James K.A. Smith published a challenge to the recent use of “orthodox Christian” in polemics. He did so in a blog he describes as “my space for ‘thinking out loud,’ an arena for practice at writing quickly and off-the-cuff.” Comments are not an option, and I had no immediate response to his challenge anyway.
But I’m now ready to respond to this sort of thing:
Historically, the measure of “orthodox” Christianity has been conciliar; that is, orthodoxy was rooted in, and measured by, the ecumenical councils and creeds of the church (Nicea, Chalcedon) which were understood to have distilled the grammar of “right belief” (ortho, doxa) in the Scriptures. As such, orthodoxy centers around the nature of God (Triune), the Incarnation, the means of our salvation, the church, and the life to come. The markers of orthodoxy are tied to the affirmations of, say, the Nicene Creed: the creatorhood of God; the divine/human nature of the Incarnate Son; the virgin birth; the historicity of Jesus’ life and death; the affirmation of his bodily resurrection and ascension; the hope of the second coming; the triune affirmation of Father, Son, and Spirit; the affirmation of “one holy catholic and apostolic church”; one baptism; and the hope of our own bodily resurrection.
Contrast this with most invocations of “orthodox Christianity” today. In some contexts, the use of the word “orthodox” seems to have nothing to do with these historic markers of Christian faith. Indeed, in many cases “orthodox Christianity” means only one thing: a particular view of sexuality and marriage ….
You probably can imagine where the off-the-cuff comments go from there. Smith allows that the “particular view of sexuality and marriage” is “traditional,” but not orthodox, properly speaking.
My own response is two-fold:
First, the use of “orthodox” that Smith complains of is not inappropriate.
Smith’s conception of orthodoxy is unduly narrow. On this, he “had me going for a minute” because of my love of the creed and its importance.
But the Creed is not a comprehensive expression of orthodoxy, and was never meant to be. It (as tweaked at Chalcedon) was first and foremost a repudiation of fourth-century Christological heresies. It is silent on things that were not at serious issue.
But the view of sexuality and marriage in question is “orthodox” because it is within the scope of the Vincentian Canon, that “all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” (I cringe when I hear someone say things like sexual morality is “at the heart of the faith,” but that’s a different matter.)
I do thank Smith, however, for giving me at least this one opportunity to feel smarter than him about something, to-wit: the purpose of the Creed, and indeed of the Councils in general.
Second, the people who thus use “orthodox Christianity” are onto something important even if the questioned use of “orthodoxy” were inappropriate or inadvisable. That something is far more important that Smith’s derision allows:
So when people are said to suffer for their “orthodox” beliefs, or when we are told that “orthodox” Christians will be hounded from public life and persecuted in their professions, a closer reading shows that it is not their beliefs in the Trinity, Incarnation, Virgin Birth, or Resurrection that occasion these problems, but rather their beliefs about morality, and sexual morality in particular. There don’t seem to be any bakers refusing to bake cakes for atheists,* and I’ve yet to hear of Silicon Valley CEOs being fired because they affirm the Incarnation of the Son or the resurrection of the dead.
The important thing they’re onto, that Smith misses or pretends to miss, is related to why Donald Trump is President today.
Smith’s derision suggests that so long as “orthodox Christians” can worship and believe as they wish within their four walls, everything is copacetic. I’m sniffing at least the beginning of a sequel to “keep your rosaries off my ovaries,” and more than a whiff of the cribbed locution “freedom of worship” rather than “free exercise of religion.”
Evangelical voters (and some other religious) knew that the Democrats, at the top levels including President Obama and Hillary Clinton, have taken the unhistoric and subversive “freedom of worship” tack, and opposition to that was a significant factor in electing the non-Democrat narcissist adolescent currently holding forth at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
So even if “orthodox Christian” is inappropriate, something along the lines of “robustly and actively Christian” is surely appropriate — robust and active Christians not being willing to confine their faith to one hour per week and the four walls of a church building.
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So why do I think it’s worth responding to Smith?
Last September, “Richard Swinburne, emeritus professor of philosophy at Oxford University, author of many highly influential books, and among the most eminent of contemporary Christian thinkers,” gave a mild keynote address defending traditional “Christian Moral Teaching on Sex, Family and Life,” to a midwest meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers. That stirred up ugly and even scatalogical controversy because Christian philosophers are wavering before the Zeitgeist.
Philosopher James K.A. Smith’s employer, Calvin College, highly values its reputation for a very strong philosophy department — a reputation recognized not just in Evangelical/Calvinist subculture, but throughout academic philosophy.
But standing up for robustly and actively Christian sexual morality, the morality held ubique, semper et ab omnibus, is becoming worse than unfashionable. It may leave all the cool philosophers saying you’re ugly and your mom dresses you funny, or even stealing your accreditations out of your lunch box as you gape helplessly:
The expansion of the scope of Title IX legislation by the Obama administration makes colleges that hold to traditional Christian moral positions on homosexuality and transgenderism vulnerable to loss of government funding and to damaging legal actions. We might add the related matter of accreditation: Failure to conform to Title IX will be punished with notations and probable loss of accreditation. Perhaps even more deadly than these threats is the role of the NCAA, as schools that are not “friendly” to LGBTQI students will find that they are unable to compete in sporting events. Sadly, while the choice between sport and one’s faith should not merit a second thought, I expect that this will be the point at which many colleges crack.
How Christian colleges respond to all this will be critical. The desire expressed by some to dialogue with their opponents on this matter is not a good sign. At worst, it represents the cynical prelude to capitulation: “We listened, we heard, we changed.” …
I do not trust Calvin College, which I respect, to stand firm. I do not trust Wheaton College, which I have loved, to stand firm. I do not trust any Evangelical college to stand firm, including Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University (on the fundamentalist end of the Evangelical spectrum) inasmuch as Jerry Falwell Jr. has shown himself a man of poor judgment and flexible moral standards in his Bromance with Donald Trump.
And I do not trust James K.A. Smith to stand firm.
I think he knows the context and purpose of the creeds better than he’s letting on. I think he knows that the sexual standards he’s backing away from are “orthodox” in a non-trivial and unequivocal sense.
If not, I hope he reads this. The Comments are moderated, but on.
I can only hope that this really was an off-the-cuff quickie, but I fear it’s a white flag running up the pole, looking for folks to salute it.
I can only pray that many Roman Catholic educational institutions and our few Orthodox institutions will stand firm, even at the cost of accreditation.
UPDATE: After a good night’s sleep, I re-read Smith’s off-the-cuff challenge, word-by-word and phrase-by-phrase, and I now think I was too gentle, giving him too much benefit of the doubt.
UPDATE 2: I’m glad I’m not the only one who has registered and objected to Smith’s trial balloon. Had I been, it’s unlikely I ever would have noticed it, since I don’t follow the blog where it appeared (though I first encountered it somewhere other than a blog praising or objecting to it). Anyway
- Alastair Roberts is very good and charitable engaging Smith.
- Alan Jacobs engages Roberts on Smith, then comes back again. Both are excellent in different ways, though I’m quite resistant to the concluding paragraph of the first for reasons I’ll not go into (basically, I see that the debate is in good hands and I’ll be bowing out of active commentary).
- Andrew T. Walker makes some good points, in a blog that could have used at least a second set of eyes for proof-reading.
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* “There don’t seem to be any bakers refusing to bake cakes for atheists” is inapposite to the facts of actual cases where Christian bakers have refused not to serve “homosexuals” but to use their creative skills to help celebrate “same-sex weddings.”
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There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)