‘Biblical Orthodoxy’ in popular usage – Brad Jersak
This article was inspired by and in response to Andrew Klager’s piece on The Contradictory, Convenient, and Self-Serving Impulses in Selective Biblical Literalism. He addressed the buzz to and fro regarding Michael Gungor’s supposed departure from ‘biblical orthodoxy.’ Nothing new under the sun. But I’ve noticed some oddities about this phrase ‘biblical orthodoxy’ in its popular usage.
First, I like ‘biblical.’ I like ‘orthodoxy.’ I work very hard to be both, especially seeking to attend to the Scriptures and the Church Fathers. I seek to align with them rather than bringing something novel.
But something happens around that phrase, ‘biblical orthodoxy,’ when the two words are brought together and particularly in the kind of contexts where they’re then used.
1. When the tagline ‘biblical orthodoxy’ comes up, also too frequently it’s used in the context of condemning someone according to one’s own standards of what that means — or at best, according to some modern confession of faith from one’s particular religious club. By nature, ‘biblical orthodoxy’ is a measurement, which is to say a judgment, which is to say, the grounds for condemnation — based less often on whether something is biblical or orthodox, but sadly, on whether the target in question falls within the critic’s personal range of acceptable belief. In other words, ‘biblical orthodoxy’ tends to mean ‘me’ or ‘what I know to be [un]true because I [don’t] believe it.’
2. ‘Biblical orthodoxy’ is generally used as a synonym for ‘biblical literalism,’ which as Andrew points out, isn’t terribly biblical. To be truly ‘biblical,’ one must take the Bible far more seriously than literalism allows for. ‘Biblical’ should imply a careful examination of authorial intent, ancient contexts and especially the profound nuances of various genres. Typically, literal-ism does violence to the Scriptures with its so-called ‘plain reading’ of the text … too often a trendy cipher for a surface examination of the words for how I want to apply them. My caution is that we double-check how ‘biblical’ our ‘biblical orthodoxy’ is when hauled out to crucify someone.
I think it would help when we hear the words ‘biblical orthodoxy’ to ask, ‘What do we mean by biblical?’ to ensure that we really are being biblical in the truest sense.
3. ‘Biblical orthodoxy’ is also commonly used as a synonym for ‘doctrinally sound,’ which in modern hands, may in fact be far from ‘orthodox.’ To be ‘orthodox’ is again a standard, specifically vis-a-vis heterodox or unorthodox or heretical. And by what standard is someone biblically orthodox? Apparently it depends on whether someone interprets the Bible the way I do. Obviously, personal bias should have nothing to do with the quality of one’s orthodoxy. To be ‘orthodox’ in reality is to receive the ‘apostolic faith once delivered to the saints’ as defined by specific historic creeds: the Apostles’ Creed (in the West), the Nicene Creed (325, 381) and the Creed of Calcedon (451). The phrase ‘biblical orthodoxy’ sounds to me like an attempt to divorce orthodoxy from the creeds (i.e. the apostolic faith once delivered) and remarry it to private or modern interpretations of the Bible … a wide open door to the heresies the creeds were addressing. As if we could skip the first three hundred years of faithful theological development to recreate our own faith. A historical review of recent cults shows how well that goes.
A sure sign of this problem is when individuals, ministries or denominations start composing their own faith statements. When the great creeds are somehow ‘not enough’ and need to be supplemented, consider the woeful possibility that the apostolic fathers purposely limited the range of must-believe dogmas … and that to augment these and then demand belief in our amendments is itself heretical. Those who demand biblical orthodoxy ought at least be able to cite the Nicene Creed (as all capital O-orthodox believers do weekly) and demonstrate how exactly someone (e.g. Michael Gungor) has supposedly departed from those 8 carefully worded statements.
So again, I think it would help when we hear, ‘biblical orthodoxy,’ to ask, ‘What do we mean by orthodox?’ to ensure that we really are being orthodox in the highest sense.
4. As Francis Schaeffer once said, ‘Biblical orthodoxy without compassion is surely the ugliest thing in the world.’ Indeed. From Jesus’ point of view, the two great commandments involve loving God and loving your neighbour. He added two more: loving one another (believers) and loving your enemy. Yet these central tenets of Christ-centered faith and life are mysteriously absent in both the content and the tone of every inquisition that prides itself in biblical orthodoxy. There’s the issue, isn’t it — pride versus love. Let’s be super-clear: for Jesus, love is the core of right belief and practice, the measure of biblical orthodoxy. He could not have been more clear that judging rather than loving is … well, heretical. Unless doing what Jesus explicitly forbids is now okay? From Jesus’ most famous sermon:
Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? (Matt 7:1-3)
So even as I write this, I must ask, what is the beam in my eye? How will pushing this place me under the same microscope? The best way forward for me is to pray, ‘Lord, have the same mercy on others that I want for myself’ (which I pray daily for my ‘enemies’) and ‘Lord, cleanse us all (gently but thoroughly) as I invite you to cleanse me.’
5. Finally, and most troubling, is that ‘biblical orthodoxy’ seems to me a measure of theology that competes with the only perfect theology: Jesus Christ. I’ve noticed that ‘biblical orthodoxy’ rarely addresses Christology, rarely refers to the Gospels and seriously waters down Christ-centered ethics. Indeed, if one looks carefully for ‘biblical orthodoxy’ in the four works of the Evangelists, the clearest parallel I see to that project (in form and function) were Jesus’ establishment opponents. No one claiming to be ‘biblically orthodox’ is exempt from the exclusive standard of Jesus, whose intense warning we should carry in our hearts:
Not long ago, in the name of ‘biblical orthodoxy,’ one of my beloved critics quoted something I had preached, citing me word-for-word and then shredding what I said as heretical. What he failed to notice was that the statement he specifically took issue with was the above quotation from Jesus’ own lips! Unlike the Pharisees, he was apparently unfamiliar with the Scriptures to the point of attacking Jesus’ own words because I said them and as if they were my own. Bizarre … but not rare.
To sum up, ‘biblical orthodoxy’ should be a beautiful phrase, but in these days of the internet Sanhedrin, things have gotten (to quote Dr. Klager) weird. Perhaps the takeaway of all this is that whenever we hear or read the phrase bandied about, we upgrade our discernment by asking these four questions:
1. Define ‘biblical.’
2. Define ‘orthodox.’
3. Where’s love in this?
4. Where’s Christ in this?