By David B. Garner
When my children need braces, I do not dole out $5000 to a heterodontist to wire their teeth randomly and recklessly. With a view to my children’s good, headgear and retainer wars are fought to ensure straight teeth, not crooked ones. If you break your arm and need your bone set, you do not Google “highly rated heteropedist.” You pursue references to secure an ortho doctor not a cross-town hetero alternative. You pay good money to return your hetero bone to its ortho state.
Until recent years, in every sense of its use, the prefix ortho- touted positive vibes. Though orthodontists and orthopedists today remain the standard expectation, their etymological cousin “orthodoxy” has fallen on hard times. Evidently straight bones and straight teeth are more important than straight theology. Negative rhetoric about orthodoxy has spewn long enough to infect the contemporary corporate—even the Church’s—psyche. Narrow and disgraceful, orthodoxy kills the soul. It is the passé stuff of the un-illumined, the ignorant, and the unkind. Those who profess orthodoxy are, by their existence, unloving and divisive, if not offensive and dangerous. Riding roughshod over others, orthodox believers hate, divide, and malign. Or so the bombastic lambast.
For centuries, pastors, theologians, and the worldwide flock of God have joyfully celebrated and courageously defended orthodoxy. The later addition of the terms “historic” or “paleo” with orthodoxy meant (and for a for narrow and narrowing population still means) the integrity and continuance of the faith once delivered to all the saints. Orthodoxy, as embraced through the centuries, conveys authority, stability, consistency, and transcendence—that which Scripture teaches, it has always taught; that which the Church proclaims faithfully remains ever true.
Orthodox theology possesses confessional clout: the Apostles’ and the Nicene creeds, for example, convey core doctrines of the Church, and by their ubiquitous multi-generational use, orthodox Christian faith has enjoyed perpetuity. As orthodoxy insists, the tri-unity of God, the deity/humanity the Son of God, and the exclusivity of the salvation accomplished in his death, burial and resurrection specify the sine qua non of the gospel.
Despite its commendable pedigree, in the wake of the shifting moral and religious commitments within evangelicalism, orthodoxy has a new image. It is not a pretty one. With the reorientation away from truth as deposit to truth as the autonomous province of the individual, today’s orthodoxy dare not be your mother’s or, better, your Church Fathers’ orthodoxy. From contemporary scholars to people on the streets, orthodoxy bears the marks of all that is defunct and irrelevant. Anyone with half a brain would now disdain such belief. Orthodoxy, evidently, is the problem with the Church: stayed, stiff, stubborn, shameful, even stupid.
Some have railed against “orthodoxy” by accusing it of abstraction. But the accusation does not stick. The orthodox faith, as revealed in Scripture, concerns the divine interpretation of God’s acts on the stage of history. The inscripturated revelation of God on earth endures forever, and such an affirmation defies timeless constructs. The Apostles’ Creed, for example, tethers confessed truth to the historic, divine acts of God in Christ Jesus. Truth synthesized and summarized concerns deeds accomplished in history by God in Christ and applied to his people. Orthodoxy affirms that God is and that God has revealed himself concretely and savingly. Hardly abstraction or philosophical pedantry, orthodoxy confessed is divine redemptive acts possessed.
Others indict the Church’s “orthodoxy” as inherently unloving. To be sure, members of Christ’s church, yet incomplete in their progressive sanctification, have been guilty of unkindnesses, pride, and other sinful behavior. But the blame for ungodliness upon biblical doctrine itself wrongly casts blame on orthodoxy, rather than on the immature and maturing orthodox. Though some have fought for orthodox truths in less than loving ways, their methods violate their orthodoxy; they do not evidence it. Truth trumpeted with a hateful spirit disparages the trumpeter, not necessarily the trumpeted. Excusing none of the sinfulness, I would further remind us that blanketing the orthodox with hatefulness requires maliciously selective (and skewed!) readings of history. Moreover, what some deem unloving is actually the Church faithfully defending and advancing her historic convictions of the exclusivity of the biblical gospel.
Exclusivity will always be accused as unloving to those outside the gospel. Contemporary advocacy of tolerance does not tolerate anything but absolute inclusivism (or universalism). Christ as the only Way is neither tolerable nor tolerated. Hatefulness, in fact, often lies more on the outside than the inside. And if Jesus Christ is the only Way (and he is!), then proclaiming such exclusivity expresses love. Equalizing religions, syncretizing Christian faith with other belief systems, and refusing to establish boundaries make up the hateful stuff of hell, they do not deliver the gracious hope of heaven. Orthodoxy is not the enemy of love, but its very essence. As a term which embraces the core truths of who God is and what he has done out of his mercy in redemption (Eph. 2:1–10), orthodoxy extols truth and love inextricably and unashamedly. Orthodoxy has a stiff spine and a big heart.
With a heart exploding with compassion for his lost fellow Jews, the Apostle Paul agonizes, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom 9:3). He continues, “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Rom 10:1). This same apostle declares, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Rom. 1:16-17). In his own “post-modern” styled world of competing religions and temptations for concession, Paul remains fiercely orthodox. Despite the pressure to nuance, to backpedal, and to reject gospel exclusivism, the love of God, his Word, and mankind required otherwise of him. These requirements persist for us today.
Yet as we will see in the next article, “Does Orthodoxy Need an Adjective?”, some have sought to defend orthodoxy by tempering the very truth that lovingly saves. So strong is the tide against orthodoxy, even the orthodox have seen need to qualify their orthodoxy. Grave danger looms. Even the best intended modifications can subtly distort the very orthodoxy that alone delivers gospel grace. Aware of the stakes, Paul’s final letter to Timothy admonishes his young protégé concerning the distinctiveness of the divine gospel.
“ Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God,  who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began,  and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,  for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher,  which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.  Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.” (2 Tim. 1:8-14)
Orthodox, beware. Love of God and his world requires that we fiercely guard the good deposit for the current and future generations.
David Garner is Professor of New Testament at Westminster Seminary Philadelphia and blogs at THE PLACE FOR TRUTH.