Generous (evangelical) orthodoxy: catholic

When I was in seminary, one of my teachers was asked “What kind of evangelical are you?” and he said, “I am a C.S. Lewis kind of evangelical?” To which he was asked yet another, “What kind is that?” and he said, “A catholic evangelical.” Not as in Roman Catholic, for that body is much like many others — affirming that is right and everyone else is a little or a lot off base.

Since the day my professor said that, I have worked with that vision. I, too, believe that we all ought to be catholic Christians in that we accept everyone who is a Christian. I like the idea of a C.S. Lewis sense of the holy catholic Church.


The first fact is that we don’t know who is Christian and the second fact is that God won’t ask us to make the decision. Christians are those who embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ, and anyone who embraces that gospel is a Christian.

Christians don’t deny central truths of the gospel and they affirm the orthodox beliefs about that gospel. But genuine faith is a matter of one’s embrace, of one’s vulnerability, and of one’s trust in God — whom we confess is Father, Son, and Spirit.

We know that Christians differ across the globe, across the centuries, and across the doctrines. But we also know that Christians should agree on the basics, and our orthodoxy encourages us to focus on the basics. The gospel basics, which is the central theme of a book of mine coming out in September, Embracing Grace, is that God is at work to restore us (cracked Eikons) in Christ so we can be in union with God and communion with others for the good of others and the world.


At no place is our commitment to generosity more important than here: while we embrace the gospel itself as our core, we are generous on the matters that are not at the core. The saying goes back to Augustine, I believe:

In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.

We know the difference between the Second Coming and its time; we know the difference between the forgiveness of sins and one’s theory of the atonement; we know the difference between the Body of Christ and local denominational differences.

But, in this knowledge we have to work to be more than tolerant: we need to appreciate the differences. Anyone can look around and find the central features of major church bodies and find something good and valuable and many times find things that we cannot appropriate in our local church so we will need to appreciate it from afar: I love the Eastern Orthodox theology of icons, the Roman Catholic system of monastery life, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, the Methodist heritage in John Wesley, the Anabaptist commitment to simple life, the Evangelical commitment to personal Bible study, and I could go on … but you get my point. You can’t usually have all these things, so we say, “Appreciate them from afar, and confess that we need these other expressions, too.” “Why,” we ask, “should one church have all the good things?” It can’t, so we need one another.

If this is the case with you, and you share my thoughts here, we have some repenting to do of our sectarianism. Sectarianism believes and teaches that one church, my church, got it all right and therefore every body else got something wrong. It therefore condemns and condescends. From this we need to repent. We may be justifiably proud of our local church, but it is part and parcel of one catholic Body across the world and centuries and doctrines, and we are but a part.

God, I’m sure both laughs and weeps at our silly belief that finally, in our day, we’ve finally got it right. Forget it, God is the one who is Right, and we simply need to embrace the redemptive work of God, and when we see it as God’s work and not ours, we can become as we were meant to be: a holy, loving, catholic Church that is designed to bring glory to God and redemption to others.

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  • It is sad that our fine point distinctions now define us. Side dishes should never overwhelm, crowd out or merge with and mess up the Main Dish – Jesus.When the Prime Rib takes on the flavor of the broccoli, some thing has gone wrong. Who took that green stuff out of it own little bowl?Deciding what is a side dish & what is parsley / a garnish is part of the problem. As well as the proper concern for fat and gristle left on the Prime Rib, or healthy chunks carved off. Alas, it can be hard to sit at the same table with other folks. Sorry, I guess you shouldn’t post when you are hungry.

  • Wonderful, Scot – thank you.I am reading Alan Jacobs’s “A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love” and he quotes Milbanks as calling Christianity’s eschatalogical vision “something like the peaceful transmission of difference, or differences in continuous harmony.” Jacobs goes on to suggest that they key is to find difference that is purified of the “violence of exclusion” and quotes Miroslav Volf at length:”A judgment that names exclusion as an evil and differentiation as a positive good, then, is itself not an act of exclusion. To the contrary, such judgment is the beginning of the struggle against exclusion…The remedy for exclusionary judgements is certainly not ‘ironic stances.’ Instead, we need more adequate judgments based on a distinction between legitimate ‘differentiation’ and illegitimate ‘exclusion’ and made with humility.”-Aly

  • Aly,Thanks for this. Glad you are reading Jacobs. That book is one of the best I’ve read in the last decade.

  • Bob

    Dr. McKnight,I appreciate this: in this knowledge we have to work to be more than tolerant: we need to appreciate the differences. It speaks to more than “does that mean we have to accept those who believe ________? (insert heresy here)” It goes to loving the traditions of others. I was raised Roman Catholic, became disaffected, “became” non-denominational Christian. But now I am coming to appreciate the concentrated power of the Catholic mass, its climax at communion, its appreciation of saints (as those who have gone before). I don’t think I’ll be a practicing RC again but I can definitely worship with them. I think McClaren covers this quite well.

  • Bob,Have you seen the little caricature of spiritual developments by Dan Kimball?You might like this:

  • Scot, it’s amazing that our evangelical (even more fundamentalist) background confused human generosity with the “C” word–compromise. Again, I believe if you start with Platonic “perfection” in Theology Proper, you produce a species of Christians who *must* get it right, purely, absolutely right, even in the things that don’t matter to the core things. If we start with Jesus on the Cross and work both backwards and forwards in thinking about God, then there’s the grand ability to express a deep and wide generosity. Does this approach “water down” historic orthodoxy? I don’t think so. I think it gives us a capacity to both embrace historic orthodoxy and the world as it is now. As someone blogged in recently and commented that they were told that if you don’t believe in the (pre-trib) rapture, you’re not a Christian. I feel deep grief over that kind of stuff.Thanks for leading toward a Jesus-kind-of-orthodoxy-and-orthopraxy.

  • Scot,You might be interested in a bit of the Lutheran, Puritan and Stone-Campbell (Disciples) use of the Augustinian saying. You can read Rollmann’s article at value of plurality–even plurality of interpretations–is, according to Smith in his Fall of Interpretation, a value of creation itself. The value in the history of the church is seen in your post–we have something to learn from all historic expressions of Christianity.John Mark Hikcks

  • As I have been reading your series, I have appreciated the insight about a “generous orthodoxy.” A narrow and cramped orthodoxy is very satisfying to our flesh. However, I doubt it has any effect on the work of the Holy Spirit in others, only in us. In the “Screwtape Letters,” CS Lewis writes that the church is “spread out through time and space and ‘terrible as an army with banners.'” I have liked the image this presents. And now I can also enjoy its generosity.

  • Scot,Seeing that ‘catholic’ means universal, it was encompass many cultures. What place or influence do you believe contextualization should have in this generous orthodoxy, especially when being generous often requires laying down ones context on some level?I am not sure I asked that clearly, but I’ll leave it at that for now.Peace,Jamie

  • Jamie,Coming soon.

  • Patti Blount

    Your group has called me a “protestant” because you have said that I’ve protested against your beliefs, way back when. I am a follower of Jesus Christ, to the best of my spiritual ability which He is working in me day by day. Please don’t feel obliged to include me in your group, as I don’t want to be a part of a group whose many beliefs defy and ignore the heart of God. Please be intolerant towards me, I don’t mind. The Lord said to “Come out from among them, and be seperate, or you will share in their plagues.” I keep coming out further and further, and am finding myself at the feet of Jesus. I think I’ll stay here. It’s warm and safe.