As a personal challenge I tweeted this morning that the first person to pick a topic would get a blog post from yours truly on said topic. Juan C. Torres, a fellow I’d consider a theologian of hope, chose “the broadness of orthodoxy.” So the “orthodoxy” in the title will refer to belief rather than the ancient Christian Church of the East.
I don’t know if it was Augustine who actually coined the phrase, “In the essentials, unity; in the non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity,” but this functions as a catchphrase for a great many Christians (as well it should!). The question to consider is exactly what beliefs fall into what categories and how do we know?
I’m a firm believer that a focus on non-essentials is largely responsible for so many denominations and sects within the body of Christ. For example, I take baptism as essential, but the mode of baptism as non-essential, and yet we divide over the mode when we agree on the fact of baptism itself. And yet each mode is within the bounds of orthodoxy based on the essential belief in the practice of baptism.
But how do we know? What’s the standard that defines “right belief”? I think Jesus is the place to start, but starting with Jesus necessarily entails starting with the Trinity because Jesus was, is, and forever will be an eternal divine person who took on humanity in obedience to the will of his Father and in the power of the Spirit. What Jesus said and did he said and did in the power of the Spirit with the express intent of obeying his Father’s will.
From Jesus we move to the Scriptures. It’s a cyclical relationship in the sense that we know what Jesus believed, said, and did based on what Scripture says he believed, said, and did. So Jesus is the foundation of Scripture’s authority, which is the foundation for what we know of Jesus who is the foundation for the authority of Scripture, which tells us about Jesus, ad infinitum. This is why I don’t fret when I read a statement of faith that begins with Scripture and then moves to the Trinity. They both lead to each other.
So Jesus and Scripture. We start there. Now we go to the Apostles’ doctrine, which is based on Jesus’ teaching and example. From the Apostles we move to their followers and then theirs and so on and so forth. The Church, as the body of Christ, is a living, breathing, moving entity. Its life began long ago and it continues up until this day so we need to pay attention to apostolic and patristic exegesis, which was codified for us in Ecumenical creeds and confessions.
Those creeds and confessions represented the very life of the Church in the periods that they were drafted, which in turn said something about the periods before they were drafted, and then informed the Church in the periods after they were drafted. But to simplify matters, I’m making an argument for Scripture and Tradition, both of which mediate Christ (some would argue for Scripture as Tradition). “Right belief” is only so broad as the Scriptures that God breathed forth and the faith and practice of the Church throughout history allow.
But this is where things get interesting. Again, we have this habit of focusing on non-essentials; things that Scripture never explicitly affirms or denies and the Church at large has never considered primary or reached a consensus on. In turn we label those who disagree with us as heretics when the truth is that there just might be room within the ranks for their understanding of the Scriptures and Tradition.
Take Juan for example. Remember when I called him a theologian of hope? I call him that because he has a conviction based on his reading of the Scriptures and his understanding of the tradition that all will be saved in Christ. I disagree. Wholeheartedly. But is his belief somehow outside of the bounds of orthodoxy? Or is orthodoxy broad enough to say that the fact of salvation in Christ is essential, but the scope is not?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and answers to that question in the comments or on Twitter. What other examples can you think of? Would you agree or disagree on my standard of Scripture and Tradition as mediators of Christ? What would you add or take away? Sound off!