On Orthodoxy and Heresy and a Theology of the Word of God

It is unnecessary to jettison all of creedal Christianity in favor of a supposed ‘naked Scripture’ (scriptura nuda). And yet there are many, whether that be on the popular or academic sweep, who maintain that this is in fact what being a Protestant Christian ultimately entails. I have someone in particular in mind with this post (who will remain unnamed), but it has general application too. To be a creedal Christian doesn’t necessarily entail that you ascribe absolute ecclesiastical authority to the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches; indeed, this runs exactly counter to what someone like Martin Luther would have maintained as the original, or at least the most infamous, Protestant reformer. Indeed, Luther, infamously, at the Diet of Worms exclaimed the following:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by clear reason, for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves, I am bound by the Scriptures that I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot to do otherwise. Here I stand, God help me.

Some might take this as the naked Scripture mode I referenced previously, but that would be mistaken. Luther is simply identifying an order, an “ontology of authority” as that relates to his submission to the living Lord. His conscience is ultimately bound to Holy Scripture, and its reality in Jesus Christ. If Church councils or Popes or Metropolitans contradict the clear teaching (think Luther’s analogia fidei in contrast to the Catholic’s appropriation of the antique regula fidei) of Scripture, then as Luther exclaimed at Worms, he will go with Scripture every single time. Here Crisp indexes what I take to be something that Luther himself would affirm, in regard to a theory of authority vis-à-vis God:

  1. Scripture is the norma normans, the principium theologiae. It is the final arbiter of matters theological for Christians as the particular place in which God reveals himself to his people. This is the first-order authority in all matters of Christian doctrine.
  2. Catholic creeds, as defined by and ecumenical council of the Church, constitute a first tier of norma normata, which have second-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine. Such norms derive their authority from Scripture to which they bear witness.
  3. Confessional and conciliar statements of particular ecclesial bodies are a second tier of norma normata, which have third-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine. They also derive their authority from Scripture to the extent that they faithfully reflect the teaching of Scripture.
  4. The particular doctrines espoused by theologians including those individuals accorded the title Doctor of the Church which are not reiterations of matters that are de fide, or entailed by something de fide, constitute theologoumena, or theological opinions, which are not binding upon the Church, but which may be offered up for legitimate discussion within the Church.[1]

This seems like a rather straightforward ordering, or hierarchy, as that relates to understanding how a Protestant would think about authority. Scripture is the ‘norming norm’ which all following developments become, at best, normed norms. That is, Church councils, so on and so forth have a relative, we might say, “eschatological” value to them in the sense that they should never be taken absolutely, but only as proximate thinking as that relates to a proper understanding of Scripture’s teaching vis-à-vis its reality in Jesus Christ. Bruce McCormack helpfully states it this way as he reflects on Barth’s understanding on the development of Christian theology:

I say all of this to indicate that even the ecumenical creeds are only provisional statements. They are only relatively binding as definitions of what constitutes “orthodoxy.” Ultimately, orthodox teaching is that which conforms perfectly to the Word of God as attested in Holy Scripture. But given that such perfection is not attainable in this world, it is understandable that Karl Barth should have regarded “Dogma” as an eschatological concept. The “dogmas” (i.e., the teachings formally adopted and promulgated by individual churches) are witnesses to the Dogma and stand in a relation of greater or lesser approximation to it. But they do not attain to it perfectly—hence, the inherent reformability of all “dogmas.” Orthodoxy is not therefore a static, fixed reality; it is a body of teachings which have arisen out of, and belong to, a history which is as yet incomplete and constantly in need of reevaluation.[2]

Some might read this and think this militates against valuing a creedal Christianity, but just the opposite is the case. If we take McCormack’s identification in Barth’s understanding of Dogmatic development as a jumping-off point, what is being affirmed is the value, the ‘relative’ value of the catholic creeds of the Church. It isn’t an abandonment of the pronouncements and the rich theological grammar developed therein, au contraire!: it recognizes that the church then when confronted with certain internal and external pressures responded in a way that set a trajectory for the Church to think God, to think Christ in ways that would be ultimately definitive as a baseline for thinking God and Christ in ways that Christians everywhere might build upon, receive and develop in orders that might go beyond, but never leave behind at their base level. McCormack continues in a different but related context:

. . . Every period in the history of theology has had its basic questions and concerns that shaped the formulation of doctrines in all areas of reflection. In the early church, it was Trinity and Christology that captured the attention of the greatest minds. In the transition to the early Middle Ages, Augustinian anthropology played a large role—which would eventually effect a shift in attention from theories of redemption to the need to understand how God is reconciled with sinful human beings. The high Middle Ages were the heyday of sacramental development, in which definitions of sacraments were worked out with great care, the number of sacraments established, and so on. The Reformation period found its center of gravity in the doctrine of justification. In the modern period, the question of questions became the nature of God and his relation to the world. Basic decisions were thus made in the areas of creation, the being of God and his relation to the world, and revelation, which were to become foundational for further development in other areas of doctrinal concern….[3]

I think the above considerations from McCormack are helpful in regard to situating the way we think about the role of a creedal Christianity insofar that they frame a genuinely Protestant way into thinking about Church authority. As McCormack and Crisp, respectively, identify, the sole authority, or the ultimate authority by which all other iterations of subsequent ecclesiastical reflection take form comes from Holy Scripture and its reality in Jesus Christ (who indeed is the Church’s Head). It is helpful to think these things eschatologically, as both McCormack and Barth do, insofar that Scripture’s reality, just as creation’s in general, is found in and from Jesus Christ. But the way the Protestant, along with the Catholics and Orthodox, think who Jesus is, at a grammatical level, comes from what the early Church councils promulgated; viz. in regard to articulating the inner-theo-logic of thinking the natures of Jesus Christ as both fully God and fully human (the Theanthropos) etc.

Hopefully, at minimum what is gleaned from the above is that there is no reason whatsoever for the Protestant Christian, even if you consider yourself Post Protestant, to abandon a conciliar Christianity simply because you cannot imagine how that type of Christianity can be reconciled with being an adherent of a purported ‘naked Scripture.’ It was never the Protestant way to think away from its Catholic (and I even mean Roman in a sense) roots, it was simply an attempt to think from a deep theology of the Word of God as the authoritative basis for thinking God, and a God-world relation. Yes, there is space to develop further the grammar provided for by the creeds, indeed the conciliar grammar was merely negative language, something like minimal parameters set in order to protect the sheep of the Church from those wolves who would take Jesus and the triune God captive by overly relying upon pagan, and in that context, Hellenistic philosophies that were improperly evangelized that would not allow them to be put to use in retextualized ways, and thus within a kerygmatic frame. In other words, heresy has always been a thing, even now.

If you find yourself feeling genius, that what it means to be Protestant is to chart out in original and unconstrained (by any sense of reception from the past) ways is to develop your own original Christian Philosophy I’d ask you to reconsider. The history is littered with these attempts, and one thing is for sure: such contenders end up in the same cul-de-sac of isolation and disfellowship that such attempts of “originality” always lead to. What ends up almost always obtaining in these adventures of originality is the person inevitability ends up denying, or at least downgrading the divinity of Jesus Christ; which of course leads to a further denial of the Trinity itself. Being a genius or original thinker isn’t worth the pain and destruction of what being antiChrist ends up entailing. I would simply ask such contenders to repent, and be genuinely Protestant by affirming a robust theology of the Word with proper recognition of its explanation through the centuries under the concursus Dei of God’s providential working. Indeed, this shouldn’t stifle creativity and constructivity, in fact it ought to fuel it by providing fruitful and rich developments of Christological and Theologically Proper grammarization that the communio sanctorum (‘communion of saints’) have fellowshipped with, around, and from for millennia.

 

[1] Oliver Crisp, god incarnate, (New York: T&T Clark International, 2009), 17.

[2] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 16.

[3] Bruce L. McCormack, “Introduction,” in Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack eds., Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2012), 11, 14 scribd edition.

2 thoughts on “On Orthodoxy and Heresy and a Theology of the Word of God

  1. A sound and thoughtful admonishment, well-described, and that rightly commends us to the work that is ours through faith of truthfully presenting the eschatological hope of the world that is found only in Christ Jesus, Lord and Savior.

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