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Cultural Orthodoxy, Not Just Ecclesial Orthodoxy
When criteria of right belief are limited to the church, even Christian orthodoxy is jeopardized
Dear friends and supporters:
The term orthodoxy derives from the Greek compound “ortho” (correct or upright) and “doxa” (belief or opinion). It means “correct belief.” “Orthodoxy,” wrote Edward Carnell, “is that branch of Christendom which limits the ground of religious authority to the Bible.” Here Carnell identifies a view about Christianity with a movement that embraces it. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, who insist on greater authority for church tradition, would quibble with Carnell’s generalized definition, but there can be no doubt that it’s accurate as it pertains to Protestant Orthodoxy.
We Protestants hold the Bible as our final authority, and we might assume that orthodoxy simply means believing what the Bible teaches. This isn’t quite what Christian orthodoxy means, however. It refers to the Bible’s beliefs summarized in ancient creeds like the Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian that have gained wide historical acceptance. The creeds as a definition of orthodoxy point to the fact that while the Bible alone is our final authority, the Bible alone won’t suffice to preserve correct teaching (orthodoxy) in the church.
I’m reminded of the Texas church in the 50s that boasted its only creed was the Bible. A young man joined the church with great enthusiasm, happy that he’d found a Bible-alone church that would accept a modern Arian like him (Arians believe Jesus Christ was the Father’s highest created being). It turns out the Bible-only church needed a creed after all.
Creeds are inescapable. Even the most vocally anti-creedal church has preferred (even required) interpretations and excluded alternatives. Their creedalism might be implied or concealed, but it’s always present.
Creeds as ecclesiology
All of the ecumenical (meaning widely accepted) creeds were developed by churchmen. The origin of the Apostles Creed is shrouded in mystery, but the Nicene Creed (stressing the equal deity [“consubstantiality”] of the Father and the Son) is the product of the Nicene (church) Council in A. D. 325 called by Emperor Constantine to address the incendiary Arian controversy. There were likely 250 or so attendees, almost all representing the churches of the East, but the Western churches accepted the Nicene Creed ( the East and West weren’t divided until much later). The point is that this was a creed devised by the church and for the church.
But not only for the church. Because it was understood that formal religion (whether Christian or not) had deep implications for culture in the ancient world, theological controversies that began in the church fanned out to impact the wider society. This motivated Constantine’s interest. R. J. Rushdoony even showed that the ancient creeds laid the foundation for Western liberty. The ancient creeds molded our society.
This recognition of the cultural unity created by Christian orthodoxy persevered basically until the Peace of Westphalia (1648). This treaty de-universalized orthodoxy by allowing every European prince to decide the religion for his region and all Christians of non-established churches to practice their faith without political interference. One effect of Westphalia was to weaken orthodoxy as a universal reality, and the Enlightenment (sovereign rule of reason) of the next century put the nail in orthodoxy’s coffin. They severed the artery between creeds and culture.
Today we can speak of Christian orthodoxy as a theological and ecclesiastical but not a social reality. We have orthodox churches and denominations but not an orthodox society. This also means that aside from specific churches, heresy has lost all meaning. Heresy derives from the related Greek word simply meaning “choice,” but in the patristic church it soon came to mean people who chose beliefs violating the accepted Christian orthodoxy.
But where there is no orthodoxy, there can be no heresy. If no belief can be judged correct, beliefs different from them can’t be judged incorrect.
In our time, therefore, heresy is a reality only with reference to the church — and actually only the orthodox churches.
In another sense, however, the creeds have always been limited to the church, in that the topics they addressed occupied churchmen: the Trinity, the deity and two natures of Jesus Christ, and the goodness of God’s creation, for example. The creeds didn’t address what we consider today the hot-button cultural issues like abortion, homosexuality, homosexual “marriage,” same-sex “attraction,” porn (which was in fact a reality in the ancient world), socialism, and so on. There was a simple reason for that: no one in the church would have considered these issues controversial for the church. Christian orthodoxy was free to ignore what have become the most pressing moral issues of our time because they were not pressing issues of their time.
That must change.
“One of the most prominent errors in the history of the church is postponing massive blessings of creation and the gospel to the eternal state. If the liberal churches wish to re-situate all the blessings in the ‘already’ (since they have no actual eternal hope, and often turn to revolutionary politics for salvation), conservative churches tend to push most of the blessings off into the ‘not yet.’”
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Creeds as cultural standards
Many formally orthodox churches either support or tolerate incontestably contra-biblical practices that almost no Christian anywhere before 1900 would have considered anything less than gross sin: abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality (much less homosexual “marriage”), and transgenderism. This is true of large swaths of Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and even evangelicalism. To my knowledge, not one of the growing number of evangelicals who support same-sex “marriage” denies any tenet of ancient creedal orthodoxy. This shows that the ecumenical creeds are insufficient to protect against gross but widely accepted moral depravity.
The oldest revisionist Christianity was the Gnosticism of the ancient church, but the widespread revisionism of more recent vintage is liberalism. Liberalism was modernism applied to Christianity. Modernism (see “We Are the Destroyers!”) was summarized by Ezra Pound’s famous slogan: “Make it new!” The present becomes authentic only by abolishing the past. Earlier Christianity was far from static: it was changing all the time. But that change appropriated the best of the past. That was what the Protestant Reformation did. It was eager to affirm catholic orthodoxy and shed medieval accretions contrary the Bible.
In sharp contrast, theological liberalism wanted to kick to the curb any beliefs that didn’t conform to the romantic but anti-supernaturalistic spirit of of the age, beliefs like the virgin birth of Christ and his bodily resurrection. In other words, orthodoxy and the creeds became the barrier to relevant Christianity. Therefore, the liberals wrote new, revisionist creeds and statements of faith.
By contrast, today’s revisionists in the church find it unnecessary to draft new creeds in line with their changed views. My comments in my 2013 article tell why:
Today we live in different times still. This shift can be detected in the observation that while early 20th century liberal theological views were changing, their ethical views were not. There was almost no dispute between liberals and fundamentalists at that time on what we today term ethics, particularly sexual ethics. In short, the liberals weren’t parading for illicit sex or elective abortion or legalized porn any more than the fundamentalists were. This history of ethical unity and theological disunity is what caught many Bible-believing Christians off guard after the 1960’s Sexual Revolution infested the churches — including their own churches. Fundamentalism hadn’t especially prepared them to address professed Christians who weren’t interested in denying the “fundamentals of the Faith,” only the fundamentals of Biblical ethics, especially sexual ethics. If theological orthodoxy is limited to affirmation of the fundamentals, then liberalism has no necessary bearing on ethics. Bible-believing Christians were soon forced to come to terms with what theological liberalism must look like in a sexually chaotic culture.
I term this “Liberalism 3.0.” David Mills stated this another way:
Unlike the modernists of old, our liberals are quite happy to let us believe in the Virgin Birth or the Bodily Resurrection, or for that matter praying in tongues, presumably on the assumption that it keeps us occupied and out of their way. They only object when we dare to argue for moral limitations and ideals they have long ago abandoned. They will tolerate the most extravagant supernaturalism, as long as it is not assumed that the supernatural makes binding statements about human sexual behavior.
When we witness churches and colleges in even the Southern Baptist Convention, the Presbyterian Church in America, and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod infected by Critical Race Theory, and noted evangelical colleges and seminaries changing their position to allow practicing homosexuals to enroll, we can be certain that Christian orthodoxy as such is no barrier to cultural apostasy — even in the church.
One of the chief factors behind this dreadful trend in the church over the last century in particular has been the drift into “The Free-Floating Irrelevance of Ecclesiastical Colonization.” It has contracted its message to its own four walls, and has refused to instill in its congregation the necessity of fulfilling the cultural mandate: stewarding all areas of life and thought for the glory of God.
The church has left this all-important task to unbelievers or, at best, Christians who don’t apply the Faith in education, music, politics, science, technology, and media in any distinctly Christian way. Rather, they simply assume a neutral, commonsensical approach they allegedly share with unbelievers. The result is that a distinctly contra-Christian philosophy has won out in the culture. Culture, like nature, abhors a vacuum.
Underlying this ecclesiastical colonization is the dangerously mistaken idea that cultural apostasy always begins in the church and, therefore, can be solved within the church. Actually, nearly the opposite is true: apostasy begins in a culture that has not been righteously influenced by the church, and it imports its depravity into the church. Feminism, abortion, pornography, and Marxism did not begin in the church — but they are certainly finding a home in many churches.
Churches true to the word of God and Christian orthodoxy cannot expect the latter will suffice. While, as noted above, changing the church won’t of itself change the world, changing the church in the right way will protect the church from a depraved culture. It’s a purely defensive move in a culture almost entirely bereft of the Faith.
Enforceable cultural orthodoxy
What biblical churches need today is an enforceable orthodoxy that includes prohibitions of specific sins pervasive in the culture that have infected and threaten to demolish Christianity. We must be willing to posit “Homosexuality As Heresy” and exclude from Christendom churches that officially support it. This includes such blatantly contra-creational sins as homosexuality, feminist ideology, and secular environmentalism and contra-biblical sins as abortion, euthanasia, and statist ideology.
We need a cultural orthodoxy, not only an ecclesial orthodoxy. We need broadly affirmed statements of faith that include strong declarations in favor of biblical sexuality, the dignity of human life, and religious and political and economic liberty.
Churches and Christian ministries must be willing to say publicly, formally, and permanently that homosexuality and abortion and feminist and Marxist and statist ideology are sin. They must require both leaders and members to repent of the sin.
They must recognize that creational standards of sexuality are no less important than biblical standards of Christology and soteriology. In short, male and female as the two (and only two) distinct sexes is a revelatory truth no less important than (for example) justification by faith alone. In fact, if you abandon creational norms, your soteriological norms simply will not survive. (Read “Three Axioms on Homosexuality in the Church.”)
Patting ourselves on the back for our creedal orthodoxy (including, by the way, Reformation confessions) will no longer cut it.
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Church and ministry leaders, I urge you to prayerfully consider implementing this proposal formalizing cultural orthodoxy. Members, respectfully urge your leaders to do this.
No one should expect that our apostate culture will pay attention to this expanded, beefed up orthodoxy, except perhaps to scoff. Even faux Christians committed to Liberalism 3.0 will consider us tilting at windmills.
But hammering out and enforcing cultural orthodoxy will accomplish at least two creditable goals.
First, it will to tend to protect our churches from cultural sins that have become “plausibility structures” (Peter Berger), that is, beliefs and practices so taken for granted that they are assumed to need no defense. Creeds and any other words on paper can’t guarantee this protection, of course; but as long as the church and Christian ministry take them seriously, they’ll sensitize us to the temptations surrounding us and bolster us in standing for the Faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
Second, cultural orthodoxy will stand as a testimony to what Francis Schaeffer once called a watching world. Unbelievers will know like the nations surrounding Israel did when she was faithful that there is a God in our midst, and he is a God that makes demands not only of his people but of all people, and they will feel the uncomfortable rebuke of divine truth when they witness us.
Otherwise, our righteous “salt loses its flavor [and] is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men” (Matt. 5:13).
If we refuse to practice cultural orthodoxy, even our creedal orthodoxy will become a prey to a rapacious culture for which any residue of Christian truth is an affront.
This week I’ll use this closing to promote the upcoming Runner Academy, which I’ll be addressing 6–8 times.
Christians age 19-39, apply now for the world’s leading “deep dive” summer residence program into Christian worldview, marinated in warm worship and devotion, all in a spectacularly scenic location and opulent facilities.
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Parents, grandparents and church leaders, please sponsor eligible young adults (tuition is already heavily subsidized).
I plan next week to write on “Justification by Faith and Cultural Conquest.” Please share this e-newsletter with friends.
Thank you for your support. We need it.
Yours for Christ and cultural orthodoxy,
Founder & President
Center for Cultural Leadership
“Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” Isn’t
This past Wednesday the CalPers board considered the widely implemented Diversity & Inclusion Report and Framework. CalPers is a massive agency for California employees, retirees, and their families and manages the largest pension fund in the United States. I was asked by one of the CalPers members to address the board on this pressing issue.
My prepared remarks are here.
Assertedly enlightened Bible-deniers often charge that Christianity is anti-intellectual. Many Christians agree, and revel in the accusation, assuming that an intellectual Faith is non-“spiritual.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Christianity is anti-anti-intellectual:
More great stuff:
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