3.0 The Orthodoxy of Orthodoxy
3.1 Defining “Orthodoxy”
Perhaps the best place to begin is with a two-line, inelegant poem I wrote some time ago when I was reading Dante:
He who fashions the story,
assigns to each a glory.
Our understanding of Church history has been shaped by the orthodox theologians who wrote the story, people like Athanasius and the Creeds and the Reformers and whichever little stars you approve of since the Reformers. This fact must be admitted, for there is no way to deny it: the story we tell is the story the Church has told us to tell. We may capture it in our own little rendition, but the story we tell is an old, old story.
In our zeal we may want to claim some sort of independence from the Church traditions and go straight to the Bible, but we cannot escape the creeds: we are a product of the creeds. Evangelical Christology is Nicean and Chalcedonian in essence (no pun intended).
Baptists may have a “trail of blood” to find the first Baptist, and Lutherans may tell the story of a corrupted theology under the hands of Roman Catholic power-mongers, and the Anabaptists may complain until they die (which they will) that Constantine ruined the purity of the gospel – but however you trace the story, we Evangelicals tell the story of orthodoxy. And that story is that at Nicea, in 325 AD, the Church set out a creed that parted theological waters: those who were on the Lord’s side embraced Nicea and those who didn’t sided with oddballs like Arius. Orthodoxy means the “classic creeds.”
If we pursue the wisdom of the creeds, it will mean that the first defense of orthodoxy begins by trusting that the God of history has guided his people into all truth through the Paraclete. In other words, it is to have a robust pneumatology and ecclesiology and a bibliology that follows from both. Pagels and Ehrman would argue that faith claims have no part in historiography; but both would then have to admit that if you bracket something out of the scope of one’s vision then you will envision only what is within the brackets. This issue of bracketing, which I can’t indulge here, is more significant than most realize. Back to the Holy Spirit.
It is instinctual for us to appeal to John 16:13: “When the Holy Spirit comes he will guide you into all truth.” One who has struggled with this verse is the English Evangelical, Stephen Holmes, of King’s College London, and he concludes on this text the following:
Just so, in theological work, the promise that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth does not announce an overcoming of all problems or a final solution to every question, but instead an assurance where the truth or relevance of the gospel is at stake that God will not abandon us but will work providentially through the messiness of very human arguments and decisions to ensure that the decisions taken are not disastrous. [and he calls this]… a relative, dependent and partial authority, but authority nonetheless.”
Two pages later he observes:
I find it difficult to envisage a situation in which there could be sufficient evidence to doubt the Nicene Creed…. Its authority comes [not] only from the recognition that it is a remarkably successful repetition of central truths found already in the Bible, but because of that it has genuine authority as a privileged interpretation of Scripture, against which other claimed interpretations may be measured and tested…. That the Creed says x is sufficient reason to assert that x is true, theologically.
Evangelicals are nervous about applying that very promise to anything outside the New Testament itself. Unless John 16:13 applies only to John’s own writings, then there is a case to be made, and I see it made in Andreas Köstenberger’s new John commentary, that this text refers to the ongoing providential sovereignty of the Holy Spirit in guiding the Church into the appropriation of God’s truth. And, if that is the case, then there is nothing more applicable, even for non-creedal types like most of us, than the historic, ecumenical consensual creeds of the early Church. And, assuming we are alike, the great insights of the Reformation.
3.3 Evangelicals and the Ecumenical Creeds
This leads me to say something about the problem historic orthodoxy presents for Evangelicals. Permit me an indictment: Evangelicals, I am sorry to say, do not embrace a robust enough ecclesiology to deal with theological challenges. No part of the ancient creeds – from Nicea 325 to Nicea 787 – is more difficult to accept for Evangelicals than the word “catholic.” But, we do relish the term “apostolic.” I am concerned about the former as long as we don’t neglect the latter. I am concerned we join in on the “new ecumenism” and that we repudiate the “old ecumenism” of the WCC and NCC and the like. If you want to read something good on this, read Oden’s The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, or the splendid sections in Robert Webber’s Ancient-Future Faith, or even Russ Reno’s new book In the Ruins of the Church. But there are simply too many issues to get into this deeply, so I wish to offer the following four observations.
First, we Evangelicals are the heirs of not just the Reformation, but also the Radical Reformation, whether we admit it or not. We are uniformly committed to powerful theologies of Luther and Calvin about justification by faith; but we tend to be decidedly low-church; we are radically opposed to State-based churches; and we are famously opposed to anything like reciting the historic (or non-historic) creeds in public worship; we tend toward separationism and (at times) the sectarian. These tendencies are a blending of the impulses of both Luther (and Calvin) with the impulses of the Radical Reformers and especially their low-church successors. And, it should be observed, Calvin himself was much more committed to the classic creeds and to church tradition than were the Radical Reformers.
Trotting alongside this low-church version of the Reformation is pietism, which anchors plenty (and probably too much) into personal experience and conviction, and makes such pietists nervous about too much intellectualism, and tends to get lathered up in nervousness about what Flannery O’Connor called those “theological interleckchuals,” though I can’t recall just where she said it.
Second, however much we are nervous about the historic creeds, Evangelicals believe the substance of the historic creeds, and if you try disagreeing with their major ideas, you will quickly learn that, though we do not recite the Creeds, it is to them that we first run for clarification in central theological matters. The reason for this paradox – of believing in and not believing in the creeds – is simple: Evangelicals, because we tend to be low-church, don’t have an ecclesiological apparatus that permits it to invest theological authority in creedal councils. A word of wisdom from Booth Tarkington might relieve my pressure: “A dog believes in war, but he is convinced that there are times when it is moral to run.” I think we might consider the wisdom of the dog. We may say we believe in fighting it out each and every time, but in the end the wisdom of the dog is to run to the Creeds.
Let me say one more thing, and it is perhaps either uncharitable or a trifle cynical. Sometimes I wonder why it is that we Evangelicals know so little about the early church, say from 100AD to 300AD. If truth be told, and here I broach the cynical, from 100AD to 1500AD. I suspect, if we are talking about the first three hundred years that the major reason we don’t know about this period is because it simply doesn’t fit what we believe. Anyone who reads these people – people like Clement of Alexandria or Origen or (even at times) Athanasius or Gregory of Nyssa – will find much to agree with, and some things to disagree with. But, the fact is, that it is they who gave shape to the Creeds that we really do in fact hold to and to which we run, with the dog, whenever the situation demands it. I’m sorry if this sounds either uncharitable to us or even a tad cynical; I don’t say it for any other reason than that I want to hurt our feelings.
Third, the reason for this, again, is also quite simple but nonetheless fundamental to Evangelical identity: as Protestants, we affirm sola Scriptura. Even though our commitment to this can be radical (and admittedly somewhat annoying when half-baked ideas get served regularly from Evangelical pulpits), it nonetheless shapes our identity. So, in being radically committed to sola Scriptura we de-value the ecumenical creeds and throw ourselves constantly onto the rushing waters of historical changes and individual pastoral skill.
At this point let me adapt something humorous from Walter Bagehot, that great Victorian who chased away lots of silly political ideas. I will subsititute “Evangelical” for his “Englishman” to make my point. “Tell an Evangelical that a building is without use and he will stare; that it is illiberal, and he will survey it; that it teaches Aristotle, and he will seem perplexed; that it don’t teach science, and he won’t mind; but only hint that it is the Pope, and he will arise and burn it to the ground.” So committed are we to sola Scriptura.
In speaking of sola Scriptura I wish to appeal to my colleague, Dr. Bradley Nassif, who is both Eastern Orthodox and Evangelical – which is no easy road to walk. In his new book, Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, Brad calls Evangelicals to task. He asks us to consider again what the Reformers meant by sola Scriptura and what we mean by it. We can either choose the method of the Radical Reformation, which I think most Evangelicals today do choose, or we can choose the Magisterial Reformers, which I think we think we choose. Let me explain: the Radical Reformation put the Bible in the hands of the individual’s conscience and thereby spawned Pietism. Individuals become directly accountable to God for determining what to believe. The Reformers, however, saw the creeds as valuable guides and gave to them fundamental respect, even if they shied away from them as “authoritative.” Tradition was valuable as long it was not abused.
The key issue, as I see it, may be this: who will have final authority is a necessary correlation to the question of what will have final authority? That is, the what is clearly the Bible: it has final authority. But, who interprets the Bible? Is it the individual or is the catholic body, whichever “catholic” body one dwells in. I chase this question down with this one: Was it individuals who decided which books were to be included in the canon?
In other words, sola Scriptura is always set in the context of communio sanctorum, the communion of the saints. The question thus becomes not if we will embrace the confessional tradition, but which tradition will we embrace, or better yet, which tradition will embrace us.
You may be aware that in the past two decades numerous Protestant pastors have converted either to Roman Catholicism or to Eastern Orthodoxy, but you are probably not aware that I subjected this “conversion” trend – and I’ve been told that more than 700 Protestant pastors have turned to Rome – to an analysis in order to seek out the “crisis” that provoked such conversions. If there is any one thing at the bottom of it all, is the problem created by too many Bible readers offering too many interpretations that have too little of connection to the historic interpretations of the Scriptures. I am not suggesting that we cross the Tiber or the Bosporus, but that we realize the tohu va-bohu that is created when we turn the Bible loose from its historic interpretations.
And, now the slider: as Evangelicals we need to admit more readily the role of the Church in “deciding” what was canonical. I am fully aware that we are treading on dangerous identity turfs here, but the facts are simple: what we read as canonical is read as authoritative because its inherent authority is inspired and its recognition is ecclesial. If we think God led the Church to embrace, however self-authenticating, the 27 books, perhaps we can also be led to re-consider the Church’s creedal interpretation of those 27 books – as embodied in the ecumenical creeds. I first became convinced of the Church’s role in canonizing when I read F.F. Bruce’s article in the 25th Anniversary volume of the Evangelical Theological Society as a first-semester student at TEDS. What, I have been led to ask since then, prevented the Plymouth Brethren F.F. Bruce from seeing the same providential process in the ecumenical creeds?
It is an irony that far too often Evangelicals adore the canonical process but disdain the creedal process, adore the produce but despise the process. I now quote Brad Nassif, who after citing the extremes of what the Radical Reformers could lead to, says: “The irony of this disdain is that Evangelicals rely on the church’s authoritative charismatic judgment on the colossal issue of canonicity but not on its consensual agreement on fundamental matters of historic interpretation… To accept the books of the canon is also to accept the ongoing Spirit-led authority of the church’s tradition, which recognizes, interprets, worships, and corrects itself by the witness of Holy Scripture.”
Fourth, my final point comes full circle: because of these things, we Evangelicals do not have an adequate ecclesiology to respond potently to heresies. It means that individuals will have to make up their own minds and ask their pastors or ask their local churches to render judgment or, and this is better, the entire denomination will have to form a council for its churches and render a judgment. But, as is the case with Evangelicals and low-church types, there is an inherent nervousness about letting some “body” make a binding decision. Peter Toon expressed the horns of this dilemma wonderfully:
Beginning with the belief in the authority of Scripture, the sola scriptura, the Protestant must interpret the sola so as not to exclude the development of doctrine in the Church [whether development in content or clarification] and the giving of a secondary authority to confessions of faith.
I’m appealing, the way a mouse does before a lion, for Evangelicals to enlargen the latter end of this process and reconsider its relationship to both the orthodox creeds and to the powerful processes that were established in such creeds. This little heresy of mine can be called orthodoxy. If we do this, and if we recognize that there is a drama played on different stages in different locations to different tunes, we will come to terms with three things: (1) the authority of the canon, (2) the sacredness of the creeds, and (3) the need to engage each culture with that canon in light of those creeds.
I see only two live options for us: either we embrace canon and creed as a singular moment when God was at work through his Spirit in the history of the Church, or we relativize both canon and creed and throw everything back on history or individual conscience. Evangelicals, as I read us, have taken a third option, and it seems inherently inconsistent: we have opted for divine providence in the canonical process but not a divine providence in the creedal process. When I think about our problems here, I feel like Booth Tarkington’s bug who fell into an ink-well and was then fished out; his comment about it was that the bug was “alive but discouraged.”
Discouraged maybe; but at least we should consider the creedal process itself.
3.4 Evangelicals and Creedal Process
How did that process take place? To begin with, we are not completely sure. But, in the Fifth Century a fellow named Vincent of Lérins, recognizing that Holy Scripture by itself wasn’t able to settle all issues easily and clearly, studied how the Church was to come to terms with new teachings that seemed to stretch or even deny theological tradition. His solution, sketched most recently in my first example, Thomas Oden’s book, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, was that the Church needs to settle down into the theological nest of what has been believed (1) everywhere, (2) always, and (3) by all. Of course, if we think of this Vincentian Canon in terms of absolute uniformity, we’ll not find much that passes muster. But, if we think with reasonable humility, it is not hard to come to terms with what we might call a “consensual orthodoxy” or what Thomas Oden calls “paleo-orthodoxy.”
There is more serious grappling in another example, the former Wheaton professor, Robert Webber. Ever on the prowl, Webber is calling this turn to the ancients the “Ancient-Future Faith.” Essentially, Webber seeks ancient paradigms of thinking and worshipping that meet the issues and needs of the postmodern generation. Few agree with Webber completely; scores have come under his influence, and for good reason. He is one of those Evangelicals who have for a long time called the Evangelical Church back to “common roots” and its historic footings. There is a vision here that can energize. I have been personally rejuvenated by the Eastern Church and recently read Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World and the interaction of the immaterial. His is a vision that can help all of us.
My final example is perhaps the most profound of all: radical orthodoxy. Stemming from Cambridge, from scholars like John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock who think theological liberalism has permitted modernity to dictate the “rules of the game,” and determined to develop a radically consistent orthodox perception of the world, from theology to economics to politics to culture, this “sensibility” is calling Christians of various persuasions, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical, to radicalize the Faith. Radical orthodoxy critiques modernity, abandons the division of the secular from the sacred, understands all of the created order as “suspended” from its Creator, renews the value of the sacraments and the aesthetic, and relentlessly calls for a cultural transformation. [Note: I need to do more work on radical orthodoxy.]
We could give other examples but, the issue is not examples: the issue is that Christians are learning today that there is something enormously valuable and valid in appealing to the historic faith of the Church embodied in the creeds as instances of God’s Spirit working in the Church to guide the Church into all truth.
I can’t resist another example. In their recent book called One Faith, J.I. Packer (an Anglican) and Thomas Oden (a Methodist) have traced the central doctrines of the (Evangelical) Christian faith and have provided support for a given doctrine, say substitutionary atonement, from various Evangelical doctrinal statements (including that of the EFCA). In so doing, they provide what might be called a consensual Evangelical set of doctrines. The small book falls short of an “Evangelical creed,” but a creed could be shaped from such materials – if you could fool some Evangelical council into thinking they were doing something else!
3.5 Evangelicals, Sola Scriptura, and Story
My final thought is this: as Protestants, we want everything tested by Scripture. You knew that somehow I’d zigzag my way back to the normal. We must admit, even if we don’t want to, that our Evangelical faith is essentially that of the historic creeds as filtered through the great Reformers and, as I said, the little stars who followed them. But, when we render judgment about doctrine our concern is first of all to be biblically-based in what we judge and how we judge. We tend to believe the creeds because we think they put together the NT evidence accurately, not because some authorities said this is what we are to believe. We will test those creeds by the facts of the NT, revise them if we think they are less than or other than what that NT teaches. But the simple fact is this: we have done this and we have found them nearly universally acceptable. And those creeds have shaped our faith in the form of a story.
The NT itself encourages us to think of our faith in terms of a narrative, of a story, of the drama of redemption. I shall now put on the table two arguments that lead to the “orthodoxy of orthodoxy,” one from C.H. Dodd and the other from my book, Jesus and His Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus, and Atonement Theory (Baylor, 2005). I don’t think what I am proposing here is foundationalism so much as it is the simple belief that the gospel story itself is its own power, and needs proclamation in the face of our culture more than it needs apologetical defense.
C.H. Dodd, that half-forgotten colossus of twentieth-century biblical scholarship, wrote The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments in 1936. It is rarely read today and is a pity, because it reminds us of something very important in the early churches: they had a “story to tell.” Dodd famously examined the earliest Christian preaching and distilled from the NT evidence a narrative framework of the “gospel” of the earliest churches. This might be called the “gospel tradition” and it evidently formed the basis of not only early Christian preaching but also the early Christian creeds. Dodd saw seven elements: (1) prophetic fulfillment and the inauguration of the New Age in Christ; (2) born of the seed of David; (3) died according to Scriptures to deliver us; (4) buried; (5) rose on the third day; (6) exalted as Lord over all; (7) coming again as Judge and Savior.
If one combines this with the Pastoral Epistles interest in the “apostolic deposit”(e.g., 1 Tim. 4:6: “brought up in the truths of the faith and of the good teaching”), one is not far from seeing an apostolic development of a narrative shape of the gospel, a creed if you will, as the formative way to articulate the faith. As Evangelicals, we will stand firm with the NT articulations of such narratives, but we will also readily admit that what began with the apostles continued into the early Church and found definitive expression in the orthodox, ecumenical creeds.
Let me now offer a second argument. It comes from postmodernist concerns with historiography and my understanding of history. As a result of Richard Rorty, many philosophers, historians, English professors, and some theologians, have opted for what is called the “linguistic turn.” In essence, this is the idea that “meaning is made by the reader/interpreter” rather than “discovered by the interpreter” from discernible facts and evidence “out there.” Meaning is made by language, as each person interprets what he or she sees and experiences and, inside the noggin’, develops a story that makes sense of it all (or a story that doesn’t make sense of it all). When historians get hold of this and start tossing things around the room, then history takes on a new shape. For, no longer does it matter “if something happened” or “if one’s story is more accurate than another’s,” but instead what happens is that individual historians create meaning for themselves and all we have is the exercise of power through the stories we tell. This is a simplistic summary of what is very complex, and even at times a bit interesting, but it is enough for me to make my point.
Which is that the Gospel narratives are “stories” that take “discrete events” and “put them together” in order to “tell a story.” If you grant me this, I will grant you this: the story of Jesus that the Church has told is the story now found in the Four Gospels. This, my friend, is the one and only Christian story and this story has shaped our identity and will continue to do so. Any other story, whether told by the Gnostic who told the story of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, or the story of Elaine Pagels or Bart Ehrman – and both of them spin their own story, or the story of The DaVinci Code, is only Christian to the degree it conforms to the story of the Four Gospels. To the degree that it does not conform to that story – and their stories simply don’t – it ceases to be Christian and becomes either sub-Christian or heresy.
Now to a three-pronged conclusion.
4.0 Conclusion: Gospel by Niggle
When I have time, I like to read books written well and about important topics and,
if I can control the dice, with plenty of wit. Indolent reading, reading from one author to another, in a reverie at times, in the search of pleasure and joy and truth, is what I am most fitted for. As Samuel Johnson once put it, “the most general and prevalent reason [for this kind of] study, is the impossibility of finding another amusement equally cheap or constant.” I sample three pieces of such reading to close our time.
I begin with Aeschylus. One of the deepest legends of the classical world is that of the immortal Prometheus, a Titan. In one of those eras when Zeus was at odds with humans and depriving them of pleasure, Prometheus pinched a spark of fire from heaven and took it to humans for their good. Well, Prometheus also happened to know the secret of the marriage of Thetis. Zeus desired her so he punished Prometheus by chaining him to a crag where an eagle fed on his liver daily, only for it to grow back every night. When Oceanus comes to get Prometheus to back down to Zeus, Prometheus refuses. He refuses the offers of others as well, and is eventually doomed to the abyss. Prometheus embodies those who fight the gods, who refuse to give in to Zeus.
It is Promethean of Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman to fight the orthodox gods that are so clearly articulated in the creeds of the Christian Church. They think they have, like Prometheus, stolen a spark so they can “inform” the world of what is hidden but it is they who are re-opening Pandora’s jar of heresies. Prometheus, contrary to the imaginations of countless scholars like Ayn Rand since, was never released because he had usurped an authority that was not his.
This story no doubt inspired C.S. Lewis’s character in his first published work, the epic ballad Dymer. Dymer had been worked on by the educational system to get him to conform for nineteen years, but one day in class, he came to his senses and suddenly laughs aloud.
…From his lips
Broke yet again the idiot-like guffaw.
He felt the spirit in his finger-tips,
Then swinging his right arm – a wide ellipse
Yet lazily – he struck the lecturer’s head.
The old man tittered, lurched and dropt down dead.
Dymer runs from the school house.
… He felt his city dress
An insult to that April cheerfulness.
… And forthwith in the open field
He stripped away that prison of sad stuff…
And once he cried aloud, ‘O world, O day,
Let, let me,’ – and then found no prayer to say.
Like Dymer, the heretics and those who defend them have struck the lecturer and, though thinking him dead, they find he has been raised from the dead. They may bracket themselves out of all their past, but someday they discover that they can no longer pray for God does not succumb to our brackets.
Which leads me now, finally, to Tolkien’s little man named Niggle. Instead of thinking our task as teachers and preachers of the gospel to be that of Prometheus or Dymer, we need to realize our task is to be a Niggle. Niggle was a little man who painted leaves but, because he was so sensitive to the needs of others around him, he seemed never to get his masterpiece done. This work began with a leaf, turned into a tree of some proportions that led its viewers into a forest on the edge of the mountains. Niggle, as I say, was unable to finish his task because he served his neighbor, Mr. and Mrs. Parish. Not that he didn’t curse them at times under his breath. But, one day the Driver came and took him off to purgatory where Niggle got his act all cleaned up. Soon the Second Voice, who surely must be the Son of God, called him to the next stage where he found his leaf and his tree and his forest and his mountain in pristine reality. What Niggle had dreamed of on earth, and what he was able only to approximate in his art, was fully realized when the Second Voice took him to what he had dreamed for.
Niggle was a dreamer who painted leaves. Ours is not to defy the gods or to take down the teachers of our tradition; ours is, like Niggle, to live out the gifts we have been given. Even if it is painting leaves, even if we are little people. Niggle’s little dream world became, according to the Second Voice, Niggle’s Parish where people came to be refreshed. The Second Voice, in fact, says that “it is the best introduction to the Mountains.”
Someday, so the Bible tells us, we shall get to the Mountain and see Him as he really is. And, when we do, we will know that our efforts to preach and teach the orthodox faith were not in vain.