Invocations of Christian orthodoxy

constantine and council of nicaea biblioteca capitolare, vercelli, c 825 wiki commons

One of the remarkable things about contemporary Christianity is a surprising consensus between Christians who often find themselves at odds on some powerfully divisive issues. There are vocal Christians who consider themselves progressive, and vocal Christians who consider themselves traditionalists, who are agreed on at least one thing: that, at least on some questions, there is such a thing as heresy, and we can identify it, and therefore there is also orthodoxy. I want to probe what it is about the concept of orthodoxy that makes it so attractive, why it is also a difficult concept to enact, practically, and how we might rethink it a little.

For many progressive Christians today, if twitter is any indication, white supremacy is heresy. For most traditionalists, same-sex marriage is heretical. These judgments are, of course, not mutually exclusive: I can well imagine there are those who think that marriage between a man and a woman is Christian orthodoxy who also think white supremacy is heresy. For others, their opposition to white supremacy may be linked with their advocacy of same-sex marriage, where the discourse of justice often approximates to the discourse of orthodoxy. And the converse can be true too: white supremacy can be intertwined with sexual orthodoxies to which Christian communities have subscribed. To take another example that underscores my point: in the Church of England, some traditionalists are now urging that the marking of a transition of gender identity by way of baptism or the renewal of baptismal vows departs from a historic orthodoxy about biological sex. These issues are immensely important in different ways, but what interests me here is the invocation of orthodoxy: the declaration that one position on these issues is heretical and the other orthodox. The discourse of orthodoxy, and the practice of invoking it, is alive and vigorous.

Why do we still turn to those categories? Why not just argue for the theological and ethical rightness or wrongness of a given stance, and bring forward arguments for that view or against the other? I think the answer has to do with the social, soteriological and quasi-judicial character of orthodoxy as a concept.

Of course, orthodoxy involves normative judgments. But their normative character is not simply a function of the strength of the arguments made on their behalf by appeal to warrants like Scripture, tradition, interpretations of empirical evidence or of particular experiences. Such arguments are made for all kinds of positions not declared orthodox or heretic, nor do they suffice for something to be established as orthodoxy or rejected as heresy. Those moves involve operations of human authority (however understood as backed by or mediating divine authority), which brings us to the social dimension of orthodoxy.

As used in these contexts, and continuous (I think) with many wider Christian usages, orthodoxy denotes a doctrinal consensus in respect of some matter that is exclusive of some others: that this is the right teaching we share, and these claims or practices are incompatible with it. That’s part of the concept of orthodoxy implicit, for example, in the arguments of early Christian figures like Irenaeus, when they appeal to the catholic character of the rule of faith: this summary of faith is the same across the inhabited world.

Irenaeus’ arguments in Against Heresies also indicates another ingredient: orthodoxy includes the idea of a group who are competent and authorised to make judgments about orthodoxy (bishops in succession from the apostles, Irenaeus thought).

But while the competence and authority of this group may rest formally on appeals to apostolic tradition or sanctity or wisdom, learning or especial inspiration by the Holy Spirit, those claims need to be recognised. The group’s authority and the acceptability of its judgments functionally depends on their being accepted by those for whose sake, or on whose behalf, they judge and speak. Indeed, their claims to competence and authority are usually strongest when they are said to speak on behalf of a wider Christian community and its implicit consensus or ‘mind’, reflecting the presence of God among them. Hence the concept of orthodoxy often includes a wider reference, beyond the promulgating group, to those who may not be competent to articulate doctrine, but who are competent as practitioners of the faith and to whose practices or piety appeal may be made.

Orthodoxy also includes the sense that the boundaries set by this doctrinal consensus matter before God in a way that is vital to the life and witness of Christian communities and their members, at least. Orthodoxy is invoked about issues said to be vital to what lies at the heart of Christianity, to what is essential.

st_gregory nazianzen

This relation of orthodoxy to Christianity’s essence and the boundaries that will preserve it (the essence is paradoxically vulnerable) entails the judicial and political element: the notion that it is incumbent on those who lead Christian communities to maintain those boundaries in some way and incorporate them into the practice of Christian initiation and formation, into Christian identity. We can find these ideas implicit in a sermon preached by Gregory of Nazianzus, a fourth century bishop, to those he was to baptise in Constantinople, January 381. He told them that the confession of the Trinity, including the Nicene consubstantiality of the Son with the Father, was ‘the ‘good deposit’ for which he lived, fought, which he hoped to take with him [in death], with which he bore every pain and scorned every pleasure, which he entrusted to them, and with which he would baptise them and bring them up again (Or. 40.41). He would inscribe it upon their souls (Or. 40.44), overwriting the heresies they may have been taught before. The same idea is involved in the notion of ‘adiaphora’, things it is safe to disagree about, because salvation is not at stake.

It is worth noting that the incorporation of boundary-markers into Christian identity has had all kinds of unhappy and unforeseen consequences, licensing violence and mobilising some of the most problematic elements of the Christian tradition, such as its supersessionism and its attachment to the human/animal binary, in support of anti-Jewish rhetoric and anti-semitism and later to sanction the enslavement of some human beings through racial categories. Orthodoxy as a practice is easily turned toxic.

These elements – an exclusive social consensus advanced by a competent, authorised group which, often drawing on the mind of the community of the faithful (an implicit social consensus), establishes boundaries needed to protect the essence of Christianity for the spiritual safety of Christian communities, which are incorporated into practices of Christian formation and identification – give the invocation of orthodoxy and heresy much of its potency, far beyond asserting theological claim and counter-claim. But there is more.

I remember the power of the concept of soundness, functionally equivalent to orthodoxy, in my own early Christian formation, and the horror of doctrinal error and the associated divine displeasure it risked incurring. Orthodoxy is not simply a concept. It is also an affective economy of friendship and fellowship, of loyalty, support, fear,  suspicion and concern. That economy that runs through all kinds of activities and settings, informal as well as formal. Orthodoxy as a practice gains power from these affective elements. It has its founding narratives to help mobilise them, too: of the heroes who held the line, of the struggles of those who contended for the truth. And it has its symbolic objects as focii of attachment, not least icons and texts, especially the Bible. There is an imaginary of orthodoxy. One of the less helpful functions of the qualifier ‘biblical’ in these contexts is to run all these elements together in a way that is at once very powerful and also obscures the social character of the orthodoxies it variously denotes.

When Gregory preached his Oration on Baptism in 381, he had the support of the new emperor, Theodosius I, who had recently arrived in Constantinople. Imperial endorsement represented a victory for supporters of the Nicene interpretation of Christianity after decades of conflict that would be confirmed in the troubled Council of Constantinople, held that same year (Gregory briefly presided over that Council, before resigning the chair and his see). That victory involved only the making and sustaining of alliances between bishops, who were often members of the social elite in their locality. The making of orthodoxy is in part a matter of the assembling and deployment of power, in which some actors’ standing and authority is a function or product of wider structures of power which may bear no relation to their competence and which may often be the same structures that sustain the systemic exploitation of other human beings.

Also integral to that alliance making was an immense amount of theological labour, of theological construction. I don’t mean that the bishops were making it up, nor that their positions represented a radical departure from previous forms of Christianity (a debate for another day). I do mean that they had to innovate conceptually and hermeneutically in order to articulate what they took to be a confession essential to Christian faith intelligibly and coherently as far as possible (and they had to argue that that the articulation of that coherence and intelligibility had limits). The making of orthodoxy was complex, difficult, ambiguous and protracted politically and theologically. Orthodoxy is achieved before it is received, even when it is seeking to be faithful to what has been handed down.

Theodosius made Nicene Christianity the only legal form of religion in the Roman Empire. Here, then, we have a further element: the backing of state sanction and state power. This element is not, I think, intrinsic to the notion of orthodoxy. The example of Irenaeus, for example, indicates a notion of orthodoxy operative long before Constantine (the pre-Nicene orthodoxy for which Rowan Williams argued long ago). And we are still using it today. But particular difficulties attend contemporary invocations of orthodoxy.

In a way, the revision and promulgation of the Creed of Nicaea at Constantinople in 381 and the ‘Triumph of Orthodoxy’ represents a kind of watershed: the farthest extent of consensus on a doctrinal boundary, backed by sacralised secular power, before the long-lasting divisions that would be engendered among Nicene Christians in centuries that followed. It is also an example of a long-enduring paradigm of orthodoxy as authorised by an ecumenical council said to be guided by the Holy Spirit, and supported by the state, that had begun with Constantine I and the first Council of Nicaea.

nicene-constantinopolitan creed

The doctrinal standard of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed promulgated by an ecumenical council, affirmed by a second (Chalcedon), backed by a pious emperor, and extensively enforced, represents orthodoxy in a form which has become ever more difficult to approximate in its catholicity, in successive forms of Christian empire, as the church split again and again over various doctrinal issues.

Where church and state have been separated, or their ties loosened, there has been a further massive shift. In seventeenth-century Europe it was, as Ephraim Radner has shown in A Brutal Unity, a solution advanced to the phenomenon of Christians killing one another and explicitly invoking doctrinal reasons – orthodoxies – when they did so (which is not to deny other factors were also in play).

These massive changes are not destructive of orthodoxy as a practical concept, but they do heighten certain dynamics on which it depends, and the difficulties which attend them. Where orthodoxies are contested between and within groups, and compete within the setting of a state that does not enforce any resolution of differences but does restrain rival groups’ resort to force, then the plurality of options, and the greater freedom to choose between them for oneself, changes the dynamics of orthodoxy as a discursive and affective practice. Questions of the competence and authority of the promulgating group; of the reality, longevity, and extent of any implied consensus of the community and the tradition to which it looks back; and of the essence of Christianity: these all come into play. They do so especially in contexts where many community members have been formed in assessing claims and their basis for themselves, especially where this formation includes a sense of the historically varied and contingent character of Christianity, and where members are also are participants in other common senses and other communities of practice and learning beyond the group.

This difficulty is not simply a matter of persuading others of the merits of an argument: of a particular way of interpreting a biblical passage, or reading sources from the tradition, or appealing to certain experiences or empirical evidence. It is about the plausibility of the invocation of orthodoxy in respect of some of its core components. Who, if anyone, is competent and authorised to make claims about orthodoxy today? What is the evidence for the implicit consensus to which they lay claim? What is essential to Christianity (a difficult question with a long history in modernity) and to what extent is it actually threatened in this case?

These forces heighten the tendency of Christians to disagree on questions of substance and to be reluctant to settle matters by assent to authoritative human bodies: to agree more about some of the normative references of belief and practice than their interpretation, as Kathryn Tanner has argued. In such contexts, long-established orthodoxies, while more widely questioned, may still command considerable consensus, coming as they do from a time when that consensus seemed wider, and bearing the appeal of antiquity (which has considerable power for moderns as it did for ancients). But on other matters, the concept of orthodoxy is at once a potential source of unity among the like-minded (and of socialisation into their groups) and something very difficult to establish as permanently settled and binding on a wider basis. The same is true, for the same reasons, of invocations of orthopraxy, which imply and usually invoke orthodoxies, too, just as orthodoxies usually entail some kind of orthopraxy as their expression.

So we need to rethink orthodoxy as a practice and a discourse, so long as Christian communities want to bind themselves to normative statements or obligations, which I think they always will, and will always need to. Much, of course, of the consensus necessary for communities to function can often be settled for a time without that language. But sometimes there will be issues where people sense more is at stake.

One thing we need to grasp is that questions of this order of seriousness arise in new ways in new contexts and they demand a lot of work and careful judgment. There have been Christians who dissented to some degree from the practice of enslaving other human beings or the subordinate status of women since early times, but it is only relatively recently that sizeable communities of Christians have agreed that these things run counter to the heart of their faith, have agreed that that judgment be normative, and have acted upon it (and so come into protracted conflict with other Christians who have come in some cases to articulate the contrary view). They can also be deeply flawed: the orthodoxy against slavery which split Christians in the UK and especially in the US did not really trouble the consensus around white supremacy, which had been built on the logics of Christian identity. (See Willie James Jennings’ excellent The Christian Imagination for one profound account of how Christianity fostered whiteness in the context of colonisation, building on supersessionism). Orthodoxies may need revisiting, renewing, and in some cases, revising or even abandoning. The question of the essence of Christianity won’t go away and likewise needs revisiting too.

That brings us to a key point. Another element of the concept of orthodoxy is its fixity, its givenness and universality. Yet historically speaking, orthodoxy is a fragile, flawed process encompassing contestations, divisions, doctrinal revisions, reinterpretations, and reformations together with some terrible ironies. It is not best conceived simply as an extension or unfolding or development of God’s self-disclosure, not unless we wish straightforwardly to ascribe that complex, ambiguous history to God’s agency (and so claim an unwarranted perspicuity about God’s providence), nor if we want to maintain the possibility of critically interrogating it from within, as it were.

It is also a process that Christians cannot abandon. For some things are radically incompatible with a common life of fidelity to God, to Jesus Christ as Lord, to walking in the Spirit, and the love of God and neighbour, and require the community developing, authorising and enacting a normative doctrinal and ethical stance.

And so, with God’s help, Christians must try to be more careful with it.

What might help?

First, we should recognise that orthodoxy is a flawed, contingent, revisable process. It involves making contested claims and building campaigns for them, but it helps if such activism does not obfuscate what is being done, including the element of newness in the appeal to something essential in regard to a matter. That means also being careful about how far past consensuses really obtained, how far they were really authorised as orthodoxies, and how far they really extend to the issue at hand (I think that’s germane to sexuality and gender, for example).

Second, a recognition that the process calls for considerable care. Inherited concepts may well not be sufficient to the judgments that need making today. Innovative theological construction may be required, and we may find the wisdom of the past, even its orthodoxies, were less adequate than we thought, and we may have to keep revisiting such questions, as well as the settlements we reach about them.

Third, orthodoxy may often not be an effective consensus we can achieve on a broad basis within or between Christian communities. In such cases, there are very difficult judgments to be made about how far, if at all, groups and constituencies, which differ profoundly on matters around which orthodoxy is invoked, can live and worship together, and what actions or structures need to be established apart from others. It will probably help, however, in making these judgments, to have a more realistic expectation about the process and its dangers, and to keep asking those questions about the authority and competence of groups making declarations of orthodoxy, and about the case they make.

Fourth, we need to recognise that processes of orthodoxy involve contestations of power and often favour those structurally advantaged by structures of power in society, and learn to question more radically how those structures affect the process and its outcomes.

Finally, we should be careful about the imaginary of orthodoxy: the symbols and stories which help give it its allure and legitimation as a task. Dietrich Bonhoeffer looms large in that imagination, for traditionalists and progressives alike. The examples of the past can be profoundly important in helping Christians take stands on various matters. They show that sometimes things are of such seriousness that much must be risked, maybe all, and maybe in the face of consensus and considerable opposition. But they can also delude us by masking the complexities and ambiguities of the histories and questions involved, then and now. Reading good, scholarly historiography and biography critically is a good habit to develop. Orthodoxy as a process is usually messier, more painful and more difficult than we would like to think.






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