Orthodoxy does not have all the answers; nor does it always ask the right questions. And when it gives the right answers to the right questions, it often corrupts its claims with bad manners.
But beneath these outer garments is the warm flesh of Christian truth: the truth that love is the law of life; that all men are sinners; that Christ bore the penalty of sin; that repentant sinners are clothed with the righteousness of Christ; that Christ is confronted in and through the written Word; and that the Word is consistent with itself and with the things signified.
We have defined orthodoxy as “that branch of Christendom which limits the ground of religious authority to the Bible.” The testimony of Christ is normative for the Church, and included in this testimony is the assurance that the written Word is inspired of God, and that it has the force of law.
Orthodoxy is often branded as literalism. The charge is that orthodoxy defends the plenary inspiration of the Bible, even though destructive criticism has ostensibly demolished this doctrine. But it is instructive to note that the critics seldom give a precise definition of literalism; nor do they go on to tell what they mean by the Bible as the Word of God. If orthodoxy neglects destructive criticism out of a respect for the testimony of Christ, the critics neglect the testimony of Christ out of a respect for destructive criticism. Not only is the neglect mutual, but it is by no means clear that the neglect of the critics is more praiseworthy, let alone more Christian, than that of orthodoxy.
If we nullify the testimony of Christ at one point, we operate on a principle that leaves the mind free to nullify this testimony at all points. In this case we have little reason to believe that our hope rests on divinely appointed evidences—not even our hope that God sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world. The evidences that support the plan of salvation are precisely the same in quantity and quality as those which support the plenary inspiration of the Bible.
If orthodoxy is literalistic because it honors the rights of language in Scripture, it is in very good company, for Christ and the apostles approach the text in precisely the same manner. Critical reinterpretation may relieve faith of the scandal of plenary inspiration, but it also relieves faith of the scandal of the Cross. Tested by the canons of science and philosophy, the doctrine of justification fares no better than the doctrine of plenary inspiration.
When the Gospel is absorbed into a world system, the minister can no longer stand behind the sacred desk and cry, “Thus says the Lord!” And when the voice of the prophet is silenced, let “Ichabod” be written over the Church: the glory has departed.
The cause of destructive criticism cannot be rescued by contending that revelation is personal encounter with Christ, and that this encounter is valid whether or not the Bible is inspired. Not only is the contention void of proof, but it reduces Christian commitment to a variety of religious experience. By no analysis of personal confrontation could we discover that God made a covenant with Abraham, and that Jesus Christ is the blessing of this covenant. Only propositional revelation can clarify the state of a sinner before a holy God.
Christ taught that the plan of salvation was mediated to the Church through the office of inspired prophets and apostles. If we reject this office, we forfeit the norm by which the limits of valid confrontation are decided. In this case the religious experience of an animist has the same rights as that of a Christian, for neither the animist nor the Christian has any proof that his faith terminates in the mind of God. Religion becomes an exercise in personal feeling.
Critics also brand orthodoxy as fundamentalism, but in doing so they act in bad taste. Not only is it unfair to identify a position with its worst elements, but the critics of fundamentalism often manifest the very attitudes that they are trying to expose. The mentality of fundamentalism is by no means an exclusive property of orthodoxy. Its attitudes are found in every branch of Christendom: the quest for negative status, the elevation of minor issues to a place of major importance, the use of social mores as a norm of virtue, the toleration of one’s own prejudice but not the prejudice of others, the confusion of the Church with a denomination, and the avoidance of prophetic scrutiny by using the Word of God as an instrument of self-security but no self-criticism.
The mentality of fundamentalism comes into being whenever a believer is unwilling to trace the effects of original sin in his own life. And where is the believer who is wholly delivered from this habit? This is why no one understands fundamentalism until he understands the degree to which he himself is tinctured by the attitudes of fundamentalism.
Critics have not performed their full task until they leave the externals of orthodoxy and probe into the heart of the system itself. And once this nobler task has been executed, the critics may discover that orthodoxy is a worthy Christian option. In any case, the problems of orthodoxy are common to all who try to discover the essence of Christianity and to live by its precepts.
In the sweep of history it may turn out that orthodoxy will fail in its vocation. But in this event it should be observed that it is orthodoxy, not the Gospel, which has failed. The Word of God is not voided by the frailties of those who come in the name of the Word of God.
This essay is from The Case for Orthodox Theology by Edward J. Carnell (Copyright, 1959, by W. L. Jenkins, The Westminster Press. Used by permission). The work appears in a trilogy with The Case for Theology in Liberal Perspective and The Case for a New Reformation Theology by others.
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