Over a century ago, G. K. Chesterton wrote his famous book Orthodoxy, a defense of plain, historic Christianity as the only compelling way to make sense of the world and its mysteries.
Trevin Wax stands firmly in Chesterton’s tradition with his new book, The Thrill of Orthodoxy: Rediscovering the Adventure of Christian Faith. Wax, a Southern Baptist whose wife hails from Romania, is a far cry from Chesterton’s Anglo-Catholicism. In his own way, however, he is attempting to emulate Chesterton’s defense of the truth and goodness of Christian orthodoxy for our own age.
Earlier this year, Wax came out with his own annotated edition of Chesterton’s classic, meant to introduce it to beginners while bringing fresh insights to longtime admirers. It makes sense, then, for Wax to plot his own path, showing why historical Christianity—what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity” and Thomas Oden called “consensual Christianity”—is the farthest thing from a relic of the past.
Digging down, not digging in
The book’s foreword, written by theologian Kevin Vanhoozer, is an elegant reminder that Christian orthodoxy is about realism—what is real and what is true. It is there to help believers stay true to their Lord Jesus Christ. Wax builds on this insight in his first chapter, arguing that defending the orthodox faith matters urgently today because we live in an age of fads, fabrications, and fragmentation.
Orthodoxy is what keeps us rooted in the faith, ensuring that we do not forget our first love. The spiritual malaise of our age needs to be cured, Wax says, with “confidence in the truth and goodness of the Christian faith.” By anchoring ourselves in the historical creeds and confessions of the church—which themselves are summaries of Scripture—we can stay true to the triune God. Such a faith, far from being dry and rigidly dogmatic, represents a kind of drama, to use language popularized by Vanhoozer. As Wax writes, committing to orthodoxy doesn’t mean “digging in,” but instead “digging down to the bedrock of our faith, so we can stand.”
The objection often comes, of course, that orthodoxy is a suffocating box—that it inhibits our ability to think and reflect for ourselves. As Wax argues, however, it is more like having a map to a land of adventure that one is free to explore. (To use a Doctor Who analogy, orthodoxy is like the Doctor’s TARDIS, in that it is much bigger on the inside than it appears on the outside.)
On the surface, maps and blueprints might not sound like the stuff of excitement, but their value comes in showing you how to get around, indicating what paths to take and what hazards to avoid. Playing around in the fields of ambiguity might feel like fun for a while, but eventually you want to reach your destination. You want to find that buried treasure.
Although certainty about the truth can puff up into arrogance, orthodox assurance does not require abandoning humility. As Wax comments, “The adventure of orthodoxy requires us to embark on the journey with humility, seeing religion not as something we construct, but as divine revelation we receive.”
He takes pains to illustrate that heresy, not orthodoxy, is ultimately narrow. Orthodoxy recognizes that truth is multifaceted and multidimensional, whereas heresies trade in either-or equations. Think of Arianism or Docetism, for instance, both of which question whether Jesus can be fully human and fully divine.
Christians are not religious pluralists, of course. We don’t regard Jesus as merely one of many paths up the mountain. But we do believe in the exclusive claims of an inclusive Savior—one who calls himself “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6, CSB) but freely extends the gift of salvation to all who call upon his name.
If one complaint about Christian orthodoxy is that it shackles the intellect, another is that it overemphasizes what you believe relative to how you live. Wax warns against this unhelpful dichotomy between deeds and creeds, explaining that our beliefs and our actions go hand in hand. He points out that the bridge between doctrine and application is the person of Jesus. What one believes about him shapes how one lives for him.
This connection is part of what makes orthodoxy exhilarating rather than stifling. “Religion,” as Wax defines this general category, is about “a reward for achieving spiritual growth and excellence.” In contrast, “The Christian story is not about humanity ascending, but about God descending. The Son of God comes down the mountain to save us, for we cannot save ourselves.” Wax notes that orthodoxy stretches beyond beliefs to include habits, behaviors, pieties, and ethics. We can’t separate it from keeping Jesus’ commands—which we can do only with God’s enablement. As Wax writes, “Grace changes. Grace empowers. Graces makes us new. This is the challenge of orthodoxy.”
Wax provides several examples of how people can find themselves drifting away from God, perhaps without realizing it. Sometimes this results from just going through the motions. On other occasions, believers are anxious about being on the wrong side of the culture. Often enough, the culprit is nothing more than simple apathy. This is understandable, given that so many doctrinal disputes can seem arcane and irrelevant. Even so, we distinguish between orthodoxy and heresy because the dangers of heresy are real! There are positions that need to be affirmed and positions that need to be rejected.
Whatever the reasons for drift, Wax says, we need to develop habits of swimming against the currents of culture (at least some of the time) and embracing a more lasting passion for the gospel. Orthodoxy means being moored to something tested, tried, and true, rather than drifting downstream with whatever currents wash over us.
Furthermore, it means resisting the twin temptations of accommodation and retreat. The first option seeks to make Christian truth palatable to the spirit of the age. The problem, as one popular saying has it, is that if you marry the spirit of one age, you’ll be a widow in the next. The second option, huddling inside a fortress of the holy, is equally objectionable, because it chooses purity over unity and preservation over mission. Christianity might declare itself against certain things, but always for the sake of the world it seeks to reach with the Good News.
By far the most stimulating part of the book is chapter 9, where Wax explains how orthodoxy is unchanging yet flexible. Orthodoxy is not an end in itself, and it’s possible for doctrine, however essential, to become an idol. Addressing our post-Christian age, Wax warns against adopting a righteous-remnant mentality, where we cast ourselves as the faithful few. Even as we hold to “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3, ESV), we live in the modern world, which calls for a posture of semper reformanda, or “always reforming.”
One theme Wax highlights here—one that more Americans could stand to heed—is the importance of seeing ourselves as connected to the global church. “The beating heart of orthodoxy,” he writes, in a passage worth the price of the book itself, “is not a personal adventure of self-discovery, a patching together of our preferred versions of the Christian faith. It is the connection to saints in various cultures and climates, with different languages, and traditions, all united by a common confession in Jesus Christ, the king.”
A final chapter concerns the future of orthodoxy. The churches that will survive and thrive in the future, Wax argues, are those that actively connect our doctrine with our sense of wonder. Heresy might offer some short-time kicks, but only orthodoxy can promise a lifetime of thrills.
Streams of renewal
Wax’s book is a timely word of encouragement in an age when, all too often, social media and news programs do more to form Christians than the church’s historic teaching or even the Bible. The temptation is to abandon religion as dull and dogmatic or to exploit Christianity as capital for one’s political beliefs. Wax calls us to put aside the godless seductions and idolatries of this age. He writes, “The future of the church belongs to those who want to scale the mountain, who yearn to become more like Christ, who rely on the Spirit for salvation and sanctification, as we were made anew into the image of the one who saved us. The future of the church depends on the thrill of orthodoxy.”
As an Australian theologian viewing American evangelicalism from the outside, I can only think of a few books I would view as must-reads for American churches, but The Thrill of Orthdoxy is definitely one of them. Wax presents a great case for orthodoxy over politics, orthodoxy against heresy, orthodoxy for our spiritual nourishment, orthodoxy for the benefit of the world, and orthodoxy for the glory of God.
In our time, deconstructing faith is a big, sexy trend, and Christian nationalism is making a comeback. As an antidote to those temptations, I hope Wax’s celebration of historic orthodoxy gets a wide hearing. What we need most is not continuing culture wars over vaccines, critical race theory, and the like. It isn’t pastors using their pulpits to audition for Fox News pundit gigs, or exvangelical celebrities complaining on TikTok about Christians who unapologetically treat Christinaity as superior to other faiths. No, what we need most is returning to authentic worship of Jesus Christ. American churches will find streams of spiritual renewal only through recovering the gospel and its embodiment in the orthodox faith of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
Michael F. Bird is academic dean and lecturer in New Testament at Ridley College in Melbourne. He is the author of Religious Freedom in a Secular Age: A Christian Case for Liberty, Equality, and Secular Government.
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