Who Owns the Title to Orthodoxy?

Who Owns the Title to Orthodoxy? July 23, 2015
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Orthodoxy–authorized or generally accepted theory, doctrine, or practice. Many claim it for themselves.

But I ask: who really gets to own this word?

Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary, wrote last year claiming “orthodoxy” for the conservative arm of the United Methodist Church:

What we actually have is a group (however imperfectly) which is committed to historic Christianity. The second group (however imperfectly) is committed to a re-imagined church. One, however flawed, is committed to the recovery and defense of historic Christian orthodoxy. The other, however nice and erudite, has not demonstrated a robust commitment to historic Christian orthodoxy. Thus, we actually have two groups; one orthodox and one heterodox.

This last Sunday, I attended a real “Orthodox” church: The Greek Orthodox Church in Dallas, TX. Their doctrines and practices go back much further in Christian history than do the practices of the more recent evangelical movements that claim orthodoxy for themselves.

The Orthodox Churches (Greek, Russian, Bulgarian, etc. are simply language variations of Eastern Orthodoxy) all follow the same liturgy and adhere to the same beliefs. Because they see their doctrine set in 325 a.d. with the formation of the Nicene Creed and forever unchanged, they have a far more plausible claim to the word “Orthodox.”

However, the Eastern Orthodox view of salvation is far different than the substitutionary atonement theory that has become the only acceptable view for current evangelicals.

This short video gives a simple and understandable overview of the differences between the two views:

Recently, the Wesley Brothers website published this great cartoon about the various understandings of atonement.

atonement theories of relativity


A more full explanation of the atonement theories can be found here. Many of these understandings reach deep into Christian theological history, yet are not affirmed or taught by those who now lay claim to the title of “orthodox.”

We easily slam others for having inadequate or simply wrong belief systems. However, everyone in a particular system is sure he/she is right.

I recently saw this blog about someone who grew up as Jehovah’s Witness, sure that it was the only way to salvation until he discovered that others in far different traditions claim the same thing.

After my year spent visiting as many different faith traditions as possible, I, too, am more aware than ever that each of us owns a deep certainty about our own bedrock beliefs.

Now, we cannot all be right. There are significant differences, with gaps too big to pull under one big human-created tent.

But we can all be wrong–and there is power is being able to understand that. When I say “wrong” I mean at the very least, “incomplete, partial, seeing through a glass darkly, imperfect.”

Our upbringings, our prejudices, our educations, our privileges or lack of privileges all combine to mean that we read and see things differently. That includes the Bible–we will interpret it differently even if we hold to the same presuppositions about the accuracy and truth of the texts themselves.

When we acknowledge that all of us are wrong, we have hope of making peace with one another.

The call to Christian unity has never meant a call to unanimity. From the earliest workings out of our faith, there have been deep disputes about practices and beliefs. The power of the Gospel is not that we all think alike, but that we all kneel before the name of Jesus in humble gratitude for his willingness to empty himself and become like us.

Let us never forget the words to that great Wesleyan Hymn, “And Can it Be?”

He left his Father’s throne above

(so free, so infinite his grace!),

emptied himself of all but love,

and bled for Adam’s helpless race.

‘Tis mercy all, immense and free,

for O my God, it found out me!

‘Tis mercy all, immense and free,

for O my God, it found out me!

Mercy for all–and that mercy seeks all of us, calls all of us to the love of God and to love of neighbor, even in our deep differences.

We unite not because we think or believe perfectly alike, but because we are all wrong and grateful and that the True Right finds us out anyway.

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  • “Ortho” means straight or right, “Doxy” means opinion.

    You are right, we can’t all be right and most likely we are all wrong. But I would extend it greater than just the huge varieties of Christians, but of all faiths.

    I have a post here about “Orthodoxy” in Oriental Medicine. It is easy for theories which can’t be tested — religion or many alternative medicines — to declare orthodoxy, because a loud voice and holier-than-thou is all they’ve got.

  • Christy, I heard Tennant saying that those who hold to orthodoxy do so “imperfectly.” Is that not the same as saying that we all know in part? On the other hand, I conceive of orthodoxy not as some narrow “plank” which everyone must walk, but as a broad field surrounded by fences within which we can wander. There is room within orthodoxy, for instance, for many theories of the atonement to be held and appreciated. They are not mutually exclusive. (And I learned many of them at an evangelical seminary, not just substitutionary atonement.)

    Bottom line, there are boundaries or parameters that define orthodox Christian doctrine. I would point to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. If one is to claim the label “orthodox,” I would think their beliefs would need to fall within the circle of those creeds. United Methodists, of course, get more specific about some issues, like prevenient grace and sanctification. That doesn’t mean we can’t consider ourselves brothers and sisters with orthodox believers of other stripes (like the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or even Presbyterian).

    What Tennant was getting at in his blog, I believe, is that there are clergy and even bishops within the UM Church whose beliefs and teachings would not fall within the aforementioned creeds and therefore would not be considered orthodox. Many evangelical United Methodists believe the divide in our church is much deeper than the homosexuality issue (deep as that is). We would agree with the quote from Tennant you have at the beginning of your blog.

    • John Hockert

      Tom, I believe that your explanation is quite solid. I would add that while any of us be wrong, it seems logical to me that the wisdom developed by two thousand years of devout Christian thinkers seems a better bet for right than the novel ideas advanced by the scholarly in the last 200. It also seems to me that the church has always been counter-cultural (e.g., James 4;4), so that changing teaching to please society generally leads us away from Orthodoxy.

  • Your example is a poor one because, as is often the case, your disdain for evangelics overrides sensible analysis.

    The church universal has never claimed one version of atonement as orthodox. This is a bad example. It makes more sense to speak of creedal claims; Christ as both fully human and fully divine, and God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, united in substance but distinct in persons. This is the basis of orthodoxy. This UM teaching shares with the Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and the mainstream of classical Christianity.

    Progressive Christians often like to muddy the waters of basic orthodox teaching, but the truth is there is a classical fund of revelation to which we as United Methodists hold as part of our doctrinal standards.

    Whether all UM clergy actually hold to it, however, and whether or not our bishops and other leaders care enough to actually hold clergy accountable who reject the Trinity or Incarnation (and we do have them), is a separate matter.

    • *evangelicals

    • Drew, (1) consider the difference between Orthodox notions of “theosis” and Western — Augustinian — notions of “grace”. Is there a difference?

      (2) Compare Augustine and St John of Damascus ob “original sin” or “first sin”. I find them utterly different, even though John of Damascus is writing an exposition of “the orthodox faith”…something closer to Augustine than “Byzantines”normally write.

  • We just might all be wrong, but I am certain that we just do not know all there is to know and we never will. Grace is all we need.

  • Re: the primary question at hand, it’s an excellent question! That said, many aren’t even interested in “owning” it – let alone being limited to it. That said, a case could be made that part of Christian orthodoxy is a long tradition of questioning, dissent, reformation, and evolution.

  • Ben Wortham

    I understand the desire to stand on the creeds as a definition. It’s simple, it’s historic, it makes things nice and neat. But the council of Nicea was a group of very human, flawed, men gathering two centuries after the text of the NT was written. The creeds themselves by definition are also examples of peering through the glass darkly. And what about the beliefs and practices before 325 c.e. that where once considered orthodox then rendered at Nicea as heterodox? I think any claim to orthodoxy will always remain highly conditional. We need the Christian virtue that has always been in short supply, humility.

    • I think you’ve summed up the situation quite nicely. Thank you.

    • Chris

      The NT may have been written by 325, but the Canon was not yet established.

  • Reader John

    The Holy Orthodox Church does not claim to have a monopoly on truth but it does rightly claim to have the fulness of the truth which was once and for all revealed to the Church and kept by bishops in apostolic succession without deviation, addition or subtraction. I realize that is quite a bold statement especially in this age of religious pluralism and competing “Christianities” but the Orthodox Communion of Churches is the only Christian confession that has not bowed to the relativity of modernism and tried to adapt itself to every worship and doctrinal “flavor of the month.” St. Vincent of Lerins taught that the true faith is that which has been believed everywhere, at every time, and by all [members of the Church] and the Orthodox Church has done this, though not without problems and heresies arising, which the Church put down because heresy is false doctrine, something not to exist side by side with the truth.

  • Laura Beth

    Ortho does mean “right,” but doxy means “glory” – not opinion. Giving right glory to God is the meaning of Orthodoxy.

    • Chris

      The Greek word, δοξα, can mean opinion as well as belief in addition to glory. But, in the context in which the word is used, belief is probably the better of the English definitions. Like all English translations of Greek words, there is rarely a 1:1 ratio.

  • John Hockert

    The answer to the main question is that each church (denomination) owns and establishes its own orthodoxy. While the church called Orthodox claims to have the fullness of revelation and faith, the church called Roman Catholic also makes the same claim. In the same way, some conservative United Methodists claim the mantle of orthodoxy and some progressive United Methodists claim the mantle of orthodoxy. However, for the United Methodist Church, General Conference, in combination with the Articles of Religion and relevant portions of the Discipline, define United Methodist orthodoxy. Ultimately Christ will judge the denominations.
    In the meantime, we, as believers, must, through prayer and study and guided by the Holy Spirit, make our own evaluation of what it means to love Christ and keep His commandments (John 14:15), working out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2: 12 & 13). As we are doing that we need to find a fellowship (church and denomination) whose orthodoxy most closely matches our understanding of Christ’s truth to help us stay true. If our understanding aligns with a denomination with the a more stable tradition, like the Orthodox or the Roman Catholic, things are somewhat simpler than if it aligns with one of the more dynamic modern mainline Protestant churches that appear more bound by modern fashion than by tradition.For such churches, we would need to remain alert for theological drift that might move the church out of alignment with our understanding of Christ’s truth. We can take some consolation from the perspective described by Tom Lambrecht and, I believe, held by many of the faithful that relatively minor doctrinal differences will not affect our salvation as long as our focus is on loving and obeying Christ.

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