Does Orthodoxy Need an Adjective?

Some qualifiers of orthodoxy, like “Eastern” and “Russian,” have been in parlance for centuries

For many, contemporary adjectives intend to improve orthodoxy, or at least to give it a fresh face. Purportedly innocuous qualifiers seek to correct the alleged problems by those who wish to cling to the “orthodox” label: neo-orthodoxy, generous orthodoxy, humble orthodoxy, and even beautiful orthodoxy. But do these qualifiers disqualify orthodoxy?

 

As orthodoxy[1] itself has come under contemporary fire, religious and cultural forces persuade many to extend the theological fence posts. The logic? Exclusivity of the Christian faith is the cause of intolerance; intolerance is not tolerable, so therefore, change the orthodox faith. Orthodoxy is the problem. Therefore, to make orthodoxy palatable, move its intolerant boundaries.

Adjectives have played a formidable, if not always intentional, role in making the changes. Some qualifiers of orthodoxy, like “Eastern” and “Russian,” have been in parlance for centuries, and represent a complexion of historical, geographical, and theological factors for their explanation. While a reasonable examination of these historic terms for their theological function merits attention, of greater concern and focus here are the newer adjectives at work in contemporary parlance.

Neo, Generous, Humble, and Beautiful

For many, contemporary adjectives intend to improve orthodoxy, or at least to give it a fresh face. Purportedly innocuous qualifiers seek to correct the alleged problems by those who wish to cling to the “orthodox” label: neo-orthodoxy, generous orthodoxy, humble orthodoxy, and even beautiful orthodoxy. But do these qualifiers disqualify orthodoxy?

Most of us associate neo (new)-orthodoxy with Karl Barth. That is no mistake, for the Barthian redefinitions of “orthodox” faith birthed a new theology. Though Barth has been commended by some for challenging features of liberalism, his neo-orthodoxy has greater theological affinity for liberalism than it does biblical Christianity. In Barth’s critical methodology, the adjective “neo” (new) drowns the noun (orthodoxy), exposing neo-orthodoxy for what it is: heterodoxy.

A decade ago, in his popular book, A Generous Orthodoxy (with its verbose, ambiguating subtitle), Brian McLaren defends a less than novel and less than orthodox idea. People differ in their perspectives. Truth divides. Love, as he defines it, missionally unites. Therefore we must redefine truth in a more inclusive manner, in a way that rids orthodoxy of its loveless, boundary-centric orientation. With flowery rhetoric, McLaren engineers flimsy bridges between theologically disparate groups, and attempts to validate mutually exclusive perspectives on Jesus and the Bible. His postmodern approach is strikingly generous to his own authority, and quite stingy when it comes to God’s. MacLaren’s relativizing views offer another failed attempt to spin unorthodoxy as orthodoxy. At the end of the day, he postulates a theology that is neither generous nor orthodox.

In 2013, Joshua Harris published Humble Orthodoxy. Unlike McLaren, Harris is committed to scriptural authority and openly orthodox in his views. He commendably urges his readers to humility in holding and speaking their orthodox convictions. His concern is more attitudinal than theological. Harris is not the first to note arrogant expressions of historic faith, which occur in every generation of the Church. However, though sympathetic with his book’s rebukes against sinful expressions of truth, I wonder about the ultimate helpfulness of his categories: arrogant orthodoxy, humble heterodoxy, and humble orthodoxy. The core problem, which Harris rightly acknowledges, is with the ungodly manner which certain proponents of orthodoxy carry on. But his categories ostensibly confuse the truth with the truth holder, and thereby unwittingly malign the very orthodoxy he advocates.

Pardon the grammar lesson here, but words matter. The concatenation of the qualifying adjective with the meaningful noun implies a needed correction to the noun. To put it in question form, is the answer to arrogance found in some corrective of truth itself? Is arrogant orthodoxy the enemy of humble orthodoxy? Or is the rebuke for arrogance not properly directed at the speaker instead? Though surely not by intent, Harris’ addition of such adjectives unintentionally caters to the common distaste for orthodoxy and mistakenly locates the problem in truth itself. The problem is not with orthodoxy, but with certain of those who express it. What needs modifying is not orthodoxy, but the orthodox.

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