I’m not writing you a new orthodoxy but an old one
This post (and the others in this very interesting series) by Michael Patton got me thinking about “orthodoxy.” The term literally means “right teaching” or “right thinking”, though Patton gives some more thorough definitions according to various camps of Christianity. If you look at the lists of beliefs that constitute orthodoxy in Patton’s post (and he did a great job assembling these), you can see that most Christian camps refer to “orthodoxy” not really as “right teaching” of Christianity as a whole but rather right teaching of specific, so called “essential” teachings of Christianity. Several questions immediately come to mind, but a few that I want to discuss here are:
- What teachings, thoughts, beliefs are “essential” to Christianity?
- How (and by whom) are such “essentials” to be determined?
- How are people’s beliefs to be determined for purpose of measuring them against the orthodox ones that are selected?
Along these lines, here are the guts of my comments at Scot McKnight’s blog about this:
I fear that [these lists] represent what I hate to see (but frequently do) in discussions of “orthodoxy”–we don’t use Jesus’ life, ministry and teachings as the plumb line, we use some favorite [or historical] interpreter(s) of him, which leads to deeper divisions in Christ’s body, just as it did in Corinth and continues to do today. . . These lists of beliefs are, therefore, better used as history of past battles over particular pieces of reality than as wholistically accurate pictures of orthodoxy. Let’s not measure men by lists. Let’s measure men by the Man. The lists, at best, present a very partial picture of orthodoxy. Whereas, the best wholistic picture we have of who God really is and wants to say and do is in Jesus’ teachings and actions. And of course, there are very good scriptural reasons to believe that God will use Jesus own life and teachings as the means of measuring everything that needs measuring. . . . We . . . may not like that putting Jesus at the center messes with our theology and puts more mystery in the whole issue of orthodoxy than we’d like, but let’s at least be express about the plumb line and let the cornerstone be the cornerstone if we’re going to measure who “lines up.” . . . Where on these lists, for example, is the belief that love of God and neighbor are the most important guides to life? Isn’t it at least a little disconcerting that the very teaching that Jesus said was the most important of the entire revelation before him isn’t mentioned in these lists of “essentials”?
What I’m getting at is that one would not likely get the same list of “essential” teachings by studying primarily the teachings of Jesus himself; in fact, some of the teachings that were thematic for Jesus and even the apostles are not considered “essential” to teaching Christianity rightly. I’m thinking, as I mentioned in the comment, of the command that Jesus said summed up all the law and prophets–loving God with every facet of our existence and our neighbors (and enemies) to boot. It is difficult to argue that this was not “essential” according to Jesus’ own thinking, or even the thinking of Paul or John or Peter, if their letters are to be believed. One could argue pretty easily based on a casual reading of the New Testament that teaching this “love” is even primary in the faith. And there are others, such as the teaching that one’s conduct shows what one truly believes.
So, I’m wondering, first, what would a list of ‘essential teachings’ look like if we based our list on what appeared to be Jesus’ own “essential” teachings and actions (and secondarily those from the rest of the NT). That would be interesting and maybe helpful. But I’m wondering even more, what if we made Jesus himself–his life, his “walk” and his teachings–as our standard for evaluating how far or close a given person or group is to “orthodox Christianity”? Isn’t he the plumb line, the cornerstone? Isn’t he the walking and talking definition of orthodox Christianity?
If we use him as the Standard instead of a partial list of teachings for determining orthodox Christians, we’d get at least a few benefits:
- We’d find that he’s the only one being perfectly orthodox in his thinking and acting, which will give us all a more graceful tone when evaluating someone else’s “orthodoxy” (which not coincidentally will make us more obedient to one of Jesus’ own teachings).
- We’d be more appropriately and equally concerned with a person’s actions as we’d be with their stated “beliefs” when evaluating what they actually believe (which again, Jesus seemed to think was a good way to think about such things).
- We’d be more concerned about our own deviation from the Standard than other people’s (yet more obedience to Jesus’ teachings).
- We’d realize that Christianity is more of a Path, more of a growing (or fading) relationship to a Person, than a checklist of right beliefs that can be verbally affirmed and checked off. More important than a snapshot of beliefs is the direction one is heading and whom one is trusting to proceed with life.
- We’d encourage and make more ‘learners of Jesus’ than ‘affirmers of lists’.
- We’d be less likely to end up with whole groups of supposedly “orthodox Christians” who are content, even entrenched, to act in direct opposition to several of Jesus’ teachings.
- We’d be using the Standard that God himself will use to judge us all.