|A PLAIN GUIDE TO
From the early days of the Church, there have been those who
insist that orthodoxy is an essential part of being Christian. For over
fifteen centuries this position has seldom been effectively challenged.
But in the 21st century some have begun to work out the implications of
asserting that the Church has access to truths essential to the eternal
well-being of individuals.
One of the most fundamental
assumptions of the Christian Church is that it has access to certain
absolute truths. These truths, it is said, form the basis of right
Christian teaching. They are absolute because they have been derived
An orthodox person, then, is one who conforms to the established
teaching of the Church. To refuse to conform to this teaching is to
lapse into heresy. And lest anyone think this unimportant, a heretic
exposes himself or herself to the possibility of eternal damnation in
hell, whether or not the heresy is known about.
Many think that the
idea of orthodoxy grew gradually from very early confessional formulas.
Examples of these are:
- Jesus is the Messiah (Mark 8.29; John 11.27);
- Jesus is Lord (Romans 10.9; Colossians 2.6);
- Jesus is the son of God (Matthew 14.33; Acts 8.37).
These simple statements gradually came to be used as entry tests of
suitability to belong to the Church. Their focus gradually switched from
the personal to the corporate. By the 5th century they had grown into
complex creeds. The most complex of these is the Quicumque Vult
or "Athanasian Creed". The "Apostles' Creed" and the "Nicene Creed" are
today most commonly used in church worship.
This change of usage is important. It is one thing to use words to
publicly express personal commitment to Jesus. It is entirely another to
commit to (or assent to) a formula in order to enter and remain in the
Bishop John Spong points out that "To the victor the spoils" applies
to the orthodox theology which eventually emerged in the 4th and 5th
To be called an orthodox Christian does not mean that one's
[Christian] point of view is right. It only means that this point of
view won out in the ancient debate ... any recasting of the creeds
that we might produce today will be no more eternal than those
formulations of the fourth and fifth centuries proved to be, nor
should they be. 
It should be said that exactly which teachings are right or
orthodox is disputed. Christianity is broken up into many churches. All
disagree about what orthodoxy is - though some claim that these
differences are more apparent than real. That is, what seems to be in
dispute in actually underpinned by broad agreement about underlying key
For example, it is said that all Christians agree about the
underlying importance of the Bible as the source of all right doctrine.
But the nature of the Bible and how to derive doctrines from it it
strongly disputed. Similarly, all agree about the basic importance of
worship for Christians - but how to worship is a matter of
considerable contention and widely varying practice.
A definition of an orthodoxy applicable to all Christians is
impossible to arrive at. It is more correct to speak of multiple
Not only do many orthodoxies exist today, but there has never
been such a thing as a single body of orthodox teachings. Orthodox
doctrine has changed over the centuries, sometimes slowly, sometimes
quickly. As Nicholas Lash remarks,
To say that Christian doctrine has a history is to say that it has
changed ... a constant factor in the promotion of or resistance to
doctrinal change has been a concern to maintain the identity of
Christianity ... 
A dilemma of church authorities is how to claim access to immutable,
revealed truths on one hand, and on the other hand to allow change as
defense of orthodoxy becomes more difficult - or impossible. The most
frequent place of refuge from this dilemma has been the sanctuary of
"interpretation" (technically known as hermeneutics). That is, change is
said to be actually only a new way of perceiving and explaining
immutable, eternal verities.
In short, doctrine as teachings which can expand and develop
according to human knowledge and insight is replaced by dogma.
Dogma means unfaltering adherence to a divinely revealed truth,
proclaimed as such by church authority, and forever binding on faithful
Christians. Roman Catholics also refer to "non-defined dogmas" which are
in the process of being understood by the Church. They can be later
taught as revealed truths essential to orthodoxy - that is, as fixed and
final points of interpretation - when necessary.
The idea of orthodoxy began to break down in the 17th century.
Catholics slated Protestants for having departed from authorised
tradition, and Protestants dismissed Catholics for having corrupted
biblical truth by addition. This broad division has been maintained ever
But the greatest influences on the idea of orthodox Christianity came
through two radical shifts in the way European Christians perceived the
A move to personal autonomy began in the 15th and 16th
centuries and rapidly penetrated the defenses of the Church. Until
then societies worldwide had been organised on the basis of
Europe did not consist of nation states as it does today. What is
now called Britain was composed of English, Welsh and Scots. Various
regional groups wielded considerable power. Each sub-unit of England
and the many European princedoms consisted of a hierarchical social
organisation. Roles were restricted. At the top was an hereditary
ruler. He or she wielded near-absolute power and dispensed favours to
maintain that power.
By the 19th century a myriad of forces - including war, the growth
of universities, changes in law and new philosophical paradigms - had
initiated a switch from hierarchical authority to personal discovery
On the political front, autonomy resulted first in the creation of
nation states too large and complex to be managed by a single person
or small group; and then in the growth of democracy, in which the
individual seized power and freedom to influence national events.
These movements continue worldwide to this day.
In theory, the Church should also have been radically changed by the
turn of the tide from dependency to autonomy. In practice, the vast
majority of Christians (that is, the Roman Catholic Church) remain
wedded to a hierarchical system. Those in charge attempt to enforce
orthodoxy while at the same time going along with some of the currents
of change in the societies they live in.
Broadly speaking, however, people appear to be leaving the Church so
as to exercise their personal autonomy outside its confines. Those who
remain try to tighten controls over doctrine and lifestyle. Orthodoxy
now has less to do with right teaching and more with defending the
The way truth is understood has changed radically. There
has been a widespread move from certainty to scepticism. Truth is now
perceived as something to be discovered rather than something handed
down by an authority.
The dynamics of this change are complex. They are often simplified
by placing religion and "science" in opposition. There is a grain of
truth in this. The scientific method in essence proposes that no
conclusion is final. Even the most certain scientific "facts" are open
to revision or expansion into a greater truth - which is itself still
open to change and expansion.
This view of truth as ultimately provisional has spread to all other
disciplines. Only those religious groups which are wedded to
revelation as a source of truth have rejected provisionality.
Orthodoxy is by definition based on the understanding that truths
exist which are (or should be) indisputable. In Christianity, it is
enforced by those in authority. They derive this right in two ways:
(a) via organisational norms by which bishops and others claim to
inherit their powers ultimately from Jesus; and (b) via the Bible,
which they claim to interpret better than those beneath them in the
Behind both these ways of asserting ultimate truths lies the
teaching that God has directly communicated with humanity through
revelation. And if the Church is party to this revelation, it cannot
modify the fundamental teachings upon which it has been built over the
The roots of this "great divide" between traditional Christianity and
modern ways of thought are in essence nearly a thousand years old. A
good illustration of the earliest well-known appeal to reason in matters
of theology is the work of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). His great
work, the Proslogion (1079) included the phrase "Fides
quaerens intellectum". This famous phrase can be translated as
"Faith seeking (leading to) understanding". In other words, reason is
the servant of faith. Orthodoxy precedes and is a condition of the
discovery of truth.
So Christian authority may pronounce that
birth control (to take one instance) is the equivalent of murder. If
orthodoxy holds that murder is in all circumstances a sin, then what
reason says about population control or the prevention of HIV infection is
essentially beside the point.
The modern world has, in effect,
reversed Anselm's guideline to become "Understanding (reason) leading to
faith". According to this position, a faith which is not reasonable is
mistaken. Orthodoxy or "right belief" depends upon reason, not the other
If this is correct, then orthodoxy can remain a
guideline to orthopraxis (right behaviour) in the modern era. But it
must yield to reason. For example, if reason judges overpopulation or
unprotected sexual intercourse a threat to human health and safety, then
the use of birth control in the form of condoms may become orthopraxis
regardless of what is traditionally orthodox teaching.
may be impossible to carry orthopraxis based on ancient orthodoxy through
into every department of life. If so, the orthodox person is likely to be
subject to great stress in trying to harmonise the past with the present.
Some who attempt this partitioning seem forced to divide their lives into
two watertight compartments - one for orthodoxy and one for the rest of
life. Others become fundamentalist. That is, they assert their orthodoxy
(biblical or institutional) regardless of practical consequence.
Those Christians who are presently attempting to move away from the very
idea of orthodoxy face three challenges:
The death of God
This phrase has taken on a life of its own since it was coined by
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). It is widely presumed to refer to a
move from theism towards deism or agnosticism or atheism. God as an
active person who relates intimately to each of us and constantly
intervenes in our lives is no longer credible. This is, I think, an
What has died is not God but our ancient concept of a God who rules
the world from a position of absolute power, just as emperors and
monarchs once did. This God is in charge of history, in charge of each
and every individual life.
There is nothing unreasonable about concluding that God exists -
though it has been widely recognised that it's impossible to prove this.
Nor is it unreasonable to construe God as a person. Who is to say that
the Creator of everything cannot know our most intimate thoughts and
The unreasonable part is to suppose that we are able to receive and
mediate absolute truths from God. That God is dead. It is no
longer viable to think of God as an all-powerful ruler who offers final
answers. Even more outrageous to many in the 21st century is the claim
by certain individuals - usually masked by an institution - that
they are the ones who can speak for God, a claim which affords them
great power and influence.
Our present understanding of the nature of truth disallows that. This
understanding may change in the future. But for now that's the way the
cards have fallen. We no longer have the protection of an ancient divine
dispenser of orthodoxy. We are on our own. We have recognised that we,
not God, make our own orthodoxies.
The resulting challenge is twofold: [a] To move away from the comfort
of hand-me-down verities and [b] to begin to work out more viable ways
of understanding ourselves and the universe in the light of provisional
The death of the Bible
Most Christians rely on the Bible as the source of doctrine. This
doctrine may be massaged and elaborated ad infinitum. But it is
supposed to be derived from the Bible in the first instance.
Some hold that the Bible is inspired by God to a degree which makes
it the infallible source of all basic truths. This fundamentalist
position implies that those truths are absolute. Any proposition -
scientific or philosophical or any other sort - which contradicts the
Bible must be denied and opposed.
By far the majority of Christians hold a modified form of biblical
inspiration. It's true, they say, that the Bible contains
contradictions. It's also true that some of its teachings and rules can
no longer be sustained in the modern world. But underlying all such
difficulties is a groundswell of absolute truth.
This core of truth is there to be discovered by anyone. However, it's
up to scholars and those trained in biblical hermeneutics
(interpretation) to lead the way. They have the technical knowledge to
sort out the wheat from the chaff. In the last resort it is the
hierarchy of the Church which lays down the orthodoxy which is so often
concealed by these biblical difficulties.
Biblical absolutism in any form is not compatible with the modern
ways of construing truth I have outlined above. Nor does it rest easily
with the idea that each of us is autonomous.
If truth is provisional rather than final, then even the Bible as a
record of the foundations of the faith can be superceded. So, for
example, it is correct that the Bible condemns homosexuality. But this
condemnation cannot stand in the face of what we know today about it as
a type of sexuality which is prevalent everywhere and which has always
been there. Reason and information prevail over orthodoxy.
Even what we know about Jesus is determined by other than the plain
text of the New Testament as received from the early Church - a text
which was not finalised until the late 4th century. Scholars have long
since reached the conclusion that not all the deeds and sayings of Jesus
reported by the gospels really happened as a matter of good history.
The death of the Church
It is common knowledge that the Church at large in the West is
suffering a severe decline in numbers and influence. Elsewhere, in
Africa and Eastern countries, it appears to be growing. It seems that
the decline of the Church correlates with the advance of education, free
political expression and reliance on technology.
Underlying the decline in the West is, I think, a widespread
recognition of two things: [a] That doctrines fundamental to
Christianity often don't make much sense to the modern mind; and [b]
that the concept of orthodoxy is incompatible with the open and
sceptical nature of economic, civic and political life in democratic
Not all are fully conscious of these problems. Rather, if they
investigate Christianity at all, they dismiss its premises and teachings
instinctively as "myths" or "impossible". The vast majority are not
gripped by the traditional so-called "good news". It appears largely
irrelevant to their day-to-day lives.
In many churches the reaction to this scepticism and dismissal is
often a yet greater emphasis on orthodoxy. Official boundaries between
warring denominations are becoming more permeable. So, for example, some
evangelical Christians are finding common ground with traditional
enemies in the Roman Catholic Church. What is common to both parties is
an unswerving focus on right belief. Institutional borders melt away
when the notion of absolute revealed truth, common to both though
managed very differently, is to be protected.
Similarly, many churches are taking their instruments of doctrinal
examination out of store and polishing them up in anticipation of
bringing heretics to book. The Church of England has for centuries been
the home of a broad, inclusive body of Christians. Despite that, it now
has plans to prevent, on pain of dismissal, the free speech of its
Without a doctrine of absolute truth and the consequent need for
orthodoxy, the traditional hierarchy of the Church must eventually
collapse. In contrast, a Church of the far future, given the power and
persistence of secular society, may be able to survive as a social force
only if dialogue takes the place of orthodox pronouncement.
One of the radical changes likely to slowly develop involves
Christian attitudes to other religions. Broadly speaking, a Church in
dialogue with other faiths may well be forced to give up its absolute
claims and acknowledge that other religions have as much to say about
God as it does. In this sort of interchange only Jesus will remain
Christianity's unique focus. John Cobb puts it well:
That there are others besides Jesus whose achievements are of
universal importance does not reduce the universal importance of Jesus
... Christians need not give up our exclusivist claims, but we should
be very careful to state what it is that is exclusive and to examine
our claims in relation to all others. 
God, the world and morality are not the exclusive realms of
Christianity. They belong to and concern everyone. Only Jesus of
Nazareth gives Christians a special focus on life in general.
To sum up: The nature of modern thought is such that it is on a
collision course with traditional Christian orthodoxy. If trends in the
West are anything to go by, demands by the Church for right belief will
lead to its eventual collapse as a world-wide institution.
If those trends persist, we can expect our ideas of God to continue
to change, albeit at a slow pace. Meanwhile secular society is likely to
increasingly regard Christianity as irrelevant - at least until a
version of the gospel which means something to non-religious seculars is
The Bible will remain a guide to Christian roots. But there will be a
far greater emphasis on thinking our way through to an orthopraxis based
on both the guide and reason.
Christianity will no longer be able to actively press for the
conversion of others to orthodoxy. Others will have every right to be
heard and, if reasonable, to prevail. The Church will take its place as
only one of many ways of construing the creation.
 Why Christianity Must Change or Die,
 A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, SCM Press, 1983
 Transforming Christianity and the World, Orbis, 1999