What We Mean When We Say 'Orthodox Christianity'

James K.A. Smith wants to focus on the creeds, not sexuality. But there's more to it than that.
What We Mean When We Say 'Orthodox Christianity'
Image: Wikipedia
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.

Beyond that, I must say it does not seem those whom Smith suggests are “stretching” the markers of orthodoxy are “oddly selective,” as he claims. They are reactive to particular, current movements to normalize and sanction behaviors in the church that have been scandalous to it for 2,000 years. There may be a selectivity about it that is worth critiquing, given other scandals we may think are occurring without much notice. But there’s nothing unintelligible or suspicious about a widespread reaction to this issue, since on no other issue does there appear to be such a full-court press toward revision and acceptance in both society and the church.

What’s more, it doesn’t seem that the focus on sexual immorality is out of place, considering the focus it was given in the life of the early church. Consider the first church council, in Jerusalem (Acts 15). One of the first rules the apostles laid down for the Gentiles, in order that they be seen as Christians in good standing, was to abstain from “sexual immorality,” a term which, in first-century Judaism, was largely informed by Leviticus 18, including its proscription of same-sex intercourse. This indicates just how central sexual ethics was to the practice and understanding of the gospel in the first century.

Similarly, this focus continues in the writings of the Fathers. In fact, the Councils themselves had various canons attached to them which included much moral and ethical instruction beyond the specific definitions and creeds usually associated with them. For this reason, no less a theologian than Wolfhart Pannenberg thought churches who broadened their definitions of acceptable sexual behavior were formally schismatic, long before the recent wave of post-Obergefell anxieties.

Mountain or Molehill

Returning to the present moment, the danger most critics are reacting to is that if we don’t label something a matter of orthodoxy, it tends to become minimized to an adiaphora, an “agree to disagree” issue. Smith is not trying to do that. He says this linguistic change doesn’t signal that SSM is a matter of indifference. And yet there is a danger of doing just that when he asks this question:

Do you really want to claim that Christians who affirm all of the historic markers of orthodoxy but disagree with you on matters of sexual morality or nonviolence or women in office are heretics? So that someone can affirm the core, scandalous, supernatural tenets of the Gospel, and affirm the radicality of grace, and yet fall outside the parameters of your small-o “orthodox Christianity?”

There are couple of problems here. The first is lumping the issue of SSM together with issues like the ordination of women and nonviolence. The exegetical and traditional witness on women’s ordination is much more split than that on SSM. Even starker (at least in the tradition) is the difference on the matter of nonviolence and just war theory. The affirmation of SSM in Western, post-Enlightenment cultures in the late 20th century is a new thing for the faith. Putting these issues in the same category understates the difference between them and (unintentionally) suggests that they should all be treated the same way.

Second, I think we fail to consider that the battles over orthodoxy in the first few centuries occurred between people who had much more agreement among themselves on core Christian beliefs than they did with the surrounding pagan culture. For instance, the sixth ecumenical council (Constantinople 3, 680–681), which ruled on the issue of Monothelitism, was parsing very fine distinctions about the nature of Christ’s two natures. All the participants could plausibly say, “Hey look, we’re all Nicene and Chalcedonian Christians here.” Someone from the outside would certainly have seen their disputes as distinctions with barely a difference.

You had a dispute between Christians who affirmed “the supernatural tenets of the gospel,” grace, the resurrection of Christ, the Son’s consubstantiality with the Father, and so forth, yet this very fine distinction about Christ’s two wills was deemed a marker of orthodoxy because if it wasn’t affirmed, it functionally and materially undermined the rest of orthodox Christian doctrine. At this ecumenical council, some Nicaea- and Chalcedon-affirming Christians believed other formally Nicaea- and Chalcedon-affirming Christians were nonetheless promoting heresy. No one sets out to create heresy, but some sincere attempts to explain our faith end there. I think we need to consider the reality of theological controversy in history when we think about Smith’s questions and our unwillingness to use strong language about the issue.

Defining ‘Orthodoxy’

As I said, though, I don’t mind using a different term, so long as we all agree that orthodox means only “signs off on the right propositions on some foundational issues settled by church creeds and definitions.” But what needs to be made absolutely clear at that point is that orthodoxy would then be an extremely limited concept for determining ecclesial boundaries and distinguishing normative Christian belief and practice. Orthodoxy would be necessary but nowhere near to sufficient for flagging the totality of beliefs within the acceptable spectrum of normative Christianity.

Let me put it this way: given this limited view of the term orthodoxy, it would be a coherent statement to say, “Joe is an orthodox Christian who believes adultery can be Christian behavior.” Or, “Joe is an orthodox Christian who believes bearing false witness can be Christian behavior.” Or, “Joe is an orthodox Christian who believes coveting can be Christian behavior.” None of those statements is incoherent unless “orthodox” just means “formally aligns on key Nicene and Chalcedonian propositions.” Yet it’s obvious in each case, somewhere Joe is severely out of line with the gospel. My point is that whatever extra term we might use to discuss the acceptability of SSM, that term would need to have some real, normative force.

Otherwise, while we may say this isn’t an issue of indifference, the more we repeat sentences like “Well, this is an argument between orthodox believers,” the more we begin to hear, “Well, this is a discussion between believers who are all basically in line with the gospel.” Smith’s thin definition of orthodoxy would still carry the thicker connotation it has typically had with all its boundary-defining force. Use of the term would become a theological bait-and-switch, or a reverse motte-and-bailey, in which we start with a modest claim and subsequently substitute it for a stronger one.

With that said, what different word would do? I suppose traditional could work, for the reasons Smith mentions. But that seems to lack something of the moral and ecclesial force it needs in order to flag the importance of the uniformity of opinion on the issue in church practice and history. What’s more, the implied binary term, un-traditional, still manages to carry with it a bit of cachet in our culture that is unhelpful.

I’m tempted to suggest a difference between a catholic sexual ethic versus an un-catholic or revisionist one. That term would be close in sense to traditional but give a clearer testimony that this view is the only one that could plausibly fit the Vincentian Canon or criterion of catholicity (“what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all”). In which case, someone could be “orthodox” creedally while “un-catholic” as to ethical practice, and we would have a better sense of the situation.

I am not committed to that language. Perhaps apostolic could do. Or maybe I’m being too finicky and traditional is enough. The point is that whichever term we might choose, it would need to give an unambiguously clear signal that this is a very, very serious deviance from historic Christian belief. And it’s an issue that, if gotten wrong, has serious moral and spiritual repercussions.

The matter of sexuality and gender is one of the most controversial questions facing the church today. The conversations are inevitable and necessary, and we must not shirk them. Nor can we take them lightly. As Smith says, how we have these conversations matters. We need to conduct them with the love, grace, charity, and the courage of those whose lives are marked by the confession of God’s forgiveness.

I also think it’s pastorally wise to keep a clear eye on the distinction between teachers and congregants, and the sort of responsibility we apportion to those involved. With Wesley Hill, I want to be able to conduct conversations on the basis of shared convictions. Paul appealed to Peter as a brother, on the basis of the gospel they shared, to live consistent with that gospel. But it’s worth recalling that Paul was also ready to claim that anybody who persisted in denying that gospel the way Peter seemed to be doing risked anathema (Gal. 1:6–9). Paul was personally, lovingly engaged in calling his brother to the truth yet was crystal clear about the importance of that truth.

I suggest we be similarly clear on exactly what sort of conversation we’re having.

Derek Rishmawy is a doctoral student in systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. This article was adapted from a post on his blog, Reformedish.

December
Subscribe to CT and get one year free.
Christianity Today
What We Mean When We Say 'Orthodox Christianity'