Who Decides Orthodoxy?

Yesterday I posted about the optionality of the Trinity.  A good debate ensued, which is exactly what I hoped.  And that brings me to my thought for the day: I think those of us committed to the social web will become the new magisterium.

Church historians will tell you that we had

  • The Apostolic Period (29 – c.100)
  • The Patristic Period (c.100 – 325)
  • The Conciliar Period (325 – 787)
  • The Holy Roman Empire/Scholasticism (754 – 1309)
  • Babel

Prior to Babel, there was relative consensus — though not unanimity

Babel happened for a couple different reasons, most notably the papal schisms of 1378-1417, followed by the Reformation a century later.  Since then it’s been schism after schism, with each schismatic group deeming all other groups unorthodox.  Protestants consider Catholics heretical for praying to Mary or believing that the sacraments exclusively impart real grace.  Catholics consider Protestants heretical for breaking from apostolic succession.

And internecine schisms are the order of the day.  The Vatican recently silenced a Jesuit theologian who has written a book attempting “to express traditional doctrines about Christ and salvation in a language appropriate to postmodern culture.”  Meanwhile, a Southern Baptist who does not adhere to biblical inerrancy feels unwelcome at the communion table with his co-religionists.  The last century has been one of each brand of Christianity sinking deeper into their own echo chambers.  Attempts at ecumenism have been futile.

But the social web promises to change all of that.  Christians are climbing out of their denominational silos and listening to Christians of other flavors.  Some are even (gasp!) listening to the wisdom of other religions.

I really do think that we’ll enter a new age of theological discussion and even consensus, and it will be made possible by new media.

  • Maya Bean

    ” Since then it’s been schism after schism, with each schismatic group deeming all other groups unorthodox.”
    Yes, but it’s plain that “protestantism” and perennial irreversible “schism” are synonymous terms, historically speaking.
    “Attempts at ecumenism have been futile”
    Among protestant groups, ecumenism has been futile. However, significant sections of Eastern Orthodox and Traditional Anglican communions are currently in process of reuniting with Rome. Some Lutheran groups are also speaking with Rome to resolve theological differences and even misunderstandings.
    “I really do think that we’ll enter a new age of theological discussion and even consensus, and it will be made possible by new media.”
    Perhaps, but I think more likely the Web is just a communication medium. Church sects are real world groups and organizations who will need to make real world decisions to end their schism and reunite with each other in real communities. It’s hard to envision how thousands of protestant religions can do this, as they don’t share a common leadership, fellowship, or doctrinal authority. I think it is more likely that most protestant factions will continue to fragment themselves into oblivion while larger more cohesive Christian groups will unite back with Rome. The Protestant Reformation is over. It has run its course.

  • bob c

    I wholeheartedly agree.
    More & more, the point seems to be who decides, rather than the actual decision. Part of this shift means less power & influence for those who have historically held those – predominately men of European lineage.
    I think the web mirrors this, but my sense is that it is emblematic of the shift, just as Guttenberg’s press was emblematic of an earlier shift. Tools resemble the people who make & use them, as well as the culture they are used in.

  • Carla

    You make a great point. I think that what’s changing is that we have access to voices that were harder to find before social networking. Just like television has made us more aware of what war looks like or what other cultures eat, social networking opens our eyes to faith experiences and expressions that we might never see or discover otherwise. That in itself can start a process of people figuring out what we have in common rather than continuing to pull away in division.

  • http://scottlenger.com Scott Lenger

    Very thought provoking.
    My $.02 is that the overall idea of a/the “magisterium” would be in conflict with the principles of the social web?

  • http://www.rudetheology.com/ Mike Croghan

    Maya said,
    “Church sects are real world groups and organizations who will need to make real world decisions to end their schism and reunite with each other in real communities. It’s hard to envision how thousands of protestant religions can do this, as they don’t share a common leadership, fellowship, or doctrinal authority.”
    Yes, that’s how it used to work. What’s in question, I think, is this: In the age of the social web, does the Church need any of the following:
    - Church sects
    - Unity at an organization-wide level
    - Common leadership
    - Common fellowship
    - Common doctrinal authority
    in order to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church?
    If our unity is grassroots, peer-to-peer, based on scale-free networks (not hierarchies), and characterized by conversation, friendship, and shared action (not organizational “full communion” negotiated by folks at the top of various institutions), then arguably the very reasonable objections you raise won’t matter.
    The “real communities” that unite will be local (groups of friends of whatever denominational background coming together for worship, fellowship, discipleship, and mission) and global (worldwide peer-to-peer networks that utilize the social web for mutual support, formation, friendship, and accountability). The current institutional bodies – denominations, that is, including Rome – may become of secondary importance (as valued conversation partners and guardians of rich tradition) to these global peer networks and local communities – at least in the “Western” world.
    Or, maybe not. :-)

  • Dan

    Well, increased theological discussion, yes, also perhaps even greater mutual understanding. But increased consensus? That I will have to see to believe. What ‘flavors’ of Christianity do you believe will be the foundation of this new consensus? The emergent flavors?

  • Maya Bean

    You asked if people need unity at an organization-wide level, with a common leadership/fellowship/mission/agenda etc.
    The answer is yes. Groups that do not have these things are powerless, disenfranchised, dis-organized, and and short-lived. Groups that do have these things are powerful, influential, and capable of carrying out plans and objectives with great success. Large multinational organizations–be they Google or Wal-Mart or the Church at Rome–are able to pool vast resources for united agendas, and they have staying power.

  • http://www.rudetheology.com/ Mike Croghan

    @Maya – yes, this has certainly always been the case. But I honestly believe that’s it’s possible that this is changing. I recognize that what I’m talking about would be one of the biggest changes in human social reality in…well…ever. It’s quite possible that I’m very, very wrong.
    It’ll be interesting to find out!

  • Colin

    “I think those of us committed to the social web will become the new magisterium.”
    I think this is a little bit overstated perhaps, or at least not supported well enough to convince me to accept it. In a way this ties together with another somewhat overstated claim you made a few weeks back with respect to the small splinter of traditional Anglicans in the U.S., calling it a sign of the death of denominations. According to some research, the new magisterium will be hailing from the global South by 2050 based on growth trends (see Philip Jenkins).

  • Larry

    The answer is yes. Groups that do not have these things are powerless, disenfranchised, dis-organized, and and short-lived. Groups that do have these things are powerful, influential, and capable of carrying out plans and objectives with great success.
    Not necessarily, the pre-Constantine church didn’t really have any of these things, and it changed the world. Also see Blessed Unrest:How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming by Paul Hawken for examples of how many small, loosely joined, organizations can have a huge cumulative impact. Think “network” instead of “hierarchy”. These types of structures also tend to more robust than hierarchical structures, the loss of a single cell or organization doesn’t mean much to the overall structure.

  • Maya Bean

    ” the pre-Constantine church didn’t really have any of these things”
    But it did. The primitive Church was one united multinational organization up to and through Constantine. It had regional territories overseen by bishops and “metropolitan bishops” (i.e. archbishops), and the churches remained connected to each other throughout the empire, as in the days of the apostles. There weren’t any denominations.
    There was *one* united Church across various territories; it was one multinational company with local communities. Just as the Council of Jerusalem at 50 AD brought together that one church’s leadership body from around the empire, so it was again at Nicaea and the other ecumenical councils.
    Unity is an essential ingredient required for the effectiveness of Christ’s Church (Jn 17:20-23). And a house divided against itself cannot stand.

  • http://www.theophiliacs.com Tony Hunt

    I absolutely disagree. Your argument Tony seems to be naively anti-authoritative, and for what reason? The “freedom” to interpret as one pleases? This already exists, and it’s called free-church Protestantism. Guess what? This brand of Christianity is the least influential worldwide exactly because it has no ability to remain organized enough to accomplish substantive theology and mission.
    It is not for no reason that RCC, EO, and Anglicanism are the three largest branches of Christianity. How do you suppose these new socially-connected Churches will remain connected? Blogs?
    Another thing to consider is that even those fellowships which are reasonably influential (I’m thinking here of the NAE or something like that) are soon due to weaken in light of the weakening of inerrancy and even sola scriptura. This was the linchpin which kept together various interpretations and allowed for joint fellowship. Doctrinal differences were largely tolerated because of a bloated theology of the Bible.
    What will be the uniting factor of these new networks? I think your idealism suffers in the same way as good ole’ fashioned “liberalism,” be it Christian or secular. Rienhold Niehbur offers a good corrective to this kind of naive hope.

  • Chris Bean

    I just wanted to post right after Maya since we may be distantly related.
    Back to Tony’s original post though…although not many (if any) of us are facing physical persecution of threat of death during this time of transition, it takes a great deal of courage to climb out of some of these “silo’s” and risk stepping towards other tables for conversation.
    But I sense that the more folks risk and join the conversation, the more this mosaic of life and story looks like the Kingdom. It’s a stressful but exciting time to be on this ball o’dirt.

  • Chris Bean

    On another note (in reference to T.Hunt above), how could you describe sola scripture as a linchpin. I think a more accurate analogy would be something like a spike or splinter. the last 400 to 500 hundred years have been the most UN-unified phase of Christendom yet, don’t you think?

  • Larry

    There was *one* united Church across various territories; it was one multinational company with local communities. Just as the Council of Jerusalem at 50 AD brought together that one church’s leadership body from around the empire, so it was again at Nicaea and the other ecumenical councils.
    You have a rather romantic view of church history. And Nicea was post-Constantine.

  • http://irritablereaching.blogspot.com/ Irritable

    I think idea of a new magisterium is an interesting one, and seems to be a decent conversation starter, but I share the skepticism indicated by others (but for different reasons). If any kind of widespread unity is available, it’s more likely to take place on issues of common cause rather than on theological or ideological grounds. I think we can already see various and varied coalitions forming to address particular issues — temporary, tentative, and ad hoc groupings that neither presume nor require doctrinal uniformity.
    I think this is as good as it gets, and may well be good enough, depending on one’s perspective. At its most robust, this phenomenon allows for cooperation without demanding compromise on important identity markers for the groups involved.
    I’m also (like Larry) skeptical that the early church was a unified or uniform as we sometimes assume it to be. Even the canon, which already evinces considerable narrowing of what appears to have been a prodigious diversity, nevertheless preserves a fairly spectrum of thought, even on key issues. It depends, I suppose, on how you read your Bible. If one takes into account various “Gnostic” readings of the Jesus tradition, the scope increases even further.
    A unified early church is an attractive and perhaps necessary etiological narrative, but I find it interesting that nobody assumes a coherence among the early believers that doesn’t neatly correspond to his or her own theological proclivities.
    Anyway, I’m not sure a cybermagisterium is necessary, likely, or desirable. I like the “freedom” to interpret as I please. :)

  • Maya Bean

    “And Nicea was post-Constantine.”

  • Tony Hunt

    Well yes of course it has been. My point is that when Protestant unity has occurred, such as the NAE or whatever para-church organization you want to name, it has been focused around the absolute authority of scripture and only scripture.
    What you say only proves my point,even with this unifying factor, as a RC said to Tony once: “You Protestants, you’re children of divorce, and as such, you will keep on divorcing”

  • http://www.garretshelsta.typepad.com garret

    Thanks for asking good questions and getting us to think. I deeply appreciate it.
    Maybe another part could be added on to your statement discussion and consensus on orthopraxis… and using new media mobilize communities to common places of action. And this is being spoken on behalf of my brother with Down’s Syndrome, who has little use for intellectual debates on the internet, but a deep need for actions that shape will shape his and his communities theology.
    I am not meaning to diminish the importance of the intellectual discussion of theology but I do want it to become dualistic and thus neglect my brother. I also realize that this question is being spoken from a certain theological perspective but one that I think is important to this discussion as it proceeds.
    I am on my way out to go to work but just wanted to add an opinion before I was out.
    Thanks Tony.

  • Charles Cosimano

    The concept of Magisterium and Orthodoxy has been functionally dead for centuries and the new age of communication (of which the web is only a part) will probably be the spike through their hearts. They cannot be revived because to do so would mean the rise of an authority structure that could support them. And, as we all know, communication is poison to authority. For every idea that is spread, a counter-idea is also spread and there is nothing to prevent any given individual from choosing which he likes.

  • Nonnymous5

    So personal opinion trumps True Truth?
    I wonder what the various Church Fathers (and Mothers) of The Apostolic Period (29 – c.100), The Patristic Period (c.100 – 325) and The Conciliar Period (325 – 787) would have thought…

  • http://irritablereaching.blogspot.com/ Irritable

    It might depend on which ones you asked…

  • Albert the Abstainer

    We are in a post-modern time, expect so see post-modern religious expression and interaction through that most post-modern of mediums, the Internet.
    Hyphenated religious identity as well as the ubiquitous “spiritual but not religious” will merely become the norm. I think this is good as religious cross-pollination increases the range and depth of religious expression, while increasing the acceptance of the other in our midst.

  • Marty Davis

    As a Roman Catholic I have to admit that I’ve already decided this issue, however, to be fair to everyone who may not agree with my opinion – I think that the answer to the question as to what qualifies someone as a Christian has to be simply a matter of identifying oneself as a believer, follower, or disciple of Jesus Christ.
    However, you look at it – the first Christians did not have a handle on the full implications (read: Dogmatic Conventions)that “Christianity” entails. Had it not been for those “ignorant” believers who formulated their beliefs and grew in their faith – Christianity as we know it (in whatever form) would perhaps not be in our vocabulary.
    One can be a Christian without understanding dogma, because dogma is not what saves you – dogma, i.m.h.o. only clarifies the depth and significance, and implications of your salvation.
    Growth as a Christian entails coming to a richer understanding of faith – but I don’t think you have to know or perhaps even agree on the details to follow Christ. The Holy Spirit will lead us to the whole truth if we honestly follow Christ. (Tough order, by the way)
    Thanks for generating great discussion.

  • Maya Bean

    Good points. I have one thought to add.
    One statement you made begs numerous questions that ultimately fall back on necessary dogma. You said: “The answer to the question as to what qualifies someone as a Christian has to be simply a matter of identifying oneself as a believer, follower, or disciple of Jesus Christ.”
    Here are two crucial dogma-related questions that must precede your simple statement:
    (1) Who or what is Jesus Christ?
    (2) Why in the world should I “believe” or “follow” him, which is an act that asks for the full submission of my mind and will to another being?
    If I don’t have those first two questions answered via the dogmatic understandings of the Trinity and the Redemption of Mankind, I will not even consider making myself a follower or disciple of this jesus person. So, dogmatic claims about the person of Jesus and the fallen state of mankind must be articulated and understood somewhat before I make my decision to “follow Him.”
    And I also think it’s important to remember that the dogmas that have been detailed and explained in the Church’s councils were not created/invented during those councils. The beliefs already existed and were simply being more fully examined and detailed, usually in response to s heretical sects that arose in history and created the need for the orthodox christians to clarify or more fully explain particular doctrines.

  • http://www.jakebouma.com Jake Bouma

    Good thoughts, Tony.
    I enthusiastically agree that social media is facilitating an interdenominational theological discussion (and, lest we forget inTRAdenominational discussion, which is just as important).
    On the other hand, social media also makes it easier than ever before for groups of people (and the theological streams of thought associated with them) to seclude themselves and reinforce – rather than expand – their own worldview. For example, if I believe the rapture will happen on January 1, 2010 (an arbitrarily chosen date), I can: Subscribe ONLY to blogs dedicated to the immanent rapture using Google Reader, joing a Ning social network of like-minded people, Twitter using a hashtag of #rapture2010, and so on. In this case, social media has done the opposite of expanding my theological worldview.
    Social media is a double-edged sword. It can, and often does, VASTLY expand one’s theological and spiritual community. I think lots of people long for interdenominational and interreliigious dialogue… We can read about other denominations/religions in books or engage in Bible studies about them, but it is people who make the denominations/religions tick. Making that connection (even via social media) is a great gift. But social media is only what we make of it, and if I don’t want to talk to you about your stupid religion, you idiot, I won’t. I’ll go on reinforcing my own narrow beliefs.

  • http://www.bpleland.wordpress.com Bishop Leland Somers

    The people who have decided ‘orthodoxy’ for any particular sect are those who grabbed the power of the organization to advance their own particular views. This is what happened in the ‘churches’ down through the centuries and continues to happen to this very day.
    The people today who pound away at orthodoxies (there isn’t one of them any more – and hasn’t been since the Protestant Reformation – or even the great schism of the 10th century)are those whose primary interest is in controlling the minds and hearts of others.
    As I read the Gospels I do not find that Jesus was particularly orthodox in any sense of the word. As a matter of fact he was constantly challenging the followers of orthodox Judaism with non-orthodox interpretations of the Law and the Prophets.
    I like Jesus more and more the older I get because I increasingly that when I scrape away the barnacles of orthodoxy from the Jesus of the church I find a completely different person than the one I learned about in seminary.
    I’ve found a Jesus who was so subversive of political and religious orthodoxy that he got himself executed as a threat to the theology of the Roman Empire (the same theology runs the American Empire). His own religious leaders were more than willing to be complicit in this execution because he was a constant thorn in their own sham religious pietistic hypocrisy. The same sort of pietistic hypocrisy pervades much of today’s American Christian scene. Ministers seek the Emperor’s approval (President) and wave American flags as though America represented God’s Imperial Rule rather than the traditional rule of every empire the world has ever known – a rule based on power, violence, war and victory rather than a rule based on justice, love and peace.
    I think it was this little Jewish peasant from Nazareth who said something like: “No one can serve two superiors. You will either hate one and love the other, or be attentive to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Money.” It isn’t only Money (Mammon) and God that are polar opposites. It is also the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of the Emperor (President) which are based on totally different and opposed values.

  • Kevin O’Neill

    On another Beliefnet forum we discussed this new way of communicating (internet). It became clar to me how revolutionary this is, and the likely (major) future impact on traditional Faith Communities.
    Unlike traditional proselytizing (“witnessing”), this forum invites the curious to engage in a safe way, which enhances communication (communion).
    I have learn a lot from reading and engaging people, and as a result broaden or changed my opinion on some matters.

  • Rob the Rev

    AMEN! to what Bishop Leland Somers wrote in his January 10, 2009 5:54 AM comment. I agree totally!
    When someone proclaims what is orthodox and what is not what this really means is that they believe that they belong to the “true group of believers” that has the monopolistic right to decide unilaterally what the “orthodox” or “true” faith is. Then this “sanctified” group uses its particular standards of orthodoxy to declare themselves as the final authority of theological truth. They then proceed to use their self-proclaimed measure of truth to determine who is in compliance with their “orthodox” standard and who is not. Sounds like a circular argument to me Finally they seek to force their views on everyone else, even seeking to use government coercion to enforce their “orthodoxy.” Sounds like a “Christian” Taliban to me.

  • Maya Bean

    Here’s my best stab at summarizing the REAL orthodoxy just proposed by Bishop Leland Summers:
    (1) constantly seek to be non-orthodox, in whatever ideological and political climate you are
    (2) always be subversive of political and religious orthodoxy, however those might be defined at the time you are living
    (3) always oppose the state
    I think there’s a term for the philosophy that bases itself on those ideas. Any one care to guess what it is?
    And does anyone see the internal contradiction in having to accept the new orthodoxy proposed by Bishop Leland Summers?

  • Peggy

    There are 2 basic human emotions that drive our belief and behavior: fear and love. Can you detect which of these drives the comments left here?

  • Matt

    I find this laughable because this self-important conversation is happening in the “living room” of a small branch of the Protestant church and excludes any meaningful dialogue with the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican,or other apostolic churches. The Roman and Orthodox churches together constitute 1.35 billion Christians around the world. In light of these facts I doubt the social web is going to affect these in any substantial way. That is not to say that Protestantism has not run its course is not moving towards post-denominationalism. It is. This can be good or bad. It can either move into hyper modernism and continue to fragment based upon a thousand notions of orthodoxy or it can discern the universals of orthodoxy over time, place and culture – that which has been believed (including praxis) always, everywhere and by all.

  • Peggy

    THis is a conversation about individual authority (moral authority modeled on the “imitation of Christ”) and social authority (the magisterium). We have teetered back and forth between the 2 for millenia, fought, split, reunited and split again (schisms). Ideally, individual moral authority should drive the social authority. Oh, but we are talking about beliefs here and not civil law! Is it possible that many different beliefs can lead to appropriate individual moral authority which in turn advocates and supports a common social authority? Can we Christians, as individuals, act in reverent imitation of the example of Jesus to humble our personal spiritual interpretations long enough to extend acceptance and respect to the differences in understanding (consciousness) that we each hold? Is it really necessary for you and I to practice our spirituality exactly the same way? Where is the tipping point at which any group (social/religious) sees the need to issue more legality than what is necessary to support and encourage individual moral balance and responsibility (or spiritual transformation in the case of religion)? That is the point at which a need for power and control cast out love. Will cyberconversation become the magisterium? No, but communication raises awareness, kicks people out of complacency and unites minds in common purpose….that’s a great start toward understanding, accepting and loving diversity (the nature of creation, afterall). Reminds me of parenting teenagers! I think Jesus would agree, but that is just my opinion! :)

  • http://matthewlkelley.blogspot.com Matt Kelley

    I’m not sure about your assertion, Tony, because the power to define orthodoxy has always included the power to exclude. The Council of Nicea defined orthodoxy against Arius, Augustine defined it against Pelagius, Popes have excommunicated countless people, Luther defined Protestant orthodoxy against “Romanists”. The fundamental nature of new media is that everyone is included (provided they have some level of access to technology), so it will be very hard to exclude certain groups and define them as “unorthodox”.

  • http://www.joebumblog.blogspot.com Joe Bumbulis

    Maybe instead of proclaiming with self-importance that those who are adept at utilizing the social media will form the new orthodoxy, we need to be asking how the social media we use will transform how we go about deciding what is and is not orthodox.
    Also, the question of orthodoxy seems to assume a centralized hegemonic state or church, which doesn’t exist unless you think that the new hegemony is the web. Certainly the web is a very powerful tool for communication and developing people to think certain ways and interact certain ways, but I’m not sure if it’s hegemonic…yet.

  • http://anotheroption.blogspot.com David Malouf

    I don’t know that the last line of the post (social web manipulators win) is so much a theological statement nor even a preference but a reality of the way power/influence shifts.
    This would be based, in my small opinion, on how we (the West) keep swinging our ‘source of truth’ from idea to person to idea to … (Classical to Medieval to Modern to …). I would differ with the post in that I don’t believe it is those who are _committed_ who have the power. I think it’s much less than that. I’d propose that it IS the social web that will define truth: the synthesis of a swing back to a ‘personal’ source of truth and the unwillingness to give up our position as The All-Powerful Individual developed in/by Modernity.
    - I won’t submit to a Magisterium, but I won’t submit to truth-by-rationality-alone.
    So I’m left with the reality of living as a social being, with just enough autonomy to not loose myself as self-god: social-web.

  • Your Name

    So is revelation the next “sola”? Would love to have you write on this, Tony.

  • http://ladyofjustice.wordpress.com Glenn King

    I am really new to the ideas and groups of the emerging Church movement,so I hope my comments are not based on simple misunderstanding. I read Tony Jones’ term “social web” as being the “emerging conversation” on line. If this is the meaning, yes I do disagree with the statement that those who dominate or are committed to the social web will become the new magisterium. Those who are fascinated by the power of the social web overestimate its power. In spite of the power of this medium, religion and certainly Christianity
    manifests its power primarily in the local physical community of worshipers. Those physical communities are still dominated by the traditional religious power players, preachers, church boards, bishops, Popes and Patriarchs, etc. Certainly the emerging church if it is successful will perhaps institutionalize as a counter power to
    these older powers. But I do not see it as replacing those traditional powers.

  • Your Name

    I only recently discovered this blog and only now have I finished reading all of the comments inspired by Tony Johnsons provocative remarks. The level of conversation has been remarkable high from all sides on the discussion that followed. In particular, while I suspect that I would disagree with her theologically, I particularly admired the realistic tenor of Maya Bean’s comments. On the issue of whether the social web is going to totally change the way religion is practiced in human society, I think that yes the internet and new communication technologies certainly will change the way many people relate to religious ideas and communities. Millions of people will be involved in new non traditional levels of religious experimentation inspired in part at least by the new communication media. It will certainly be much harder for the old orthodoxies to keep control of their flocks. However I suspect that the vast majority of people will continue to follow the orthodoxies of their mothers and fathers. After all after the 18th Centery Enlightenment and the publication of Charles Darwin’s books stating the Theory of Evolution one might has suspected the days of ideas of biblical inerrancy and direct inspiration were finished. For what became liberal Protestantism and Catholicism it did. However the majority of both Roman Catholics and Protestants still believe in the older traditional theologies. Glenn King