Many contemporary Christians subscribe to a certain normative fable of a “historic orthodox Christianity.” This view of Christian history relies on a master narrative of a “pure” Christianity which is distinct from heresy. In this view, Christianity is differentiated from heresy in double terms, that it is both “historic” and that is “orthodox.”
The problem comes in equating “historic” and “orthodox.” One suggests a certain degree of detatched objectivity while the other suggests a degree of partisan politics. Both make a normative claim on what counts as “Christianity,” but the operative norms lie in significant tension. While history may tell us something about what Christianity is like, it in no way privileges a particular theological position identified with orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is a theological construct which is not rooted an any particular set of facts, but rather a particular interpretive tradition.
While ancient Chrsitian discourses of orthodoxy and heresy relied on multiple strategies, contemporary discourses rely on two. First, truth and origins are conflated. This means that the search for origins is taken to be a search for truth. Much of the rise of historical critical scholarship is rooted in this same view (though often the results are subversive to orthodoxy). In this way, “historic” is taken to be “orthodox” as long as “orthodoxy” can be found in history.Second, orthodoxy is located in particular historical moment(s), privileging certain historical moments over others. It is not the cumulative sweep of history which determines what is orthodox, but particular episodes that are seen as victories of orthodoxy. Further, a particular geography is privileged in determining the scope of Christianity, which is often taken to include only certain Greek and Latinate locales. Such a view homogenizes certain thinkers, obscuring the differences between them, while hyping up the differences between so-called ‘heretics.’ The question that we should be asking is why some differences matter and others do not.
Latter-day Saints make a mistake to the extent they concede the fiction of a unified “historic, orthodox, Christianity.” Instead, these categories are rooted in particularly problematic assumptions that conflate history with truth and truth with selectively chosen examples from history.