One of my correspondents recently put an interesting question to me: “Are there any truths that you would include in a summary of Christian (or perhaps, Biblical) Orthodoxy? If so, what would they be and how would you arrive at them?” There may well have been a barb in the question, something like, “Clay, do you believe anything at all?” Some, perhaps, doubt that I do. Even if that’s so, it’s an important question, one I would like to try to answer.
My first answer is that I don’t, don’t, that is, decide what constitutes Christian orthodoxy. The Church does. (In what follows, to avoid confusion I will capitalize “Church” when I am referring the Church of Jesus Christ broadly; when referring to a specific gathering of Christians, local or denominational, I will use the lower case “church.”) This is the burden of my piece from some time ago entitled, “The Cathedral”: https://peripateticpastor.com/2021/08/16/the-cathedral/. In that piece I describe what was for me at the time an epiphany: the fact that what the Church believes is not up to me. I don’t decide. I don’t have to decide. I don’t even have to like everything the Church believes. What I do have to decide is whether to live within its walls.
The last sentence is based on the central metaphor I used in that piece: the cathedral of the title. The cathedral is the structure formed by the Christian faith as that faith has come to expression over the ages. For the shape of that structure, take, for example, the Nicene Creed with its carefully nuanced trinitarian structure. At the center of the creed (and the faith) is the story of Jesus: his teaching, his death, and his resurrection. Around and woven through that story are Trinity, redemption, renewal, and more. The point here is not to give a description of the cathedral—I’ll come back to that below—but merely to suggest my place in it, my place and your place and the place of larger groupings, like denominations—like the church to which I belong, the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC). We (CRCers) don’t define the faith; we recognize the faith that has been delivered to us by the Church across its long history.
My epiphany, as I said, was that the choice facing me was not how to build the cathedral. I don’t build the cathedral and neither do you. One of the features of modern evangelicalism and to a lesser extent all Protestantism is that they suppose that it’s all up to you and me. We decide, so we better get this right. Puts pressure on us. The Church in this view are people who agree with each other. This gives any of us the right, perhaps the responsibility, to break communion when we differ with others. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer was reputed to have said, we will one day end up with “the church of left-handed sopranos.” Or the church of me and the church of you. Unless, of course, you want to join me in the church of me.
My interrogator seems to be sensitive to this argument. Notice how he asks the question: “Are there any truths that you would include in a summary of Christian (or perhaps, Biblical) Orthodoxy? If so, what would they be and how would you arrive at them?” He is not asking me to define orthodoxy; he is asking me to summarize it, and in summarizing it, say how it is I arrived at the summary. In terms of my metaphor, he is asking me to describe the cathedral and to say where my description comes from.
Again, it’s a good question. My initial answer—that the faith already has a shape—requires a sturdy view of the Church, sturdier, I think, than the view of the church common to evangelicalism. For that sturdy view of the church, I turn again to the Nicene creed, to the part of the creed that comes not from the Council of Nicea (325 CE) but from the Council of Constantinople (381 CE). It eloquently and incisively describes the Church in just four words: The Church is “one,” “holy,” “catholic,” and “apostolic.”
From these four words, especially the last two, “catholic” and “apostolic,” we can begin to work our way to an understanding of what constitutes the structure of the Church’s faith. In pursuit of that understanding, I’ll be brief on the first two words and somewhat more expansive on the last two.
The first thing that the creed says is that the Church is one. That the creed should have to do so betrays the lack then and now of an overall institutional unity for the Church. Despite the claims of Rome, at no point in history, including apostolic times, has the Church had a single institutional head and a single institutional structure. It’s always been churches here and churches there with differing polities and teachings. It was important then and is important now to establish that nevertheless—despite the proliferation of communions, denominations, and now non-denominational churches, despite the scattering of God’s people—there is one Church. One cathedral.
Paradoxically, the oneness of the Church compels us to recognize the variety of the Church. Expressions of the Church other than the one of which I’m a part are still Church. To assert otherwise, to claim that only my church or denomination is Church, to refuse, as do some fellowships, to pray with other Christians from other churches and denominations, is to commit the heresy of sectarianism.
This is the great error woven into the fabric of Protestantism. Protestants, especially evangelicals, are inclined to believe that they and only they have a firm grip on theological truth. In their view, other expressions of the faith are a falling off from the truth that they alone possess. One implication of the creedal affirmation of the oneness of the Church is that true Church is found in many places.
And everywhere the Church has the same task: to manifest the presence of Christ in the world. “Holy,” the second word in the creed’s description of Church, has to do with the task of the Church. Holiness in scripture has two dimensions. The first is the dimension of being set aside, called out, designated for a purpose. For this sense of the holiness of God’s people, see Exodus 19:5-6 for Israel and 1 Peter 2:9 for the New Testament Church. It’s in relationship to this task that the biblical teaching of election belongs—not, as many have it, in relationship to individual salvation. We together as Church have been chosen for a purpose, the purpose described in 1 Peter 2:9 as proclaiming “the excellences of God.”
The second dimension of holiness are those qualities that enable us—the Church—to do that which we are called to do. Central among those qualities are faithfulness (faith) to Christ, the expectant hope of the gospel, and, above all, love (1 Corinthians 13:13). Holiness is a measure of the Church’s grasp of its mission. If one separates holiness from task, it quickly becomes what many dislike in the Church, a religious unctuousness.
There’s more to be said about the oneness and holiness of the Church, much more, but for now let me press on to the last two words in the Nicene description of Church, “catholic” and “apostolic.” Caught up with those two words and the theological concepts they convey is my answer to the question I was asked: “Are there any truths that you would include in a summary of Christian (or perhaps, Biblical) Orthodoxy? If so, what would they be and how would you arrive at them?” To answer the question, one must consider theological breadth and depth. Catholicity is a measure of the breadth of the Church; apostolicity is a measure of the depth of the Church.
Begin with catholicity. Our word “catholic” is derived from a Greek word meaning, literally, “according to the whole.” The reference is to those teachings and practices that are shared across the Church. Call the sum of them “the catholic faith.” There is no precise definition of the catholic faith (and thus no fully adequate descrition of my metaphorical cathedral). The Apostles’ Creed (in the West) and the Nicene Creed, which are broadly used and accepted, are convenient summaries, although much is left out of them. I have already listed some of the teachings and practices for which there is broad agreement that they are constitutive of the essential structure of the faith. Among teachings, we might name the centrality of the story of Jesus, the way that story is embedded in the story of Israel, the two natures of Christ, the Trinity, the redemptive significance of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, and the scriptures as the Word of God; among the practices, the liturgical reading and expounding of the scriptures, the Eucharist, and baptism. Without these (and, no doubt others), you no longer have the faith as it’s always been understood and practiced. You no longer have what I am calling “the catholic faith.”
Asked how I would summarize Christian orthodoxy, I would begin with this: the catholic faith. The catholic faith includes the broad stream of tradition stemming from the apostles (I’ll come back to that idea in a moment) coming down to the contemporary Church. If “orthodox” means, as it does etymologically, “right thinking,” affirming the catholic faith means that “right thinking” is not narrow but broad, not a tight set of theological propositions but a story centered on Jesus that tells us who we are and to what we are called. It’s that on which Christians agree.
Catholicity is moreover a conversation, a conversation across the Church about who Jesus is and what it means to be the followers of Jesus. This conversation is all herky-jerky, one communion declaring they have the truth, and another saying, no it’s we who have it. But through all this the Spirit moves and the Church comes slowly to the new truths the Spirit has for us. Gradually, as if out of a mist, the shape of the cathedral has emerged in front of us and the whole world. By now, we know and see the outlines of the faith.
But as the shape of the cathedral emerges, we also notice new features, features we had not seen before, emerging with it. Perhaps one of those new features, still a bit in the mist, is the discovery that God cares about faithful love, not about whether it’s between a man and woman or between two women or two men. Maybe we are discovering slowly in the Church that sex should be loving and consensual (I’ll have more to say about this in the next post), and where it is such, God doesn’t need us to act as the sex police. Maybe. I hope so. I think so. But in much of the Church this is still emerging.
To raise this debate and others is to raise a second, related feature of catholicity. If the catholic faith is what is “according to the whole,” what holds us together, it also provides space for deep disagreement. And disagree we do, on many things. If the catholic faith holds the scriptures to be the Word of God, it allows fuzziness about just which books are included in the canon of scripture and which are not. If the catholic faith holds that central to Christian worship are the sacraments of Eucharist and baptism, it allows differences in how these sacraments are understood and administered. If the catholic faith holds that in the cross of Jesus Christ, God is reconciling God’s own self to the world, it allows vast differences in how the cross is understood. These disagreements are often sharp, but they are within the bounds of the Church and the catholic faith.
A way to think about this to add to my metaphorical cathedral the sort of little chapels that often surround the nave in cathedrals. Each of the chapels is dedicated to a given version of the faith. There may be a chapel for Baptists, perhaps one for Anglicans, and, of course, another for Reformed people. These little chapels are fine. They are comforting places to worship. But they are not the whole cathedral even though sometimes they think they are.
As we walk by these various chapels, we may be inclined to sneer at the strange things they do and believe in some of them. We may even think that a group has stretched the bounds of the catholic faith too far, but we should be very careful not to rule them out of the Church. They belong. They are part of us. I emphasize the “us.” Catholicity has to do with what constitutes “us.”
What this introduces into my picture of the church are two levels (and perhaps more) levels of Christian commitment: your commitment and mine to the Church catholic, including other Christians in various churches across the world, and your commitment and mine to the specific communion of which we are a part, which in my case, is the Christian Reformed Church. These are not the same thing. Don’t confuse the chapel for the cathedral.
My communion and yours, if it is different than mine, may have their own smaller versions of orthodoxy (“right thinking”). My communion, for example, puts a heavy emphasis on God’s choosing; it puts less emphasis on human choosing, even though both of these are found in the Bible. This is part of what it means to be “Reformed.” But these sorts of orthodoxies are not on the same level as the catholic faith. You may be convinced that God allows us to choose and find texts in the scriptures to prove your point (if you can’t find them, I can point them out to you). I may, in line with my tradition, think you are wrong about all that, but I should not on that account rule you as outside of Christ. I should, on the contrary, embrace you as a (somewhat misguided) sister or brother.
This principle amps down the rage toward heresy hunting that periodically infects church communions, including my own. It’s in respect to this principle that my own communion, the CRC, needs to have a heart-to-heart, come home to Jesus, talk about what it means to be confessional. As you know if you are a regular reader of this blog, the CRC Synod 2022 not only said that sex between same sex partners is always wrong but made the further claim that this decision is “confessional.”
We might ask what they mean by this? They might mean that anyone who holds an opinion contrary to the synod no longer can be considered Christian. They by dint of their opinion about human sexuality are outside the catholic faith. But this clearly is not true. There are faithful Christians both within and outside of the denomination who hold opinions on sex between same sex partners that differ from what the synod declared. Did the delegates at Synod 2022 really mean to say that their Episcopal (Anglican in Canada) neighbor who believes in Jesus, worships weekly using the good words of the Book of Common Prayer, and loves others as Christ has commanded, but also believes that LBGTQ+ people should be fully included in the life of the church is thereby outside the faith? I don’t have any special insight into the hearts of the delegates, but knowing what I know of synods, I would suspect that in their daily lives, despite what they decided as a body, they will continue to embrace their neighbors as sisters and brothers in Christ regardless of their opinions on the same-sex issues. At least, I hope so.
If this is true, the decision to mark what Synod 2022 decided about same-sex relationships as “confessional” was not a decision about the catholic faith but about the boundaries of the Christian Reformed Church. And, if that’s true, to call such a decision “confessional” diminishes the confessions.
There are two quite different interpretations of what the confessions are and should be all about. One is that they are statements of what it means to be Reformed—our own peculiar take on the faith. In that case, the confessions are about the ways we differ from other Christians. They are not about the catholic faith but about our “Reformed accent,” to use a metaphor once featured on the CRCNA website. But there is a second interpretation of the confessions, one that has the stronger claim, I think. It’s that the core Reformation-era confessions, the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, were never intended to define what it means to be Reformed but rather what it means to be Christian. They were intended as descriptions of the catholic faith, which the writers believed was in danger of being lost.
Of course, they are not exactly that: the confessions, as all such statements, are products of their own age and of their own particular take on Christianity, one heavily influenced by John Calvin and others. But it was not their intention to teach Calvinism. It was their intention to teach faith in Jesus Christ—to present, as best they understood it, the catholic faith.
If this is true, then in our interpretations of the confessions, we should not be using them against other Christians but as compelling statements of what every Christian should believe and do. They should be interpreted to have that “according to the whole” quality of catholicity. Perhaps this is best articulated in terms of direction: the confessions should lead us into the broader faith, not into narrow sectarianism. Any summary of the orthodox faith worth its salt needs to move in the direction of unity, not division; toward catholicity, not sectarianism.
So my first criterion for recognizing what is orthodox and what is not is that it be as much as possible the catholic faith. This requires us to step out of our little chapel at the back of the nave and into the wonders of the cathedral itself. There we will discover that the Christian truth is far larger than we thought. We will discover that for many teachings it’s not either-or but both-and. We will discover that what’s important is not be faithful to an early twentieth century version of Reformed theology and practice, but always to be reaching for the truth just beyond what we have heretofore grasped. We will discover that in the wide world of the Church there are many who believe differently than we do but who nevertheless believe well, and we will learn from them.
Enough, perhaps, but before leaving this, we need to add one more dimension to our description of the Church and the Christian faith: the dimension of apostolicity. As the creed has it, the Church is “one holy catholic and apostolic.” We need to add a dimension of depth: if catholicity is a measure of the Church’s breadth, apostolicity is a measure of the Church’s depth.
By now, my interrogator and perhaps other readers are asking: Clay, aren’t you going to say anything about the Bible? Well, yes, but not apart from the Church. The narrative in most evangelical churches is that all one needs do to find the Truth—the truth about most anything at all from the theory of evolution to same-sex marriage—is to read the Bible. You don’t even need Hebrew and Greek. Revelation is direct from your English Bible to your local church. No long history of the Church intervening.
But this is not how it works. We read the Bible out of the bosom of the Church. We would not on our own come up with the doctrine of Trinity as articulated in the Nicene Creed. It took the church centuries of debate, carefully nuancing what Trinity might mean, before it could formulate what we now believe. We are connected to the Bible through a long line of interpreters. We read the Bible through their eyes. This living link between the scriptures and us is what the creed means by “apostolic.” It’s what the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches have understood and we Protestants have often missed. If, as I believe and as I suspect you do, too, Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, then Jesus comes to us through two strains of apostolic tradition. One is the New Testament; the other is the living Church that has preserved, interpreted, loved, and delivered the apostolic tradition to us and our generation. When these two forms of tradition have been in proper dialogue with each other, they work together: the Bible critiques the living Church; the living Church interprets and applies the Bible in ever changing circumstances.
So, if my first question is whether a given teaching or practice is catholic; my second is whether it is apostolic. This does not mean that the given teaching or practice can be found in the Bible or, for that matter, in the early Church. Were that the criterion, we probably wouldn’t be baptizing babies or confessing God as trinitarian. The criterion is more nuanced than that. It can be expressed in terms of trajectory. Does this new teaching or practice arise out of a trajectory we can trace back to the origins of the faith. Is it apostolic?
Take, for example, Paul’s comment in Galatians 3:28, where he says that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, man nor woman. This text establishes a trajectory, one we can trace through the history of the Church down to the recent debate on women in office. In every age, the Church must grasp anew what it means to be Christian, but in doing so, it must take account of how our faith has been understood and delivered to us by earlier generations.
If we take this more ample view of apostolicity, a curious thing happens with respect to the Bible. Removed from the pressure to be the decider of all issues, what Karl Barth called a “paper pope,” the Bible can suddenly begin to breathe again—and to breathe the Spirit of God. We can read the Bible for what it is, not what our fevered theology requires it to be. We no longer need impose on the Bible the requirement that it say one and the same thing in every part, or that it affirm our theology over against those other people’s theology, or that it tell us what to think about some thoroughly modern issue. Freed from being what we demand the Bible to be, it becomes what it is: a book that tells us in a variety of ways how to be human and how, as humans, to walk with God in Jesus Christ.
There is much more to be worked out here, but it’s past time to wrap this up. Before I do, let me propose one more metaphor for the nature of orthodoxy: not a cathedral but a metaphor once employed by George Lindbeck (The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984). Lindbeck suggested that the Christian faith was like a language, and like a language, it has a grammar. There are right ways and wrong ways to speak it. We learn to speak it at home (if we grew up Christian), in church, and from people who in their speaking or writing instruct us in the faith.
As in the case of the grammar of a language, what is the right way to speak it is not a matter of a book of rules. The rules of a language are not established by what you learned in seventh grade, despite the earnest efforts of the grammar police. The rules of a language are established by usage, and because they are so established, they change with time. Our English is not the same as the English of Chaucer. Or, for that matter, the English of our grandparents. Nor is our English the English of Scotland or India or Nigeria but all these remain English. This dynamic unity and diversity are the properties of a living language. Our language has its own form of catholicity and apostolicity.
These are also the properties of our living faith. Our faith may be spoken differently in one part of the world than another or, perhaps, even in one part of a city than another, but it remains the same faith. To believe this is entailed in our belief in the Spirit of God. In a curious way, the unity of the language of faith is best served not by speaking only to those who speak it the same way we do, as if our version of the language of faith was the only version, but in speaking to others who speak it differently. In our speaking together, the language is enriched and strengthened.
But suppose we feel compelled to write a descriptive grammar of the language of our faith. This is what my interrogator was asking me to do. Notice I said “descriptive,” not prescriptive. All too often grammars of our faith are written with the intention of saying to the everyone else that they speak as we do. Better, I think, in the midst of the glorious variety of expressions of our faith to write something descriptive of how the language of faith has been spoken among us and spoken well. If you felt compelled to write such a grammar, how would you write it?
I was once asked to participate in a project to do just that: write a descriptive grammar of our shared faith. The group was appointed by the synod of the CRC to revise and update an already much loved and used testimony called, “Our World Belongs to God.” In revising the testimony, we sought to write the faith in a way that captured its essential grammar. Did we succeed in doing so? Perhaps in places we did, and perhaps in other places we did not. In retrospect I think that we did not dive deep enough into the faith to formulate a statement that truly addresses our time. We were too cautious.
But for now let “Our World Belongs to God” be a partial answer to the question which my correspondent put to me. Not the document itself, although I still affirm it, but the process by which our group proceeded. How would I summarize the faith? And how would I decide what belongs to that summary and what doesn’t? I would do as we did in that committee: I would start with what was already a much loved and much used statement of faith, and I would gather in a room with other believers, and with the scriptures in hand and with what we collectively know of the long history of the Church, together put pen to paper and with all tentativeness and after much debate with eye to the catholic faith and the apostolic testimony, say, “This is our God, and this is what our God has done.”
And then together in the light of what we had affirmed step out to serve that God. And rejoice with those who served alongside of us, whether they affirm our statement or not.