What We Mean When We Say 'Orthodox Christianity'
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Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (1876) painting by Vasily Surikov

Is affirming same-sex sexual relationships as righteous before God a heresy? Even if you believe it’s un-Biblical, are heresy and orthodoxy even the right categories for addressing the problem?

Over the weekend, philosopher and Calvin College professor James K. A. Smith argued that recent use of the words orthodoxy and heresy in debates about sexual ethics surrounding same-sex marriage is a selective and illegitimate expansion of the terms. Instead, we should reserve the language of orthodoxy and heresy for those beliefs which are “conciliar,” and “rooted in, and measured by, the ecumenical councils and creeds of the Church (Nicaea, Chalcedon)” because they refer to the fundamental truths of God’s triunity, the resurrection, the virgin birth, and so forth.

In contrast to this ideal, Smith says these terms have been reduced from this creedal basis to a single issue: “a particular view of sexuality and marriage.” He deems this development, “recent, innovative, and narrow,” symptomatic of a modern tendency to reduce Christianity to its morality. Indeed, unless we’re careful, the term orthodox will simply become the adjective we append to any issue we personally find important, thereby writing off “swaths of Christians who affirm conciliar orthodoxy” and closing down conversation in the church.

Predictably, this argument set off some discussion on the internet. Notable entries include Alastair Roberts’s argument that Smith has truncated the notion of creedal orthodoxy, and Alan Jacobs’s defense of Smith against Roberts and other critics, which Smith himself has commended. No doubt more entries will come.

Before proceeding with my own judgments, it’s worth stating that I benefit greatly from Smith’s work and respect him as a scholar and a Christian. Nor am I worried this is an attempt at moral revision or something on that order. I hope anyone reading this (including Smith himself) will read this article in that light.

Functional Orthodoxy

To begin, I find myself quite sympathetic to Smith’s concerns. A few years ago I wondered aloud whether we needed another term to flag what sort of error is involved in affirming same-sex marriage (SSM) in the church. I’m certainly in no rush to declare new heresies or label anyone a heretic. I have enough friends whom I am convinced are trying to love Jesus but honestly differ from me on this issue such that it would be painful and costly to do so.

Sympathies noted, I’m not sure Smith has been fair to or grasped the point of those who have been using the terms this way.

For some who insist this is an issue of heresy and orthodoxy, their point is that SSM is and assumes a denial of a broader theological vision of creation as well as the meaning of the human body assumed by the whole of the Christian church and the creedal tradition itself. It is, in that sense, a functional denial of doctrines like creation and the Christology implied by the incarnation of the Son and the resurrection of the body. For them it is an issue of heresy and orthodoxy by “good and necessary consequence,” to take the language of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF 1.6).

Second, others such as Roberts would object to this delimiting of the concept orthodoxy since it implies an unbiblical division between dogmatics and ethics. Paul’s admonition against fornication and sexual immorality in 1 Corinthians 6 is grounded in the creation of the body as well as in Christ’s death and resurrection (“the body is . . . for the Lord, and the Lord for the body,” 1 Cor 6:13 ESV). Paul is articulating an explicitly Christological sexual ethic here. And the Christology and ecclesiology stated in Ephesians 5 both root and are rooted in the creational form of marriage between man and woman. Now, I don’t think Smith intends this division, but it seems to be a danger inherent in his thin creedalism.

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What We Mean When We Say 'Orthodox Christianity'