What is “orthodox”? When we use that word we usually mean something about the established historic practices and beliefs of the Christian church. And those never change, right? Or, do they? ("Orthodox" with a capital "O" can also refer to various historic branches of the Christian church; that's not the way I'm using it here.)
I once heard a biblical scholar assert something very shocking: “All orthodoxy is heresy.” What could he mean by that? It’s not that he doesn’t agree with a traditional set of Christian teachings, but he is reacting to the complacency that often comes in times of theological conformity. When we unconditionally accept dogma without routine reflection on whether that dogma is appropriate in ongoing ways, we might be guilty of holding orthodoxy above God. And that’s idolatry, or, heresy.
The prophets routinely challenged the received orthodoxy of their day. Hosea, Amos and the others reminded the Hebrew leaders that they were falling short of God’s kingdom values—they were ignoring the poor, taking advantage of the weak and oppressing the ones they were supposed to care for. The people and their priests were deeply religious, but because of their duplicity, their worship meant nothing to God. Their orthodoxy was in need of revision.
We experience the same tension today. We are on a desperate, hurried and sometimes reckless quest for orthodoxy, thus, we formulate our creeds, dogmas and doctrines. Those aren’t bad things—they can be very helpful, especially when processed in a community of believers within a local context. But we always run the risk of allegiance to an orthodox position rather than to the one we seek to honor through the orthodoxy.
The danger comes in our attempt to make a doctrinal position into a timeless, universal tenant of orthodoxy. I know this sounds like a liberal position, but it’s not. Liberals tend to be as orthodox as conservatives—both camps dissect scripture in sterile, propositional ways and postulate doctrinal statements intended to define church practice and belief.
But theology is not so cut and dry. Theology is fluid, always in motion. I like John Franke’s definition:
"Christian theology is an ongoing, second-order, contextual discipline that engages in the task of critical and constructive reflection on the beliefs and practices of the Christian church for the purpose of assisting the community of Christ's followers in their missional vocation to live as the people of God in the particular social-historical context in which they are situated." (The Character of Theology, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005, 44).
Christian theology is an ongoing, second-order,
Franke is signaling at least three important elements of theology in this definition: (1) Theology is ongoing; it is continually shaped and nuanced by our interpretation of scripture in an ever-changing world. (2) Theology is second-order, that is, scripture is first-order, so theology is always our best attempt at interpreting words that are millennia old. (3) Theology is contextual; it is always being (or should be) done in a local context/culture with specific interpretations that speak to that culture (i.e. what is considered sin in an African culture may not be in a North American one).
If we believe that theology is fluid, orthodox statements become very problematic. I’m not talking about the basic tenants of Christianity (Jesus is the Son of God, salvation comes only through Christ, the Spirit inhabits God’s children, God’s grand plan is for the redemption of his creation, etc.), it’s the contextual issues that are difficult. This scares people because it smacks of relativism, but both liberals and conservatives will assert that at least some components of theology don't change. But do they? Can theology and orthodoxy change? What do you think?
To be continued in part 2