Level I and Level II orthodoxy: Reflections on Ecumenicism and “Catholicity Building”

*A post I originally wrote in 2008; I wasn’t an Evangelical Calvinist at this point, only seminally (and unconsciously). But I still think there are some good points here, particularly with reference to the quote I provide from my former undergrad professor Dr. Rex Koivisto. I would rewrite much of my own comments here, but again, I still think there is an important point to be made by Koivisto in regard to what he calls “level I orthodoxy” and “level II orthodoxy.” By the way the language of “catholicity building” comes from Koivisto as he had us do what he called “catholicity builders” as part of his ecclesiology class. We had to visit various churches, outside of our personal tradition, in order to get a sense of Christianity’s presence outside of our small perspective. I visited a Roman Catholic church, Greek Orthodox, and one more; can’t remember what that was. 

There is constant debate and schism over secondary issues within the Church of Jesus Christ, especially amongst those of us who might be identified as Evangelical Christians.  The problem comes in when secondary issues are elevated to main or primary issues, as if, for example, Calvinism or Arminianism are actually the gospel themselves–when clearly they are not!

I am going to quote at length, Dr. Rex Koivisto (one of my wise profs while attending Multnomah Bible College), he wrote a book entitled One Lord, One Faith (an excellent resource that I would advise all to pick up). In his work he provides some excellent clarification on how we should think about the essentials of Christianity (esp. in regards to salvific issues) vs. secondary issues; he provides a catchy distinction between the two that all Christians (who are interested in catholicity) should take heed to. Anyway lets hear from Koivisto:

The objective content of the Gospel message. One cannot doubt that the New Testament attests to the centrality of the Gospel message as the minimal “gate” through which one passes from death to life. Paul is not ashamed of this message, because it is God’s power for the salvation of all people (Rom. 1:16-17). It is the message he passed on to the Corinthians “as of first importance” (I Cor. 15:1-8). Yet the full content of the Gospel message is not contained in any one verse or group of verses in the New Testament. The reason, of course, is that the New Testament literature was not written as evangelistic material, but as instructional material for those already converted. Nevertheless, allusions to the Gospel are plentiful enough (in, for example, the evangelistic messages in the Book of Acts and in direct references to the Gospel in the Pauline epistles) to make a reconstruction of its core details relatively easy. Collecting these into one convenient statement, one could say that the Gospel message is simply this:

God sent His Son into the world to die as an atonement for sin, and God raised Him from the dead, so that anyone who places faith in Him receives the free gift of salvation.

Each of these statements has several levels of presuppositions and implications, which would be developed in many ways by the church in succeeding centuries. I will refer to the fuller implications that are not worked out within the New Testament itself as a “level II orthodoxy,” or a “sustaining orthodoxy” to be discussed later in this chapter. But there are also some clear presuppositions and implications of the Gospel message that are demonstrable from the New Testament itself. That is, its writers meant certain things by terminology they employed in communicating the Gospel; and they understood the Gospel to have certain important implications. It is the Gospel and its presuppositions and implications, as understood by the New Testament writers, that serves as the “level I orthodoxy,” or core orthodoxy around which the church catholic centers itself.In contrast to the term sustaining or level II orthodoxy of subsequent centuries, level I orthodoxy (core orthodoxy) we will call “saving orthodoxy.” The reason for this latter terminology is due to the pragmatic elements connected with the nature of the Gospel: it saves people. Level II, or sustaining orthodoxy, is the subsequent reflection on the saving orthodoxy of the Gospel that enables us to understand how and why it saves people, but the Gospel can save without an understanding of these elements. But an incorrect explanation of the how and why can lead to serious error and distortion of the saving message of the Gospel. Both dimensions are therefore important, but the pragmatic tilt must be given to level I, or saving orthodoxy as outlined in the brief statement, along with its New Testament presuppositions and implications.[1]

A lot to take away here! Let me highlight a few important implications of what I see Koivisto’s thoughts leading to: first he underscores the fact that the scriptures are the seed-bed and provision that has authority in defining what features of the Gospel are important for the appropriation of salvation. Second, he makes an significant observation regarding the purpose and audience of the New Testament; viz. he points out that the New Testament was written to people already “saved” which should bring perspective to many texts that we place as primarily focusing on “how” the appropriation of salvation takes place–when in fact these texts might have a different orientation all together (i.e. discussing issues of sanctification rather than justification). Third, Koivisto provides a healthy dichotomy between what he calls “Level I orthodoxy” and “Level II orthodoxy;” the former being the simple message of salvation necessary for the appropriation of eternal life, the latter being reflection by the church (i.e. tradition) on the “how” and the “why” of salvation (or other doctrine). Level I orthodoxy is what is primary and unites all Christians (i.e. simple trust in the free offer of salvation in Christ) throughout the centuries in Christ. Level II orthodoxy reflects paradigms like Augustinianism, Pelagianism, Calvinism, Lutheranism, Nominalism, Thomism, etc.; these are all interesting points of discussion relative to the Gospel, but they are not the Gospel. And this is the significance of Koivisto’s point, we should not elevate “sustaining or Level II orthodoxy” to that of Level I–when we do the result is clear (just scan through the blogosphere or churches throughout America and the world), schism arises, and fellowship amongst all those who hold to Level I orthodoxy (or saving orthodoxy) is broken.

Let me challenge you, as I speak to myself as well, affirm the distinction Koivisto brings to light; do not give into the temptation to elevate “your” particular “Level II orthodoxy” to the same altitude that “Level I orthodoxy” has. To often I see people castigating one side or the other, as if they “aren’t brothers and sisters” in the Lord; when all along both opposing camps affirm “Saving Orthodoxy” (Level I). How we work out Level II has some important implications as well, but on the sliding scale of soteriological significance, it does not and should not have the pre-eminence that Level I has relative to fellowship amongst ourselves as Christians.

Addendum:

To be clear, I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t debate or dialogue vigorously around Level II orthodoxy issues; but the attitude that should shape such discussion should be motivated by grace for one another. I believe denominations are a reflection of the reality of Level II orthodoxy, and I think this is actually healthy–all I’m calling for is that we don’t become arrogant and think MY interpretive tradition is the same as the Gospel. Level II orthodoxy will indeed distinguish but it should not divide!!

 

[1] Dr. Rex Koivisto, One Lord, One Faith,  196-97.

 

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