By David B. Garner

Does Orthodoxy Need an Adjective?

As orthodoxy[1] itself has come under contemporary fire, religious and cultural forces persuade many to extend the theological fence posts. The logic? Exclusivity of the Christian faith is the cause of intolerance; intolerance is not tolerable, so therefore, change the orthodox faith. Orthodoxy is the problem. Therefore, to make orthodoxy palatable, move its intolerant boundaries.

Adjectives have played a formidable, if not always intentional, role in making the changes. Some qualifiers of orthodoxy, like “Eastern” and “Russian,” have been in parlance for centuries, and represent a complexion of historical, geographical, and theological factors for their explanation. While a reasonable examination of these historic terms for their theological function merits attention, of greater concern and focus here are the newer adjectives at work in contemporary parlance.

Neo, Generous, Humble, and Beautiful

For many, contemporary adjectives intend to improve orthodoxy, or at least to give it a fresh face. Purportedly innocuous qualifiers seek to correct the alleged problems by those who wish to cling to the “orthodox” label: neo-orthodoxy, generous orthodoxy, humble orthodoxy, and even beautiful orthodoxy. But do these qualifiers disqualify orthodoxy?

Most of us associate neo (new)-orthodoxy with Karl Barth. That is no mistake, for the Barthian redefinitions of “orthodox” faith birthed a new theology. Though Barth has been commended by some for challenging features of liberalism, his neo-orthodoxy has greater theological affinity for liberalism than it does biblical Christianity. In Barth’s critical methodology, the adjective “neo” (new) drowns the noun (orthodoxy), exposing neo-orthodoxy for what it is: heterodoxy.

A decade ago, in his popular book, A Generous Orthodoxy (with its verbose, ambiguating subtitle), Brian McLaren defends a less than novel and less than orthodox idea. People differ in their perspectives. Truth divides. Love, as he defines it, missionally unites. Therefore we must redefine truth in a more inclusive manner, in a way that rids orthodoxy of its loveless, boundary-centric orientation. With flowery rhetoric, McLaren engineers flimsy bridges between theologically disparate groups, and attempts to validate mutually exclusive perspectives on Jesus and the Bible. His postmodern approach is strikingly generous to his own authority, and quite stingy when it comes to God’s. MacLaren’s relativizing views offer another failed attempt to spin unorthodoxy as orthodoxy. At the end of the day, he postulates a theology that is neither generous nor orthodox.

In 2013, Joshua Harris published Humble Orthodoxy. Unlike McLaren, Harris is committed to scriptural authority and openly orthodox in his views. He commendably urges his readers to humility in holding and speaking their orthodox convictions. His concern is more attitudinal than theological. Harris is not the first to note arrogant expressions of historic faith, which occur in every generation of the Church. However, though sympathetic with his book’s rebukes against sinful expressions of truth, I wonder about the ultimate helpfulness of his categories: arrogant orthodoxy, humble heterodoxy, and humble orthodoxy. The core problem, which Harris rightly acknowledges, is with the ungodly manner which certain proponents of orthodoxy carry on. But his categories ostensibly confuse the truth with the truth holder, and thereby unwittingly malign the very orthodoxy he advocates.

Pardon the grammar lesson here, but words matter. The concatenation of the qualifying adjective with the meaningful noun implies a needed correction to the noun. To put it in question form, is the answer to arrogance found in some corrective of truth itself? Is arrogant orthodoxy the enemy of humble orthodoxy? Or is the rebuke for arrogance not properly directed at the speaker instead? Though surely not by intent, Harris’ addition of such adjectives unintentionally caters to the common distaste for orthodoxy and mistakenly locates the problem in truth itself. The problem is not with orthodoxy, but with certain of those who express it. What needs modifying is not orthodoxy, but the orthodox.

At the 2014 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), Rev. Ray Cortese preached a strong sermon entitled “Beautiful Orthodoxy.” Cortese spoke well of the treasures of historic biblical truth. But the sermon title and its associated paradigm raise a matter parallel to that of the Harris argumentation. If there is a beautiful orthodoxy, we are unavoidably left with an alternative, ugly orthodoxy. Yet in whatever way the spokesperson for orthodoxy resembles Medusa, is orthodoxy ever ugly? Or does not the ugliness more properly apply to the Medusas among the orthodox? Ugly souls do not corrupt orthodoxy; they just convey it dreadfully.

In an act similar to what counselors decry as transference, to align ugliness with the orthodoxy itself is to shoot the message when we should shoot the messenger. No doubt without intention, qualifying orthodoxy with humble and beautiful casts stones upon the sweet deposit of gospel truth revealed in Scripture and believed by the Church through ages. Such a concession misses the mark. We errantly transfer blame when we even inadvertently accuse truth itself of being unloving.

Again, as with Harris’s humble orthodoxy, I affirm much of what Cortese urged. But I issue a strong caution for us not to fall prey to the pressures of contemporary pushback about our orthodoxy, to stand firm even when we are considered unloving due to the exclusivism of Jesus Christ, and to own up to our own unloving attitudes towards others—never even implicitly blaming orthodoxy for our own sin in conveying it. Orthodoxy is super-naturally beautiful, humble, and generous. It requires no adjectival props.

Paleo and Historic

What about “historic” orthodoxy or “paleo” orthodoxy? Sympathetic with the adjectival intent here—aligning our current convictions with historic ones owned by the church through the ages, I still wonder if the employment of such a well-intended adjectives also plays right into the contemporary distrust for orthodoxy. When we must qualify orthodoxy at all, I fear we have cowed to the angry mobs, and fed their ravenous appetites for demonizing our saving faith, given by God in Christ, as revealed in Scripture.

My chief question is this: Is there any other orthodoxy than its historic one? Or to frame this same question a couple different ways, is there any proper conception of orthodoxy other than the deposit (1 Tim 1:12) given the Church in the authoritative Word (2 Pet. 1:19–21)? Is orthodoxy a moving target or the tested and settled conviction of the Church concerning God’s Word received?

Furthermore, even as the use of “historic” intends to tether current conviction to its ancient roots, the expression strengthens resolve for some, but reaffirms its arcanity to others. In it all, I fear that even these most well intended adjectival qualifiers bury orthodoxy alive. Even “historic” and “paleo” qualifiers play right into the hands of the contemporary grist. Orthodoxy does not need qualification; the orthodox simply need the humble courage to stand on the truth given once for all to the saints. Mocking and maligning will simply come.

Not Ashamed

Orthodoxy is not unloving, but it surely stands steadfastly intolerant of God-defying and Scripture-compromising views. Orthodoxy is not unkindly rigid, but it stubbornly affirms that the God of love is the God of truth. The orthodox God is love and only this Triune God of orthodoxy is love. Love and gentleness will never be found by squeezing orthodoxy into the shadows, defying orthodoxy by its adjectival recasting, or by affirming an imposter love over revealed and loving truth.

We do not need generous orthodoxy. Such adjectival construction is repetitiously redundant all over again. As the summary of divine revelation of God’s saving of sinners, orthodoxy is stunningly generous.

We do not need loving orthodoxy. Any version of orthodoxy that is not loving is, well, not orthodox. Removing love, humility, and grace from orthodoxy is to dehydrate the living water. Hardly a thirst quencher.

What do we possess and what do we need? Just plain orthodoxy, orthodoxy unqualified. Orthodoxy.

I am not ashamed to be orthodox, “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” (Rom. 1:16). What is more loving and generous than that?

[1] This essay is part 2 of a two-part series. Part 1, entitled, “Orthodox, Beware,” can be found here:


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