox bishop defined it, orthodoxy is “the whole system of doctrine, Church government, worship, spirituality, and art which Orthodoxy has articulated over the ages (Kallistos (Timothy) Ware, The Orthodox Church, 196). There is something beautiful about this all-encompassing type of perspective. I recall from my time in the Eastern Orthodox Church the feeling of being buoyed up and carried down a big, fast-moving river. It’s comprehensive and uplifting. In its own way, it has breadth and lots of room in which to ‘play’. But, of course, it’s also restrictive. Its boundaries are solid and there is little room for dissent or differing opinion or practice. It is also a difficult position to defend, since the Holy Spirit is clearly at work making good disciples across the whole Christian spectrum (and some might argue, even beyond).

The second major way orthodoxy is understood today is to define it along a set of historical beliefs or documents, say, for example the Nicene Creed, or the official statements of the first seven ecumenical councils (the councils which occurred before the split between the Eastern and Western Churches, which set boundaries on how Christians understand the Trinity and the relationship between Christ’s humanity and divinity). This has been a helpful definition for ecumenical dialogue, since it allows Christians of many stripes to fall within the ‘orthodox’ category. A similar approach can be found within different Christian sub-traditions: Calvinists might for example base their own orthodoxy on adherence to the Westminster Confession, or Fundamentalists to the ‘Fundamentals’ drawn up by the ‘Princeton School’ to combat liberal theology at the turn of the last century. Depending on the values and perceived needs of the communities which create them, these confessions can be broad, such as the ancient Creeds, which mostly include basic narrative content about the nature and life of Christ, or narrow, such as some contemporary denominational confessions, which specifically outline beliefs about creation, the End Times, and even gender roles.

The third major way the idea of orthodoxy is used among Christians today is as a self-assumed title among the more conservative party in an ongoing debate. For example, in my own Anglican tradition, ‘orthodox’ is the preferred identifier among those Anglicans who oppose the full participation of LGBTQ2S+ people in the sacramental life of the church. I have also seen it used in Evangelical circles among groups opposing women’s ordination or seeking to censure individuals with viewpoints they believe to be outside the boundaries of Evangelical faith (e.g., the ‘openness of God’ debates in the early 2000s). What sets this usage apart is that it doesn’t wait for a debate to resolve itself; it’s a preemptive appropriation of the idea of orthodoxy in an attempt to claim the high ground of the debate: if you cast yourself as ‘orthodox’ and your opponents as ‘heterodox’, you’re essentially claiming you’ve already won the battle. I mention this phenomenon because I think it highlights an important component of the idea of orthodoxy by violating it: Orthodoxy can only be determined in hindsight. All of the major historical theological debates took generations to settle. We may speak of the ‘first’ ‘seven’ Ecumenical Councils, but there were other councils during those eras that had the full weight of Church and Empire behind them that are now rejected as being heterodox. One council does not determine orthodoxy; only history and the received perspective of the tradition does.

This survey of understandings of orthodoxy is well and good, but what are we to make of it all?

Clearly, not belonging to a denomination that claims to be in unique possession of orthodoxy, I don’t subscribe to the first understanding of orthodoxy at work in the world today. At the end of the day, the clear presence and work of the Holy Spirit across the spectrum of Christian Churches suggests that if we want a truly comprehensive understanding of our faith, we need more than the opinions of one tradition within it. (I’m reminded of a comment from Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (United States) Michael Curry when asked whether his interactions with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby were difficult; he said (I’m paraphrasing here): ‘Christ calls us to love one another, not to agree with one another.’) Seeing the Spirit bear good fruit in different communities, and recognizing the great differences in not only culture but also personality across humanity, surely there must be ways for us to recognize our unity as followers of Jesus without requiring us to agree on a single set of practices or articulations of belief!

And, as should be clear from my earlier comments, the self-appropriation of the label ‘orthodox’ within ongoing Church debates also misses the mark for me. To be ‘orthodox’ is more than just being conservative; it means keeping a position that has been officially articulated by the Church after extensive periods of reflection and debate and which has stood the test of time. Debates that arise within the Church arise for a reason, and we would do well not to shut them down prematurely. I am convinced we can trust the Holy Spirit to work things out in time.

For my purposes, I generally use the term ‘orthodoxy’ to refer to that set of beliefs that emerged from the seven Ecumenical Councils. I think this is a helpful boundary for a few reasons. First, the theology of these councils is helpful in marking out the quirky ideas that have set Christianity apart over the centuries: the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Trinity, and the human and divine natures of Jesus. Without a common understanding of these doctrines, it’s hard to understand, let alone appropriate and apply the Christian tradition for ourselves today. Second, these councils did not seek so much as to define Christian theology as they sought to preserve the paradox and mystery of the faith. Every time, the party that wanted an easy, less-paradoxical and less-mysterious theology lost in the end. As odd as it is to say, despite their precise definitions, the ancient Councils promoted an expansive and broad perspective on Christianity. And third, this approach to orthodoxy encompasses almost all Christians today and throughout history. (This is even more true since the official theological coming together of the Eastern Orthodox and Non-Chalcedonian Churches, which has healed one of the deepest and most ancient wounds in the Body of Christ.)

I do find the idea of orthodoxy helpful when understanding the faithful transmission of tradition. It provides the general boundaries for what we consider to be ‘legitimately’ Christian thought and thereby allows the tradition to have some substance behind it. But once again, tradition is an active process; we have a responsibility to challenge all aspects of our faith. And there can be no doubt that the claim of orthodoxy has been used to justify some horrible things in our past (and present). The next post in the series will explore some of the dark side of orthodoxy — and tradition as a whole — and how we might deal with it responsibly.

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