Case Studies in “Re-forming Orthodoxy”

Case Studies in “Re-forming Orthodoxy” October 6, 2013

Case Studies in “Re-forming Orthodoxy”

Of course, following one definition of “orthodoxy” nobody should “re-form” it. That definition is simply “right thinking” or “theological correctness.” If you’re convinced a doctrine is true and correct, then you wouldn’t want to re-form it. However, there are other definitions of “orthodoxy.” A common one is “what ought to be believed.” Closely linked with that is “established doctrine.”

Every denomination has some idea, whether written or not, of what members ought to believe—established doctrine. Some orthodoxies (in this sense) are extremely fine grained and fine tuned, detailed and written out. Some orthodoxies are more implicit, not written but understood by consensus and passed along from generation to generation by teaching, singing, preaching, etc.

When I talk about re-forming orthodoxy I’m using “orthodoxy” not in the sense of “theological correctness” but in the sense of “what some group of Christians says Christians ought to believe.” In other words, traditional interpretations of Scripture, of the gospel.

As I have said in previous posts, I do not think anyone should join a denomination or church for the purpose of changing its beliefs. I think every denomination, church, ought to have some mechanism, however, by which its beliefs can be carefully, thoughtfully challenged and re-formed by its own members. Sometimes that process may be stimulated by an outsider’s writings, but outsiders should not invade churches to change their doctrines.

And, as I said before, I don’t think members who undergo some kind of conversion to a wholly different set of beliefs ought to try to change their denomination’s or church’s ethos, core doctrines. They should simply change to one that reflects their newfound beliefs. Of course, if it’s a matter where the person’s denomination or church has no beliefs about a certain subject, then it’s alright to attempt to fill the gap with biblically sound doctrine.

Years ago I belonged to a denomination whose central distinctive doctrine I began to doubt. I left rather than create a controversy about it. It wasn’t easy; it was very difficult to leave. I grew up in that denomination.

Now, if the Holy Spirit stirs the hearts and minds of a denomination or church such that the people, en masse, begin to doubt and question its beliefs and desire to reconsider them with a view to possibly revising them, I have no complaint about that.

All that is for clarification—and to avoid having to explain it in response to comments here.

Real controversy and accusations of “heresy” or “liberal theology” begin when someone dares to question a point of “basic Christian orthodoxy” or “the received evangelical tradition” with a view to revising it. But, of course, that simply begs the question what is “basic Christian orthodoxy” and “the received evangelical tradition?” What all is packed into those concepts? And who decides?

In other words, to be very clear, when I questioned a core distinctive doctrine of the denomination I grew up in nobody outside that denomination or ones nearly identical to it cared at all. They might have had I caused a big controversy over it and forced the issue like a bull in a china shop. They rightly would have counseled me to just change denominations—unless, of course, the Holy Spirit was stirring the denomination to make such a change as was happening in me. However, when I or anyone else dares to suggest that perhaps some point of “basic Christian orthodoxy,” as perceived by some person or group, should be reconsidered in light of fresh and faithful biblical interpretation (not even in light of culture or philosophy) cries of “liberal theology!” or “deep deviation!” or even “heresy!” go up. The same happens whenever someone questions some aspect of the “received evangelical tradition.” The wagons are circled, the heavy artillery is brought out—to protect tradition from “liberal theology.” (I’ll explain in another post why this use of “liberal theology” as any departure from tradition is mistaken.)

Let me start with an example from “the received evangelical tradition.” So, in recent years, some evangelical theologians (and others) have questioned the penal substitution theory of the atonement and preferred over it, for example, the Christus Victor view of the atonement. Some conservative evangelical leaders, seminary presidents, theologians, influential evangelicals, have reacted strongly. I would say they have over reacted—claiming in effect that the penal substitution theory is an essential, a fundamental, of evangelical belief if not of Christian orthodoxy itself. While I believe the Bible teaches that we are guilty, not just in bondage to the devil, and that Christ’s death not only sets us free but also sets aside our guilt when we repent and believe, I do not think the penal substitution theory of the atonement is sacrosanct. Luther did not emphasize it; he emphasized the Christus Victor view of Christ’s atoning death and resurrection.

Why the near hysterical reaction to evangelicals questioning substitution atonement? Is it really a fundamental of the faith? When did it become that? I don’t find it in, for example, Irenaeus. Irenaeus’s recapitulation theory is closer in time to the apostles than the full blown Puritan penal substitution theory is.

Certainly the penal substitution theory of the atonement is not part of the early Christian creeds (Niceno-Constantinopolitan, Athanasian, Chalcedonian Definition, etc.). When did it become a fundamental of Christianity or even of evangelical faith?

To tell you truth, I think what is going on is that many evangelicals have come to regard Charles Hodge’s theology as a kind of baseline of evangelical orthodoxy. But where does that leave the whole Wesleyan evangelical tradition? Many Wesleyans preferred and still prefer the governmental theory of the atonement (which I have blogged about several times and which I think is widely misunderstood).

There are those conservative evangelicals who seem to think that any departure from any aspect of Charles Hodge’s theology is a deviation from evangelical Christianity and an opening to liberal theology.

Now let me widen the scope and go further back—into ancient Christianity. There are those conservative or orthodox Protestants who insist that Christianity necessarily includes all that was agreed upon by the ancient church fathers in the first four or more ecumenical councils. (Of course, I always wonder why only four or why all seven and if all seven does that include what Nicea II decided about icons?) They rarely say they put the creeds on the same level as Scripture, but they often claim that we later Christians have no right to “private interpretation” of the Bible but must interpret it through the creeds. No departure from the doctrinal deposit of the ancient ecumenical councils is permitted. Any such departure is charged with being on a slippery slope toward liberal theology and outright heresy.

Now I have often and in several of my books expressed strong appreciation for the achievements of the church fathers—especially with regard to the doctrines of the Trinity and the Person of Christ. I happen to think that what the first four councils decided about these doctrines is correct because it is simply says in other words what Scripture says and rules out views that would undermine and possibly destroy the gospel of Jesus Christ as God and Savior.

However, I remain open to challenges to those doctrines as they were expressed in 381 and 451—insofar as those challenges do not arise from disbelief but from concern about whether the wording of the creeds and definitions really do justice to what Scripture says.

So here’s my case study in this. Some years ago I became editor of Christian Scholar’s Review—a scholarly journal dedicated to integration of faith and learning supported by about fifty Christian colleges and universities. It publishes many articles about Christian theology. About the time I came on the editorial board, before becoming editor, there appeared in the Review an article by a young evangelical scholar entitled (I’m going by memory here) “Jesus: the One-Natured God-Man.” It was an attempt to examine and correct the metaphysics and language of Chalcedon. The author clearly believed in the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ and was not just repeating the old Eutychian or Monophysite heresies (although exactly what those were is not always clear). He was wrestling with whether the “two natures” doctrine of the Person of Christ is biblically and metaphysically sound. He agreed with the intention of Chalcedon but saw it as ultimately coming down too heavily on the Antiochian side of the dispute that led to it. And, he concluded, the model of Christ expressed there (“hypostatic union”) ultimately divides the person of Christ by, for example, implying two wills and two consciousnesses in him.

I read it with interest and considered his critique of orthodox Christology. He was not arguing from some modern bias against the supernatural (he affirmed Christ’s preexistence as the eternal second person of the Trinity, Christ’s miracles and resurrection, etc.) He was solely concerned to raise questions about the conceptuality and language of Chalcedon and ask whether it does justice to Scripture’s testimony about Christ or the Chalcedonian fathers’ own intentions.

I never did agree with the author, but neither did I see him on a slippery slope toward heresy or “liberal theology” just for questioning the concepts and language of Chalcedon. It was a worthy attempt even if it ultimately fell short of being convincing.

Years later I “met” the author (we corresponded by e-mail) and he told me that he had first sent his article to the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society which rejected it out of hand without editorial peer review because, so the then editor said, JETS is a creedal journal and does not publish articles that question orthodoxy.

So, for that editor, anyway, Chalcedon, the hypostatic union, even though it is extra-biblical, was sacrosanct, above questioning—even from Scripture and reason.

My question then and now is how that does not add the Chalcedonian Definition to Scripture as the fifty-second (or fifty-third or fifty-fourth) book of the Bible? In effect, it does.

There are conservative theologians out there—mostly among evangelicals—who see it as their “job,” as it were, to watch fellow evangelical theologians closely, read what they write, and then warn the whole evangelical community (not just their own denomination) when they think they perceive a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Any transgression of orthodoxy or the received evangelical tradition, even only promoting sola Scriptura , which is itself part of the received evangelical tradition (!), is grounds for crying “Wolf!”

This is simply nonsense and tears evangelicals apart. It has torn us apart. We are now so divided I see no hope of reunion.

Some years ago (I think 2005) I was invited by the president of the Evangelical Theological Society to deliver a plenary address to the organization’s annual meeting. The president knew I was not a member and never had been. He also knew I do not affirm the word “inerrancy.” He held out the invitation anyway and I accepted. Then he e-mailed the members of the ETS executive committee, announcing his selections of plenary speakers. He included me, my e-mail address, among the persons receiving his notifying e-mail. Suddenly I began receiving e-mails about me as executive committee members failed to notice my e-mail address was among theirs and simply pressed “reply to all.” The e-mails were clearly not intended for my eyes! They were bashing me as dangerously liberal or “neo-orthodox,” etc., etc., without citing any specific information from anything I had written. It was all impressionistic. I gently corrected them and was suddenly dropped from the conversation. Next I received an e-mail from the president withdrawing the invitation.

This is the kind of thing that happens when someone raises “concerns” about a fellow evangelical—even when they have not affirmed any heresy or denied any point of orthodoxy but are only perceived as “leaving the door open” to that by daring to raise questions about “the received evangelical tradition” (e.g., whether open theism necessarily strikes at its heart!).

Others who have suffered this kind of treatment have generally retreated. Often, I suspect, because their jobs are at risk. They work within institutions where becoming controversial, whether deserved or not, is risky. I have decided to push back against this kind of neo-fundamentalism and evangelical creedalism that forbids, upon pain of being labeled an enabler of liberal theology, any questioning of perceived orthodoxy.

These people need to be asked who appointed them the popes of evangelical Christianity?


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