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Understanding Orthodoxy

My August 12th Wilderness Way column sparked a number of responses and questions about the meaning of orthodox Christian belief. They raised questions relative to what I meant by theologically orthodox. While that is a long and deep subject, in general, orthodoxy in United Methodism is defined by the Articles of Religion and the Doctrinal Standards, as found in our Book of Discipline. You might wish to look at Paragraphs 1-199 in the 2008 Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. In a larger sense, our understanding of orthodoxy comes historically from the Anglican Church in England and reaches back to the great ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, particularly those of Nicene (325 A. D.) and Chalcedon (451). Dr. Justo Gonzalez in Believers offers a marvelous understanding of orthodoxy.  He uses the image of a baseball diamond and says that the church through its great ecumenical councils has established “foul” lines. There is a great deal of room to roam between left field and right field, but there are clear foul lines. The doctrine of the Trinity provides a concrete example. However we understand the Holy Trinity, those who hold to Christian orthodoxy are clearly Trinitarian: God as Father, Creator; God as Son, through the person and work of Jesus Christ (“His only Son, our Lord”) and God as Spirit, through the Holy Spirit present with us always to both comfort and challenge. Unitarian beliefs are clearly outside the foul lines. That does not necessarily imply that someone who is theologically unitarian is going to Hell or anything of the like.  It simply indicates that Unitarian belief is not orthodox Christianity. Another concrete example of orthodox theology would be the use of Holy Scripture as both source and norm for the Christian faith.  Holy Scripture is inspired by God (There is great room for debate as to what precisely “inspired by God” means. It does not necessarily imply a rigid fundamentalism.)  The orthodox understanding of scripture is that it is the canon, the rule of faith. Thus, when someone adds a new book to the Bible, or an additional “bible” (such as the Book of Mormon), such an addition is clearly is not orthodox Christianity. As we wrestle with the concept of what is and is not orthodox as a church, our understanding is dynamic. Our context and culture may cloud our understanding of the truth.  Even more than dynamic, it is led by the Spirit. The ancient hymn catches the essence correctly, “new occasions teach new duties” (Once to Every Man and Nation, vs. 3).  Through all the vicissitudes of time and culture we have a foundation to hold to – the orthodox Christian faith as defined in the great ecumenical councils and promulgated through Holy Scripture.  Scripture, tradition, reason and experience all play a part in informing our best understanding of the Christian faith. Allow me to recommend a number of books that are worth reading on this subject. Dr. William Abraham’s Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia (an even deeper study is his outstanding Canon and Criteria in Christian Theology), Thomas Oden’s The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, Albert C. Outler’s Theology and the Wesleyan Spirit, and William Willimon’s Who Will Be Saved?. In our church life, an excellent extended study on theology that delves fairly into the whole concept of an orthodoxy that is both open and generous is the study The Christian Believer”(referenced above as simply Believers).  It follows the Disciple Bible Study model of readings and reflections.